Crested Butte: My family’s favorite mountain playground in Colorado
posted by: Amber Johnson
I wasn’t prepared for the full-circle moment I had when my family returned to Crested Butte, Colorado before my recently graduated daughter Hadley moved out. We have been visiting this mountain hamlet since she was 1 year old. We named my son as we watched “Bode” Miller bomb the Torino Olympic Winter Games while we were cozily holed up in our CB condo. The kids attended the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory’s Summer Camp in nearby Gothic, a dramatic, dreamlike valley where pure glacial waters cascade down the mountainside. It has been a couple of years since our last visit but 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).
Crested Butte is the ultimate year-round family vacation with world-class skiing, mountain biking, wildflowers, hikes, and tributes to the arts. We have so many traditions here. Stay at The Lodge at Mountaineer Square. Relish in Crested Butte Wildflower Festival’s 10-day festival and swoon to the Crested Butte Music Festival’s live music. Bomb down the slopes at Crested Butte Ski Resort. Glide across the 55 km of maintained Nordic ski track. Hike Snodgrass Mountain at sunrise. Spy on the beavers at our special spot off Slate River Road. Explore Kebler Pass’s glorious aspen goodness in the fall. Scroll to the bottom for even more family-friendly recommendations.
Crested Butte has many roots and ours are planted deep.
Crested Butte Family Vacation Tips
My family is hosting a Spanish exchange student, Pablo, for the 2022/23 school year. When he noted on his student exchange application that he enjoys mountain biking, we chuckled. He’s a city-dweller from Madrid; how much real mountain biking had he done? Unsurprisingly, exposing Pablo to Crested Butte’s Mountain Bike Mecca was a whole new ballgame (but he did great!)
Eighty percent of the land surrounding Crested Butte Mountain Resort is open space and the Gunnison Valley is renowned as one of the birthplaces of mountain biking. Without a doubt, Crested Butte has the best mountain biking in Colorado–from Crested Butte Mountain’s epic downhill trails to the world-famous 401 (when you’re this good, you don’t need a real name) in Gothic Valley.
If you’re looking for a challenge, Crested Butte Mountain Resort’s vast trail network has 30+ miles of singletrack to complement the more than 750 miles open to mountain biking in the Gunnison Valley. Not a biker? Hitch a ride from the Silver Queen Lift (an additional cost) where hikers can easily summit the iconic 12,162-foot Crested Butte Mountain in just a couple of hours.
We planned two days on bikes: We would get Pablo initiated on the town’s trail system and then introduce him to the big guns: lift-serviced downhill at Crested Butte Mountain.
Crested Butte’s Lower Loop
On Day 1, we took the free shuttle from the Lodge at Mountaineer Square four miles down the mountain into the town of Crested Butte to pick up our rental bikes from The Alpineer, a full-service outdoor equipment shop and local’s favorite.
We started out on the family-friendly terrain of 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, our vision crowded with lupine, mule ears and dwarf larkspur.
Just as we were about to turn onto Gunsight Pass Road and connect to the Upper Lower Loop, we remembered a staffer at The Alpineer told us we could take a detour to Oh-Be-Joyful Falls, one of the area’s hidden charms. Without the aid of a map, we found ourselves navigating extreme terrain with some technical steep switchbacks. There were a few freakout moments (from me, not Pablo) so we turned back to the Upper Lower Loop, stopped for a photo opp at Gunsight Bridge overlooking picnicking families playing in the Slate River and looped back into town to enjoy the Crested Butte Farmer’s Market–the best of all the worlds.
Note: If you’d like longer explorations, start at the intermediate-level Lupine Trail in the Saddle Ridge subdivision which eventually connects to the Lower Loop trails.
Mt. Crested Butte Mountain Bike Park
Crested Butte Mountain Resort offers an abundance of riding options from lift-serviced double black downhill-specific trails to meandering cross-country trails that can be ridden in both directions. Note: Trails can be ridden without purchasing a lift ticket, but be sure you only ride up trails that allow uphill traffic.
Hadley does not prefer downhill riding and instead chose to visit the fitness center at the Lodge. I opted for my own adventure. There is a paved recreational bike path that extends from the town of Crested Butte up up up 4 miles to the base of Mt. Crested Butte and keeps going another few miles to the base of Snodgrass Mountain which, in my opinion, has some of the best wildflower views and hiking/biking in town. That was my adventure.
That left the downhill warriors: My husband Jamie who thought he was 16 (but did not feel 16 the morning after his ride). Pablo, who was adjusting to his new life of adventure after journeying from sea level to 9,000 feet (and trying to adapt to our ridiculous non-metric system). And my son Bode who is on the high school’s mountain bike team and left them both in his dust.
They picked up their bike rentals at the CBMR Rental & Demo Center at the base area. The friendly staffers not only outfitted them with their downhill bikes sized to their weight and height specifications but also all the padding, equipment and knowledge they would need for a successful ride.
