Written by Meagan Drillinger
Nov 17, 2021
Crested Butte may not be the most convenient town in Colorado, but that is exactly what people love about it, and that is what makes it so special. Crested Butte sits high in the Elk Mountain range of the Colorado Rockies, and is one of the last great mountain towns in Colorado that has not given way to mass development.
Located in Gunnison County, the town is affectionately known as "The Gateway to the Elk Mountains," and sits at nearly 9,000 feet above sea level not far from the city of Gunnison. Miners began arriving in the town in the 1860s and by 1878, the town that we know today had been laid out. By 1880, Crested Butte had a population of 400 people, with another 1,000 miners living in the surrounding hills.
That pioneer spirit pervades to this day, as Crested Butte attracts extreme adventurists from all over the country to tackle its towering peaks and thick forests. Crested Butte has some of the best hiking in Colorado, as well as an abundance of campgrounds, alpine lakes, mountain biking routes, and, of course, ski runs. In fact, Crested Butte is one of the best places in the country for cross-country skiing.
The downtown is humble, compared to downtowns in other well-heeled ski towns like Aspen or Vail. You won't find five-star hotels and tasting menus in Crested Butte. Here, local restaurants and small boutiques reign supreme, and you can walk the entire downtown in less than 20 minutes. Just outside of town sits the Taylor River, which is a top place to visit for rafting and canoeing, as well as fishing.
The beauty in this town is unlike any other in Colorado thanks to its epic natural scenery and remote, off-the-beaten-path vibe. Soak up the history, beauty, and modern-day charm when you discover the best things to do in Crested Butte.
1. Browse Elk Avenue
Crested Butte retains all the charm and vibe of a Colorado mining town. That's probably because that is how the town got its settled roots. The East River Valley, where Crested Butte is, was originally a summer getaway for the Ute people. Then the European trappers began arriving, and eventually the mining prospectors followed in the 1860s and 1870s.
Today you can trace the roots of Crested Butte's history along Elk Avenue. The main drag of downtown, Elk Avenue is lined with wonderful restaurants, boutiques, and shops, all housed in historic Victorian storefronts. It is the beating heart of the small, frontier-style town. Downtown has been designated both a Creative and a Historic District, and the bright colors and friendly local characters help to really sell both designations.
Of course, things have certainly elevated since the 19th century. When the ski industry came to Crested Butte, the infrastructure and services followed. You can find a gourmet meal and a cozy boutique hotel, but the vibe still remains decidedly laid-back and budget-approachable, compared to other affluent ski towns in Colorado.
2. Drive Kebler Pass
Cruising into town is the most dramatic when you do so from the Kebler Pass. The alpine mountain pass connects Crested Butte to the western town of Paonia, and can also be used as a shortcut to get to Aspen in the summer months.
The pass is perched at 10,000 feet and winds through the Gunnison National Forest, so brace yourself for flickering aspen trees in the summer and pops of brilliant yellows and reds in the autumn.
During the summer months, one of the great spots to camp along Kebler's Pass is at Lost Lake Campground. Perched right on the lake, this well-equipped campground is one of the most beautiful spots to camp near Crested Butte.
Keep in mind that the road is laid with gravel, so it is not always the smoothest of rides. But the lower speed limit and forest views ensure that it will be a leisurely and scenic drive. The road is also closed in the winter because of snow.
3. Ski at Crested Butte Mountain Resort
Winter is one of the busiest times in Crested Butte thanks to Crested Butte Mountain Resort — an enviable ski location high up in the Elk Mountains. This ski resort has 15 lifts that lead to a total of 121 ski trails on 1,500 acres that run from Beginner to Expert.
The mountain receives about 300 inches of snow a year, and yet still remains one of the more off-the-radar ski destinations. That's because it is about a four-hour drive from Denver, unlike other towns like Aspen or Breckenridge, which are much closer to the capital.
Those who make the trek to Crested Butte in the winter are rewarded with far fewer crowds, dramatic peaks, groomed trails, and epic backcountry terrain. The summit of the mountain sits at 12,100 feet and can be reached from the High Lift. The longest run on this mountain is about 2.6 miles.
Crested Butte is also a wonderful place to visit for other outdoor activities, like cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
Official Site: https://www.skicb.com/
3. Forge Schofield Pass
If you're looking to take on a gorgeous scenic drive, buckle up and head to Schofield Pass. Often regarded as being one of the most dangerous passes in the state, this daredevil drive rewards with epic natural scenery and wilderness views.
Schofield Pass runs for 15 miles between Crested Butte and Marble. The unpaved, dirt road means it's slow going, which is a good thing, as you'll pass tons of mountain bikers along the way. The pass was historically used by the native Ute tribe, before a road was built in 1873 by a local miner.
Be extra cautious during the Devil's Punchbowl section, which follows a rocky ledge that plummets down 300 feet at its highest. You also should be prepared to reverse in case you meet any oncoming traffic, which is rare, but happens.
