Crested Butte is known as “the last great Colorado ski town,” but it’s still pretty great after the slopes have closed for the season—and a visit during the summer reveals a place as adrenaline-pumping as first tracks in fresh powder. A former coal-mining town, it’s a half-hour drive from the closest airport (in Gunnison), but it’s cheaper to fly into Denver, which is roughly a four-hour drive through some seriously beautiful scenery.
If Earth laughs in flowers, Crested Butte has her in hysterics. Dubbed “the Wildflower Capital of Colorado,” the town is surrounded by meadows that are carpeted in a riot of color beginning in mid-June, and mountainsides awash in purple and yellow beggar description. The Crested Butte Wildflower Festival, which takes place during the second week of July, features hikes, lectures, gardening demonstrations, and painting and photography classes, all focused on this astonishing natural spectacle.
Another way to see it is simply to go for a hike. The hiking trails are superbly marked and maintained, but challenging, especially for anyone sensitive to altitude—the town sits at 9,000 feet. Getting into the mountains is less strenuous on horseback, and outfitters like Fantasy Ranch can take you on an overnight pack trip through the Maroon Bells and over to Aspen, or on a half-day ride up to a mountain pass called Oh-Be-Joyful. (Depending on whom you listen to, it’s named after either a hymn or a hooker.)
Another popular sport is 4x4ing, and Bostonians used to city driving will especially appreciate the heart-pumping lunacy of drivers like Joe Webber of Crested Butte 4×4 Expeditions, whose tricked-out, steel-reinforced Toyota FJ brought us through a treacherous pass to a waterfall appropriately known as the Devil’s Punchbowl, down a precipitous ravine and into the town of Crystal. Unchanged since the early 20th century, it’s inhabited only in summer, and a Google image search is all it takes to see that the old mill is reason enough to visit. Returning to Crested Butte, we drove through Kebler Pass, home to one of the world’s largest Aspen groves—and therefore one of the largest living organisms on earth.
However, the activity most closely associated with Crested Butte in the summer is emphatically mountain biking. The town claims to have invented the sport, and even beyond June’s Bike Week, it seems as if there are as many people roaming the streets wearing bike shorts and carrying helmets as there are tourists with cameras and ice cream cones.
During ski season, it might be more convenient to stay on the mountain, but the Inn at Crested Butte offers better proximity to the heart of town, a candy-colored conglomeration of Victorian storefronts and bungalows centered on the main street, Elk Avenue. There, the authenticity of an old Rocky Mountain mining town mingles with an artsy, neo-bohemian sensibility expressed in the colorfully painted facades and benches made from classic car parts. Its culinary scene is surprisingly cosmopolitan. Yes, you can find chicken-fried steak, elk and buffalo, but a restaurant called Ryce serves exquisite Chinese food, while Bacchanale is like a quick trip to Italy. The Princess Wine Bar offers an impressive array of wines by the bottle or glass, and both the decor and the sushi are superior at Lil’s. No less an authority than The New York Times has praised the pizza at Secret Stash, and you’ll find yourself wanting to return for breakfast at Izzy’s—but for a faster option, the Gâteau Fab Bakery offers pastries as delicious as any Parisian patisserie.
In the end, though, like anywhere, Crested Butte gets its charm from its people. An eclectic mix of unreconstructed hippies, overachieving adrenaline junkies, avid outdoorsmen, iconoclasts and nature lovers, the town of 1,500 is surprisingly welcoming to the constant stream of out-of-towners in search of outdoor thrills. Within 48 hours, we were befriended by two or three locals, and by the last day, others recognized us on the street and greeted us by name.
In short, there’s a Shangri-La-like quality to Crested Butte that makes it easy to understand why most of the people we met told us a version of the same story: “I came out here to [______] and I just never left.”
-To acclimate to the altitude, buy disposable oxygen inhalers, available at convenience stores. They can mean the difference between enjoying yourself and a blinding headache that lasts for days.
-Even with the slopes closed, there are still reasons to visit the mountain, which offers lift rides, a summer concert series and guided zip line tours.
Crested Butte 4×4 Expeditions | firstname.lastname@example.org
Fantasy Ranch | 970-349-5425 | fantasyranchoutfitters.com
The Inn at Crested Butte | 510 Whiterock Ave., Crested Butte | 877-343-2111 | innatcrestedbutte.com