Crested Butte, Colo., brims with outdoor winter adventures
Crested Butte is always ready for a party with costumes encouraged!(Nathan Bilow / Crested Butte Mountain Resort)
Three colorful storefronts on downtown Crested Butte’s Elk Avenue. Downtown Crested Butte is one of Colorado’s largest National Historic Districts, and is known for the colorful Victorian storefronts and no chain stores.(Chris Segal / Crested Butte Mountain Resort)
The town of Crested Butte sits at the base of Paradise Divide and the Ruby Mountain Range.(Chris Segal / Crested Butte Mountain Resort)
Fat biking continues to rise in popularity, with Crested Butte as a focal point for expansion. In late January 2018, the city will host the third annual Fat Bike World Championships.(Chris Segal / Crested Butte Mountain Resort )
A skier descends Crested Butte Mountain Resort’s Teocalli Bowl.(Trent Bona / Crested Butte Mountain Resort )
Snowshoers climb a hill on the Crested Butte Nordic Trail system, a network of 50 kilometers of groomed trails.(Xavier Fane / Crested Butte Nordic)
The snow was so deep in Crested Butte, Colo., in January when I arrived for a multisport excursion that some of the town’s one-story houses were nearly buried.
So it goes in Crested Butte, which is perched at 9,000 feet in southwestern Colorado and had received nearly 100 inches of snow the week before I arrived.
Fortunately, the sun had reappeared, which made it easier to enjoy this funky community of 1,550, often described as the last authentic ski town in Colorado. It’s almost a five-hour drive from Denver, far enough from the big city to keep it from being overrun by weekend crowds.
But don’t worry. If you’re flying, it’s well worth changing planes in Denver to get to Gunnison, about 27 miles south of Crested Butte. And not just for the great skiing at the nearby downhill resort, which has a nice balance of expert, intermediate and novice runs.
You’ll also find guided snowcat skiing, fat-tire biking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and, for the hearty, “skinning” up mountainsides.
Unlike Aspen, 30 miles north as the crow flies over West Maroon Pass, Crested Butte never produced the silver barons who could afford to build mansions.
Though you’ll see several two-story structures, including the original city hall, the town consists mostly of small buildings, many of which were dragged in from nearby mining settlements when they folded.
Some have been turned into restaurants and shops, and more than 300 structures in town make up one of Colorado’s largest National Historic Districts.
After checking into the comfortable Elk Mountain Lodge, my ski buddy and photographer Mark Lorenzen and I headed for the slopes at Crested Butte Mountain Resort, three miles northeast of town and served by free shuttle buses.
We picked up rental Romp skis that were hand-crafted in a shop on Belleview Avenue by brothers Morgan and Caleb Weinberg, former ski racers from New Hampshire.
Then we hit the snow, carving turns on some of the resort’s 121 trails. We were rewarded with a nearly 3,000-foot vertical descent after riding the High Lift T-bar that took us close to the top of the resort’s summit.
For lunch, we ducked into Uley’s Cabin midmountain at the base of the Twister Lift, named for bootlegger Uley Scheer.
It has an outside bar made of ice. Inside, the menu features Colorado cuisine with French influences. My squash soup and salmon were tasty, and Lorenzen said his Rocky Mountain Elk bourguignon was delicious.
It would have been easy to kick back and stick around for an evening sleigh ride, offered Wednesdays through Saturdays, and one of the cabin’s five-course meals. But we had more skiing to do, so we spent the afternoon sampling blue and black runs off the East River and Silver Queen express lifts before our legs tuckered out.
Back at our lodge, an erstwhile boardinghouse for coal miners, we cleaned up, rested and then headed to the Montanya Distillery & Tasting Room for cocktails and appetizers that owner Karen Hoskin calls “street food.”
The next morning, we made the short trek to Irwin Guides on Belleview Avenue and met Tim Brown, a veteran mountaineer who also guides in the Alps and Iceland.
We were outfitted with alpine touring gear — including bindings that unlock to let skiers lift their heels to move uphill without slipping backward by using synthetic “skins” — and were soon making switchbacks up Smith Hill.
After an hour-plus of climbing, we stopped for lunch on a ridge that offered breathtaking views of the San Juan Mountains, Raggeds Wilderness and peaks in the Elk Mountains.
Then we locked our heels into our bindings and bounced down the slope making S turns (mostly) in the powder snow.
If we’d had a few more days, we could have booked a snowcat skiing tour with Irwin that would have taken us up to Scarp Ridge for 2,000-foot descents.
Daniel Stedman, a Brooklyn, N.Y., resident I met, did just that and called the backcountry experience “off the charts, so cool that I’d come back here in a heartbeat.”
The next day, for something a bit different, we hopped on beefy fat-tire bikes from Big Al’s Bicycle Heaven, where winter rentals start at $60 a day or $75 for 24 hours, and rode three-plus miles to the old mining town of Gothic, population 4, to spend the night in the Maroon Hut.
With tire pressure deflated to a low 6 pounds per square inch, the bikes’ 4-inch-wide tires flattened even more to let us pedal over the crunchy snow.
Fellow cyclist Andrew Sandstrom made a delicious pizza for us that night in the cabin, underneath a 3,000-foot rock face called Gothic Mountain.
The cabin and other buildings in town are used in the summer by researchers with the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, a high-altitude biological field station. But that night we had the hut all to ourselves.
At the cabin, we met Dave Ochs, a colorful character who is director of the Crested Butte Mountain Bike Assn., which claims to be the oldest mountain bike club in the world.
He told us the area has more than 25 miles of groomed trails for fat-tire bikes, and that it’s home to the Borealis Fat Bike World Championships, an event that draws hundreds of competitors (and costumed celebrants) each January (Jan. 25-28).
Although you can use fat-tire bikes in any conditions, he said skiers tend to pedal their machines when the trails are harder and most of the fluffy powder has dissipated.
After a restful night in the Maroon Hut, we hopped back on our bikes for what started as a bone-chilling ride back to town. As we pedaled up and down the hills on the trail, our bodies and hands warmed, our spirits lifted and we were again awed by the scenery.
Truth be told, we also began plotting our return to this corner of the Elk Mountains, perhaps for some snowcat skiing, hut-to-hut touring in the backcountry or other adventuring.
If you go
THE BEST WAY TO CRESTED BUTTE, COLO.
From LAX, United and American offer connecting service (change of planes) to Gunnison, Colo. Restricted round-trip airfares from $336, including taxes and fees. Gunnison is about 27 miles south of Crested Butte.
Elk Mountain Lodge, 129 Gothic Ave., Crested Butte; (800) 374-6521, elkmountainlodge.com. Doubles from $169
Montanya Distillery & Tasting Room, 212 Elk Ave., Crested Butte; (970) 799-3206, montanyarum.com
Irwin Guides, 330 Belleview Ave., Crested Butte; (970) 349-5430, irwinguides.com
TO LEARN MORE
Crested Butte Mountain Resort, skicb.com
Gunnison-Crested Butte Tourism Assn., gunnisoncrestedbutte.com
Crested Butte Nordic Center, cbnordic.org
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