If you're into this chalky goodness high on Mt. Crested Butte, check out the best spots to spend a long weekend this winter. | Gunnison/Crested Butte photo.
Heading north out of Gunnison, Colorado, Highway 135 winds its way along the Gunnison, Slate and East Rivers, with the the stunningly beautiful Elk Mountains dominating the view ahead. Rounding the final turn, the peaked summit of Mt. Crested Butte comes into view, surrounded by 360 degrees of snow-covered mountains – some of Colorado’s highest. It’s a year-round playground for mountain sports enthusiasts, with hundreds of miles of singletrack for warm-weather pursuits and a lifetime’s worth of activities when the snow starts falling. But what if you only have a long weekend to explore? Join us as we tour around with three local athletes who helped us put together the ultimate winter multisport guide to the Gunnison/Crested Butte area.
Day 1: Mt. Crested Butte
Hailey Clark grew up in Colorado Springs but found herself in Gunnison for college, studying Environment and Sustainability at Western Colorado University (WCU). She was drawn to the valley initially because of the riding potential at the ski resort, but as she began exploring beyond the boundaries on both her bike and splitboard she instantly fell in love with the seemingly endless access to incredible terrain. The more time she spent in her new home doing what she loved, the more her appreciation grew for the community that values the same passions.
Catching air is often not a choice on many of Crested Butte's Extreme runs. | Gunnison/Crested Butte photo.
These days, she still can’t get enough of the riding at Crested Butte Mountain Resort – it holds up to its gnarly reputation with nearly one-third of the mountain’s run earning a double-black rating, more than any other mountain in the Lower 48. Locals lovingly refer to these zones as “The Extremes,” and they will test any skier and rider’s skills with lines snaking down couloirs, into cliff zones, and through terrain that will keep you guessing if you are still in Colorado. With 1,547 skiable acres and over 3000 feet of vertical drop, the mountain offers loads of mellower terrain to warm up on.
But let’s not kid ourselves – if you’re heading to Crested Butte, you probably came to explore the steeps. Two of Hailey’s favorite runs are right off the North Face T-Bar: Highlife (arguably the steepest run on the mountain) and Slot Rocks (inbounds pillow lines). They are high on the mountain and require some traversing to get into and out of, but when ski patrol drops the ropes, make sure to be there.
“Every time I enter Highlife I get a bit puckered, even if it is a line I have done tons of times, but it is always a zone that challenges me. Slot Rocks is special to me because as a freshman I was always in awe every time someone rode the line, last year I finally rode and did a few more times after. When a zone goes from being not even a consideration to a place you can ride confidently, it will always be special to you, which is the case for both zones and many others at CB,” she says.
Take a stroll down Elk Avenue to find dinner and libations at one of the many down Crested Butte options. | Gunnison/Crested Butte photo.
After a full leg-burning day of riding lifts at CBMR, there’s nothing better than heading down the hill into town for a stroll along Elk Avenue. Hop on the free bus between town and the mountain if you don’t feel like driving. Bustling with shops and restaurants, Crested Butte’s historic downtown area is where to find anything and everything après. Unwind with any number of bars and restaurants with options ranging from gourmet pizza to Pad Thai, and just about everything in between.
Day 2: Seeking Out Backcountry Solitude
Remember that 360-degree panorama of mountains you saw when you drove up the valley from Gunnison? Well, just about every nook and cranny of those has backcountry skiing and splitboarding access. After getting your legs warmed up skiing at Crested Butte Mountain Resort the day before, it’s time to slap on some climbing skins and head into the backcountry. The Elk Mountains surrounding Crested Butte have one of the most unstable snowpacks in the country and are extremely prone to avalanches. If you’re not comfortable navigating technical terrain with extreme avalanche hazard on your own, there are plenty of guide services in the area that will gladly show you the way. Crested Butte is lucky to have its own avalanche center, which issues a two-zone daily report. Before heading out, be sure to check out what they have to say about conditions.
Untracked pow stashes like this are a dime a dozen in the Elk Mountain backcountry. | Gunnison/Crested Butte photo.
Drew Layman is a year-round mountain guide who has made a home in Crested Butte. He would describe himself as a skier first, then a “Jack of all trades master of none from whitewater and mountain biking to aspiring sledneck and part time climber.” While he might travel the world for work for much of the year, he loves the small-town vibe Crested Butte exudes and has gotten pretty used to the fact that he can ski, snowmobile, bike, climb, whitewater raft and fish all in the same day come springtime. He shares a few zones he often takes clients to that all showcase something unique about the backcountry riding in the area.
First off is a classic called Coney’s. Most people familiar with the Crested Butte backcountry scene will know and ski here often, but the simple north-facing wide open pow laps are something too good to ignore. Second, Layman recommends a trip into the Anthracites. “Despite needing a snowmobile to get there, the Anthracites, or AMR as most locals refer to it, is no longer a secret. But trust me, this north facing ridgeline, known for steep and deep tree skiing in one of the most snow favored parts of the valley, is a favorite for a reason,” he says.
