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If You Hate the Front Range You Will Love this Colorado Ski Town

Story by William Dujardin

Crested Butte sits amidst the Elk Mountains of Colorado, at the end of a valley where athletic pursuits and culture inspired by the surrounding natural beauty have become the passion of a community.

The story of mining town turned ski town has played itself out amongst many of the mountain towns in Colorado. Each has its unique character. Crested Butte has maintained a sense of authenticity through the years that reflects its blue-collar mining and ranching roots, the evolution of freeride snow sports and mountain biking, and the community’s appreciation of the surrounding public land.

My own story as a skier, coach, painter, and waiter is just one of many in the Crested Butte community. All of our stories are linked by the fact that once you choose to live this life in a place you can ski over 120 days a year, ride epic singletrack from your front door, fish world-class waters, hike or horseback ride in pristine wilderness, or kayak spring runoff, you find out you actually aren’t that different from the next person you run into on the chairlift, trail, or Elk Avenue.

Winter

Skiing and snowboarding are what we are primarily known for because Crested Butte is home to one of the baddest resorts in the lower 48. It’s not because it’s the biggest or deepest. There is a raw combination of sick terrain, north-facing snow, and shred-ready locals that turn CBMR into a freeride playground.

Crested Butte lives and breathes freeride culture. The High Lift and North Face Lift offer day in and day out riding that just doesn’t get old. Locals get after it whether it’s another pow day or more classic, ripping chalk. You start to get to know people waiting at the Silver Queen lift for the 9 AM load or at the Spellbound rope drop on powder days.

For me, skiing is why I live here. In the winter, I can’t help waking up at least an hour before I have to so I can check the pow cam in case I should make skiing an urgent priority. If there is at least 4”, I’m heading up as soon as I can. Nothing skis like Big Chute with fresh snow on it. I have to get up to the resort for my coaching job; it doesn’t hurt to get some turns in and get a feel for the snow before I head out with athletes later.

On a deep day, I can get away with pushing my clock-in time. That’s a good thing because when you take the Silver Queen up to the High Lift and ski Headwall to the North Face Lift, then find some variant in Spellbound and Phoenix Bowls to the East River Chair you are probably skiing down around 3000 vert. I call it a “super lap” when you bring that all the way back to the Silver Queen. That just adds more vert and gets you ready to do the whole thing again.

Day after day, whether powder or hard pack, Crested Butte is known for its rocks. It’s what keeps the mountain rad and the tune shops in business. You might run into Caleb Weinberg out there testing a pair of Romp Skis, the skis he makes with his brother Morgan in downtown Crested Butte. After running out of work at their construction job, they started their company during the recession in 2010 so they could ride skis that were durable enough for Crested Butte. “It’s not IF you are going to hit rocks. You just do,” says Caleb. “When you go out there you are going to smash stuff so it’s really a part of what we are and what we do.”

Spring

As the snowpack melts, everybody gets into their “other” sports: biking, fishing, climbing, paddling, and spring mountaineering. The off-season is a time that seasonal work slows down and recreational activities ramp up for locals before the masses arrive for summer. For some, that means getting in a kayak and getting on the Taylor River for some class 2 and 3 whitewater. Creeks like Oh-Be-Joyful, Daisy, and the Upper East run for only a few weeks during peak runoff and serve up world famous class 5 paddling.

For anybody not paddling, water in the Gunnison Valley means fishing. The Taylor River is known for some of the best trout fishing in the country. Whether floating down to the Gunnison or wading along the public areas, the trout are big. You can get into some of the public lands along the countless creeks or high alpine lakes if you want to really get out there for a unique experience. There is more conventional lake fishing on Blue Mesa and Taylor Reservoirs. I appreciate having buddies who work as fishing guides so that when we share a day off we can do some fishing to dial back the hectic summer pace. Some people fish every day; I’m more of a biker myself.

