Crested Butte Ski Resort

The secret is out. In a tucked-away canyon in central Colorado, skiers have rediscovered “The Last Great Colorado Ski Town” – Crested Butte. Thanks in part to skyrocketing traffic and prices for non-Epic Pass holders at Front Range and I-70 resorts, more and more locals and tourists are flocking to Crested Butte for its uncrowded slopes, top notch expert terrain, and authentic appeal. Those factors combine to make Crested Butte the best value in Colorado skiing.

The first thing that strikes a visitor to Crested Butte is the towering stone massif whose shape so clearly provided the town’s name and which looms imposingly like fortress over the broad valley and town below. Strolling down the broad main street, a scene of brightly painted wooden houses unfolds against the majestic backdrop  – a perfect postcard image of the American West. It is truly one of the most beautiful scenes in American skiing.

Dotted with restaurants, shops, and bars, the village of downtown Crested Butte buzzes with activity. At every hour of the day and night, it seems that someone is doing something fun. Whether it be riding fat bikes, stopping in for a bite to eat after a long day on the slopes, or tossing a few darts in an authentic western saloon, the town offers something for everyone. That said, don’t expect glitz and glam. This isn’t Aspen or Telluride. As one local we rode a T-Bar with put it, “In Telluride they mined gold. In Crested Butte they mined coal.” The buildings are wood, not stone and the town is more hipster than refined.

In fact, if a minor critique were to be expressed about this spectacular place, it would be the sense that the marketing slogan of “The Last Great Colorado Ski Town” doesn’t quite match the reality. Certainly, it is a great ski town, but less so a true Colorado one. the area’s remoteness and offbeat spirit has acted as magnet for hippies and hipsters, few of whom see the irony in turning their noses up at Golden Colorado’s own Coors Original while knocking back $4 PBR’s and opining on the quality of the “legal” marijuana found at any of the town numerous dispensaries. The architecture may still be authentically Wild West, but the crowd and vibe are much more Portland, Seattle or Brooklyn than Colorado. That does nothing to detract from the fun and festive atmosphere, but if you’re looking for the true Old West, places like Jackson or Steamboat come closer to the ideal.

Just a few miles up the road from the colorful downtown, one finds the ski resort base (known as “Mount Crested Butte”). Mount Crested Butte and the downtown are linked by an efficient, free and frequent shuttle service that makes getting to and from the downtown relatively painless. In Mount Crested Butte, skiers will find the lion’s share of lodging properties, few of which are truly ski-in, ski-out, but almost all of which allow for a short walk or easy shuttle to the lifts in the morning. Compared to the technicolor downtown, any slopeside village was bound to be a bit of a letdown. However, the odd layout and tiredness of some of the peripheral structures does not befit a setting as grand as this. Sadly, the on-mountain village also lacks a true central hub or day lodge. One can’t help but think the resort would do well to promote “addition by subtraction” of some of the clutter around the base.

On the slopes, skiers will find a mainly modern lift system which, combined with Crested Butte’s more remote location, mean lift lines are non-existent except at the most crowded of times. Beginners will be surprised to learn that despite the resort’s fearsome reputation for steeps, it is actually one of the most novice-friendly resorts in Colorado. Of course, it’s the steep stuff that gave Crested Butte its reputation as a must-ski destination and the resort has no shortage of heart-pounding steeps sure to challenge even the most hardcore skier.

Lastly, we would be remiss if we did not note that it is almost unfair to compare Crested Butte to its Colorado peers. We may quibble with a minor point here or there , but what is undisputed is that Crested Butte presents a tremendous value as a destination resort. We can think of few other resorts that offer such a tremendous variety of offerings at prices as reasonable as Crested Butte.  If you’re looking for a 4-star Colorado vacation at a 2-star price, Crested Butte is surefire winner.

Crested Butte Ski Area

As with many other high-altitude North American resorts, beware that base level is high (not just the peaks); the elevation may be good for snow conditions, but sea level-dwelling vacationers will need to acclimatize to the altitude.

Base is at 9,375 feet (2,858 m) and the highest lift-served point is at 11,875 feet (3,620 m), giving a vertical drop of 2,775 feet (846 m) to the lowest chairlift at 9,100 feet (2,774 m); or with a hike to the peak, it's 3,062 feet (933 m.)

