Skiing in Crested Butte

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 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.

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