Mountain biking is one of Crested Butte’s bigger draws when the snow melts. A lot of alpine rides around Crested Butte don’t open up till mid-June or later. While some of the local rides near town like Lupine and the Upper Loop might be good to go by mid-May, Hartman Rocks just south of Gunnison has 40 miles of singletrack that is usually riding at some point in April. It’s an active time of year when you can go for a backcountry ski tour in the morning and a bike ride in the afternoon.

Summer

As spring blossoms into summer and the snow melts from the high alpine, it’s my duty as a local to spend as much time up there as I can. The wildflowers are going off, the mountains are lush with green, and it’s just downright gorgeous. I tend to get out there on my mountain bike, but I’ll go for a hike when I want to get on top of a big mountain or into wilderness areas (there are a handful of 14ers among the countless peaks of the Elks Mountains and 7 wilderness areas within and adjacent to Gunnison County). Biking is the best way for me to get out and explore the millions of acres of public lands surrounding Crested Butte. It helps me get some cardio exercise and get some of that adrenaline I crave on the downhills. The riding in Crested Butte can be technical and grueling, you’re usually pedaling between 9000 and 12000 feet elevation after all, but you’re rewarded with stunning views and blurry downhill bliss.

Classic trails like the 401, Teocalli Ridge, and Doctor Park are each necessary a couple times a summer. Closer trails to town like Strand Hill, Snodgrass, and Green Lake can be done after work. You can throw on more pads and ride a DH rig at the Evolution Bike Park at CBMR for more gravity-fed action. We have over 750 miles of singletrack in the Gunnison Valley and nearby environs; I’ve still got plenty of work to do myself to ride it all. The people at mtbhome.com have done a great job developing a super-useful smartphone app called CBGTrails that helps me navigate the endless trails and track my progress as I check trails off the list.

I have to shout out the Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association (CBMBA). This wonderful volunteer-powered organization maintains the trails around Crested Butte. One of the best community-building experiences I’ve had each year is being a part of trail building and maintenance workdays throughout the summer. There’s nothing like getting dirty with your neighbors to build a trail so you can ride it after.

Town Life

Falling in love with skiing at Crested Butte opened the door to many other aspects of this place for me. The more time I’ve spent here, the more I’ve learned about the people who have chosen to make this place home. Not everyone is an adrenaline junkie frothing at the mouth on a powder day, an unassuming badass on a mountain bike, or an expert catching trout on the fly, though that seems to be the norm sometimes. The bond found in sharing a passion for the outdoors draws us together.

There are more than just recreational activities to soak up in town. Grabbing a cup of coffee in the morning from Rumors or Camp4 and sitting on a bench on Elk Ave people watching and yelling at cars to slow down is a local pastime. The Crested Butte Center for the Arts is expanding and hosts lots of music throughout the year including the free, weekly Alpenglow series in the summer. There are first Friday Art Walks to enjoy every month at local galleries. The Crested Butte Mountain Theater and Crested Butte Dance Collective both host seasonal performances starring local community members. This is a culturally passionate place.

People who share simple gratitude for being outdoors in the majesty of nature are likely to enjoy eating and drinking after doing such activities. The people of Crested Butte are no exception. The après scene in Crested Butte features the full gamut from old bars like Kochevar’s and the Eldo to more hip cocktail joints like Montanya Rum Distillers and the Dogwood Cocktail Cabin. Elk Avenue is the main drag where you’ll find almost everything to eat and drink including Supper at the Sunflower, the Ginger Café, and the Secret Stash with its amazing and not-so-secret pizza. Kalon Wall, the executive chef at the Sunflower, uses farm-sourced food from the region to deliver amazing plates in a cool town. “We just want to be happy at work and live here and have this lifestyle,” Kalon explains. The density of downtown helps keeps this close-knit community together. It serves as an easy place to run into friends.

After living here for nine years, I don’t see myself leaving anytime soon. For me, Crested Butte is a place where passionate people pursue a connection with their community through nature and recreation. The bonds between neighbors here are forged on the bus, on the trail, on the chairlift, and at the bar. It’s an amazing place where you can follow your athletic pursuits or just be content in the mountains.