Crested Butte: The Little Ski Town That Cares

<i> Gregg is a free-lance writer living in Belvedere, Calif. </i>

“Hot chocolate and keep it coming,” I pleaded as I sank into the cozy booth at Bubba’s, the mid-mountain restaurant tucked into the Paradise Warming House in this Colorado resort town.

Leaky boots and Popsicle toes, the bane of my ski life, led me to start dismantling my ski boots while waiting for my burger.

The mega-burger came and the waiter, seeing my plight, offered to take the inner lining of my boots to the back and put them in the clothes dryer.

This is what sets Crested Butte apart from other towns like it--people really care here. Sounds corny, but it’s true.


It’s only 20 miles over the hill from Aspen, as the crow flies, but Crested Butte might as well be 2,000 miles away. As the most isolated and arguably least known of Colorado’s winter resorts, the area has virtually nothing in common with its neighbor, other than the smattering of restored 1880s buildings.

Many of Colorado’s historic mountain towns have been rebuilt to the point where they bear little resemblance to their early look. In Crested Butte, most of the buildings have remained “original equipment,” giving a very special feel to this National Historic District.

This is Western skiing at its best. Wide open, uncrowded, sunny, plenty of powder, long beginner/intermediate cruising trails and double-black-diamond tough stuff on the hidden back side.

Just a word or two about this “hidden back side.” Until a few years ago, adrenaline junkies had to hike for 20 minutes to reach the ungroomed powder stashes of the North Face and Phoenix Bowl. In 1987, the resort decided to access the steep, rugged terrain with a two-minute lift, yet maintain the wild, back-country flavor. It’s now a Mecca for adventure-minded experts.


Crested Butte is also great for walking, loaded as it is with restaurants, shops and interesting nooks and crannies. A walk down Elk Avenue, along blocks of authentic Victorian buildings, provides a reminder of how the town appeared in the 1880s. The wooden floors are uneven and the walls are the same ones Butch Cassidy saw when he came through town and had a drink at Kochevar’s Saloon and Gaming Hall, which still operates today.

This is an eating, drinking town. You’ll be welcome in the most elegant restaurants in your turtleneck and ski parka. The charm is raw and genuine and a little rough around the edges, but it’s real.

Actually there are two Crested Buttes. One is the aforementioned Victorian mining town, the other is the ski village, Crested Butte Mountain Resort on Mt. Crested Butte, which is three miles down the road by free shuttle bus.

Mt. Crested Butte is where most of the glitz is found, ranging from condos and lodges to the hedonistic Grande Butte Hotel. The ski village has its own share of shops and restaurants, but come nightfall, the action is in town. The shuttle buses run all the time, so it’s just plain silly to have a car here.


One of the best-kept secrets in the ski world is just 12 miles from Crested Butte. It’s the Irwin Lodge. Located at 10,700 feet, it’s accessible only by snowcat or snowmobile during the winter. The lodge is an immense 27,000-square-foot cedar log structure with 23 guest rooms, all with private baths, and the most romantic luxury suite I’ve ever seen. When you arrive at Irwin Lodge, you have found the ultimate getaway. Your private ski mountain.

The lodge has a snowcat powder skiing operation that is the adventure of a lifetime. With an average base of 365 inches of snow--up to 100 feet of snow falls during the season--there’s virtually no ski day when there won’t be great deep powder conditions. In fact, since management puts only 48 people a day on their terrain, they can guarantee that at no time will your tracks cross those of another skier.

A day-trip for a Crested Butte Mountain Resort guest runs $140, with group discounts available. A package with lodging, meals and skiing starts at $161 per day. Comparing this with helicopter skiing, which can cost about $500 a day, one realizes what a really good deal this is.

If helicopter skiing is your thing, Irwin Lodge has customized helicopter tours offering quick access to numerous peaks and slopes in the company’s permit area for spectacular first-track descents.


In addition to alpine skiing, the lodge offers cross-country equipment and trails, plus ice fishing, snowshoeing and snowmobile tours.

A number of all-inclusive special vacations are available, including powder skiing weeks at Irwin Lodge or combined Silvergate/Crested Butte Mount Resort packages. For Irwin Lodge, call (303) 349-5308, or book through Crested Butte Vacations at (800) 544-8448.

You can’t talk about skiing without talking about snowfall. There are so many contradictory claims that it’s hard to know who to believe, but here’s an independent source: According to statistics gathered from 1951 to 1985 by the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University, Crested Butte has the highest average annual snowfall of any ski town in Colorado--229 inches. Also-rans include Telluride (184.6), Steamboat (172.2) and Breckenridge (162).

One of the things I like best about Crested Butte is that it is off the beaten path. It’s remote but accessible. That may seem to be a contradiction in terms, but it’s true. Just 28 miles down the road is Gunnison Airport, which is served by numerous airlines. This kind of convenience lets you pack more skiing into your valuable vacation time.


I love a big mountain with just enough skiers on it to make it interesting. And I hate lift lines. This is where Crested Butte shines. With 854 skiable acres and a bed base for only 3,000 people, the town can be full but the mountain is not. The only lift line I ever encountered was a five-minute wait at 2 p.m. on the Paradise lift taking skiers back onto the mountain after lunch.

Crested Butte is both a close-knit community and a real destination resort. Other than Gunnison, which is actually a small town, it’s not close to any large city, so it does not have the influx of day-skiers. Saturday afternoon is just about the same as Tuesday morning. The hotels and condos were pretty well sold out when I was there, and still not a lift line to be seen.

One telephone number books everything from airline tickets, hotels, car rentals and lift tickets to on-mountain barbecues. Call (800) 525-4220.

You can fly from Los Angeles to Gunnison via American Airlines, United/United Express, Delta or Continental/Continental Express. A good shuttle service is available from the airport, thus a rental car isn’t necessary.