Though the resort is now promoting itself as a family destination and offers some quality skiing for beginners, it is best known as host to the U.S. Extreme ski and snowboard championships held on the "steepest lift-served terrain in North America." It's not only steep but, thanks to a mainly northerly aspect and high altitude, by mid-season it is usually well covered with the snow it needs to make the rockiest sections skiable. None of this terrain is groomed, much of it involves a hike to get to, and it's only patrolled at the end of the day. The intention is to make you feel that you're really out there, and you are: cautiously following tracks is as likely to lead you to a cliff jump as to the easiest route down the forty- degree plus terrain. The ungroomed Extreme Limits terrain covers 448 acres (181 ha) and is covered in detail by a photo-based map-entirely separate from the standard trail map, available in local stores. It provides a useful guide to the area which, compared to the marked trails, has very little signposting.

The rest of the skiing is a mix of easy, well-groomed terrain with beginner-friendly slow-skiing zones clearly marked and enforced, and plenty of flattering intermediate slopes, but there is not really enough terrain suitable to satisfy keen intermediates.  The 85 trails total just 8.2 miles (13 km) in length, of which the longest trail is 2.6 miles (4.2 km). Three hundred acres (121 ha or 29 percent) of the ski area are covered by snowmaking facilities.

A new area, Prospect at Mt. Crested Butte, is being developed to provide ski-in, ski-out homes, hotel, and retail space. This will culminate in the expansion of ski facilities on to a second mountain to provide more intermediate terrain. Eleven lifts and 35 trails over 417 acres (169 ha) will be connected by gondola to the main mountain, but no date is yet confirmed for completion.

Crested Butte Ski Lifts & Passes

The Crested Butte lift system has a capacity of 18,160 skiers per hour, with three high-speed quads, three triple chair lifts, three doubles, three surface lifts, and two magic carpets for children. Lifts run from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm.

The resort is known for its lack of lift lines but not for waiting. During peak holiday times chairs are filled by an efficient loading system, with "singles" lines allowing people skiing alone to slot into spare spaces. The North Face lift, leading to the Extreme Limits, is the one exception to the no-waiting rule, particularly on powder days.

Crested Butte Beginner Skiing

Despite the resort’s reputation for extreme skiing, beginners will find lots to ski at Crested Butte. In fact the amount of well-groomed, easy terrain that’s simple and safe to access is one of the resort’s great strengths.

In addition to ski patrollers enforcing slow skiing areas, skier numbers tend to be so low that beginners can turn and stop as they please, or as their skis dictate, without fear of being mowed down.

The main area for novice skiers is off the Red Lady Express Lift. There are a seemingly limitless number of green routes down from the top of the chair, all of which wind their way back down to the base area in a criss-cross mesh of gently tilted runs. In fact, we found that on a powder day the runs were so gentle that we struggled to get down them. In soft snow, the skier's right runs that take the more circuitous routes back to the base are borderline unskiable and certainly unsuitable for snowboarders.

Beyond the Red Lady, however, beginners will find a number of other outstanding areas. We particularly recommend the green trails off the Painter Boy lift. Here skiers will find gentle, wide slopes interspersed with beautiful birch trees. A great mini-circuit for beginners is to take the Painter Boy lift up and ski over the backside of the hill down the Twin Bridges run to the Prospect Lift. From there, take the lift to the top and ski down Gunsight Pass to the Teocalli Lift, which returns to the main pod of green terrain off the Red Lady lift.

For a resort with as much expert terrain as Crested Butte, outstanding beginner terrain comes as a bit of a surprise. It makes Crested Butte an excellent choice for mixed ability groups or couples where one is significantly more proficient. 

Crested Butte Intermediate Skiing

Crested Butte's intermediate skiing is mostly on the easier side of the blue scale. However, a full one third of the resort's terrain is marked for intermediates so there's plenty to explore.

For the more adventurous much of it is undemanding, while the gap between the blue trails and the advanced and ungroomed areas is too large for skiers at this level to bridge. Nevertheless, for a relatively modest-sized ski area, it packs in plenty of variety. Newcomers to Crested Butte feel they are constantly discovering new areas, thanks to the shape of the mountain and the effective interweaving of the trails.

The resort's longest trail-2.6 miles (4.2 km), from Peak to Treasury-is ideal for intermediates. The Bushwacker is more challenging than most blue terrain, with one particular short, steep pitch; Paradise Bowl offers plenty of wide, cruising trails, along with a few small mogul fields which are ideal for learning to ski bumps. The high-speed quad and a restaurant at the bottom make this a good area for groups to ski laps.

Crested Butte Expert Skiing

Crested Butte's expert skiing is the stuff of legend. Just 12 percent of the terrain is rate as single black diamonds, but a whopping 42 percent is rated double black. Crested Butte is a place to bring your A game.

Moguls and steeps can be found from the Twister Lift on Upper Keystone, Jokerville, Crystal, Twister, and International; Resurrection provides big bumps; additionally, Horseshoe, Horseshoe Springs, and Monument should all be tried before heading to the Extreme Limits territory. For powder, International is the place to go. It's a long run from the Silver Queen Lift, with a steep start followed by bumps before the runout into the base area. There are great views along the way, if you bother to stop.

