Nordic Prime

Cross-country Skiing at Crested Butte
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Crested Butte is the name of a precious gem of a Victorian town in the central Colorado mountains and its namesake resort development nearby. Together, they are cutting-edge outdoorsy. In addition to regular skiing and snowboarding pre-eminence, this is where modern telemarking was born. The Butte also ranks as one of the country's great mountain-biking centers.

The town of Crested Butte is nestled alluringly in a high valley. False-front Victorian buildings house fine restaurants and nice shops along Elk Avenue, the main commercial street, while brightly painted homes trimmed with gingerbread are found on the side streets and historic outbuildings line the alleys. Heaps of plowed snow add to this idyllic Currier and Ives scene. The Crested Butte Nordic Center is headquartered on the outskirts of downtown, Colorado's only cross-country center with such close-in track skiing. By contrast, Crested Butte Mountain Resort is the name of the ski resort just north of town. (Mt. Crested Butte, the high pinnacle above the slopes, inspired the resort's name.) Free shuttle buses connect the old town and the newer center.

Groomed Trails
Few mountain communities anywhere have a trail system right in town that so quickly leads away from the sights and feeling of being in the middle of everything. Located just three short blocks from Elk Avenue, the bustling main street, the Crested Butte Nordic Center is located right at the edge of all the downtown action but remains removed from it. You can ski in the morning, stroll over to one of the fine Elk Avenue restaurants at mid-day, and return to work your lunch off with more skiing in the afternoon. Or, you can pick up a picnic lunch on your way to the trails and not see civilization until you're ready to call it quits.

The Crested Butte Nordic Council, which runs the center, grooms three loop systems totaling between 15 and 20 miles and charges a trail access fee. There are classical tracks and skating lanes. Rental equipment and instruction are also available in the day lodge. You'll find two of the most popular trails nearby. You can ascend a small connector trail up to the Bench, the plateau overlooking town. There you will find the three-kilometer (1.9-mile) Electric Loop and the 3.5-kilometer (2.2-mile) Big Mine Loop, both directly accessible from the lodge. At first, when you pass the scattering of hillside homes, you feel as if you are skiing in the cusp of residential development. But a curve in the trail here, a few feet of elevation difference there, and you are away from it all.

The Big Mine Loop also links into the Green Mountain Trail, a public trail south of town. Three additional loop trails—Red Lady, Magic Meadows and Keith's Revenge—are connected to each other but not to the two other trails. The Nordic Center also offers half-day, full-day and moonlight tours and puts on the popular Alley Loop Race, long-running cross-country races of various lengths through Crested Butte's picturesque alleys, held in early February. For information on the Nordic center or the race, contact the Crested Butte Nordic Council.

When locals talk about Echo Ranch, they are referring to what is now officially called the Town Ranch, bought by the Crested Butte Land Trust as an open-space and recreational buffer between the old town and one of the subdivisions now springing up nearby. To reach the trailhead for this free 2.5-kilometer loop, turn east onto Red Lady Road at the large "Welcome to Crested Butte" sign at the entrance to town. Drive through the stop sign and around the school to the trailhead.

For beginners or those not yet acclimatized to Crested Butte's 8,900-foot elevation, the Town Ranch Trail is ideal. Located on a large meadow, it is virtually flat and mercifully short—about 1.5 miles—but there is even a bailout halfway around the loop. The trail is groomed by the Crested Butte Nordic Council, but you'll have to bring rental equipment from the Nordic Center or one of the town's sporting goods stores. Trail use is free, but the views are priceless. Dogs are permitted, so even your pooch can enjoy the panorama. Call the Nordic Council in the unlikely event that you'll need more information on this simple site.

