It’s the typical love story: boy meets girl at college. Girl wants to return to her hometown. The couple needs a way to make ends meet.They love the outdoors. They find a parcel of land for sale high in the Rocky Mountains and set about running a Nordic Center. Within a year, they knew they needed to do something else to bring in income – after all love doesn’t pay the bills. The duo found a partner and opened a restaurant, a nice little place to enjoy dinners, and the Tennessee Pass Cookhouse was born on a string and a prayer.
Twenty years, a more permanent structure, several sleeping yurts and a stunning log lodge later, Roxanne and Ty Hall are still very much in love with each other and their business. And so it seems, are many other people who deign to work for their dinner by crisscrossing the Continental Divide: experiencing the ‘real’ Colorado.
“I think that people love the Cookhouse because we really are off the beaten path,” Roxanne says. “It’s not like some of the big ski areas. You can go up in the woods, we are not super close to a city. It’s very much a backcountry experience. On occasion we get people who are almost scared, who ask us about bears.”
Obviously, bears do exist, but they have never been spotted. And, Roxanne likes to point out, they do hibernate in the winter.
Although it’s a thriving business now, at the start, it was pretty touch and go – the US Forest Service wouldn’t allow for a permanent structure, which is why the couple chose a yurt, just in case they did have to dismantle it every spring. Roxanne was working two jobs. Ty was consumed with the business. But really, the challenges don’t sound overly daunting when talking with Roxanne, who has a lilting voice, an easy giggle and an obvious affinity for the life they built – literally – together.
“The first year was not a good snow year, it was really rough. After that first year, we knew we had to do something to increase business otherwise we wouldn’t be able to do the Nordic Center thing,” Roxanne explains. “We came up with restaurant but we didn’t know anything about running a restaurant.”
Clearly, that lack of knowledge didn’t impede their dreams. They found a partner who had worked at a dining yurt near Aspen. The three of them came up with menu ideas and worked together to make it a unique experience. “We wanted it to be fine dining, something that was very different and something that would stand out,” she says.
While opening a restaurant is stressful under the best of circumstances, the Halls were faced with the not knowing if they would receive a permit from the Forest Service year after year. In the back of their minds they didn’t know if they would have to take down their beloved yurt and end their business.
That, luckily, never happened and the business has blossomed. Gone is the Nordic Center trailer they purchased 20 years ago. In its place is a lodge similar to the Belvedere Hut in the Tenth Mountain Hut organization. Similar because the Halls, along with a friend, originally built that very hut. A group of hunters discovered the gem so far from it all and purchased it, which gave the Halls the capital to build a new lodge, making it homebase for the Cookhouse and the surrounding 25 kilometers of Nordic track.
Back to the Cookhouse, which is still the original yurt in the original place but the walls and roof have been replaced, the deck and kitchen are permanent. The structure, and the Cookhouse, are not going anywhere. The menu, the adventure and the quirky 40-foot diameter space draw hundreds of visitors every winter and summer. It is as sumptuous as it is eclectic and Colorado based. Head chef Dylan Brody keeps a few popular staples but changes aspects of the menu each season. The Colorado lamb and elk are always popular, and it seems fitting to be in the middle of the wilderness noshing on what feels like could come from right outside Cookhouse doors. That said, having a relatively small menu of five options to choose from does not make the choice any easier.
“We wanted something that people normally cannot get like elk tenderloin, Colorado rack of lamb. We keep things as fresh and organic as we can. Sometimes we change maybe one item on the list, we won’t change the elk or the lamb,” Roxanne explains. “We’ve always had homemade pie which is nice. A lot of times you cannot get a homemade pie for dessert.”
It takes about a half hour of hiking, walking, snowshoeing or skiing from the Nordic Center at the base of Ski Cooper off of Highway 24 to get to the yurt. It’s a breathtaking 30 minutes, and not just because it’s situated at 10,000 feet above sea level, the twinkling stars seemingly close enough to touch. Note: the two-mile round trip hike definitely won’t burn the number of calories you take in nestled cozily in the yurt.
The whole affair seems both intimate and party-like, rustic and five-star. And is definitely a one-of-a-kind Colorado experience.
A few years back Roxanne left her teaching job to help take care of her sick mother and work full time at the Tennessee Pass Cookhouse. “I discovered I loved it so much, I was hoping financially would be able to do it. I never went back. It’s so much fun to do what we do. It’s hard having your own business, it’s a bit of a stress. We are hoping that we make it. It’s extremely rewarding and so far we are still hanging in there.” And if the hundreds of people who make the trek every summer and winter have anything to say about it, the Halls will be hanging in there for a time to come.