They rode up the Red Lady Express and started on beginner terrain (Hotdogger, Awakening and Downtime). After Jamie and Pablo called it quits, Bode kept exploring harder and harder terrain like Luge, Frequency and Teaser; the expert terrain like Captain Jack and Psycho Rocks are the most technical, sketchy rock gardens at the resort and best reserved for, well, the psychos.
The stunning downhill rips were the boys’ favorite part of the whole trip and Bode, in particular, couldn’t get enough. On his Strava app, he proudly boasted he had managed the art of going straight uphill. My snide comment, “Yes, it’s called a chairlift,” brought him downhill a few notches but guaranteed, the terrain at Crested Butte Mountain Resort is top notch.
Crested Butte Adventure Park and Mountaintop Adventure
Crested Butte Mountain Resort’s base area has evolved over the years. In the past, we raced across the zipline and skated on the outdoor rink in the summertime. Currently, the main summer offerings include hiking, 3D Archery, disc golf, scenic chairlift rides and the Adventure Park’s rock climbing wall, a bungee trampoline and gem panning.
Crested Butte’s Extreme Disc Golf for Idiots
We like to try at least one new adventure when we visit Crested Butte and we targeted 10-3 @CB Disc Golf atop Red Lake Express Lift as our next conquest. I now realize I should have done my research prior to attempting it. I figured you start at a tee pad and throw the disc toward a target (the basket); how difficult could it be beyond that? Pro tip: If you’ve never played an organized game of disc golf, Crested Butte was recently named one of the top 25 courses in America and is not the place to start.
The reason? This is a mountain course. Mountains are big. They have trees. They have rocky terrain. They have prickly things. I assumed there would be some kind of a map or guidance at the summit where we started but we couldn’t find either so we ended up winging it. We later found out there are two courses–a shorter, more gentle course that loops back to the lift and a long 18-hole course that takes you all the way down to the base. We chose the latter. Note: there is a cost for the lift but the course is free; bring your own discs).
We actually had a lot of fun in our naivety. The views were spectacular and sure, there was a lot of incompetence but there was also a lot of laughter. I even made par on one of the holes. There is a trail between baskets with a small arrow pointing to the next hole but if you’re not adept at throwing the disc, expect to do a lot of bushwhacking. And lose a disc (or two). That’s what the Americans did. Bode lost his disc on the very first throw but fortunately, we found another in a wooded area we called the black hole. Pablo specialized in long, beautiful glides; apparently, his bull-fighting background makes him adept at this extreme sport.
The longer disc golf course winds its way to the base area and after about an hour, we were only halfway through the 18-hole course so decided to just cut our (many) losses: we hiked the rest of the way down and drowned our America vs. Spain sorrows in Butte 66 Bar and Grill’s signature pulled pork and brisket.
Losing never tasted so good.
Where to Eat in Crested Butte
Speaking of tasting good, here are a few of our favorite restaurants for dinner in Crested Butte.
Breadery Crested Butte. 209 Elk Ave., Crested Butte | 970-319-5118. Peace. Love. Gluten. A sourdough and vegetable-forward eatery, bar, and bakehouse, featuring handmade pizzas, artisan cocktails, and all the bread you could ever want. This place is a carb-lover’s dream (with several other options like their seasonal salads). This new-to-me eaterie replaced my favorite restaurant in town and though nothing will ever live up to Django’s crispy Brusells sprouts, the Breadery is a welcomed addition.breaderycb.com
The Secret Stash: 303 Elk Ave.| Crested Butte| 970-349-6245. Known for its infamous specialty pizzas and unique atmosphere, The Secret Stash is legend. Try the Notorious Fig (the winner of the World Champion Piza Challenge) of my family’s favorite, Asher’s Pie, with a BBQ and chipotle base, Canadian bacon and grilled chicken. Oh, and the Crack Fries tossed in parmesan, green onions, and white truffle oil and endlessly epic as well. secretstashpizza
The Slogar. 517, 2nd Street, Crested Butte | 970-349-5765. Cajun & southern eatery famous for its fried chicken, this restaurant is a Crested Butte staple. Meals are served family style and guests have the choice of fried chicken or grilled steak (though sources told us it was a travesty if we order anything other than the chicken). Prices were expensive but we also had two meals worth of leftovers the next day.
Our evening at The Slogar gave us one of the most memorable moments of the trip when we tried to introduce Pablo to The Slogar’s delicious coleslaw. He is a very polite boy (in addition to being a disc golf expert), so when he turned us down by saying, “No thank you. I don’t like garbage,” we thought that was a bit harsh. Until we realize he meant “cabbage,” not “garbage” but you’d better believe that’s what we’ll call it from now on. www.slogarcb.com
Lodge at Mountaineer Square
We have stayed in many different condos and VRBOs in Crested Butte but we always come back to the convenience and luxury of The Lodge at Mountaineer Square. The property offers everything from king rooms to four-bedroom accommodations(with full kitchens and washer/dryer) in the heart of the base area, just steps from the lift. They have a free shuttle to town, great staff, an indoor/outdoor swimming pool, hot tub, sauna, fitness center and underground parking. The Lodge at Mountaineer Square has everything you’d ever want in your Colorado family vacation.