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Family Travel / Ski

Colorado winter vacation: Why Crested Butte is perfect (and affordable) for families!

Colorado winter vacation: Why Crested Butte is perfect (and affordable) for families!

It has been almost a decade since I fell in love with Crested Butte and three years since our last visit which, considering it is my favorite Colorado mountain town, is a rather shameful confession. And with some recent changes for the 2014-15 season, my love has only grown deeper.

Surrounded on three sides by four wilderness areas—Raggeds, West Elk, Maroon Bells-Snowmass and Collegiate Peaks— if the outer-world beauty isn’t worth the drive, the deals are. Kids 12 and under ski free at Crested Butte Mountain Resort (CBMR) until December 18, 2014 and kids six and under ski free all season. Also, the Crested Butte Nordic Center is offering free rentals AND skiing for kids 17 and under all season 

skiselfie I’m generally not an early-season skier but since my kids’ getting-an-education-schtick is putting a serious cramp in our adventures, my family travels whenever we have vacation time and that meant Thanksgiving. And I’m so glad we did because my love affair was reignited with the best opening day conditions the resort has seen in years. That, coupled with an awesome Adventure Park, an epic Nordic skiing adventure and glorious food make Crested Butte the perfect kick-off to the season.


1) Accessibility. OK, you would think a 225-mile drive doesn’t constitute accessibility but the story was the same with every Denverite we met on the chairlift. “I could drive a bit extra to this amazing place without the lift lines or I could be stuck in I-70’s parking lot for hours and battle the crowds and big prices at the Front Range resorts.” Getting to Crested Butte is the only hard(ish) part as it is a true destination resort. With a single base area, CBMR’s village is not only easy for families to navigate without a huge hike but the hotels and condos are truly ski-in and ski-out. We stayed at the Grand Lodge and were thrilled to learn that their valet service (free to guests) transported our family’s skis to the Outpost at the base, where we also stored them for the night.  After many miserable years of hauling my family’s ski equipment, I had the epiphany that they are meant to be worn, not carried. I’m glad CBMR has figured that out.

Tip: Mt. Crested Butte is 3.5 miles from town and there is a Free Mountain Express Shuttle that runs regularly from Mountaineer Square. If you want to tour Elk Avenue (the main street), get off at the Old Town Hall (2nd and Elk Avenue).

2) The Mountain. With 1,547 skiable acres and 27% beginner terrain and 57% intermediate terrain, I’m 84 percent sure CBMR is perfect for families. The mountain’s best family areas are Red Lady chair’s gentle green cruisers and moderate intermediate runs are off Painter Boy, Prospect and Gold Link chairs.



While the lower reaches are gentle, the top of the mountain is not. The long-anticipated opening of the Teocalli 2 Bowl will open up 40 acres of steep-and-deep expert terrain and the resort is famous for its ultra-challenging off-piste skiing, a collection of nearly 40 named double black trails denoted as EX, or Extreme Terrain, plus many more that don’t show up on the resort’s map.

For non-skiing/riding activities, we had a great time at the Adventure Park, which has mini golf, turbo-charged bungee trampolines, a 28-foot climbing wall and lift-serviced tubing at the base of the mountain (go here for pricing). If your children weigh over 70 pounds,  the Zipline Tour includes five zip lines with suspended wood bridges and towering platforms. Young kids need not feel left out because they can have fun of their own at the Trailhead Children’s Discovery Museum and is located next to the Adventure Park.

3) The Ski/Ride School


Camp CB

I’m not sure who loved Camp CB Ski and Ride School more–the kids or my husband and me. Either way, CBMR’s ski school was a win-win. We registered the kids at the children’s center in the Whetstone Building before meeting their instructor Jeff on the snow. The whole process was seamless and devoid of the regular chaos and crowds of larger resorts. At the end of each day, we skied together so they could show off their mad skills and corny new jokes. Camp CB is open daily from 8:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. and we loved that class didn’t start until 9:30 a.m., giving us a bit of extra time in the morning.

Tips for first-timers: Arrive at least 30 minutes (60 minutes on holidays or weekends) before ski/ride school starts.

4) The Grownups at Play

With my kids happily tucked away at ski school, my husband and I didn’t have it so bad, either.

Despite the fact only a few lifts were operating for opening week, we found a number of secret powder stashes off the Teocalli lift. As my husband carved hour glasses, he raved, “It doesn’t feel like early season.”

This was about the highest compliment an early-season hater could say.


View from Paradise Lift

It didn’t look like it, either.

We lunched at Butte 66 at the base (be sure to try their delicious new smoked meats menu) and another great casual option is Paradise on Crested Butte’s lively sun deck at the bottom of the Paradise lift. Unfortunately, my favorite on-mountain restaurant Uley’s Cabin, famous for its legendary bar made out of ice, didn’t open until Dec. 12.

Tip: Be sure to order their legendary Forest Mushroom Bisque for me–pretty please?

