Crested Butte, Colorado: Elevation 8,909 feet, Population 1,681
Like many mountain towns, Crested Butte owes its origins to extractive industries such as trapping, ranching, and mining. With its location at the northern edge of the East River Valley north of Gunnison, Colorado, Crested Butte experienced the typical boom-and-bust cycles of Colorado’s early years. The town’s rugged and remote location has kept it small, and today it counts fewer than 2,000 year-round residents.
Many more folks own vacation homes at the nearby Crested Butte Mountain Resort, which is technically the municipality of Mt. Crested Butte. Those formalities aside, you can think of Crested Butte as a cool, fun, and remote Colorado mountain town with some of the best outdoor options you’ll find anywhere, plenty of restaurants and lodging, and an inexhaustible supply of terrain for outdoor adventures.
Skiing, of course, put Crested Butte on the recreational map, but within a couple hours of town you also have epic mountain biking, hiking, climbing, paddling, and four wheeling. Opened in 1960, the resort hearkens back to the early days of Colorado skiing. Now world famous for freeskiing and backcountry skiing, in addition to downhill, the resort offers a pleasing mix of beginner, medium, and difficult terrain surrounding the 12,168’ mountain.
Getting there can take awhile, as Crested Butte is out there a ways. If you’re traveling from the Denver area plan on about five hours in good weather with dry roads. From Albuquerque you’ll need at least six hours for the drive, around eight from Salt Lake City, and close to 11 from Phoenix.
In addition to its remoteness, Highway 135 from Gunnison 30 miles to the south is the only passable road in the winter, as Kebler Pass to the west and Cottonwood Pass to the east are closed at the first real snowfall. In summer, though, you can enjoy big backcountry fun using those passes, as well as Taylor, Starr, and Pearl passes.
The surrounding backcountry includes the iconic Maroon Bells Wilderness area, which offers a lifetime’s worth of hiking, camping, mountain biking, and four wheeling. Ghost towns in the area include Gothic, just a few miles from town, which offers access to numerous trails and also hosts the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab, a high-altitude research facility.
Crested Butte’s climate is what you would expect from its elevation and location: cold and snowy! January tends to be the coldest and snowiest month, with 40 inches accumulating, and July is the warmest month with an average temperature of 57°. No matter when you visit, take warm clothes and remember that it can snow in July.
Local Adventure Vibe
Crested Butte is one of those magical places where you can do something fun outside any time of year. In winter, you have skiing, snowshoeing, fat biking, ice skating, and snowmobiling. Snowshoers will find plenty of groomed trails such as The Bench and Magic Meadows, as well as ungroomed terrain such as Snodgrass and Washington Gulch.
Nordic skiers have access to more than 30 miles of nordic track and more than 60 miles of groomed trails. The Nordic Center can provide info on conditions, ski and snowshoe rentals, and also provides lessons. You can also sign up for local backcountry valley tours and get your body warmed up while checking out the awesome scenery of the Elk Mountain range!
The mountain offers lift-served runs to please everyone from rank beginners to true experts, and backcountry aficionados will find terrain that few other places can match. You’ll have access to more than 1500 skiable acres via 15 lifts. Beginner runs comprise 27 per cent of the total, intermediate runs make up 57 per cent, and advanced are 16 per cent.
Crested Butte is known for having some of the most advanced inbounds terrain anywhere in North America, and the upper areas of the mountain are the place to go for cliff drops, bowls, tree glades, and rocky, steep chutes. In addition five terrain parks offer something for every skill level and are family friendly.
Come summer, trails open and hikers, trail runners, mountain bikers, and horseback riders get out and about, joined by even more people camping, fourwheeling, paddle boarding, and boating. Wildflowers abound in the meadows and on the hillsides, and Crested Butte is designated Colorado’s wildflower capital.
Hiking aficionados will find dozens of trails for all ability levels, from short and sweet to substantial and strenuous. It’s truly stunning to see a long list of trails and know that each one is a winner!
Biking, of course, is popular all over Colorado, and Crested Butte claims honors as one of the founding venues of mountain biking. Starting with hulking old fat-tired Schwinns in the 1970s, garage-based bike builders helped to evolve bicycles into capable and fun mountain rigs and create a sport and an industry.
Today, thousands of mountain bikers enjoy the scores of local trails near Crested Butte every year. There are trails for every ability level, many of which you can ride to from your lodgings in town or at the resort
The Evolution Bike Park at the Mountain Resort also offers more than 30 miles of lift-served singletrack trails, accommodating every skill level from beginner to expert.
Uniquely Crested Butte
For whatever reason, people here love costumes! Whatever event or celebration is happening will be celebrated with costumes—by some of the folks. Why not?!
