How to Get the Most From Your Next Colorado Ski Vacation
Two former snowboard bums lay down the unwritten laws from one of our favorite ski towns
Known around the world for being home to 54 peaks over 14,000 ft tall—and for being the first U.S. state to legalize weed—Colorado is on pretty much every outdoor enthusiast’s to-do list. But with great terrain comes great exploitation. And in 2017 it’s easier to find valet parking and a Gucci store at the local ski hill than a sub $125 lift ticket. That said, a few gems still exists, if you’re willing to work for it (read: go somewhere not off I-70).
One such destination is Crested Butte. At roughly four and a half hours drive from Denver, and at least one layover by air, it’s a town you don’t just stumble into. And in all likelihood, it’s this very remoteness that’s allowed the modest town of 1,500 residents to retain a bit of genuine charm.
The Gunnison-Crested Butte region is a unique mix of old-school ski bums, rancher country rednecks, and super wealthy 1%ers with “vacation homes” that see action twice a year at best. Americana might be a fitting label. Gunnison, or “Gunny,” is the larger town at the bottom of the valley that leans on the rancher side of the spectrum. Traveling up Highway 135, it gets a more hippy-like with a touch of weekender chalet money. And Crested Butte Mountain Resort, at the top of the road, is where it all comes together.
The town of Crested Butte has a great vibe. It’s old, walkable, and even stays up late. There’s good food, incredible beer—and rum, oddly enough—and advanced terrain to explore in all directions. It’s one of the most beautiful areas in the Rockies, where rivers and forests sit below daunting mountains. But we’ll end the sappy stuff there, and simply say, if you do decide to see it for yourself, give the following Dos & Don'ts a read first.
DO be cool to the locals. Like every ski town worth a damn, there’s a healthy local community in CB—one that operates on a “you hook me up, I’ll hook you up” economic system. (They also ride bikes around in the middle of winter and just toss them on top of snow banks instead of locking them up, which is fun and cute) So remember, a round of PBRs late night could come back around as a discounted lift ticket or free plate of chili cheese fries in the lodge the following day.
DON'T stay in the hill-side condos or resort lodging. This goes for pretty much every ski town in America. The same price can always get you much better digs just a few minutes drive away. Try the historic Elk Mountain Lodge instead. It’s like staying at your weird cultured Aunt’s house.
DO visit the local dive bars. Kochever’s is a classic ski town watering hole with cheap beer, pool tables, and dartboards. Talk of the Town is the late-night pit where dark things happen in dark corners. Wooden Nickel is a fancier establishment with a fireplace and thoughtful cocktails if that’s more your speed, or you’re trying to catch a cougar.
DON'T drive. The town is walkable, and if you do end up staying slopeside, the shuttle is super convenient. And lets just say—total hypothetical here—that if you end up at Talk of the Town with hallucinogens in your system on your last night and you miss the last shuttle back up to the resort, there’s always “the drunk bus.” It costs $5 and is a total shit show, but it’ll get you home. Driving the drunk bus has got to be one of the worst jobs in the world.
DO get off the grid. Kyle Jones from Cold Smoke Splitboards outfitted us with everything needed for the backcountry, and then broke trail on an all-day skinning tour at a nearby zone that we know better than to name on the internet. The three-hour trek through an Aspen forest up 4,000 vertical feet led to a full-blown screaming fest of run-of-your life quality on the way down.
DON'T bother with the fat bikes. If you fly across the country to shred one of the best ski areas in Colorado, you don’t need to waste your time on a gimmicky mountain bike with snow tires. The fat bikes are good for tourists who visit Crested Butte to sightsee and have brunch, but they’re not good enough for you.
DO find a local to ski/ride with. Sure, signage is clear and abundant, and you get a decent layout of the slopes on a clear day, but local knowledge is invaluable (hats off to you, Mike Horn). Someone with hundreds of days’ experience on the mountain will know where the real goods are, and trust us when we tell you it’s in your best interest to get a taste of said goods at CB. Always make sure to treat your local to beers and nachos at the end of the day.
DON'T explore lift—or T-bar—access side country without a local. Crested Butte is a big resort (15 chairlifts accessing 121 runs) with multi-faceted terrain that wraps around a range of peaks. Weather can change quickly and it’s easy to get disoriented. Being lost in the high-alpine with freezing temps and limited visibility severely sucks. It’s likely that you’ll die if not found by patrollers or Search and Rescue. It also sucks for them to have to cancel dinner plans and go look for your dumb ass.
DO bring the appropriate gear. Your five-year-old setup you use twice a season on the East Coast may not cut it at Crested Butte. You’re going to be going very fast down steep terrain for long periods of time. K2 supplied us with a couple 2017/18 weapons of choice for maximum velocity. Shouts to them for that. Quality outerwear is also essential for the cold, temperamental weather in the high altitude. If you’re going to adventure beyond the ski area, bring avalanche gear and know how to use it.
DON'T be the out-of-town asshole. This goes without saying, but there’s always one obnoxious kook who sets a bad tone for the rest of us visitors. Crested Butte is a bit of a time warp, where people are relaxed, neighborly, and not plugged into their phones all day. Citiots like us need to respect their way of life. So put yourself on “Crested Butte time,” and indulge in what the place has to offer (remember, weed is legal), get to know the locals, and shred until your knees buckle. You’ll be hyped you did, believe us.