Next up is a classic that towers above town: Mount Emmons (also known as the Red Lady). “If you could design a mountain for skiing or splitboarding you’d end up with Emmons,” says Layman. It harbors wide open bowls on a variety of aspects, glades, couloirs, and steep faces. From the classic Red Lady Bowl to Coon Basin, and the ultra-classic steep north facing descent off Wolverine Face, it’s a skier's dream when the conditions line up.
In case you're not picking up on the theme yet, the variety of terrain that's accessible from town is endless. One day in the backcountry around here might just open a Pandora's Box of possibility, so come back for more.
Day 3: Down Day and Fat Biking
If you do find yourself in between storms at the mountain, or simply want to use a different muscle group for a day, there’s nothing better than spending the day on a fat bike. Crested Butte is already famous for its hundreds of miles of singletrack mountain bike trails during the warmer months, but did you know that some of those are groomed during the winter?
For a completely unique experience, hop aboard a fat bike and rip around Hartman Rocks just outside Gunnison. | Gunnison/Crested Butte photo.
Recent WCU graduate Ian Mullens sums it up: “When the skiing is bad the fat biking is awesome.” In other words, it’s the perfect activity for when avalanche conditions are sketchy or the snow is simply bad. While there are plenty of trails to ride in Crested Butte, Ian lets us in on a little secret: head south to Gunnison and ride at Hartman Rocks. The trail network is five minutes from downtown and features some Moab-like desert riding that fills in with snow during the winter. There are a handful of bike shops both in Crested Butte and Gunnison that specialize in winter fat bike rentals.
Gunnison Trails, the local trail organization, has a custom-built singletrack groomer that packs in the trails at Hartman Rocks to create the perfect riding conditions. “All the rock moves feel five times bigger and harder in the snow,” says Ian, sharing that the frontside trails are more technical, while venturing a little further back rewards you with more flowy XC-style riding.
During the school year, the Boise transplant coaches the University’s freeride ski and snowboard team as well as the mountain bike team. For him, it’s all about the community that shares this lifestyle of living and playing in some of Colorado’s most unique mountains. “By far my favorite part about living in Gunnison is the outdoor access. Hartman Rocks is five minutes away and has awesome desert mountain riding, you can drive 30 minutes north to get to world class backcountry riding in Crested Butte or an hour east to the Monarch Crest. During the winter, you can hop on the free bus from Gunnison and be skiing CBMR in 40 minutes. There is also a lifetime’s worth of backcountry skiing that I’ve barely scratched the surface of. Essentially you can be recreating in amazing places less than an hour from your door,” Ian says.
Day 4: An Inbounds Refresh
Just like any big mountain, it takes a day or two get your bearings at Crested Butte. After a day of riding the backcountry or fat biking, returning to the ski area will give you a new lens through which to view the terrain. The fact that all of the rowdiest runs are accessed by slow-moving T-Bars and hiking is a really a blessing in disguise: the sneaky lines don’t get tracked out in a matter of minutes. There’s simply too much terrain for that to happen. The best parts of the mountain have been that way for generations of skiers, and the locals still celebrate that culture today. The steep, rocky nature of zones like those found under the North Face and High Lifts mean that they will ski very differently depending on snow levels throughout the year. While certain features might get buried, others will become rideable.
After a few runs to get acquainted with the terrain, you'll quickly find all sorts of sneaky lines. | Gunnison/Crested Butte photo.
Like Hailey, spending time exploring the mountain has led Ian to his favorite stashes that are accessed by hiking or riding the T-Bars on the upper mountain. “I really like starting the day with a Big Chute lap and then spend the rest of my day lapping the North Face Lift, bouncing between Highlife, Sock It To Me, The Edge, and Spellbound. These zones are all pretty similar in that they are steep and technical. Crested Butte is uniquely rocky, and it can feel like a bit of a puzzle trying to piece runs through a lot of these areas,” he says.
When it does snow, however, having a little knowledge of what’s in goes a long way. Patience is equally as important and will keep you coming back. “If we had a big storm I would definitely be skiing the North Face Lift, trying to tick off as many bigger lines as I can,” says Ian, “Many of our zones rarely open since they need so much snow, so I still have dream lines I would love to put tracks down.”
Much of the world-class terrain lies a short hike away. | Gunnison/Crested Butte photo.
In the end, that’s the beauty of what you’ll find in the mountains around Gunnison and Crested Butte: so much variety that it will constantly keep you coming back for more. Didn’t quite feel ready to drop into Highlife or Teocalli Bowl, or was it so good that you just wanted more? Catch the fat biking bug at Hartman Rocks?
We’ll let you in on another local’s secret – a long weekend is never enough.
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