I’m walking along Elk Avenue, Crested Butte’s main drag, when I hear a few people cheering across the street. A man running in his ski boots comes toward me, skis cradled in his arms. He’s running to catch the bus, I assume, and some affable locals are being supportive. But just a few minutes later, another skier comes running along, then another. I walk past a guy photographing them and ask what’s going on.
“It’s a ski race starting at the top of the High lift, down the mountain, and into town on the bus. First one to get to the bar at the Eldo wins.”
Of course. The competition’s unconventional quality seems so very Crested Butte. Later, I do a Google search and learn that I’ve just witnessed the annual running of the unsanctioned 8-Ball Rally, which has been ongoing for 15, or maybe 16, years (the record-keeping is inexact).
As the crow flies, only a dozen or so miles separate us from our neighbor on the southern side of the Elk Mountains (by car, admittedly, it’s close to 200 miles in the winter). But Crested Butte can still feel like another world, and I mean that in the best way. Without the distractions of an overflowing cultural scene, and without the veneer of luxury that can seem to touch just about everything in Aspen, CB’s laid-back vibe endures, and skiing remains the main event.
And what skiing it is. At 1,547 acres and 2,775 vertical feet, the area’s size is respectable, not huge. But more than a third of that terrain consists of the double-black-diamond Extreme Limits—542 acres of precipitous open faces, cliff-studded descents, and hairball chutes. There’s good reason the US Extreme Freeskiing Championships have been held here annually since the early 1990s.
One weekend last March (when I stumbled upon the 8-Ball Rally), my husband, our 11-year-old son, and I travel over to the Butte for a change of scenery. It’s been seven years since we’ve last skied here. Arriving late on a Friday evening, we check into the Lodge at Mountaineer Square at the ski area base. Our two-bedroom unit is nicely appointed in the traditional style of cozy mountain digs, and the service at check-in is genuine, old-school friendly.
As we set out to ski the next morning, we stop in at the slopeside Bakery at Mt. Crested Butte. Sharing space with the Brown Lab Pub in a building that’s seen better days, among an eclectic collection of posters, signs, and dog memorabilia, the bakery serves an array of to-go breakfast items. Best of all are the $1 doughnuts. We order up three of them, plus a coffee and two iced teas; our bill totals $8.36, including a dollar tip. We are definitely not in Aspen anymore.
One thing we find exactly the same here—the winter’s paucity of snow. The last time we explored the mountain, my husband and I signed up our then-toddler for a ski lesson while we ventured into Extreme Limits areas like Teocalli, Spellbound, and Phoenix bowls, all frosted in fresh powder. Now most of that terrain isn’t even open, and the sections that are—like the Headwall and the North Face—are studded with rocks.
But there’s an upside: We discover Crested Butte’s softer side. We arc fast turns all over the mountain, working our way from the Silver Queen lift across to the East River chair. Our son leads us on multiple laps through the Lower Twister Terrain Park and the Keystone Jib Park. On Sunday, we seek out what’s billed on the trail map as the Family Cross Course, by the Gold Link chair, and find ourselves racing each other down a long series of banked turns and rollers. It’s so much fun we do it three times.
Afterward, we pause for a break at the Euro-style Umbrella Bar at the top of the Prospect lift. Now in its third season, the circular, glass-walled structure provides 360-degree views of the ski area and of Gothic Mountain, Red Lady, and other soaring peaks in the Elks. The round bar in the center pours Paulaner beer on draft, and just outside, a take-out window serves German sausage, fondue, and paninis.
Over beer and sausage (soft drinks for the kid), we talk about how unexpectedly enjoyable it is to explore Crested Butte’s abundant cruisers, even if it’s not the terrain we’d been hoping to ski. Funny that it’s taken an off snow year to fully round out our experience at the mountain.
This winter, of course, as in Aspen, conditions at the Butte have been exceptional. On November 22, the midmountain Paradise lift opened, the earliest date it’s ever been up and spinning.
Since our visit last spring, however, there’s been big news: Vail Resorts purchased the ski area in June. (VR’s Epic Pass holders rejoiced.) Thus far, infrastructure improvements have been limited to a plan—pending Forest Service approval—to realign the Teocalli lift and upgrade it from a fixed-grip double to a fixed-grip quad. In other words, nothing that seems out of character for the resort. Nonetheless, fans who like it just the way it is can’t help but wonder what may happen in the longer term.
My advice: Visit now, while the bakery at the base still serves up dollar doughnuts, while quirky events like the 8-Ball Rally continue to take place, and while Crested Butte still offers a refreshingly alternative way to experience skiing.
If you go
The most direct route from Aspen travels south on Highway 133 from Carbondale and over McClure Pass to Hotchkiss. (Note that Kebler Pass is closed in winter.) From there, follow Highway 92 east along the north rim of the Black Canyon (a beautiful drive but, with lots of twists and turns, slow going) until it intersects with Highway 50. Head east toward Gunnison, then north along Highway 135 for the last half-hour stretch. Allow four hours for the drive.
A full-day adult lift ticket with seven-day advance purchase online is $113.