Crested Butte: The Perfect Parent’s Playground
posted by: Amber Johnson
It had been five years since my last summer visit to Crested Butte, my favorite mountain town in Colorado. If absence makes the heart grow fonder, then mine was ready to leap from my chest as my husband Jamie and I pulled into the valley. Everything was just as I remembered: The quirky, multi-hued National Historic District with burgeoning flowers spilling from the hanging baskets and the outer-world beauty of Red Lady (Mount Emmons).
But doubts still lingered if it would measure up so we delved right into the ultimate date night. We strolled Elk Avenue and ate “Buddha’s Belly” Thai chicken pizza with a coconut curry base at the Secret Stash. We explored Kebler Pass, Washington Gulch and Slate River Road where we watched the sun roll down the mountain, a beaver slap his tail on the water, a fox cross the road and a deer pose for pictures in a field of wildflowers. It was only then that I was convinced that they could feel the magic of this place as much as we did.
Parents at Play: Hiking
When Jamie and I enrolled out kids in week-long Keystone Science School, we vowed to take a second honeymoon and I knew just where to go. As the wildflower capital of Colorado, there is no place more resplendent than Crested Butte in July. I’ve always dreamed of hiking West Maroon Pass from Aspen to Crested Butte but a record-breaking snow year made accessing the high country an impossibility.
So, we opted for Plan B and in Crested Butte, that stands for Beautiful. We were a couple of weeks shy of the heralded Wildflower Festival but that didn’t prevent Snodgrass Mountain from showing off. There are a few different trails for all level of biker or hiker and if you’re a lazy explorer, some of the best views are just few hundred feet from the parking lot.
One of the nation’s most renowned high-altitude field stations, Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, is in Gothic, just 4 miles from Crested Butte. During a previous visit, my kids spent a morning at their Nature Camp with a curriculum that delves deeply into the surrounding ecosystems. Gothic Valley’s backcountry is not to be missed and mountain bikers populate Gothic Road in their pilgrimage to their famous Mecca: Trail 401. The main drag connects to Aspen via Schofield Pass, a precarious four-wheel drive road.
Jamie and I followed the dirt road for several miles until we encountered a closure sign that forced us to ditch the car and hike the fractured road toward Emerald Lake. We climbed over a graveyard of trees blocking the road from a spring avalanche and we hiked a couple of miles until a 20-foot wall of snow blocked the road. But it didn’t matter. Those same stubborn snowfields also produced a cascade of waterfalls, a breeze stroked the velvet greenery and I could have sworn we’d been transplanted in the Emerald City. This was a dead end like no other.
Parents at Play: Biking
The Gunison Valley has 750 miles of mountain biking and is renowned as one of the birthplaces of mountain biking. The Evolution Bike Park at Mount Crested Butte boasts 25 trails covering 30 miles of singletrack, and the riding opportunities range from cross-country aficionados, beginners on two wheels, to gravity experts. Oh, and us. Jamie and I are intermediate-level riders but the lift-serviced terrain reduced us to mere infants.
As we approached the chairlift, I nervously noticed all the other bikers were wearing head-to-toe body armor. The Red Lady lift operator took one look at me and kindly queried “first timer?” I ignored his question, shoved my bike into the carrier (OK, with his help) and rode the lift where I was given a bird’s eye view of the suicidal jumps, berms and bridges.
Once at the summit, we spotted a sign that promoted the easiest way down–Hot Dogger–and we didn’t hesitate to follow it. The trail was non-technical but fairly steep with a lot of tight turns. We gritted our teeth (and pumped our brakes) all the way to the bottom, neither hating nor loving the experience. “Let’s try another trail,” Jamie suggested so we followed Primer to Painter Boy to Lower Awakening…and that made all the difference. The turns were wider and less steep, the roller-coaster trail were fun and the passages through beautiful aspen groves more scenic. We had found our trail.
The next day, we looked for a kinder, gentler ride and we discovered it at the Lower Loop, a popular trail just outside of town that meanders along the Slate River while passing cobalt-blue Peanut Lake and the Gronk, a large cement structure from historic mining days. We followed it for a few miles with the Paradise Divide mountain range as the backdrop. Just as we were about to turn onto Gunsight Pass Road and then do a loop by connecting to the Upper Lower Loop, we encountered a man who recommended we take a 0.5-mile detour that led us to Oh-Be-Joyful Falls, one of the area’s hidden charms.
Parents at Play: The Base Area
The Crested Butte base area is brimming with activities: The Trailhead Children’s Museum, bungee trampolines, the Coke Zero Gravity Bagjump, Flying Gopher Mini Golf, Climbing Pinnacle and the Red Lake Express Lift (with bike carrier). If you want to summit 12,162-foot Mount Crested Butte, the Silver Queen Express lift is open to hikers only and drops you off at 11,340 feet but don’t be deceived–the climb is still steep and challenging. And, of course, hiking from the base (for free) is always an option.
We had intended to climb to the summit but it was still closed for the season due to (what else?) snow so we opted to do the Crested Butte Zipline Tour. Disclaimer: I had recently done the longest zipline over water in the world so I wasn’t sure how adrenaline-charged the 120-400-foot-long ziplines could be. Turns out, plenty. Our guides, James and Elias, upped the ante by adding challenges across the five ziplines and three bridges. We did a trust fall. Charades. Raced across backwards. No hands. Pretended to be Wonder Woman. Crossed the “Bridge of Abnormality” abnormally. Bounced on the bouncy bridge. As I was repeatedly pushed out of my comfort zone, I channeled Mowgli as I fearlessly swung through the canopy of trees.
Just when I thought I’d seen and done it all after the fifth zipline, I realized the final challenge was to belay down off the platform. I’ve descended plenty of indoor and outdoor rock walls but there was something unnerving about positioning my legs at a 90-degree angle off the edge, swinging underneath the platform and lightly prancing my way down again the log pole. It was the perfect end to a surprisingly exhilarating tour.
The Musical Icing on the Cake
I leaned against Jamie, relishing in the crisp mountain air as we listened to the funky jazz music jamming from the stage. I watched some kids hula-hoop next to us and was taken back to my first visit to Crested Butte many years ago.
I had arrived at the idyllic mountain resort with my two young kids and we checked into our accommodations: The Lodge at Mountaineer Square. Situated at the base of Mt. Crested Butte, we were in the very pulse of the resort and we soon heard musical strains throughout the village. Like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, we were lured to investigate and stumbled upon Live from Mount Crested Butte, a free slopeside concert series on Wednesday evenings.
After grabbing some burgers off the grill, the kids joined the masses of rugrats rolling down the hill while this mama sat back and relished the hallucinatory montage of wildflowers, mountains and melodies in the most idyllic of mountain settings.
As I quickly learned, Crested Butte never disappoints.