Posts Tagged With: crested butte

Hiking and Biking Crested Butte CO (July 2012)

Ann and I depart for three and a half days of hiking and biking in the high alpine mountains of Central Colorado on a Tuesday morning. Rather than the dreaded, stressful I-70 route, we opt for Rt 285 from Denver on our way to the Rockies, passing across the magnificently expansive valley just beyond the Lost Creek Wilderness, and then through Buena Vista, onto Cottonwood Pass road to cross Cottonwood Pass at the Continental Divide. In the Gunnison National Forest, we skirt the huge Taylor Park Reservoir, and then up Rt 135 into Crested Butte.

There, in the Crested Butte town center, we arrive at our AirBnB lodging, a funky old two-story place run by a female artist, who turns out to be a very nice host. She happily takes us on a short bike ride to show us the important nearby establishments, such as the bike shop, Eldo brewpub, and a few recommended restaurants.

Crested Butte is surprisingly bustling with summer adventure tourists in July. And for good reason. I had previously researched the trails in the area on the Internet, and learned that Crested Butte is home to an impressive selection of trails. Sadly, as is common for me, I must choose one or two trails out of the many on my list, and vow to return in future years to sample the ones I will miss.

My hiking trail research goes out the window, as we learn from another guest at our lodge that we should hike the West Maroon Pass trail, which is not on my long list of trails. I agree to this with great hesitation. After all, if none of my Internet research and none of the Crested Butte hiking maps list this trail, how good can it be?

Plenty good, it turns out.

On our first morning, then, we drive up the highly scenic Gothic Road out of north Crested Butte. The road takes us by Mt Crested Butte ski area, aspen groves, and rolling yellow valleys filled with skunk cabbage – a view that reminds me of the Tuscan Valley in Italy.

After 11 miles, we arrive at Schofield Pass on the Continental Divide. We see a trailhead marker for the famed #401mountain bike trail, where I had earlier thought would also be the West Maroon Pass trailhead. But looking again at my map, it appears that the West Maroon is further down the mountain forest road. At a fork in the road, we guess that we should head toward “Schofield Park.” Fortunately, we guess right, as we soon come upon a trailhead parking lot.

The trail starts out in a pleasant pine forest. Soon the forest opens up into a meadow, where a wood cabin ruin sits. Once past the cabin, the trail takes us into a spectacular, breathtaking, U-shaped valley with wonderful views of tall mountains in several directions, along a trail sprinkled with a colorful diversity of wildflowers. While we understand that this is a “down” year for wildflowers due to relatively little snow and rain in the preceding winter and spring, Crested Butte is a world-class venue for wildflowers, so we are nevertheless treated to quite a show.

Much of the West Maroon Pass trail follows the Continental Divide on its way to the Pass. The trail generally follows a creek, and a few highly scenic waterfalls can be seen along the way. Past the waterfalls, the trail starts heading up in elevation towards the Pass. Here, the wildflower meadows become stupendous. All around us are mountain ranges, valleys, and brightly-colored flowers. I cannot stop shooting photos.

As we near the Pass, we leave the lush vegetation and enter a boulder field above the tree line. Above us is the ridgeline. The trail seems rather steep, and the hikers at the Pass look like tiny insects.

Once at the Pass, we find an amazing setting. The ridgeline is as sharp as a knife. One can tell which hikers have hiked to the Pass from Aspen six miles to our north. They are the hikers sitting facing south into the valley in the direction of Crested Butte to admire the view they did not get on their hike. Those of us who hiked to this Pass from Crested Butte, on the other hand, can be known because we sit facing north into the equally impressive mountain valleys in the direction of Aspen.

To our 10 o’clock from the Pass facing north is the world famous Maroon Bells peak.

On our descent back, we decide we shall return to do an overnight backpack hike from Aspen to what Aspenites call the EAST Maroon Pass hike. We stop for a dip in the cold, clear waters below the waterfalls on our way back to Schofield Pass. Ahhhh!!!!!!

I finish the day with a pint of “The Stout,” a delicious beer brewed by Eldo Brewpub. While doing so, I step out onto the familiar second-story deck of Eldo where, several years ago, a friend and I were standing at this very spot to watch the annual Crested Butte mardis gras parade after a day of skiing the extreme slopes of Mount Crested Butte.

