No opulent mansions mark the edge of Crested Butte. Its downtown business district features not one Gucci store, Prada boutique, Gap shop or Polo Ralph Lauren emporium. Locals commute on bikes, celebrities wander paparazzi-free, and the only furs seen are still attached to the critters that grew them. Unassuming, unpretentious and unextravagant, Crested Butte hails as Colorado’s ”UnAspen.”
The two former mining towns lie 24 Learjet miles apart on opposite sides of the Elk Range in west-central Colorado. Born of silver, Aspen blossomed into one of America’s richest ski resorts. Across the peaks, coal-sired Crested Butte once gave away free lift tickets just to attract visitors.
Today, this 1,500-population National Historic District community sports the colorful motif of a Victorian-era village, complete with false-front stores and street-corner flower boxes. Clapboard homes, many flanked by flowery gardens and picket fences, line residential streets. Kids play, neighbors chat and drivers wave.
“It still seems like a real, little Colorado community nestled in the mountains,” says Sue Smith, a frequent visitor from Fort Smith, Ark. “It’s an old mining town that hasn’t gotten too glitzy.”
Crested Butte and its ski-slope neighbor, Mount Crested Butte, lie north of Gunnison, a 230-mile drive southwest from Denver. The final half-hour approach follows a mountain-hemmed valley patched with ranches and veined with trout streams. A favorite venue for fly-casting anglers is the Gunnison River.
“We’ve got rainbows, browns, brook, greenback cutthroats and fine-spotted cutthroats,” notes Chris Meyer, a guide for Crested Butte’s Troutfitter. “Big would be anything from 20-25 inches. Sometimes they get even larger than that.”
While the Gunnison remains famous for fishing, its Taylor River tributary has become the favorite for rafters and kayakers. An upstream dam controls the flow, offering predictable runs all summer long through rapids boasting names such as Initiation, Goal Posts, the Slot and Toilet Bowl.
“It’s our exciting whitewater trip” explains Mark Schumacher, owner of Three Rivers Resort. “It’s a low volume, technical river, so there are a lot of drops, pools and rocks.”
The highway sweeps toward town, and while it’s not unusual to find road bikers pedaling the pavement, it’s mountain biking for which the town is best known. From Crested Butte, knobby-tired riders pump up a host of dirt roads, four-wheel-drive trails and single-track mountain paths. The ski resort even offers chairlift-served descents that include a teen-enticing jump park.
Locals boast that mountain biking began in Crested Butte. While the claim may be disputable, the town does serve as home to the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame.
The hall, complete with artifacts of the sport, occupies a corner of the Crested Butte Mountain Heritage Museum. Located in the town’s former Conoco station, the back part of the building displays community history, while the front section presents a tribute to Tony Mihelich, the station’s 56-year owner. The aroma emanating from its wooden floor evokes memories of the time when gas was sold at service stations, not convenience stores.
Glo Cunningham, executive director of the museum and a 35-year resident, claims that even though the town has grown, it remains a spirited community where residents still pitch in on projects. Nearly 165 volunteers helped build the Lower Loop Trail, a pathway for hikers, bikers, runners, horseback riders and parents pushing baby joggers. It even includes a handicap-accessible section.
Outdoor enthusiasts have other options around Crested Butte. Chairlift riders can stroll to the top of Mount Crested Butte. Backcountry hikers can follow trails into the forest. Backpackers can camp by wilderness hot springs. Climbers can scale nearby summits that include six of Colorado’s famed 14,000-foot peaks. Those preferring piston power will find graded, sedan-friendly roads penetrating the nearby mountains, while off-roaders can follow a handful of four-wheel-drive trails to some of Colorado’s most photographed ghost towns.
One does not need a Jeep, however, to find a Kodak moment around Crested Butte. Summer blossoms paint the surrounding hillsides with an exploding palette of color, and the town becomes the “wildflower capital of Colorado.”
For those who prefer blazing saddles, Crested Butte offers the opportunity to hoof the hillsides. Half- and full-day rides venture past meadows, wade across streams, mosey by waterfalls and wander through aspen glades. A few go even farther.
“My feature ride is over to Aspen,” declares Chuck Saunders of Fantasy Ranch. “We start at the old mining town of Gothic, climb an 11,800-foot pass, then follow Maroon Creek to town where we get picked up by a limo. We stay at a hotel, soak in the hot tub, and then head out for dinner. We ride back the next day.”
While the cross-mountain journey offers an opportunity to feast on fare from the far flanks of the Elk Range, those staying in Crested Butte will find the cuisine holds its own against its more famous neighbor.
“I think our food is just as good, but it’s not so pompous,” says Michael Marchitelli, owner of Marchitelli’s Gourmet Noodle. “When I have dinner in Aspen, I feel it’s just a little over the top for me. That’s why I’m in Crested Butte and not there.”
The area offers two dozen restaurants ranging from gyro joints to four-fork eateries, and they offer a taste-tempting smorgasbord of cuisines. Absent are the golden arches. Crested Butte sports no fast-food franchises.
The town also lacks the usual cookie-cutter lodging chains. The area’s only true, full-service hotels sit next to the ski hill in Mount Crested Butte. Beyond that, overnight guests choose from an eclectic collection of condos, cabins, lodges, motels and bed-and-breakfast inns, some of which occupy historic structures in the heart of town.
For years Crested Butte remained a forgotten enclave, but that is changing. Real estate prices have shot up over the past decade, with the median home now going for $500,000. Many new workers are forced to seek housing down the valley. The same thing happened on the other side of the mountains.
“People say we’re the next Aspen, but I don’t think we’ll ever be what Aspen is. We just have a different climate of people here,” says Connie Wolf, former owner of the Crested Butte Club Inn and Spa. “I guess UnAspen is a good word.”
If You Go
When to go: The main summer season runs from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Wildflowers are best seen from late June through July. Autumn color hits the slopes in early- to mid-September, a time when the town is deliciously uncrowded. Businesses shorten hours or close shop from early-October until Thanksgiving when the ski season begins. From mid-April until Memorial Day weekend, the town once again takes a nap.
For more information: Contact the Gunnison-Crested Butte Tourism Association, 800-814-7988, www.gunnisoncrestedbutte.com.
Dan Leeth is a freelance writer who lives in Aurora, Colorado. Visit his website, LookingFortheWorld.com