Sometimes called “The Last Great Colorado Ski Town,” Crested Butte is a mix of adventure junkies, dirtbags, ranchers, second-home owners, and even a few regular folks who don’t claim any of those other labels.
As a town focused mostly on fun, Crested Butte naturally hosts many events throughout the year. A few highlights include the Alley Loop Nordic Marathon in early February, a qualifying event for the American Birkebeiner. Participants race through town, cheered on by revelers at all stages of sobriety, then make their way to the groomed tracks outside of town.
The Grand Traverse backcountry ski race turns racers loose on the 40+ mile route from Crested Butte to Aspen. This event takes place in March and starts at midnight, so racers compete through the night, then finish at Aspen Mountain where they’re welcomed with the typical mountain party—friends, family, drinks, and live music.
And what’s good for skiers is good for mountain bikers, so the Grand Traverse Mountain Bike Race runs from Aspen to Crested Butte, with racers climbing more than 7800’ in total. Not exactly a casual ride!
The Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association claims to be the oldest such group “on the planet,” dating back to 1983. The club organizes events and trail maintenance on more than 450 miles of singletrack in the Crested Butte area.
Food & Drink
Thanks to Covid 19, restaurants all over the country have struggled to survive, so it’s possible that some of these options in Crested Butte will be closed. That said, Crested Butte offers numerous fun options for dining, so you’ll find something.
Bonez: This joint on the main drag, Elk Avenue, offers Mexican fare such as street tacos, fajitas, and numerous tequila choices. A high energy and sometimes rowdy choice!
If a great burger is a staple item for your gang, try the Crested Butte Burger Company, located at the base of the resort, and get your fix of beef.
For about 20 years, the Last Steep has offered standard fare plus salads and various bowls like the teriyaki bowl. This spot is popular with both visitors and locals alike.
Other options in town include sushi, pizza joints, a gastropub, and a pasty shop. As you’d expect, coffee shops and taverns are plentiful; just walk down Elk Avenue and take your pick.
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Places to Stay
As a tourism-oriented locale, Crested Butte offers plentiful lodging options.
If you feel more like roughing it, there are plenty of options too. Consider these campgrounds, found on thedyrt.com.
The challenge, though, is your vehicle. A high-clearance rig will get you to the best and most-private sites, while a car will limit you to the flat spots. Not all campgrounds or sites will accommodate an RV, either, so best to do some research. Brush Creek Dispersed Campground offers a mix of sites, and a four-wheel drive rig is a wise choice.
The Washington Gulch Dispersed Campground is another fun choice, out in the mountains and close to the trails, and only about 15 minutes from Crested Butte. Pets are allowed.
The Oh Be Joyful Recreation Area (who doesn’t want to camp there?!) offers 15 campsites for $10/night, but some require a high-clearance rig. You can get an RV into some, but not all of the sites. Calling ahead is a good idea.
Not far from Crested Butte is one of our lesser-known national parks, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. This rugged park offers hiking, climbing, paddling, and sightseeing with few of the crowds that plague the well-known parks. Most of the fun listed here is strictly for folks with solid outdoor skills who are in top physical condition. This park offers a true wilderness experience, and you must be on your game—but what an experience! No matter what activities you choose, check with the rangers, as many activities require a permit. Also, pets are not allowed for most activities, but are allowed at times for some.
Several hiking routes are accessible on the North and South Rim and don’t require permits or wilderness skills, but you should be in good condition. The Oak Flat Loop Trail is a strenuous 2-mile round trip that starts near the visitor center. You’ll enjoy great views and some steep slopes, and pets aren’t allowed.
The North Vista Trail starts at the North Rim Ranger Station. You can choose a 3-mile round trip of moderate exertion to Green Mountain, or choose the more-strenuous 7-mile round trip. Scenic views of the San Juan Mountains, the Grand Mesa, and the Uncompahgre Plateau reward your efforts.
Climbers in the Black Canyon will enjoy 145 known routes and, again, few crowds. According to the National Park Service, “Of the 145 climbing routes that are found in Black Canyon Rock Climbs or are known by the park:
8 are rated at 5.8; only 4 of these have good information available and see regular ascents
21 are rated 5.9, 5 of which are aid routes, and only 6 of which see any significant climbing activity
The other 117 climbs have ratings between 5.10 and 5.13 and many require aid.”
Kayaking in the Black Canyon, like climbing, is strictly for experts. Frigid snowmelt, seasonally high flows, and ratings up to Class V make this river a challenge for the best of the best. Poison ivy is all over the river banks, and if anything goes wrong, help is hours away at best. That said, if you have the skills, you’ll have quite a time!