To see more photos I shot during the West Maroon Pass hike, go to the following link (when the link brings you to Picasa, select “slideshow” in the upper left for the best view):

For dinner this night, we opt for Marchitelli’s Gourmet Noodle, which serves outstanding food in the town center.

Speaking of the town center, Crested Butte has a compact, relatively walkable grid of streets that I was pleased to see.

The next morning was one I was excitedly looking forward to for days, ever since seeing a number of sources indicate that the #401 trail in Crested Butte is one of the best mountain bike trails in North America (despite the unimaginative, boring trail name…).

Ann very generously gives me a ride up to Emerald Lake on Gothic Road near the #401 trailhead fairly early in the morning (she is not a morning person, which adds to my appreciation). Most mountain bicyclists – impressively – actually ride up from much further down the mountainside on Gothic Road (typically starting at the Jud Falls trailhead). But even starting at Emerald Lake, the 10,000 feet of elevation finds me having to walk up much of Gothic Road to get to the Schofield Pass trail start.

And it is no picnic for the rider even starting from the Pass, as the first few miles of the single-track trail climb fairly steeply into the Continental Divide ridgeline. I end up walking for nearly all of this ascent, but do so happily as I anticipate the joyous ride that awaits me.

The forest opens up at the top of this section, and I can already see the stupendous mountain and valley views all around me, not to mention the lovely wildflower meadows. In front of me is about nine continuous miles of unparalleled downhill on mostly smooth, high-speed single-track. While I anticipate future rides at much higher velocities, on my first ride I find myself being compelled to stop every few hundred feet to shoot a photo of a seemingly endless series of breathtaking views.

For many sections, however, I do reach rather high speeds, which elicits from me occasional loud whoops and hollers as I enjoy the exhilarating experience of riding in such a gorgeous alpine mountain setting.

I am riding alone, which in its own way is quite pleasant as I have no need to feel rushed when I frequently stop to shoot another photo, and no need to feel as if I’m slowing down others when photo ops turn up.

Overall, the #401 trail is one of the best mountain bike rides I have ever ridden, and possibly THE best ride I’ve ever done. But while the trail is somewhat technical in a few spots due to some steep creek return valleys, some tight turns, and some rocky areas, the greatness of this trail is much less due to the adrenalin rush of screaming downhills and turns. The unforgettable nature is much more due to the world-class mountain and valley surroundings.

Granted, the trail does allow me to feel high-speed, plummeting joy, but more often than not, I find myself being too distracted by the incredible views to stay focused on the trail in front of me (a focus that is certainly needed if one seeks to bomb down a run).

On this day, I am not only riding without companion riders, but I only come across one or two riders all day, which gives me the sensation that I have the entire mountain range and valley to myself.

This ride feels lush not only due to the thick meadows of wildflowers, by the way, but also the dense growth of green and yellow skunk cabbage found throughout the meadows.

To see more photos I shot during this ride, go to the following link (when the link takes you to Picasa, select “slideshow” for the best view):

My ride ends all too soon on #401 (but I know I will be back again). Riding down Gothic Road back to Crested Butte, I stop at the horse stable near Mt Crested Butte and am happy to see that I am at the trailhead for the Snodgrass Trail, a mountain bike ride I have on my list. I call Ann to confirm that she is okay with my being delayed because I am riding Snodgrass, and get a green light.

Snodgrass, at least from the east trailhead, features a rather long uphill climb. But soon I find myself on excellent single-track – much of which meanders through gorgeous aspen groves. Adding to the fun on Snodgrass is how the trail has a weaving-through-trees slalom pattern.

Ann and I depart Crested Butte. We stop at Lake Irwin where Ann goes for an enjoyable swim. In the forested mountains, we follow several miles of the dirt road known as Keebler Pass Road. At Paonia Reservoir, we head north on Rt 133 on our way to Redstone. Along the way, we stop to admire Hayes Creek Falls. That night in Redstone, we enjoy a nice outdoor café dinner, and have the good fortune of having Peter Karp and Sue Foley serenade us with their blues and folk guitar (

We depart Redstone and head north for I-70. Heading east, we stop at Hanging Lake, a highly popular spot. But we decide not to have a look as the place is full of cars and people.

Instead, we choose to hike the North TenMile Trail for lunch.

Heading east again on the Interstate, Ann decides the drive is too intolerable, so we opt to divert off onto Central City Parkway. The Parkway utterly shocks me for its extreme wastefulness. We find ourselves on a four-lane divided highway that is EMPTY of other cars. It is the most over-capacitied road I have ever seen.

