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Crested Butte’s Mountain Paradise for Families

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At the crest of the hill, we emerge from the trees into a sloping green meadow thick with yellow toadflax; across the valley, a ring of grey mountain peaks rises out of the lush green forest. I have a smile glued to my face, and, consequently, a layer of dust caked to my teeth but who can blame me for my permagrin? I’m in Crested Butte and the Wildflower Capital of Colorado is in full bloom as my family bombs down the Lupine Trail with our guide Andy from Colorado Backcountry Guide Service.

(Elk Ave., Credit: Travel Crested Butte)

It had been three years since my last 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 our family 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).

 We dove in head-first, climbing Mount Crested Butte, exploring Gothic Valley’s backcountry and strolling Elk Avenue, indulging in old favorites (Secret Stash’s “Asher’s Pie” BBQ and chipotle chicken pizza) while discovering new ones (Tin Cup Pastry Co’s honey lavender ice cream, cornish pasties and lawn games).

Hiking Mount Crested Butte

Snodgrass Mountain. Judd Falls. Tony’s Trail. I have hiked several popular trails in the area but somehow one of the most iconic, Mount Crested Butte, always escaped me. The centerpiece of the valley, this 12,162-foot peak is a steep, rewarding trek that can be hiked from the base for free or, if you’re super smart like us, you can ride the Silver Queen Express Lift which drops you off at 11,340 feet. 

The difficulty of getting to a destination heightens its value for me and you’d better believe you still have to earn this one. From the top of the chairlift, the remaining mile starts out moderately enough with a curated path but once we passed treeline, my legs and lungs started protesting from the steep pitch and altitude. We climbed through distinct alpine ecosystems before scrambling up a boulder field to the summit. Red-faced and sweaty, we proudly posed by the trail marker sign, taking a 360-degree video of the expanse of the jagged peaks in the Gunnison National Forest. Whetstone (12,527 feet). Carbon (12,088 feet). Richmond (12,501 feet).  Augusta (12,599 feet). Gothic (12,631 feet). Belleview (13,233). There is a sense of uninhibited joy that inevitably comes from a 12,000-foot-high rooftop and we were flying high.

Driving Gothic Valley

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 deep 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.

One afternoon, we followed that dirt road for several miles until we encountered a field of wildflowers and took hundreds of postcard-worthy pictures. Stubborn snowfields produced a cascade of waterfalls, a breeze stroked the velvet greenery and I could have sworn we’d been transplanted in the Emerald City…but no deception here. This is one of the most beautiful drives in Colorado.

Mountain Biking the Lupine Trail

My husband, son and I love mountain biking; my daughter Hadley loves avoiding mountain biking. So, when we connected with Andy Shabo from Colorado Backcountry, we had a tall order: improve the skills for three of us and make a convert out of the fourth.

Fortunately, Andy, a BetterRide Certified Coach with over a decade of coaching experience delivered. Not only does he know bikes (he owned a bike shop for several years) but he knows pretty much everything there is to know about riding them. He helped develop the curriculum for the Backcountry Bike Academy and trains everyone from never-evers to the expert rider.

The Gunnison Valley has 750 miles of mountain biking and is renowned as one of the birthplaces of mountain biking. We started with some drills in the resort’s parking lot that focused on our body and hand positions. Slowly, with each drill, I could see Hadley gaining confidence while the rest of us course-corrected our bad habits through Andy’s meticulously crafted skills drills and progressions. 

We left the resort after about 45 minutes, following the paved recreational bike path down the mountain before climbing back up through the Saddle Ridge subdivision to connect with the Lupine Trail on the north side of the Slate River. If you’re looking for the perfect introductory ride, this intermediate trail is a perfect choice. We plunged into the late-summer forest, my vision crowded with lupine, mule ears and dwarf larkspur. We wound through aspen groves, those skinny white candles prepping to burst into yellow flames in just a few weeks. Each new hill we climbed afforded us an expanded vision of the Paradise Divide.

The speed of our ascent was rapid as I leaned backward to counter the strain of gravity. Wanting to showcase Hadley’s new skills, I hopped up my bike to film her bombing down the trail and as she passed me, I caught a glimpse of Jamie through my lens: he was up…then down…then back up again.

“Did you just wipe-out..and pop back up, like, one second later?”

“Noooo,” he vehemently protested but I have the photographic evidence to prove it. However, it does pose the philosophical question: if a man falls in the forest but no one sees it, did it ever really happen?

Once at the bottom, we crossed Gunsight Bridge past picnicking families playing in the Slate River and connected to the Lower Loop, a popular, easy trail that meanders along the river while passing cobalt-blue Peanut Lake and the Gronk, a large cement structure from historic mining days, before safely delivering our team of exhausted yet happy riders back to town. 

A Date Night to Remember

One night, Jamie and I kicked the kids to the curb (literally) and aimlessly drove down Slate River Road until we found a far-flung bridge to our own Terabithia that wound through a canopy of pine and tall grasses. We balanced on slippery rocks that had been conveniently placed over a gushing stream, the air so cool and fresh I could drink it. 

I’m generally a pretty cheap date but that night, I was reminded that sometimes the best destination is no destination at all. 

And in Crested Butte, all roads lead to somewhere.

The Extras

Crested Butte is fantastic whatever season you visit and fall is one of their best-kept secrets. The resort community has gone above-and-beyond to ensure COVID precautions are in place and this is the perfect fall getaway. Don’t miss:

For more information about activities at Crested Butte Resort, go to SkiCB.com or GunnisonCrestedButte.com for Gunnison Valley recommendations. 

Stay

The Lodge at Mountaineer Square offers luxurious king rooms to four-bedroom accommodations located in the heart of the base area, just steps from the lift. Guests can expect knowledgeable concierge staff, a heated indoor/outdoor swimming pool, outdoor hot tub, sauna, fitness center and underground parking. Experience onsite shopping, dining and entertainment year-round at this premier lodging destination which is one of our favorites.

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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