Crested Butte Mountain Resort might be the birthplace of inbounds extreme skiing but there are plenty more incredible ways to enjoy winter’s wonder in the Elk Mountains and Gunnison Valley. Plus, the valley is chock-full of record-setting instructors and guides to help you stay safe and have fun along the way. It’s likely that someone in your group will head to the Butte for the slopes, but here are seven other ways travelers and locals alike enjoy the snowy season in this corner of southwest Colorado.
Winter fly fishing
Perhaps counterintuitive, winter can be one of the most serene times to cast a line. The metabolism of fish slows down and they don’t move as aggressively, plus there are fewer anglers on the water than in the peak of summer. Not every section of river freezes and some locations are open for fishing year-round including along the Gunnison Valley’s Taylor River, a world-renowned trophy fishery in the ancestral lands of the Ute, where local Diné fly-fishing guide Erica Nelson first taught me to fly fish — donned in down jackets beneath our waders.
“Toss it like you mean it! But not too fast,” Nelson reminded me — right before the two flies caught the tippet and my semi-fluid overhead cast whiplashed through the air, forging a giant ball of knots. “Now you’re fishing!” Nelson laughed, helping me feel at ease with my clumsy technique, which is part of the process. Nelson helps celebrate the less lustrous parts of being on the water through her Awkward Angler Instagram (@awkwardangler) platform and podcast, a hilarious, insightful, and unapologetically authentic storytelling platform. She also elevates important, often challenging and stigmatized, human stories on the water.
An Orvis-endorsed guide, Nelson is an ambassador for Brown Folks Fishing, a national organization of anglers led by Black, Indigenous and people of color to lower barriers of access to the sport. Nelson also cofounded REAL (Reconcile, Evolve, Advance, Lead) Consulting to address the racial equity and inclusion needs of organizations and has many clients in the outdoor industry, from Orvis to the Bowdoin College Outing Club. When Crested Butte received nearly 100 inches of snow over the course of a week last winter, Nelson was still fly fishing despite post-holing up to her waist to reach river water.
Reach out to her for a guided adventure through Willowfly Anglers;, 970-641-1303, firstname.lastname@example.org
If you and the kiddos or your closest pals want to head out for a simple day of sledding, one of the locals’ favorite hills is a hikeable, safe slope (meaning, it’s not in an avalanche danger zone) on the north end of town. It’s on the south side of Pyramid Avenue between Eighth Street and County Road 317. Another spot to go sledding is off Snodgrass Trailhead, but avoid driving there because the trailhead is crowded. Starting Nov. 24, the free Snodgrass Trailhead Shuttle operates throughout the ski season running every 60 minutes Monday through Thursday and every 30 minutes from Friday to Sunday. Catch the shuttle at Mountaineer Square, which is at Crested Butte Mountain Resort, which you can reach from the town of Crested Butte via the Town Shuttle.
The Mountain Express.
Scenic flights with West Elk Air
Despite growing up in the region, I’d never done a scenic flight above the mountains I’ve been navigating by foot and bike for years. Thanks to a newly launched helicopter company, that fact changed last fall and was incredibly worthwhile. Raised and still based in Gunnison Valley, Peter Smith secured his pilot’s license 12 years ago at Bristow Academy, a commercial helicopter training school in Concord, Calif. Smith was introduced to the field through his uncle, a former Vietnam helicopter pilot.
During his two-year period at the academy, Smith earned private and commercial certificates as well as an instrument rating, which is essential for flying over mountainous areas and in variable weather. Over the past decade, all of Smith’s flight experience has been racked up over the peaks and valleys of the West. He has two fixed-wing planes, a Cessna 185 Skywagon and Cessna 180 Skywagon, and an Airbus As350 B3, the most powerful medium-sized helicopter that exists. The metal bird is built to operate at high altitude and performs heavy-duty work in the world’s highest mountains.
In late 2020, Smith launched West Elk Air, the highest elevation-based helicopter tour company in the United States. His days are often booked. He’s flown sight seers, hunters, photographers, avalanche forecasters, land managers and even ranchers looking for lost llamas.
“I’ve had everyone on flights from groups of young kids to elderly ladies to hunters, skiers, mountain bikers and Realtors. Seeing the Elk Mountains is difficult, especially if you don’t spend all your time here,” Smith said. “You could also live here for years and not see it all. Flying quickly gives you a grasp of what’s out there. So many people want to come here and see the mountains, and I love taking people out. All of the people we fly come back and are ecstatic.”
