Rides Around Crested Butte
The delightful combination of riverside riding, hillside wildflower havens, towering mountains, and easy pedaling terrain makes this a great introduction to mountain biking around Crested Butte.
Access: Drive into Crested Butte. Park in the large lot by the tennis courts near the four-way stop.
Description: From the four-way stop, continue straight on 6th Avenue toward Mt. Crested Butte. Follow the paved road for about 0.5 mile, passing a cemetery. Turn left onto dirt road 734 and pedal up the Slate River. Other than occasional overdoses of gravel, this road has a smooth surface that allows for plenty of rubbernecking at Crested Butte's spectacular mountains. A few homes and the Peanut Mine workings, perched on a hill on the left side of the river, occupy the wide mouth of this drainage. Grazing cows wander freely and you'll have plenty of opportunities to test different techniques for passing them. A calm, slow approach seems to work best.
Beyond Nicholson Lake the valley narrows a bit and you ride deeper into the mountains bordering this drainage. Pass a fork to the left for Gunsight Pass, an advanced ride, at a little over four miles. The grade you can see down by the river was a spur of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad that ended just upriver. Look above to the hillside on the right to see the Smith Hill Mine, one of the few remaining intact mines in this area. The next spur you pass leads up Oh-Be-Joyful Creek and is a recommended intermediate ride. The road continues at the same pace and climbs very gradually over rolling terrain. Crested Butte is in the heart of wildflower country and during midsummer grassy hillside meadows along this drainage are filled with color.
At about eight miles you pass a sign notifying you of the private property around Pittsburg. Once a mining town, it now supports a few private residences. Just ahead is the fork to the left for Poverty Gulch. The easy pedaling ends here; however, the road into Poverty Gulch would only be challenging to someone brand new to the sport. If you are turning around at Pittsburg but plan to take a rest stop before you descend, be sure to choose a spot outside of the area marked as private property.
To continue on the described route turn left at the junction. (The main road begins to climb much more steeply toward Washington Gulch and Paradise Divide.) Ford a stream and pass a couple of driveways. Climb moderately for about 0.5 mile over somewhat rocky terrain. The road then levels off and you begin a more gradual climb along the right side of the gulch. This area seems much wilder and less disturbed than the main drainage, although it was once crawling with miners. As you ride toward the base of Cascade Mountain the feathery waterfalls that stream down its cliffs become visible.
The road eventually curves right and climbs to a more rugged section of the drainage near an old tailings dump. The terrain gets much rougher and the ride basically ends here. You may not want to ride any farther, but drop your bike and walk a short distance to a flat spot above the tailings. From here you experience an exquisite visual combination: a series of waterfalls that cascade into a thick field of wildflowers. This is a great place to spend some time. The road that forks left from a junction climbs steeply to Daisy Pass and is appropriate only for advanced riders or hikers. You can barely see the right fork, which climbs the cliffs to the right of Cascade Mountain and accesses Augusta Mine. Once you've had your fill of the scenery, return as you came.
History: Although the initial mining around Crested Butte was done in search of valuable ore, it was coal that supported the population of this town after hardrock mining diminished. The Peanut and Smith Hill mines were both coal producers. These mines, and others in the area, contained the only known anthracite coal west of Pennsylvania. A spur of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad up the Slate River provided more efficient shipping of the coal from these mines, but this extension was only open a few months each year due to the hazard of avalanches and the difficulty of clearing snowdrifts. Smith Hill was a large operation that shipped 10 to 20 railroad cars of coal daily during the 1880s. It employed over 200 men, who lived in nearby cabins.
Pittsburg was laid out in 1880 and boomed the following year when successful silver strikes were made in Poverty Gulch. Soon after, a post office was established, and by 1886 the population of about 200 warranted daily stage service to Crested Butte. The Augusta Mine was the big producer in this area. Its large vein contained gold, silver, and lead that was rumored to be the richest in the nation. Tough to get to, it was accessible only by foot or horseback, and work crews stayed at the mine all winter without coming out. The Augusta went through several successful and disastrous periods including the silver panic of 1893 and a destructive avalanche that wiped out the mill, the tram, and some mine buildings. Over $1 million in silver ore was produced before final closure in the early 1900s. Due to the continual danger of snowslides between Crested Butte and Pittsburg, the town was mainly a summer community. Inaccessibility and the closure of nearby mines led to its eventual decline.
Comments: You may encounter some traffic, although I saw more mountain bikers than anything else. Please respect the private property signs around Pittsburg. These folks must be overwhelmed by the amount of two-wheeled traffic that passes their homes. Several intermediate and advanced ride options originate from Slate River Road.
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