Crested Butte, Colorado
Crested Butte is one of the most unique ski resorts in Colorado, with a reputation for fantastic steeps and a great town. It’s hard to get to and isolated from other resorts so it’s less crowded.
|Annual Snowfall||234 Inches claimed / 285 Actual: Rank 49|
|Review Date||February 2015 (multiple from 1980)|
|Number of visits||Lived and worked there from 1985 to 1993, hundreds|
Crested Butte Review
I went to college in nearby Gunnison and worked at Crested Butte from 1985 to 1993, so visiting Crested Butte after 26 years was a homecoming of sorts. Out of all the resorts on our list of 100, this is the only place I’ve actually worked.
During the time that I was there, Crested Butte was a major player in Colorado, up amongst resorts like Breckenridge and well ahead of Telluride in skier visits. Airline programs brought people directly into Gunnison from Texas, Georgia, and other mostly southern states. This was a very successful strategy at the time since few other remote resorts had such access. Really long lift lines were common during that time.
The next 26 years would be a tough challenge for the resort. It was family owned, and the arms race of terrain expansion and lift upgrades strained budgets and lured skiers away. The resort twice had permission to expand operations onto nearby Snodgrass mountain but could never get the financing in place to build it. Until 2018, Crested Butte was not included in any of the major multi-resort passes which further hurt it’s ability to draw skier visits.
Vail bought Crested Butte and brought it into the Epic portfolio of resorts in 2018. That’s all the motivation we needed to plan a trip and head back to my old home town.
Why Crested Butte?
The first thing you need to understand about CB is that there are basically 2 reasons skiers would bypass the larger and easier to get to resorts in Summit County, Vail, or Aspen and go to Crested Butte: Steeps and the town/scenery. The location is remote and it is hard to get to unless you fly directly into Gunnison 32 miles away. Even though the mountain is only about 15 air-miles from the town of Aspen, it’s 173 miles of driving in the winter by road, and 252 miles to the closest major airport in Denver. It takes dedication to get there.
But over 30% of the mountain is rated double-black diamond which puts it in a very elite category. There is no end to the different steep lines available. This is one of the few places where I cannot possibly ski the steepest exposed, spooky runs like “Paradise Cliffs” (aptly named). Even though I have hundreds of days on the mountain, there are many runs I have never skied. There will be plenty of challenge for thrill seeking skiers.
The town of Crested Butte is probably the last mostly authentic mining town which is also a ski resort in the west. Telluride is awesome, but it’s no longer really authentic with the billions of dollars that’s been dumped into it. In Crested Butte you can walk down Elk Avenue and drop into any of about 10 bars and feel some of the old west ambiance. I spent many lost nights at the Talk of the Town in the 90’s and it’s still there 26 years later along with most of the other saloons. There are also some surprisingly long-lived dining establishments in the town like Donita’s and some great upscale dining options for plenty of variety.
The mountain village of Mt. Crested Butte is a short free bus ride away. You will be riding that bus a lot if you are staying in town. We stayed up on the mountain in the Plaza which is a short walk to the lifts since we are no longer nightlife seekers and this worked well for us.
There are 2 main lifts at the base: The Silver Queen express and the Red Lady express. Red Lady serves really flat green and blue terrain that is perfect for beginners and low intermediates. We spent about 1/3 of our time riding the Silver Queen and skiing the frontside steep groomers like Keystone and International. They do a great job with grooming and groom a lot more now than they used to in the 90’s.
Silver Queen also gives you access to the front-side steeps like Peel, Forest, and my favorite Flatiron. These are steep, fairly long runs and each one feels like a project. 26 years ago these were only skied by a select few, but now the much better equipment available today makes them accessible to many more strong skiers.
Paradise and the High Lift
The High Lift is a t-bar that loads near the top of Silver Queen and takes you up to the highest lift-accessible altitude of 11,875′. From there you can ski the really scary stuff like Headwall and Big Chute. It also gives you access to Teocalli Bowl on the back side of the mountain. This was opened after I left in ’93 so this was the first time I ever skied it. It’s interesting terrain, but there is a significant hike out at the end so you have to be motivated to make the effort.
Further away from the base area, the Paradise lift is the most popular on the mountain. This serves some beautiful rolling intermediate runs like Paradise Bowl, Forest Queen, and Ruby Chief. I remember driving snowmobiles up and down those runs in the middle of the night in 1986 when I worked as a snowmaker.
The North Face
The North Face lift loads part way down Paradise Bowl. When I first arrived in 1985, there was no lift there and on powder days a long line of people made the hike up to Hawks Nest to drop into the North Face terrain. This is the terrain that makes Crested Butte so special. It’s a perfect playground for double-black diamond skiers. There are so many different lines in there and over to Phoenix Bowl that it’s unlikely you could ever get bored. Some of these are high-consequence lines which I almost found out the hard way when I had a traverse stuck ski incident that almost launched me off a small cliff.
You won’t be taking laps on the North Face lift because it’s a short T-Bar. Any North Face run will require taking the Paradise chair back up, then North Face. Skiing Phoenix Bowl will mean 3 lift rides to get back up. This is really the only place on the mountain that desperately needs a lift upgrade. A triple chair would go a long way to easing the only long lines on the mountain. The T-Bar is so unreliable that it was down a significant amount of the time we were there so hopefully Vail will take care of this problem soon.
East River and others
The lowest lift on the mountain is East River and you will end up there if you don’t take the easy-out way out of the North Face. East River has some good bump skiing and some short groomers, with the bonus of some fantastic views. Back in the day there were huge lines there sometimes, but now they could probably remove the maze entirely.
Teocalli was not running when we were there, but Vail plans is replacing it this summer (2019) and it should be ready for next season. Gold Link, Painter Boy, and Prospect are very short lifts which were an attempt and real estate development starting in the 90’s which seems to have only been partially successful. In any case, they are not really worth spending much time on.
- Spectacular scenery
- A large percentage of double-black terrain
- Great town
- Efficient lift network
- Friendly vibe
- Limited intermediate terrain
- Hard to get to
- North Face lift needs an upgrade desperately
- On the small side for a western resort
- Average snowfall on the lower end for such a rocky and steep place
The Bottom Line
Crested Butte is a solid 4-star resort on our list, which is outstanding for such small acreage. It was mind-blowing to see so much soft snow laying around, which speaks to how uncrowded it is. This is a really fun mountain for advanced/expert skiers as long as you catch it in a good snow year when everything is open and covered. Give it a try because it will be an experience you will remember for a long time.