Crested Butte, CO. It’s a gem of a place with a quaint and bustling historic downtown, fun restaurants, amazing hiking and skiing, phenomenal views, great camping, and even a handful of pristine lakes for swimming, kayaking, and paddle boarding.
When I got pregnant this spring we decided we needed to load up our summer and fall with low-key, local trips and activities, and CB was at the top of the list. Though Kevin and I have lived in Colorado for over five years we somehow just now got around to spending time in CB. Let me tell you, it won’t be our last trip there! We had some ideas of what we wanted to do there but got great recommendations from locals throughout our stay as well.
While there are a hundred possible ways to spend three perfect days in Crested Butte, the time that Kev and I spent there in mid-July hit on a little bit of everything this subalpine Colorado town has to offer.
Day 1: Drive, Set up Camp, Dinner in Town
Drive from Denver to Crested Butte [3 hr, 50 min – without traffic.] Kev and I left town around 9:30 AM on a Friday. We stopped in Buena Vista for lunch (BV is the perfect halfway point between Denver and CB) at a fun place downtown called House Rock Kitchen. In true Colorado fashion, the menu items range from the healthiest of dishes (think kale salad) to heartier burgers and fries. Kev and I opted to get variations on their signature menu item, House Bowls. I got the BBQ bowl with pulled pork and Kevin got the Greek bowl with chicken. I recommend both.
After eating at the restaurant’s modern, shaded outdoor patio we strolled down Main Street and stopped into a number of the local shops, including Deerhammer Distilling Company. As a diehard whiskey fan, I found my pregnant self a little disappointed that we couldn’t sidle up to the bar for one of my favorite local whiskeys on the rocks. Since we already had a bottle of both their single malt whiskey and whitewater whiskey in our liquor cabinet at home (don’t judge), we decided to purchase a bottle of their other spirit – gin. It will wait patiently on the shelf for 7 more months until this baby’s done cooking.
The second half of the drive was a lot slower, thanks in majority to the insane number of campers and RV’s dominating the primarily one-lane road. Once we finally got into the vicinity of Crested Butte it was already approaching 4:00 PM and we turned our efforts to finding a campsite. The first place on our list of zones to check out was the first-come, first-serve Cement Creek Campground. The name leaves a lot to be desired, but be forgiving of it because it is a great campground. We pulled in and the site host informed us that three other families had just packed up and hauled off that morning. We never get that lucky! We chose campsite #9, and I’m 100% positive it was the best site in the whole campground. From where you park your car, it’s a 50 pace walk into the campsite, which I loved – it was completely tucked away from the road amidst towering pine trees and wildflowers, and the far side of it nestled up against a bustling mountain creek. Totally serene. Besides vault toilets and a dumpster there are no other amenities, but the camping tent pads at the sites and the fire rings are in great shape. And, at just 12 minutes outside of downtown Crested Butte, it was a breeze to get to and from.
After we paid our $14/night fee and set up camp we were pushing 5 o’clock and starting to get hungry. We’d strategically planned to eat in town for our first night (I figured after a couple of nights of camping our disheveled hair and essence of campfire might not make us the most presentable patrons) so we zipped over to town and meandered the downtown area for some good grub. Despite the fact that we’d been in the car almost all day we were starving, so we popped into the local pizza place, Secret Stash, for a massive pie and salads. The decor is a cool, funky Indian/Buddhist/Hindu/Egyptian/Middle Eastern conglomeration with sheer canopies and curtains hung all over the restaurant. Try to snag a booth if you can. We attempted to walk off part of dinner by checking out all of the local shops afterwards, then drove back to the campground and called it a night.
We started day two with some homemade breakfast tacos at our campsite, then packed up sandwiches, fruit, and snacks for the day. On our way out of camp we caught the site host, who recommended hiking on Gothic Mountain and paddleboarding at Lost Lake or Lake Irwin, both off of Kebler Pass. Perfect. We followed her instructions to a local paddleboard rental shop in town. After discovering that all of the paddle boards had been rented out for the first half of the day (there is definitely a limited supply of paddle boards in town, so either plan to reserve them the day before or be an early morning patron). We were told a lot of boards start coming back in between 1-2 PM, so Kev and I drove the short 15 minute drive to the trailhead on Gothic Mountain to spend our morning hiking.
