Semi-secret Alpine huts: Where hard core hikers party
In days gone by, Europe's high alpine meadows were the summer destination of shepherds and cowherds, who brought their sheep and cattle up the valleys for herb-rich grasses.
These seasonal visitors built rudimentary dwellings, and made money on the side by providing accommodation for occasional hunters and travelers foot-slogging across the mountains.
The seasonal relocation of livestock has since decreased, but the numbers of recreational hikers in the Alps has multiplied.
These days, more than 3,000 huts are spread across the Alps. Despite the primitive implications of the name, some "huts" are large enough to allow as many as 300 people a night to sleep a great deal closer to heaven.
As those numbers suggest, "hut" is a misnomer.
'Huts' with full amenities
These places usually have a bar, restaurant, sun terrace, showers, drying rooms and a mixture of dormitories and bedrooms of various sizes.
Beds, mattresses, sheets and duvets are all provided. Some even have Wi-Fi.
Yet the vast majority are unreachable by road, sitting at around 2,000 meters (6,500 feet) or higher, relying on helicopters or goods-only cable cars for their supplies.
In season (they're usually open from May or June until September or October, depending on snowfall) they can be hugely popular.
Thanks to these huts, high-altitude hikers no longer have to descend into the valleys at night, seeking shelter. Nor do they have to carry their own food or bedding.
In effect, the huts are sturdy lodges for sturdy people, invariably in magnificent settings, where the combination of plentiful beer and shared satisfaction after a day’s walking well done create impromptu (and multilingual) house parties.
The huts’ shelter policy -- no one is turned away -- allows hikers to alter hut-to-hut hiking plans at short notice, according to changing weather conditions.
For a private room, you need to reserve in advance, which is done directly with the individual hut.
This can take some research. You can find a listing of huts on the German Alpine Club site, along with links to the sites of other Alpine associations, and their individual properties.
Association memberships usually include a discount on huts, although some are privately run.
Six of the Alps' best huts
Anhalter Hütte, Austria
This 100-year-old former hunting lodge at 2,040 meters (6,693 feet) is located in the Lechtal Alps, surrounded by magnificent peaks. The interior has wood-paneled walls and portraits of be-whiskered German huntsmen.
Although German-run, it's staffed partly by Nepalese women, so there are Buddhist prayer flags on the ceiling and Nepali noodles on the menu. Magnificent views are its calling card, with supplies flown in by helicopter.
Dormitory bed €14 (US$18) with 50% discount to members; www.anhalterhuette.at
Hanauer Hütte, Austria
A spectacular day’s walk through fields of gentian and forests of pine from the Anhalter Hütte along the Eagle’s Way, the Hanauer Hütte is larger and newer and has a cable-car lift from the valley floor below for supplies.
The Eagle’s Way is one of Austria’s finest long distance, high-altitude hikes, and a couple of other long distance routes intersect here, so this is a busy place. Marmots and mountain-cupped lakes are in the vicinity.
Dormitory bed €15 with 50% discount to members; www.hanauer-huette.de
Schachenhaus Hütte, Germany
This privately run hut is in the German Alps, not far from the Zugspitze (Germany’s highest point) and the mountain resort of Garmisch Partenkirchen.
The Schachenhaus is both a hikers’ hut and a tourist destination in itself, accessible by a relatively easy two-hour walk from the road end below.
Hikers come in numbers for the stupendous King’s House mountain lodge, built by King Ludwig II, the crazy monarch who built Neuschwanstein, Disney’s model for Sleeping Beauty’s castle.
Dormitory bed €10, bed in private rooms €15; www.schachenhaus.de
Kredarica Triglav, Slovenia
Mount Triglav is the Slovenian Everest, and the Kredarica is its base camp. Or rather, its three-quarters-way-up camp, with Triglav topping out at 2,864 meters (9,396 feet) and Kredarica located at 2,515 meters (8,251 feet).
That last hike takes an hour, so the hut fills with hikers and climbers preparing for the final push on the summit. The nearest roads are about five hours away by foot, and yet this hut run by the Slovenian Alpine Association is incredibly busy in summer, with as many as five restaurants in operation.
It has some 300 bed spaces and stays open in winter.
Dormitory bed €18, bed in a private room €24, with 50% discount for members.
Rifugio Regina Margherita, Monterosa, Italy
In thin air up at 4,554 meters (14,941 feet) on the flanks of Monterosa, this highest mountain hut in the Alps is a remarkable place to stay.
Perched on rock, gripping hard with claws of wood, it looks fragile and vulnerable, but nevertheless clings on from one year to the next. It’s around five hours’ walking from neighbor refuges, and in conditions that can be tricky, so proper mountaineering equipment and a guide are advised.
With 70 bed spaces, it's run by a private company, which has five other refuges.
Dormitory bed €33 (€18 for members), €85 half board; www.rifugimonterosa.it
Cabane des Vignettes, Valais, Switzerland
The Chamonix-to-Zermatt route is a well-trodden trail, but that doesn’t make it easy. The Vignettes hut is a sturdy building, making it especially welcome to hikers slogging in bad weather.
Recent renovations have brought proper sanitation, replacing a long-drop outside loo that was a chilly walk along a perilous path.
Dormitory bed €27.50 (€19 to members), €32.50 half board; www.cabanedesvignettes.ch