The ungroomed Extreme Limits terrain, accessed by one Poma drag lift at the top of the resort, is the focus for expert skiers. It's also the venue for the SAAB U.S. Extreme Freeskiing Championships and the Subaru U.S. Extreme Boarderfest. There are 448 acres (181 ha) to play in and no skiing beyond these limits is permitted. Though it is (minimally) patrolled, you should obey instructions, and especially the restriction on the third bowl, which may not be hiked to after 2:30 pm-offenders lose their ski pass. Across the whole area there is no grooming, signposting is limited, and obstacles are unmarked, although warnings at the bottom and top of the final lift leave you in no doubt about what's in store. There are steep, narrow chutes, bowls, trees, and cliff bands to ski and jump. Some trails, such as Rambo, are in excess of 50 degrees. Others, like Body Bag, tell you all you need to know before you get there.

As well as the single drag access (followed by a hike, for much of the area), getting out from this side of the mountain is also less than ideal, with a traverse followed by a series of lifts back to the top. That aspect, and the amount of snow needed to make the area skiable-it won't necessarily be open early season, or even in January-are the only drawbacks to what is rightly acknowledged as some of the U.S.'s best resort-based extreme skiing. Though you could spend all your time here, there are also serious challenges on the Headwall and down the funnel from the Peak, though it too needs plenty of snowcover.

Finding your way around is made easier with the aid of a guide from Guest Services (970-349-2211) or one of the excellent (small) group ski school lessons, some of which are specifically designed for skiers heading for the Extreme Limits. Other "workshops" include telemark skiing, bumps, and powder.

Powder hounds should head for the backcountry at Irwin Lodge, North America's largest snowcat operation, just 12 miles (19.3 km) from Crested Butte. With 2,200 acres (890 ha) and vertical trails of 2,100 feet (640 m), it's a powder heaven, with accommodations and guided snowcat skiing for intermediates to experts.

Crested Butte Mountain Restaurants

Many skiers head back to base for lunch. A quick-snack option is the burrito stall near Tom’s Coffee Cart (best in town) by the main bus stop.

On the hill is the Paradise Warming House at the foot of the Paradise lift with a good range of self-service food, a barbecue, and Bubba's table-service restaurant. Much smaller and more basic is the Twister Warming House-good for hot drinks and snacks and the "Last Tracks Fondue" followed by a ski or snowshoe torchlight parade back to the base area. Bubba's also features "Dinner at 10,000 Feet" where you ride to dinner in an open sleigh pulled by…a snowcat.

Crested Butte Village

There are two distinct parts to Crested Butte: the original town and, three miles (4.8 km) up the valley, the resort's base area known as Mount Crested Butte, where most skiers stay.

The free shuttle between the two is your chance to ride a real American school bus, like in the movies. Americans hate them-they are reminded of school-and everyone else loves them, though once the novelty has worn off, having to commute for a night out is an undeniable drawback.

Crested Butte started as a mining town back in the late 1800s. The historic Victorian district is home to the resort's best dining, shopping, and nightlife, where every quaint wooden building looks as though it's off the set of a western. As with every other old Colorado mountain town, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid are alleged to have hidden out here but in this case you can believe it.

Mount Crested Butte has the resort's main hotels, condominiums, and some restaurants and bars. The cluster of buildings is right on the base area, making most accommodations virtually ski-in, ski-out.

Crested Butte Restaurants & Bars

Rafters is central to Mount Crested Butte’s après ski, which runs for a couple of hours before people head for town.

Live music and wet T-shirt contests are among the highlights, the later not being to everyone's taste. The Avalanche and a handful of other bars are quieter options. Several bars in town feature live music, including Talk of the Town, the Eldo, the Idle Spur, The Black Whale, and Kochevar's.

There are ten restaurants in Mount Crested Butte and many more in town; several double as bars and music venues. The minimum age for drinking alcohol is 21 but children may accompany their parents in bars and restaurants serving alcohol. The best restaurants are in town, where you can find something to suit most tastes. Le Bosquet, and Soupçon for French food, Italian at the Bacchanale, and excellent game at the Buffalo Grille. Just wander down Elk Avenue to pick from a dozen more-in Crested Butte you'll probably run out of skiing before you run out of eating options.

Crested Butte Activities

Like many other resorts Crested Butte has a full range of activities for non-skiers, both on and off the snow.

Sledding, tubing, cross-country skiing with 37 miles (60 km) of groomed trails, snowshoeing and ice-skating take place at the Nordic Center in town.

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