Crested Butte is recognized by many as the place where mountain biking was invented. It’s also home to pioneering fat bikers. There are more than 38 miles of groomed trails including singletrack and doublewide routes for fat bikers to enjoy throughout Gunnison Valley. There’s another 40 miles of corduroy routes west of town along Kebler Pass and Ohio Creek Roads. First-timers can head to Town Ranch, a 1.7-mile loop. Another solitary and non-motorized route follows Gothic Road for 3 miles. To experience groomed singletrack, venture south to Hartman Rocks Recreation Area. You can pick up a fat bike rental at The Alpineer in Crested Butte or in Gunnison at Double Shot Cyclery or Rock N’ Rock Sports.
The Alpineer, 970-349-5210; Double Shot Cyclery, 970-642-5411; Rock N’ Roll Sports, 970-641-9150
“Hartmans isn’t a smooth riding experience in the summer but come winter, everything becomes magic carpet-y. Among the trails we groom, I’m proud of Becks, a fan favorite trail in the summer, which is fantastic to ride groomed in the winter, up or down, and its character is different,” said Tim Kugler, the executive director of Gunnison Trails, which manages the fat bike grooming at Hartman Rocks Recreation Area.
For 37 years, James and Kim Utt have owned and operated Burt Rentals Snowmobile Tours, a local adventure sled company that offers guided tours around Crested Butte. Never-ever, novice and experienced snowmobilers can pick out a day trip that’s tailored to their skills and goals. One of the most popular tours takes folks up Kebler Pass and on the groomed Forest Service roads — which is the best way to get comfortable driving a sled — with optional powder riding in large open meadows and pristine scenery of steep peaks, rolling hills, and snow-decorated pines.
You can find guided trips through Burts at Action Adventures Snowmobiling, 970-349-5909, actionadventures.com
Known as Colorado’s Nordic ski capital, the Crested Butte Nordic Center grooms 30 miles of trails in and around town. The cross-country tracks were even voted Top 10 in the country by USA Today in 2020. If you’ve never been Nordic skiing, consider taking a lesson to get the basics down. First, you’ll choose between classic and skate styles.
“Skate skiing is a lateral movement that mimics ice skating and classic skiing is a forward glide like walking, with one foot in front of the other. They’re both beautiful in their own ways but the perfect form of classic skiing cannot be beat and you’ll by default become a beautiful skate skier — but not the other way around,” said Jenn Vona, a local Nordic instructor with a Professional Ski Instructors of America Level 3 certification. I ventured out with her for my first lesson.
Vona has been a Nordic instructor here for seven years. She picked up the sport after moving to town with her husband, Kevin Koval, known as Professor K, who is the Crested Butte Nordic School and Master Community programs coordinator. Vona taught me various techniques like the herringbone, which was helpful for going up small hills, double and single poling, as well as how to tuck and use one ski outside the track so slow down — lessons that are not very intuitive with skinny sticks beneath your feet!
A tad more than two blocks from downtown Crested Butte you can pull on ice skates and glide at the Big Mine Ice Arena. The 26,000-square-foot covered outdoor rink is owned and operated by the town. Skate rentals are available next door at the Crested Butte Nordic Center. Adult skates rent for $25, and children’s skates are $15. The town schedules open skate times based on hockey meetups and grooming sessions, so be sure to check online or call the Nordic Center before your visit.
If You Go to Crested Butte
To warm up with libations after winter play, don’t miss grabbing an artisan cocktail at The Dogwood, a cozy gathering place nestled in an old miner’s cabin off Elk Avenue. Also swing by the newly opened cocktail bar and tasting room of local rum company Montanya Distillers, which opens Wednesday through Sunday at 3 p.m. with last call at 9 p.m. For a top-notch ambiance and delicious farm-to-table dishes, make a dinner reservation at the Breadery or Sunflower. Otherwise, the one-of-a-kind pizzas at the iconic Secret Stash Pizza always hit the spot.
For an overnight getaway in the town of Crested Butte, the quaint, historic Elk Mountain Lodge offers a delicious home-style breakfast buffet. The no-frills lodge was built in 1919 as a miner’s hotel. If you’re craving a luxurious, rejuvenating escape that’s not too far from town, head to the Taylor River Lodge, where you can stay in a private upscale cabin and experience a range of wellness treatments. The cabins have powerful steam showers and nutritious, locally-sourced meals are served at a communal table in the lodge. You can also enjoy yoga class or the bathhouse with a saltwater pool, sauna, and hot tub. And, of course, there suitable hotels in the village and other rentals about town.