It’s not too often that you begin a family ski trip on a sleigh and end it on a sled. But that’s exactly how we started and finished our week at Crested Butte Mountain Resort. Moments after pulling into southwestern Colorado’s off-the-beaten-path ski resort nestled in the heart of the Rockies, we were chugging up the mountain on a snowcat-drawn sleigh ride for a sunset soiree surrounded by 360-degree vistas of powder-cloaked peaks and valleys. A week later and a few hours before our scheduled flight back to Austin, we were bundled in a dog sled, taking turns learning to mush a fleet of powder hounds through miles of serene sparkling snow.
While vastly different experiences, they highlight what we loved most about Crested Butte: Sure, the skiing is incredible, but Colorado’s end-of-the-road mountain resort is also hands-down one of the best places for families wanting to blend magical moments spent on the slopes with unexpected adventures. For the past three seasons, we’ve skied at some of the state’s most popular Denver-area resorts. But earlier this year, we set our sights a bit farther to Crested Butte and fell in love with this down-to-earth mountain getaway brimming with everything from picture-perfect ski days to once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Below are 10 reasons to make “Colorado’s Last Great Ski Town” your family’s next ski trip.
Whether you’re keen on the wide and open groomers, long and winding intermediate cruisers or challenging steeps, Crested Butte Mountain Resort’s 1,547 acres of skiable terrain and 121 trails accommodate all ability levels. While Crested Butte is home to some of the country’s best lift-served extreme terrain featuring 542 acres of inbounds expert (double black diamond) terrain, the majority of the mountain is geared to beginner and intermediate skiers like our family. On the first day we skied with our 7- and 10-year-old boys, we warmed up on the greens from the Red Lady Express Lift with smooth and easy runs like Houston and Big Al’s, but by the last day, we were able to ski the intermediate trails found in Paradise Bowl and even brave a few blacks with them for the first time ever off of the Silver Queen Express Lift.
Ski sans crowds
Because Crested Butte’s terrain is “naturally divided,” the beginner trails don’t overlap with the expert runs, and skiers and riders are spread out across the mountain. Not only is this ideal for families like us skiing with kids who are still learning, but it also creates a more tranquil, less crowded skiing experience for everyone. This, combined with the fact that Crested Butte is located farther away from the Denver-area resorts and off the beaten path of I-70, means less waiting in lift lines and more time spent on the slopes.
Great Ski & Ride School
When you’ve got aspiring little rippers along for the trip, a successful family ski vacation hinges on a great ski and ride school. Any mom or dad who has experienced the difference between a child who actually enjoys ski school as opposed to the one who gifts them with a parting meltdown served with a side of parental guilt can attest to how it can make or break the entire trip. Thanks to Crested Butte’s award-winning Ski & Ride School, which boasts talented instructors who are sincerely passionate about teaching kids to love the sport, low ratios and full-day lessons broken down by age and grouped by ability, kids can take their skills to the next level while Mom and Dad enjoy some stress-free solo time on the mountain. After enrolling our boys in full-day lessons for the first day, they were able to confidently ski with us for the rest of the trip. Our 4-year-old daughter looked forward to returning ski school each day thanks to a fun, easygoing approach that familiarized her with the requisite “pizza” and “french fries” basics, but balanced the lessons with plenty of playtime and ever-important hot cocoa breaks.
Booking an open-air, snowcat-drawn sleigh ride leading to a sunset soiree at the Umbrella Bar at Ten Peaks just as salmon streaks were creeping into a flawless bluebird sky was the most magical welcome imaginable to Crested Butte. Perched at the top of Painter Boy Lift, this circular, window-wrapped hangout grabs 360-degree views of the surrounding powder-covered peaks, East River Valley and the town of Crested Butte below. Inside, we noshed on a delicious spread of heavy apps and desserts and sipped cold Colorado drafts. Uley’s Sleigh Ride Dinner, offered Wednesdays through Sundays throughout the season, is another not-to-miss multicourse dining experience featuring gourmet French-inspired Colorado cuisine inside of a cozy cabin tucked in the trees off the Red Lady Express lift. Uley’s Cabin, named after a local legend and bootlegger who had a reputation as a provider of food and moonshine, is also a fantastic spot for a mid-mountain drink at its legendary outdoor ice bar or inside for lunch, featuring decadent dishes like burgundy-braised Colorado elk bourguignon and wild mushroom risotto.