Being pregnant, there’s a general rule that you shouldn’t over-exert yourself above 10,000 feet. Since we were over 11,000 we decided not to hike the trail with any sort of vigor or speed, but rather to soak in the sights as we climbed and spend more of our time spotting wildflowers. Geeky as all get out, I know, but it was ridiculously fun. We have this awesome wildflower book that we’d brought with us and we thumbed through it over the course of our entire hike. In our weekend at Crested Butte we identified over 25 different wildflowers. The most prevalent ones included Fairly Trumpets, Nodding Sunflowers, Mule Ears, Silvery Lupine, Bluebells, Avens, and Cow Parsnip.
After wildflower spotting all morning we lunched on sandwiches and fruit we’d brought with us and drove back into town to pick up paddleboards. The little rental shop was still out so we were tipped off to try the tiny shop adjacent to the True Value hardware shop down the street which rents out a handful of paddleboards. They had one large, two-person board available for the afternoon so we snatched it up and headed back up the road 20 minutes to Lake Irwin. We were amazed at how gorgeous and large the mountaintop lake was. After lathering up with sunscreen we hit the water for a couple of hours, sometimes paddling and sometimes just floating. It was serene. The water was cold (I’m guessing low 50’s) but that didn’t stop all of the kids spending their day at the lake from jumping off of rocks into the mountain water. There were fishermen and picnic-ers scattered along the lake’s edges, a couple of paddle boats and a dozen paddle boarders or so dotting the lake. There were a few sweet lake houses bustling with families and kiddos too. I’m not sure if they’re available for rent but I’ve mentally earmarked that spot for a potential future family vacation.
Once we were sunned out we dropped the paddleboard back off and made our way back to camp. We wound down the day cooking Dutch oven chicken and rice over the fire at our campsite, then hung out long enough to watch all of the stars make their way into the night sky.
Day 3: Coffee, Farmer’s Marketing, More Hiking & Wildflower Hunting
After our leisurely Sunday morning wake-up (we slept in until 8 AM!) Kevin needed to get a little work done so we rolled into town and snuggled into a corner table a First Ascent Coffee Roasters with almond croissants, fresh squeezed orange juice, and one decaf latte for the pregnant lady! We were pleasantly surprised to find the town’s Farmer’s Market getting rolling, so we made a point to meander the stalls once Kev was done working. There were local artists and artisans, fresh produce, and baked goods galore. We didn’t find any treasures worth taking home with us, but it was the perfect way to spend Sunday morning.
We ate a picnic lunch in a local park afterwards, snoozed in the sun for a little while, then asked a local to recommend a short hike for us. Just ten minutes out of town, we hit up a short (but VERY vertical) 1/4 mile hike whose name unfortunately escapes me. At the top of the short climb was yet another gorgeous mountain lake. As this one is only accessible by foot, there were only a few fishers and swimmers dotting the water’s edge. The water here was a little warmer (we were close to 750′ lower in elevation compared to the day before) so Kevin took advantage of the pristine water and did a little swimming.
By the time we were done playing at the lake and hiking back down the steep mountain, we were pushing late afternoon and we decided our last evening would be best spent with some leisure time at our campground. We made our way back to Cement Creek where we had one of my favorite dinners of all time – chili & cornbread. I’d premade everything for this meal before we left home, so all we had to do was whip out the camping stove and reheat our grub. We built a roaring fire and made s’mores later in the evening, enjoying another sky packed full of stars that night. The next morning, we packed up & headed home early. Three days in CB left us relaxed, well-fed, and our sense of adventure fulfilled. We can’t wait to go back!
Oh! And we saw some moose near the top of Cottonwood Pass on our way home.
There are really two times of year I would recommend going to Crested Butte (especially if you won’t have the chance to go multiple times): the month of July or during prime ski season (January-March). In July, Crested Butte’s renowned Wildflower Festival kicks off in the middle of the month, and in the weeks surrounding that festival the mountainsides, roadsides, and hiking trails are really showing off their Colorado color. During the height of ski season you’re nixing the hiking, water activities, and camping, but obviously this is the time to come to take advantage of the great skiing and cozy restaurants in town.