Searching for a family friendly, off-the-beaten-path destination for skiing and snowboarding this winter? Some might be put off by the 4-hour drive from Denver. But, in a state famous for its ski resorts, Colorado’s Crested Butte Mountain Resort is truly a hidden gem worth exploring. Here’s why.
Crested Butte Mountain Resort is an outstanding family vacation destination in a state with a huge ski tourism industry. With the Rocky Mountains stretching down its center, Colorado boasts some of the best ski resorts in the country, and Crested Butte is no exception. During our family’s visit, we discovered that this ski area comes with a more affordable price tag on lift tickets and lodging than many of Colorado’s ski resorts, and it offers the bonus of smaller crowds. Read on to see why we think Crested Butte is worth visiting.
Big Resort Quality Experience
Many of Colorado’s largest ski resorts, including Breckenridge, Vail and Beaver Creek, are found along the East/West corridor of I-70. But along with that convenient location and glitzy reputation come high prices and busy slopes.
Crested Butte is a four-hour drive from Denver (*not* by way of I-70, which at the end of a busy ski weekend is a huge plus), a less-than-four-hour drive from Colorado Springs, or a gorgeous 30-minute drive from Gunnison-Crested Butte Regional Airport. This scenic ski town, nestled amid the snow-covered peaks of the Elk Mountains, is well worth the journey.
We stayed in the base area at The Grand Lodge in Mt. Crested Butte, a short walking distance from the slopes. This lodge is an excellent home base for families, offering spacious rooms, small kitchenettes, a well-designed outdoor hot tub and free cookies next to a wood-burning fireplace in the lobby.
Every interaction we had with the CBMR staff was excellent. This crew is down to earth, friendly and eager to help you have some safe fun on the slopes. From the jovial ski rental guys that outfitted my family with gear; to the helpful lift operators, who’d slow the chair down for my kids to get off; to the friendly guy at the courtesy water, tissues and sunscreen station in the Red Lady base area — they love living and working in Crested Butte and they want you to love it too.
Small Crowds, Lots of Vertical Time
Long lift lines can be a drag. And as a mom, it scares me to have my beginning skiers on a packed bunny hill with a high ratio of potentially out-of-control skiers and snowboarders. We didn’t see any of that at Crested Butte Ski Resort.
Most days you’ll ski right to the bottom of your run … and immediately hop onto the chairlift. No lines. Uncrowded slopes. And talk about beautiful! Surrounded in all directions by the mountain peaks, many times throughout my day I stopped to gawk at our breathtaking surroundings.
With a summit of 12,162 feet, the resort offers 15 lifts, 1,547 skiable acres, 121 trails, plenty of vertical drop and lots and lots of snow (averaging 234 inches of snowfall per year). After skiing Crested Butte slopes for two days, my seasoned Colorado skier husband declared, “I think this mountain is just as nice as Vail. And a lot more pleasant to ski with a family.”
About the Mountain
So how are the trails? We visited in mid-January, and the snow conditions were excellent. Crested Butte Ski Resort has plenty of extreme terrain for the daredevils. It has black diamond runs for the thrill seekers, including “Rambo.” At a 52-54% grade slope, it’s the steepest cut run (where trees have been cleared by people) in North America. The ski resort also has two terrain parks: Ten Peaks Progression Park and Lower Twister Terrain Park. And for those seeking even more adventure, the Crested Butte area is well known for almost endless possibilities for backcountry skiing.
My comfort zone is as a midlevel skier, and it’s because of this that I’ve found my true home at Crested Butte. The trails are long and varied, with 50% of the mountain being intermediate to advanced, while only 32% of the trails are considered expert terrain. The longest run at the resort stretches a whopping 2.6 miles. And for those who don’t like to wait in line, long, multiple quad lifts, including the Silver Queen, Paradise and Red Lady Expresses, are available for a speedy and comfortable return to the top of the mountain.
Crested Butte Ski School
During our visit, my kids were signed up for their first ever ski school group lesson. It would be my 5-year-old son’s first time on skis, and he’s always up for just about anything. Although my 10-year-old has skied before and loves it, she gets a little nervous beforehand, not unlike her mom. Getting off the chairlift was her biggest concern, and I had to promise to discuss this with her teacher.