The gambling towns of Central City and Black Hawk are charming old (former) mining towns, with charming little streets and historic buildings.

Our total mileage driven was an eye-popping 550 miles. Our plan is to return in the future to Crested Butte for more hiking, biking and paddling in that world-class summer playground. But this time, we plan to stay put in Crested Butte. And hope to arrive by train or bus…

Categories: 2011-Present, Bicycling, Colorado, Hiking | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Skiing Crested Butte, Colorado (February 2009)

I set out to ski the legendary Crested Butte late in February 2009. Our flight from Richmond departs very early on a Saturday morning. Everyone is bleary-eyed (I had only gotten what seemed like five minutes of sleep the night before), but eager to start the adventure that awaits us. Life is too short to sleep…

We change planes in Dallas, and I cannot help but notice the dramatic change in the passengers. Flying to the ski-crazed area of Gunnison, Colorado means that I am now in the midst of people who are obviously more rugged. More cowboy-looking than those flying to Dallas. These are The Beautiful People, wearing their expensive dark brown leather cowboy hats and boots. They live in expensive homes.

Immediately upon arriving in Crested Butte and reviewing the mountain ski trail map, I find myself asking, “Have I gotten in over my head here?” A disconcerting number of trails are double-black diamond, which is a bit intimidating in Colorado: The Land of Serious Skiing.

How serious? On the day of our arrival, we learn that today is the last day of the annual US EXTREME Skiing Championships, held every year in Crested Butte, which provides many suitable, impossible-to-ski trails for the most talented, suicidal, have-no-fear skiers.

Earlier at the airport, for example, we are looking at a wall map of the ski runs, and a guy who appears to be a native informs us that one of the double-black runs I point to is infamously known to have the steepest pitch of any named ski run in North America. Gulp.

Sunday morning is my first day on these slopes. Today I am to learn what the general Crested Butte experience consists of. A great many of the trails are rather easy greens and blues. There are also a great many double-black expert-only trails. And there is very little in-between.

I therefore find myself frequently on trails I have no business being on over the course of my week here. Scary, but I am forced to sharpen my skills as a matter of survival.

Nevertheless, my first day is a wonderful, endorphin-loaded day of excellent skiing.

My favorite runs on the mountain, I learn, are International (a black diamond cruiser run that is wide but often quite steep), Ruby Chief, Resurrection, and North Pass. We also enjoy some of the many quite steep tree glade runs on North Slope, and “Double Gap” trail off the East River Lift.

In general, I am to learn that the Resort has a relatively large number of missing trail signs, which leads to a number of wrong turns and scratching of heads.

The snow-covered mountains on the horizon, as we look across the grand sweep in front of us at the tops of mountain lifts, are blanketed with deep, fresh powder that has just fallen on this western side of the Continental Divide. Crested Butte has gotten over 260 inches of snow for the still incomplete season by the time we arrive.

On Monday, I am awakened early by the thumping sound of large snowflakes pelting our condo window. As my email alerts from the Crested Butte Mountain Resort had told me nearly every day in the months preceding our trip, “it’s snowing in Crested Butte!”

Looking out the window as we eat breakfast this morning, we decide the snowfall is too heavy to enjoy skiing in. “Plan B” is to go snowshoeing. So we go to the Nordic center in town to rent snowshoes for my buddy Mike (I have brought my eBay-purchased snowshoes along with me in my travel luggage).

We set off in deep snow toward the thick pine forest nearby. At 10,000 feet of elevation, the snowshoe tracks we follow up the very steep slope (no switchbacks??) have us very quickly out of breath. We meet locals heading down the slope and they inform us that the trail normally switches back and forth along the grade, but today the official trail is hidden by the snow.

We opt to terminate following the tracks up what seems like a cliff, and instead start moving cross-grade. The hiking becomes much more enjoyable and less strenuous. The deep powder we walk through feels like a “cloud walking,” and the forest is pleasantly silent. We shoot some brief video footage which our commentary alleges is showing us on the third day of a lost-in-the-wilderness hike. We are out of food and water. Things have gotten desperate.

We somehow find our way back to the center to return the rental gear. We are off to the Elk Avenue – the Crested Butte main street — in search of locally-crafted microbeer.