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Until our trip to Crested Butte, the closest we’d ever come to dogsledding was watching “Iron Will” from the comfort of our living room. But when we found out about Cosmic Cruisers, which offers family-friendly sled dog adventures in Gunnison County just a few minutes from Crested Butte Mountain Resort, we booked a one-hour tour (all-day tours are available departing from Gunnison National Forest). We met owners Lisa and Dave Mapes and some of the 50-plus rambunctious sled dogs they consider part of their family and set out on a once-in-a-lifetime experience, carving tracks through pristine powder behind a fleet of experienced huskies. Under Dave’s patient guidance, we each took turns mushing the team of excited sled dogs — Larka, Scooter, Winnie, Bubba and the Dude, to name just a few — several miles through the serene, snow-blanketed winter wonderland.
Families can find off-the-slope fun at their fingertips at Crested Butte’s awesome Adventure Park, located in the base area. Our kids soared high on the bungee trampolines propelling them up to 30 feet into the air, and when our boys braved the 28-foot climbing rock pinnacle with auto-belay, their little sister hid out in an imaginative wooden treehouse at the bottom. More family fun awaits in town, where you can whirl around the Big Mine Ice Arena featuring naturally frozen ice, zoom down the free sledding hill (BYO sled) right next door, work up a sweat along the 50 kilometers of groomed trails at Crested Butte Nordic, or let little ones explore and learn at the Trailhead Children’s Museum.
Unwinding after a day of skiing comes easy for adults, too, thanks to the smattering of bars and restaurants sprinkled around the mountain resort. From the sundeck of Butte 66 Roadhouse Bar and Grille, we refueled with handcrafted smokehouse après snacks and half-off specialty cocktails like the Leg Burner Spicy Margarita with Mount Crested Butte as our backdrop. At Avalanche Bar and Grill one afternoon, my husband and I sipped happy hour drink specialty cocktails while our kids dug into a big-as-your-face homemade brownie sundae piled high with vanilla ice cream, hot fudge and whipped cream. On our last ski day, we enjoyed après on our way down the mountain, sipping cold Colorado drafts at 10,150 feet inside the glass-encircled Umbrella Bar at Ten Peaks.
Explore Elk Avenue
While you’ll find a plethora of restaurants to please the palate without ever leaving the mountain resort, no trip would be complete without experiencing the culinary scene flourishing along Elk Avenue — Crested Butte’s quaint-meets-quirky main street fringed with local shops, bars and restaurants housed in vibrant historic Victorian buildings. Start off with creative rum cocktails concocted with award-winning craft distilled rum made by hand on-site from American-grown sugarcane and Colorado mountain spring water at Montanya. A favorite was the Teocalli, made with cucumber-infused Montanya Platino Rum, lavender, fresh mint and lime and local honey. Our kids loved Montanya’s mocktails like the Punky Brewster and Snow Day — a mug filled to the brim with whipped cream. For dinner, slip into Secret Stash Pizza, where a worldly dining experience unfolds inside the eclectic restaurant outfitted with décor that owner and world traveler Kyleena Falzone has collected from the 89-plus countries she’s visited. Snag a seat near the custom-built cycle rickshaw from Delhi that’s mounted over the salad bar or cozy up in a booth downstairs next to an entire wall of books she stacked and glued together while noshing on fries tossed in Parmesan and white truffle oil and digging into specialty pies like the Notorious F.I.G. topped with thinly sliced prosciutto, blue and Asiago cheeses and dried black mission figs. For dessert, try Third Bowl’s unique small-batch homemade ice creams like blood orange chocolate or cinnamon fudge, or sink your teeth into made-to-order mini donuts featuring more than two dozen toppings at Niky’s Mini Donuts.
Ski with an Olympian
Ever wondered what it would be like to ski with an Olympian? At Crested Butte, you can shred snow with world champion and extreme skiing world icon Wendy Fisher. Book a private full-day, half-day or two-hour lesson with Fisher, a former member of the U.S. Ski Team who competed at the 1992 Winter Olympics, was a two-time World Extreme Skiing Champion and is now a full-time resident of Mount Crested Butte.
We stayed in a spacious two-bedroom suite at the Lodge at Mountaineer Square, nestled in the heart of Crested Butte’s village base courtyard just steps from the slopes. Not only was this a convenient option during the days we spent skiing, but we also loved the ability to walk outside and hop on the free town shuttles — colorfully muraled school buses that run between Mount Crested Butte and downtown Crested Butte. On the evenings our kids were too worn out for a restaurant, we cooked meals in our fully equipped kitchen and soaked our sore muscles in the lodge’s indoor/outdoor heated pool. Guests staying at the Lodge can also take advantage of complimentary ski valet at the base of the lifts so they never have to schlep gear back and forth from the slopes.