If skiing on roughly six miles of trails on wide open meadows and surrounding hillsides appeals to you, check out the Crested Butte Country Club. This private club, a golf course in summer, provides some of the finest fair-weather terrain you can find, with flats, rolling hills and spectacular views of Mt. Crested Butte, the Elk Mountains and down-valley. On low-visibility, high-wind days, a trail system that is more sheltered is a better bet. Set on a rolling plateau just south of town, it offers some six miles of groomed cross-country ski trails. Guided tours, with or without the addition of a gourmet picnic lunch, are available several times a week. Advance reservations are required. Rental equipment is available at the pro shop.

Backcountry Paradise
Surrounded on three sides by four wilderness areas—Raggeds, West Elk, Maroon Bells-Snowmass and Collegiate Peaks—Crested Butte is the gateway to some of Colorado's prime backcountry as well. Old mining roads are unplowed and offer relatively safe avenues directly into gorgeous valleys. Some are open to snowmobilers, while others are limited to non-motorized recreational activities such as Nordic skiing and snowshoeing.

Slate River Gulch starts at 8,920 feet (Nicholson Lake) and reaches the intersection with the Oh-Be-Joyful two miles later at 9,100 feet. Access is at the Slate River Road winter closure, 4.5 miles from the turnoff from Gothic Road Highway 135 between town and the mountain resort. It is scenic and gentle, and the first half-mile has little history of avalanche activity. In normal years, the hazard is low, but in times of severe slide conditions, some paths could cross this road, so be aware.

From the trailhead, climb up the bank and begin skiing up the road, passing an open area and climbing slightly. After about 0.25 mile, you will come to a small blank signboard and fork in the trail. You can take either fork, because they pass on opposite sides of a small, forested knob and meet shortly in a wide portion of the valley. Emerging into the broad valley, you will see Schuylkill Ridge on the left and Anthracite Mesa on the right.

The route climbs gently but steadily to the northwest, always in the direction of tantalizing views of the Paradise Divide and the beautiful summits of the Raggeds Wilderness, and gradually draws closer to the river, which winds sinuously through the valley bottom below. If you want to get closer to the river, perhaps taking a break or having a picnic not far from the trailhead, the Gunsight Pass Road (Forest Service Road 585 in Gunnison National Forest), to the left at about 1.1 miles, is an ideal place to do so. Otherwise, continue as far up the valley as you wish, though the junction with the Oh-Be-Joyful Road (Forest Service Road 754 in Gunnison National Forest) about half a mile later. Return the way you came. The Slate River Road continues to the Pittsburg townsite and mine, a total of about five miles, and about 500 vertical feet from the trailhead. However, as you continue up-valley, you need to be concerned about slide potential, and don't even consider going past the townsite.

Washington Gulch, the next valley north of Slate River Gulch, begins at the 9,400-foot winter trailhead, 2.6 miles from the Gothic Road turnoff, near the Meridian Lakes subdivision. The temporary Quonset hut on your left is a snowmobile parking shelter, signaling one of the most-used snowmobile trails around Crested Butte. If sharing the trail troubles you, select another route, but you can avoid some of the snowmobile traffic by bearing left at the "Skiers" sign about one mile from the trailhead.

When Crested Butte was a gold-mining town in the 1880s, much of the $350,000 worth of gold credited to it came from Washington Gulch mines. Today, the riches are all scenic and recreational. From the parking area, begin skiing up the unplowed road, which bears northwest. The trail initially drops down into a long basin, passes through a fence and then begins ascending gently up the long, sparsely-treed valley. The mountain on your left is Anthracite Mesa, and the one on your right is Gothic Mountain. Be aware that in heavy snow years, avalanches have been known to break in this section and occasionally reach the road.

About 2.3 miles from and 500 feet higher than the trailhead, the route passes through a second fence with a small hill topped by a clump of trees ahead. You can just see the top of White Rock Mountain, poking above the saddle between Gothic Mountain and Snodgrass Mountain. This makes both a lovely view and a reasonable turn-around point.

Claire Walter has written about Nordic skiing for Cross Country Skier and Back Country Magazine, as well as several books about Rocky Mountain outdoor adventures.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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  • Cross-country Skiing at Crested Butte
  • Part II


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