The big news on Colorado’s ski scene is that Vail Resorts—the corporate behemoth that acquires mountain resorts with the proficiency of an osprey stalking mullet—scooped up family-owned Crested Butte Mountain Resort.
Often referred to as the “last great ski town in Colorado,” Crested Butte is beloved for its independent spirit and fierce Rocky Mountain terrain. And there’s been much hand-wringing over whether paradise will be lost to the Epic Pass-holding masses from Denver (and elsewhere) who can now flash their season passes at The Butte.
But all it takes is one visit to Crested Butte during a particularly epic winter (or, if you prefer wildflowers, come in summer when the mountainsides are positively carpeted with color) to see that some corporate branding can’t alter the soul of such a classic American mountain town.
Friends who know these things told me that Crested Butte is a skier’s mountain. And that’s made clear on my first day, when the nursery’s “Snowy Bears” program pops my Tampa-born 2-year-old—still in diapers and rarely prone to wear socks—straight on skis and slides him to the bunny hill.
I make the mistake of showing up mid-lesson to snap a photo of my little Floridian skiing and he eeks out a, “Mom, shoe, foot!” (translation: “Where are my flip-flops?”) before his instructor ushers him back up the magic carpet.
It’s mid-January, the perfect sweet spot between holiday travel periods, and my sister and I have the slopes almost entirely to ourselves.
When we get a late start up the mountain at 10:30 am on a Sunday, there’s still completely untracked corduroy on several blue runs. Even at peak tourist times, locals will tell you, you’ll rarely wait more than 15 minutes to ride up the mountain.
Breckenridge or Whistler, this is not.
Crested Butte’s end-of-the-road location and distance from Denver (it’s a solid 4.5 hour drive from the airport there, although guests can also arrive at Gunnison’s regional airport, just 40 minutes away) has a lot to do with what keeps crowds down.
“You have to want to get to this place,” an Alabama native, visiting for a long weekend from his home in Colorado Springs, tell us on the lift as the empty slopes unfurl below.
“You know that hygge thing,” he says, referring to the hard-to-describe Danish concept of coziness, and I nod. “It’s hard to put Crested Butte’s appeal into words, it’s just the feeling here.” I hear many references to the intangible attraction of the town; as I interact with both new arrivals and locals who moved here decades ago (classic stories, all: worked a ski season, never left).
But for my sister and I, the days unfold in a series of fun experiences on and off the slopes that are easy to describe.
“Keep an eye out for baby bobcats,” says our guide one morning during a winter sleigh ride in nearby Almont with Fantasy Ranch. We don’t see the felines, but a coyote slinking through the trees and bighorn sheep dotting the ridges pop into view as we go dashing through the snow along a railway route the old coal mining cars once followed (Crested Butte locals are quick to mention the lack of fur shops in their town compared to a glitzier place like Aspen, where the fortunes came from gold mining).
Another day, my sister and I make time for a massage and outdoor hot tub soak at Elevation Spa at Crested Butte Mountain Resort, where we chat with a mother from Dallas and her self-proclaimed ski bum son, who’s interning for the winter with an adaptive ski program.
They’re sharing a Bud Light and the shaggy-haired boy is explaining the verb “shred” to his mom (another word that can be hard to define), and my brain flashes forward to a time when I might one day be doing something similar with my own Snowy Bear.
My sister and I leave my son at the nursery for more ski classes while we head out to try cross-country skiing with Hannah Beren from Crested Butte Nordic.
Recently relocated to Crested Butte from Manhattan, Beren has the enviable figure of someone whose office is the great outdoors. “Everyone is so sporty here, it’s hard not to feel like a slacker,” she says, explaining that the guy she just waved to (and who just smoked us on an uphill) always wins the annual Grand Traverse, a backcountry race in late March from Crested Butte to Aspen, just 24 miles away as the crow flies.
I start to fantasize about moving my family to Crested Butte and Nordic skiing my way into the best shape of my life—then just as quickly spiral into planning my next meal.
The complimentary Mountain Express busses – retrofitted old school busses, clad in rainbow paint and decorated with plastic flowers – run continuously from Crested Butte Mountain Resort to Elk Avenue in the heart of town, about a 12-minute ride down mountain. Super hygge restaurants and bars await inside brightly painted wood buildings, many affixed with historical placards describing their former lives during the coal mining years.
A block off the avenue, in an erstwhile miner’s shack from 1891, Dogwood Cocktail Cabin is a hideaway spot for craft cocktails made with surprising ingredients like beets and hibiscus.
For dinner, we flip a coin each night to choose between pizza and pasta dishes at Marchitelli’s Gourmet Noodle (with its very hygge interior), killer steaks at The Wooden Nickel (part of the original building dates to 1880) or tacos and spicy margaritas from Bonez.
My sister and I have what we swear is the tastiest pizza of our lives at Secret Stash (the Notorious F.I.G. has black figs and truffle oil among its toppings, ‘nuff said).
And after sipping what’s been lauded as the best joe in Colorado, I’m tempted to inquire about franchise opportunities at Camp 4 Coffee – a little cabin covered with license plates where locals line up for a hit before heading up the mountain. Crested Butte is the kind of town where even if there was a Starbucks (the only chains here are a True Value and a Clark’s Market), it’s hard to imagine any locals actually partaking.
On our last night, we splurge on a multi-course dinner high on the mountain at Uley’s Cabin, arriving via a snowcat-drawn sleigh just as thick snowflakes start parachuting from the sky.
At a table near the fireplace, our young server, another Texan, says it’s her second season working on the mountain. And while I had many adventures before settling down and giving birth to my little Snowy Bear, I feel something wash over me in that moment that I can’t quite describe.
Surely there’s a word for that sudden, overwhelming regret that you never spent a ski season bumming it in The Butte.