Gunnison National Forest
Much of the land near Crested Butte lies within the Gunnison National Forest, 1,672,136 acres in Mesa, Gunnison, Hinsdale and Saguache Counties. The forest includes pieces of five different wilderness areas that offer a wealth of outdoor recreation: the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness, the Fossil Ridge Wilderness, the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, the Raggeds Wilderness, and the West Elk Wilderness. Wilderness area users enjoy trails, hiking, backpacking, climbing, horseback riding, hunting, and fishing.
Near Crested Butte, you’ll find a mix of routes, but mostly boulder routes. Skyland Boulders offers some of the best climbing in Colorado, according to some, and it’s just outside of town, near the mountain. Check the link for tips about access, trails, and where to park, if needed. It’s walkable from town.
Taylor Canyon is a few miles south of town, past the village of Almont, and offers mostly trad and boulder routes. With 163 total climbs here, according to The Mountain Project, you’ll have fun for quite some time.
With so much terrain, hiking and backpacking choices abound. If you’re looking for an intermediate/difficult hike, hike to the summit of Mt. Crested Butte. You can hike all the way, or hitch a ride on the Silver Queen Express to the bottom of the Summit Path. Obviously your distance will depend on where you start, but you’ll have to handle a grade of 9% to 45%, and will share the trail with other hikers, most likely. Dogs on leash are ok, and you’ll enjoy stunning views from the summit.
The Lupine, Gunsight Connection and Lower Loop Trail is another difficult option, but well worth the effort. The 13.2-mile out-and-back route starts in town at the Visitor Center and rewards you with stunning views of aspen groves and wildflowers. You’ll need to manage an 18% max grade. This is a multi-use trail so expect to share with mountain bikers.
Looking for another level of fun? Load up your gear and take West Maroon Pass from Crested Butte to Aspen, or vice versa, a 34-mile trip. Tackle the round trip or arrange for a shuttle at CB or Aspen. You’ll need a full kit with water filter, rain gear, and so on, so check the link and be prepared.
Backcountry skiing near Crested Butte is regarded as some of the best anywhere. You’ll find multiple routes and more than one million acres of public land to play on just in Gunnison County. Popular choices include The Grand Traverse at 37 miles and The Gothic Mountain Tour at 23 miles, both rated difficult. Trappers Way is shorter at 5.3 miles and rated intermediate. As always with backcountry fun, do your research and know what you’re getting yourself into. Avalanche danger is real.
As mentioned earlier, Crested Butte is one of the spawning grounds for the sport/activity of mountain biking. In addition to the trails already listed, the Doctor Park Trail is highly recommended, rated difficult, and is a blast!
Access the 401 Trail Loop from Gothic Road. The 14-mile route is rated intermediate/difficult and takes you over Schofield Pass and into alpine terrain for fantastic views.
The Green Lake Trail is an intermediate/difficult out and back run of 9.4 miles with 1700 feet of climbing. You can start in Crested Butte and head up through the forest while you catch some lovely views here and there.
For a more hardcore race or journey, the Crested Butte 55K gives you an ultra of 36 miles from Mt. Crested Butte. You’ll enjoy the wide-open views of wildflowers, forests, and peaks for which Crested Butte is famous.
The season in the backcountry can be short, but it’s fun as hell! From Crested Butte, you have many options for overland fun. Head west over Kebler Pass, leading to the intersection with State Highway 133 near Paonia State Park.
Pearl Pass north of Crested Butte is another fun adventure in the backcountry, on the way to Aspen. A variety of rough trails and grassy meadows make for a pleasant excursion
Feel like a challenge? Try Schofield Pass and the Devil’s Punchbowl. This one can be a bit hairy, so take your time. Keep going to Marble and you’ll see the Crystal Mill, one of the most photographed sites in Colorado.
Paddling and water sports
Colorado is known for its mountains, but there is plenty of fun to be had in the water too. The Blue Mesa Reservoir on the Gunnison River is Colorado’s largest lake, at 20 miles long and with 96 miles of shoreline. The lake is great for boating, paddle boarding, and windsurfing. Swimming isn’t too popular, as the water is just plain cold even in the summer. Several campgrounds and boat ramps make it easy to get on the water and stay nearby in your RV or tent.
For mild whitewater fun, the Taylor River is a great choice. The Middle and Lower sections of the river are mellow, while the Upper section is a bit wilder with Class III whitewater. Plenty of outfitters will take care of everything for you, or you can run your own kayak or raft. Plan for cold mountain water!
Best guided adventures
Have you considered a guided adventure? 57 hours offers backcountry skiing, multiday mountain biking, and avalanche education near Crested Butte and all over Colorado. Sometimes hiring a guide is the best way to both enjoy your time playing outside and take your skills to the next level.
So…that’s a multitude of options, and there are many more when you’re ready. Crested Butte and the surrounding area offer year-round fun, no matter what you love to do outside. Good luck with your next adventure!