5) Great Eats and Treats

django's Brussells Sprouts

django’s Brussells Sprouts

After a long ski day, grab a waffle at the new Waffle Cabin at the base or hang out at the whimsical Sweet Spot, a Parisian throwback to the 1930s cocktail lounge with an old-fashioned candy store, ice cream, martinis, tacos, billiards, chair massages, a small arcade and an upside down table bolted to the ceiling. For a fancy night out,  django’s Restaurant & Wine Bar is my favorite. I’m pretty sure I’m the first mom to ditch her family, sidle up to the bar solo at django’s and order Brussels Sprouts. But until you’ve had their crispy Brussels Sprouts with apples, pistachios and creme fraiche, DO NOT JUDGE ME.

You must spend some quality time in quirky, candy-color Crested Butte and find out why it’s my all-time favorite town. Pooh’s Corner has everything from fun toys and games, to children’s clothing and stuffed animals. For breakfast, try Izzy’s breakfast burrito with Indian spices or the soccer-ball-sized pancakes. For apres ski, grab a Creamsicle or Beach Bum mocktail with the kids or try one of 22 rum cocktails in the ultra-hip Montanya Rum Distillers.  The Secret Stash pizzeria redefines eclectic with decor showcasing the owner’s world travels and not only are the pizzas legendary (particularly the Notorious F.I.G with figs, blue cheese, and pancetta) but the Crack Fries are, indeed, addicting.  When we walked in the door, my daughter inhaled and proclaimed, “I smell truffle oil,” which is not only the sign of a great restaurant but a food snob in the making.

6) Nordic Skiing and skating

I grew up cross-country skiing the golf course behind my house in Canada. I have longed to convert my family and if you’ve got to start somewhere, Crested Butte Nordic Center is the place. They’re making every effort to get kids 17 and under on their 55 kilometers of immaculately groomed trails and are even offering them free rentals and skiing all season long as bait. The adjacent ice rink is open from December to late-February and is free if you bring your own skates; rentals are $9 for adults or $7 for kids and seniors.

nordicThe Nordic Center is located on the outskirts of downtown so one minute, you can be shopping on Elk Avenue and the next you can be delving into the backcountry. The center charges a trail access fee and also offers everything from day passes to lessons to backcountry tours to luminescent full moon dinners to the Magic Meadows Yurt, which is about 30 minutes from the center for beginners or 15 minutes for the pros. During the day, the yurt is open for any enthusiasts who’d like to bring their own lunch and sit on the deck.

We met up with our gregarious guide Beth for an hour-long tour.  Knowing we were mostly newbies, Beth loaded us up in the van and drove a short distance to the Gronk Trailhead and gave us a short tutorial on how to put on our skis.  The terrain along the Lower Loop Trail was mostly level with a few rolling hills and we coasted along the classical tracks as the real pros zoomed by us in the skating lanes.

Hadley quickly mastered the rhythm while frustrated Bode’s ski repeatedly fell off until industrious Beth swapped skis with him and he was gliding in no time toward paradise. No, really. Our turnaround point was at a bridge stretching across the Slate River with the glorious Paradise Divide mountain range as the backdrop.

Nordic skiing the Paradise Divide

Nordic skiing the Paradise Divide

I was mesmerized as we surged through valleys, meadows, past ponds and streams that formed spectacular ice sculptures. The track was littered with deer, fox and snowshoe hare tracks, among others.

Beth praised Hadley’s efforts, telling her that if she lived in Crested Butte, she would be a good candidate for their Junior Olympic Nordic Skiing team.

On our drive home, I announced to my family that after the kids were grown, that “I am going to move to Crested Butte.”

“Wait,” Hadley interjected. “I’m coming with you!”

It’s the only way for both of our dreams to be fulfilled.

For more information about Crested Butte, go to Thanks to this fabulous resort for partnering with us; all opinions are our own.

Amber Johnson
Author: Amber Johnson

Amber is the founder and editor of Mile High Mamas, travel writer and former columnist for The Denver Post. She is a passionate community builder and loves the outdoors. She has two awesome teens and is happily married to a man obsessed with growing The Great Pumpkin.

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Amber is the founder and editor of Mile High Mamas, travel writer and former columnist for The Denver Post. She is a passionate community builder and loves the outdoors. She has two awesome teens and is happily married to a man obsessed with growing The Great Pumpkin.


  1. Here’s something that is so cool that CB does (though not necessarily for kids). Snowcat driving experiences where you can actually DRIVE a snowcat. I’m DYING to try it.

  2. OK, this make me want to go to Crested Butte. I just looked them up and Uley’s Cabin’s sleigh ride dinners look downright magical.

  3. Marcy–I saw an ad for those snowcat driving experiences and they look amazing!!!

  4. Sandra–If their sleigh ride dinners are anything like their mushroom bisque, I’m in. I’ve heard they do some neat full moon dinners as well.

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