Along the way, you will pass eye-popping turquoise lakes, and shrink in the shadows of the towering mountains. It is within the Gunnison National Forest, so don't expect much cell reception. Instead, you'll hear the rustling of the trees, and you may even be able to see Maroon Peak in the distance.
4. Hike to Meridian Lake
If you're up for a little hiking, visitors to Crested Butte love to go and take the 4.5-mile round-trip hike to Meridian Lake. The hike is relatively moderate, with an elevation gain of 500 feet. The trail takes hikers from Crested Butte up to a stunning glacial lake, which is great for swimming, a picnic, or simply hanging out.
The trail starts strong with a steep incline along switchbacks before it mellows out and winds its way around the lake for some jaw-dropping visuals. You can make the trip as easy or as strenuous as you like, with a variety of path options.
The convenience of the trail plus the easy access to the beautiful lake makes it one of the most popular hiking trails in Crested Butte. Tip: If you're up for an early morning, Meridian Lake is one of the best places to catch a gorgeous sunrise.
5. Hike Some More
Meridian Lake is not the only jaw-dropping landmark to hike to in Crested Butte. The entire region is practically paved with trails. Get lost in the Elk Mountain range when you lace up your boots and start hitting the trails that surround one of the last great mountain towns in western/central Colorado.
May through October is peak hiking in the mountains around Crested Butte. This is because the wildflowers are absolutely explosive, and the temperature is just right to get up into that fresh, clean alpine air. Crested Butte is surrounded by the Gunnison National Forest, which has five wilderness areas, so hiking is nothing short of abundant in this part of Colorado.
Trails range in length from the one-mile trail to the Anthracite Mesa Summit, or 12 miles through East Maroon Pass. You can even hike 10 miles to Aspen. The length and difficulty of the trails runs across the spectrum, so whether you're looking for a leisurely stroll or an intense backcountry adventure, Crested Butte will have a hiking trail to match.
7. Explore the Crested Butte Cemetery
Just out of town a bit up Gothic Road, you will pass a wrought-iron arch that serves as the gateway to the Crested Butte Cemetery. Exploring an eternal resting place may not seem like a cool thing to do, but Crested Butte is the exception. Here lies many of the pioneers and famous people who helped put Crested butte on the map.
First, the land surrounding the cemetery is spectacular. With views of the mountains in every direction, it's not a bad place to spend eternity. The headstones are scrawled with names that date back more than 100 years, and the eerie wrought iron fancywork with a background of misty mountains means this is a beautiful spot to snap some photos.
Keep your eyes peeled for the historic grave sites of the nearly 60 miners who lost their lives in a mine explosion in 1884. Visiting the cemetery is a historical way to pay tribute to the people who helped build this iconic Colorado mining mountain town.
8. Explore the Crested Butte Heritage Museum
A more traditional way to get in touch with the past is to visit the Crested Butte Museum. The museum opened in 1993 as a place to preserve the artifacts and stories that helped to shape the town. The place where the museum lives now opened in 2003.
Since then, the Crested Butte Museum has grown to become a meeting place for the community as well as a tourist attraction. Its collection of items dates back to the 1880s. The permanent collections center around mining, ranching, and the history of recreation in the area after Crested Butte became incorporated in 1880. You'll find exhibits dedicated to mountain biking, coal mining, skiing, and more. It also has a large collection of photographs.
The Crested Butte Museum recognizes that in order to settle the area, Native American tribes were forcibly relocated. The Ute Museum is located right next door and tells the stories of the people who originally lived on the land and the part they played in shaping its history.
Address: 331 Elk Ave, Crested Butte, Colorado
9. Visit the Nordic Center
When it comes to cross-country skiing, Crested Butte is one of the top places to visit in Colorado, perhaps even the country. The Crested Butte Nordic Center helps to arrange the very best experience for cross-country skiers coming to the destination.
The Nordic Center grooms 30 miles of trails for cross-country skiing, skate skiing, and snowshoeing. It's all part of the center's mission to make cross-country skiing accessible to everyone. And what better place to cut your teeth cross-country skiing than in Crested Butte?
The Nordic Center also arranges for youth programs, provides rentals, arranges for lessons and clinics, and entertains adventurous travelers at its own private backcountry yurt.
If winter sports are your idea of a good time, you'll want to stop by the Crested Butte Nordic Center to make sure you get the most out of your experience.
Address: 620 2nd St, Crested Butte, Colorado
Official site: https://cbnordic.org/
10. Go Camping
Colorado's warmer temperatures beckon the arrival of outdoor overnighters to all corners of the state. Crested Butte has some of the best camping facilities in Colorado, especially if you enjoy camping surrounded by vast swaths of wilderness.
The charming downtown is the perfect place to stock up on provisions before setting out to one of the many campgrounds in the area. While you're never very far away from the creature comforts of town, the campgrounds of Crested Butte feel like they are another world away, especially with the uninterrupted views of the Elk Mountains and Gunnison National Forest.
Crested Butte has everything from dispersed camping to RV resorts, which means no matter your style of sleeping under the stars, there is a campground to match.