Beautifully bling-free, Crested Butte retains an old-world charm whilst combining fine slopeside dining and great skiing
Silver Queen, Ruby Chief, Buckley, Jokerville, Gold Link and Painter Boy: the early mining origins of Crested Butte are reflected in the lyrical names which adorn the trails and lifts of its Mt Crested Butte ski resort; the ‘crested butte’ itself is easily spotted above the slopes with a distinctive coxcomb running up one side.
The first Europeans arrived in 1874 and Crested Butte became a supply centre to their mining camps, as well as producing much of the nation’s coal. In the 1880s, skiing was popular in the mining camps and downhill races were organised at the weekends. Mining ceased in 1952 and it was not until 1961 that the present resort took shape.
Crested Butte lies some 3 miles from the ski area, a charmingly preserved Victorian western town that prides itself on having no traffic lights or big name stores. Indeed, most of the action takes place on one main street, lined with a jolly and colourful jumble of wooden restaurants, shops and galleries. It is a deliciously low-key little place, stylish without being pretentious, and looks particularly beautiful with twinkling lights amidst the snow.
At the resort, most easily reached by free shuttle bus from downtown, there is a cluster of lodges and restaurants. Lovely wide open green and blue trails are accessed from the Red Lady and Paradise lifts and there are plenty of expert bowls to each side of the groomed pistes; the locals can be quite snooty and hang on for the powder days. However, this being America, one usually finds beautifully uncrowded slopes and lifts.
There are actually a lot of good dining choices around the base area of the ski resort. Ski in to The Bakery & Brown Labrador Pub (Slopeside; +1-970-349-4757), open all day for great pastries, good-value sandwiches or a “Bud with a shot of rummy” if you are a mountain man! It’s not a bad place to finish the day either: after 3pm they do $1 pizza slices: yummy hot from the oven. A pricier and smarter alternative is Camp 4 Coffee in Mountaineer Square by the ticket office.
For lunch, Avalanche bar & grill (Slopeside; +1 970-349-7195) serves reasonably priced classic American fare including good burgers and salads. Butte 66 (Treasury Building; +1 970-349-2999) has an overpriced and run-of-the-mill menu, but a great view of the slopes from its big windows as well as chairs outside: go for the happy hour drinks when they spin a ski on a dial to determine which alcohol is next on offer.
Django’s (Mountaineer Square; +1 970-349-7574; www.djangos.us) is a cut above: they have a great wine list and apres-ski platters such as the charcuterie plate with elk, pheasant and duck. In the evening there is a variety of tasty tapa-like choices, some of which sound weird but actually work really well: crispy Brussels sprouts, anyone!?
The Ice Bar at Uley’s Cabin is outside and on the mountain at the base of the Twister lift (+1 970-349-2275); it’s a popular watering hole through the day though stick to the beers if you are on a budget. In the evening they do gourmet dinners accessed by snowcat and sleigh; I commented that that this was not as romantic as a horse drawn version but the girls assured me it was less smelly! The only other option actually on the mountain is the Warming Hut at Paradise lift which has overpriced, very ordinary fast food: ski past.
Here again there is a wide dining choice: the locals favour The Secret Stash (21 Elk Avenue; +1 970-349-6245; www.thesecretstash.com) for its range of exotic pizzas, or Donita’s Cantina (330 Elk Avenue; +1 970-349-6674) has big portions of good value, hearty Mexican food.
Wooden Nickel (222 Elk Avenue; +1 970-349-6350) is a smart old style saloon with a well stocked bar and a pleasant spot for an evening drink.
Paradise Café (303 Elk Avenue; +1 970-349-6233) is good for breakfast - I like the buttermilk pancakes - or lunch and Rumours Coffee & Tea House with Blue Moon Books on the side (414 Elk Avenue; +1 970-349-7545) is a pleasant laid back place to hang out with wi-fi, a good bookshop and some jolly hippy-ish local music at the weekends.
Amongst the galleries, the Paragon Gallery (132 Elk Avenue) is my favourite: it is a co-op of 14 local artists and has a great selection of jewellery and interesting artworks. The artists themselves take turns in manning the shop so you can meet some interesting people.
Where to stay
Touring round, we stayed initially in Gunnison, a large and pleasant town some 28 miles south of Crested Butte. It is possible to fly here from Denver and get a transfer to the resort. Most of the motels in town have special half price deals on the lift passes, ideal if you are on a budget: the Western Motel (403 East Tomichi Avenue, Gunnison, Co 81230) has straightforward rooms around the $50 mark and a hot tub. If you do have your own car, it is worth parking at the tourist office in Crested Butte and taking one of the regular free shuttle buses (each with their own wild artwork) from there to the ski resort; they drop you off right at the ticket office at the base, avoiding a walk from the car park and parking fees.
We also enjoyed the Old Town Inn (708 6th Street, Crested Butte, CO 81224) in downtown Crested Butte; it has that obligatory hot tub, a good continental breakfast, smart rooms and reasonable rates starting at $89.
Worth a detour...
On the ski lift one day I chatted to a Texan who had driven 12 hours to reach the resort; he only had hazy recollections of the previous night and was en route to meet some Belgians at the Ice Bar. ‘I love it so much I come up twice a year’, he told me and indeed Crested Butte inspires a loyalty amongst those who find it which is not surprising: if you like your ski resorts bling-free and full of old fashioned charm whilst still providing top class skiing, Crested Butte has it in spades - something those early miners could still identify with.