Once again, the day ends with a long soak in our condo spa. And today, the soak is more entertaining than normal, as the heavy snowfall has not let up after starting over 16 hours ago. Our outdoor spa therefore deposits a layer of snow on our heads as we sit happily in the steamy water. We look like Q-Tips.

Tuesday starts with a dream-like First Trax run down International. Rocketing down the slope, it is the fastest I have ever skied in my life for such a long distance.

We are generously treated to a pro bono ski instruction by a very nice woman who works at the shop where we have rented out skis. I fall several times, as our helpful instructor largely fails to break my very bad habits. I am also hobbled by the enormous inconvenience of having one of my ski bindings out of alignment, which makes it nearly impossible for me to snap back into the ski. And that means a lot of my energy is drained. Particularly when my seemingly endless efforts to snap back in means that I lose my adventure buddy and the instructor, who wisely give up on me and head off on their own.

But even with the brief instructor assistance earlier in the day, I have become a much better skier by the end of the day.

And when she caught up with me later in the day and re-set my bindings, my ski day was excellent.

That night, Mike and I go to downtown Crested Butte, where the annual “mini-Mardis Gras” is to be held. We spot an opening on the second floor balcony of The Eldo Brewery, the only pub said to brew their own beer on premises. We soon confirm this by sampling an outstanding “Abominable Strong Ale” and a Scottish Ale as we enjoy the parade. Later, we are unjustly accosted by a local authority, and barely talk our way out of being jailed for alleged misbehavior during the festivities.

Curiously, Crested Butte main street contains an astonishing number of real estate offices. Clearly a booming business in this town. At least it was before the housing crash.

Our Wednesday weather turns out to be outstanding for skiing. I notice after our Tuesday tutorial that I am happily a better, more confident skier on moguls and relatively ungroomed slopes.

Disasterously, we boldly decide to give the dreaded Teocalli Bowl a try. Signs here warn those taking the lift to its summit that only expert slopes await the skier. Our overconfidence once again puts us on an exceptionally steep, wooded glade run. After a number of tumbles and rolls to the bottom of the valley, we learn that the skier must hike out.


Seems easy to hike the short, modest hill. But at over 10,000 feet of elevation, our lungs are starved of oxygen, and we are literally GASPING for air after about 10 steps. Every 20 or so steps, we must stop and catch our breath. Finally, we make it to a skiable location, but my chest is heaving and screaming in pain. I am completely exhausted. This explains why there was an emergency call box in the valley. How many unwary, unprepared flat land skiers had to call to be rescued from here?

Despite the exhausting nature of Wednesday, Thursday is even more brutal and demanding. Yet it is also the most gratifying day on the slopes.

More so than on previous days, we test the limits by attacking so called “expert only” slopes. My sore, bruised body by the end of this battering, eyes-wide-open day is testimony to the difficulties we faced all day.

Great powder, great weather. Uncrowded. What more is there to ask for?

Near the end of the ski day, we sample what Crested Butte calls a “super pipe.” A massive, freestyle “half-pipe” of snow used by acrobatic snowboarders and skiers. But instead of doing triple somersaults and quadruple 360s, we simply ski up the very steep, very icy, very tall walls of the pipe.

Not realizing what we have gotten ourselves into, we are immediately reaching a terminal velocity that unnerves me. I now know the experience of being a bullet being fired down a rifle barrel…

We also try out a few “terrain parks” to try out (small) jumps, as we have never done so before.

Our last day features fierce, ferocious, bitter cold wind and raging snow. So ferocious that most all skiers find themselves fleeing from the mountain just before lunch hour to seek refuge. The wind is so intensely blowing up the mountain that I find myself nearly at a standstill trying to ski down a very steep black diamond slope to escape.

Yet despite the cruel morning weather, I squeeze in a number of additional runs in the more hospitable afternoon conditions as I bid farewell to Crested Butte. On to the charming downtown of this mining town established in 1870 for some dinner and locally-crafted beer…

After a week of being tested by some of the best that Crested Butte has to offer, I now know that this mountain requires the skier to stop on a dime. And frankly, I am unable to do so reliably.

“International” becomes my favorite run here, and I find myself starting and finishing with that run each day to pump me up.

This link shows more and better photos I shot on this ski trip. When the link takes you to Picasa, select “slideshow” in the upper left for the best view:

Categories: 2001-2010, Colorado, Skiing | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

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