Driving through the Old West on Colorado's Byways

Crystal City and Lead King Basin
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Crystal City and Lead King Basin

Location : Gunnison Co. east of Marble, between Maroon Bells Snowmass and Raggeds wildernesses.White River National Forest.

Highlights : This fascinating 4x4 loop starts at the old quarry town of Marble and passes one of Colorado's most picturesque sites, the Crystal Mill, built in 1893. It follows the Crystal River through the quasi ghost town of Crystal, then circles Sheep Mountain. The scenery ranges from deep river canyons to alpine meadows and glaciated peaks.

Difficulty : Moderate to difficult, with tight switchbacks and narrow shelf segments with long drop-offs. The road to Crystal is busy; yield to uphill traffic. Passing will be impossible in places, so you might have to back up for substantial distances to pullouts. Lead King Basin Road (No. 315) is slick and dangerous when wet, so avoid it under those conditions. It also has sidehill sections, and tight switchbacks that make long-wheelbase vehicles inadvisable.

Time and distance : 4 hours; 17 miles.

Maps : Trails Illustrated No. 128 (Maroon Bells, Redstone, Marble). White River National Forest.

Information : White River NF, Sopris Ranger District.

Getting there : Take Hwy. 133 south from Carbondale for 22 miles to the Marble turnoff, 3.4 miles southeast of McClure Pass. Turn east onto Co. Road 3/Forest Road 314 and drive to Marble.

The Drive : Marble was named for the rock that was quarried and milled here from 1892 to 1942. (Production resumed in 1990.) The quarry yielded marble for the Lincoln Memorial, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (a single 100-ton block), and the state Capitol. From Marble, the road follows the Crystal River up a narrow, forested canyon.

Rest Ssops : The Crystal Mill. There are toilets at the old marble mill site. Crystal has a tiny store with limited inventory. You will see many scenic places to stop, as well as primitive campsites.

About 1.3 miles from the center of Marble, the four-wheel drive road begins. In another 0.8 mile Lead King Basin Road branches left. (You'll return that way, or you can go left here and take the loop in the opposite direction.) Continue on Road 314 toward Crystal, 4 miles farther. The narrow shelf road descends steeply to the river, passing Lizard Lake, and becomes very rocky.

In a few miles you will see the historic Crystal Mill perched above the Crystal River. The 1880s village of Crystal is just beyond that. Drive through it, and follow the road as it bends left. Almost a mile from Crystal, go left where dangerous Schofield Pass Road (317), on which 14 people have died, goes straight, up Crystal Canyon. Here, Lead King Basin Road climbs along the gorge of the North Fork of the Crystal River.

At one point it becomes a very narrow ledge, pinched between a cliff and the gorge. When you reach a private cabin, cross the bridge on the left. The road passes the Geneva Lake trailhead, at the lower portion of Lead King Basin, and bends west. As you drive high above Lost Trail Creek, the views of the Raggeds Wilderness, to the southwest, are fabulous. The road switchbacks as it climbs, then descends via more switchbacks, crosses the creek, passes the Colorado Outward Bound school and returns to the road to Crystal and Marble. Go right, toward Marble.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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