At the base area, we easily located the “Camp CB” signs. We gathered near one of the magic carpets, a flat conveyor belt that littles can ride. Less daunting than a chair lift, a magic carpet is used to tote them back up the top of a gentle incline, and allow them to ski down.
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Promptly at 9:30, the ski school coaches showed up. There were a bunch of them, all clad in the Crested Butte royal blue jackets. My kids had been assigned to a general group based on their age, but their level was as yet unknown. This is a very casual scene, and it just took chatting with a couple of instructors to get them each placed in the right spot for their ability.
It Might be a Private Lesson!
And here’s another amazing feather in Crested Butte’s cap. You just may find yourself the only kid in your ski school group … and end up with a full-day private lesson. That’s right. Both of my kids had their own teacher, all to themselves, for the entire day. My daughter’s teacher, Ali, declared it a “Girls Day,” and they hit the slopes together. Her fears quickly dissipated, and she later declared it to be the best skiing day she’s ever had.
TravelingMom Tip: To potentially score this exclusive private-lesson-for-the-price-of-group-ski-school scene, January is an excellent, less-crowded time to visit.
The patience, kindness and skill of these instructors was so impressive. Lunch and snack breaks with hot cocoa are included. You return to pick your kids up at 3:30.
The kids both learned so much, I honestly had no idea how advantageous ski school could be. It was a wonderful experience for all of us, and I definitely plan to enroll them again when we return to Crested Butte.
And the best part? After 13 years of marriage, my husband and I got to ski together for the very first time. Best date ever! I felt like I was a teenager skiing with a cute boy. (I think he likes me.)
Where to Eat in Crested Butte
Population 2,000, the town of Crested Butte hosts visitors graciously. In this tiny mountain burb, you’ll find 50 locally-owned restaurants. Talented chefs abound, and you can dine on anything from steaks to homemade pasta.
My top restaurant recommendation is The Slogar Bar & Restaurant. Served family style, they bring out numerous delicious side dishes made from scratch. Homemade cottage cheese, homemade cole slaw, homemade tomato chutney, a relish tray, and baking powder biscuits will threaten to fill you up before the main course.
You choose your entrée: fried chicken (their specialty), a ribeye, ribs, or a deconstructed veggie pot pie. Everything here was delicious, and you finish off with an ice cream sundae and coffee. We left full and happy.
Free shuttle buses, colorfully painted by local artists, run every 15 minutes from the ski resort to the town. A short five-minute drive away, this is an excellent way to go. We never waited long for a bus, and it was easier than trying to find parking on the snowy streets of the small downtown area.
Adventure Park Fun at the Base
Crested Butte’s Adventure Park is located outdoors, at the base of their main slope. It offers mini-golf, bungee trampolines and a climbing wall. Although I questioned whether we’d take the time to enjoy it since our main purpose was to ski, my kids did it all!
By our second day, we were all taking an easier skiing pace. My son was growing tired, and the grownups’ legs were growing a little sore. By mid-afternoon, we shifted gears to the Adventure Park, and both of my kids had an absolute blast. With only one other boy engaging in park activities at the time, they had what felt like an endless session on the bungee trampoline. It’s pretty much the stuff dreams are made of at that age.
Next up was an initiation to the climbing wall. With an auto-belay at the top, once the staff has you harnessed in, you can pretty much have at it. The holds were a little far apart for my 5-year-old, but my 10-year-old rocked it. She even made her route to the top twice and rang the bell! She does not get that skill set from me. But I was definitely proud of her.
Neither of my children wanted to leave, but eventually we had to head home. If the crowds are low, I’d highly recommend adding a Crested Butte Adventure Park pass to your day. If mom and dad prefer to just watch, you won’t need a ticket.
Watch for Deals
Throughout the winter season you’ll find great ski deals and vacation packages available at Crested Butte. During some years, from the opening weekend in November until the Christmas season starts, kids ages 12 and under ski free. Sign up for emails on their website, and be kept in the loop on any specials they are running.
If you expect to visit multiple ski resorts during the ski season, consider purchasing the Epic Pass, which gives you unlimited access with no restrictions to all Vail Resorts properties. Vail Resorts owns many of the best ski resorts in the country, including Keystone, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Whistler Blackcomb, Park City and Heavenly.
If you’re looking for a Colorado family ski destination, you should seriously consider Crested Butte. You’ll get more bang for your buck than other big name mountains, along with lots of great skiing, snowboarding and scenery during your stay.