Guess where we’re going to Airstream this summer???!!! I have secured six weeks remote travel and we’re heading to Crested Butte in July and Silverton in August!
Think we’re excited?
Um… Y E S!
So seriously, I’m losing my mind with excitement. If y’all have any ideas for things you want us to post/vlog/record please comment on this post. One of the ideas we’ve got brewing is a scenic tour covering Colorado 92. We’re going to make a weekend drive through some of the best country the Rockies has to offer.
Obviously since I do enjoy this tiny little thing called mountain biking, I’ll also be bringing you plenty of content about the Evolution Bike Park. Plus I’m planning a ride on Teocalli Ridge, which is going to be bonkers.
In the meantime, if you’re from Colorado or you’ve been there and there’s something you really think we should do around Crested Butte and/or Silverton please comment on this post!
I’ve been looking forward to writing this for months, since I’ve mentioned previously that Crested Butte, Colorado is “one of our favoritest places in the world”. If that’s true, then this naturally begs the question, what is our favoritest place in the world?
In answer this long standing mystery, I am proud to continue our series on places we’ve stayed in the Airstream by revealing our single most favoritest place in the world: Silverton, Colorado!
The best part about Airstreaming is immersing yourself in amazing surroundings, and Silverton turns that experience all the way up to 11. This tiny little town perches in a Tolkien-like valley high in the the San Juan Mountains, which are located in the extreme south-west corner of Colorado.
The San Juans form a violent and abrupt uplift that fracture the otherwise serene desert tableau into snow-capped madness.
In the space of an hour you can drive from the high desert of Cortez, CO pictured above to the lush forests of Molas Pass and drop fifty degrees while doing it.
The stretch of road that leads to Silverton is called the Million Dollar Highway (aka U.S. 550) and it is widely considered to be one of the most scenic drives in America. This road offers stunning vistas as it winds its way into the mountains and traverses multiple passes in excess of 10,000′ (3048m).
The journey is punctuated by alternating pine and aspen forests, alpine lakes, historical mines, four-wheel drive roads and, if you’re coming north from Durango, it’s also flanked by the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.
Harley riders flock to this area for the serpentine bends while OHV enthusiasts flush into the surrounding hills to explore miles of trails.
Or to put it another way – there is, in my personal experience, nothing quite like it.
Silverton is positively overflowing with camping opportunities, and remarkably, many of them are free.
Kendall Campground is located a few miles west of Silverton on Forest Road 585. This is a so called “dispersed” campground which means there are no services except a vault toilet and no assigned campsites. As such there is also no fee. The campground is immensely busy but owing to the national forest rules which state you can only stay for 14 days there is a lot of turnover and we had very good luck finding spots.
Two years ago we scored the best spot in the campground which snuggles up to a meadow on the west side.
The year after that we backed into a cozy tree-covered location on the north side. Note all the other adventurers. We came affectionately to call this shanty town.
To Vault Toilet Or Not
Considering this campground is free, it’s amazing there’s even a vault toilet. Perhaps not so surprising, it’s not maintained and, occasionally, became unusable. As we have facilities in our trailer, this wasn’t an issue for us but I felt for the folks who were tent camping.
Rules posted at the entrance to this campground clearly state you should park your rig perpendicular to the river so as to allow as many people to share the view as possible. From our stay there we learned most people can’t or don’t read.
In a campground such as this where there are no cleanly marked “sites” personal space becomes an issue. We found generally generators we off by 10pm and on by 6am. We also found people generally avoided walking through other sites. Dogs, unfortunately, we often left off leash which led to some issues for us with our little ones.
In 2014 fiber optic service arrived in the town of Silverton and with it awesome cellular service. This campground is only a couple miles (5 km) from the main cell tower and signal is blazing. Some people have complained of overloaded service but we never experienced that problem, possibly due to our cell booster. As my living depends on internet connectivity it’s hard to articulate the madness of camping in the deep San Juans while still pulling down intense speeds necessary to telecommute in the morning and then mountain biking at 10,000′ (3048 m) in the afternoon.
Anvil Campground is immediately west of Kendall Campground but only offers a few spots. Otherwise all the rules are the same as Kendall, free with a 14-day limit.
Golden Horn Campground
Golden Horn Campground is even further west on Forest Road 585 from Kendall and Anvil. The approach to the river seemed extreme to us but we saw plenty of big rigs down there (I still wouldn’t try it with the Airstream). This site is also free with a 14-day limit.
South Mineral Campground
South Mineral Campground is a paid campground but all sites are first come first served. Getting a spot here can be very tricky, even in the middle of the week. By complete accident we scored an incredible location on a small hill.
This campground consists of two basic loops and is very busy. Still we never found it to be too noisy and many sites are well away from the road. All sites are on crushed aggregate and overhung with deep green forest. Additionally the campground hosts keep the vault toilets pristine, there are dumpsters for paying campers and limited treated spring water (also only for paying campers).
The Ice Lake trailhead is located directly across from the campground and it can get extremely busy. The Ice Lake trail is an exceptionally difficult hike gaining 2,500′ (762m) in only 3.5mi (5.6km). That’s a 13% grade!
For those that brave this torture (which should be started early in the morning to avoid the afternoon storms) they will be rewarded with god-like views, waterfalls and alpine lakes.
Forest Road 585 continues past South Mineral Campground and takes a very steep climb up to terminate at the Rico-Silverton trailhead. This drive should only be attempted by four-wheel drive high clearance vehicles and also makes for a difficult but rewarding mountain bike ride as well. The end of this road also offers a range of dispersed sites but certainly only for the most intrepid souls with capable vehicles. Taking the Airstream there was a non-starter.
In a pinch you can find almost anything you need at Silverton Grocery or Silverton Hardware. Prices are commensurate though, so if you have the means we highly recommend you stock up in Durango or Montrose first, both of which are roughly an hour drive from Silverton.
The dispersed camping sites do not have trash collection so you can haul your garbage to a freetransfer station only a mile or so north of town.
Sewer dump stations and fresh water are available in town at the Red Mountain Motel & RV Park and Silver Summit RV Park & Jeep. We recommend you get there early as some of the dump stations are blocked by Jeep washes later in the day. As there is little competition for these services expect an outrageous fee.
There is a very well provisioned Conoco station strategically positioned at the entrance to town. Diesel is available along with unleaded and many many tourists line up to use the pumps.
Restaurants & Shopping
Silverton is the terminus for the Silverton & Durango Narrow Gauge Railroad and services multiple trains per day.
There are scores of restaurants and stores ready to serve these trains full of hungry and spendy customers so it pays to eat early or late to avoid the rush.
San Juan County Historical Museum
The San Juan County Historical Museum is an absolutely mind-blowing experience that documents Silverton history in a myriad of narratives that journey from Silverton’s earliest roots all the way to the present. Displays include mining history, rock and mineral collections and even the city jail.
Make no mistake, Silverton is essentially owned by the OHV/4-Wheel crowd. There are countless Jeep rental outfits in Silverton, Durango and Ouray plus a constant stream of visitors hauling their own toys. The local RV parks make extensive accommodations for these visitors and the town even bears extensive signage about OHV protocol on paved roads. Even so we never felt crowded out or loss of zen sharing this space with our OHV friends. There’s a lot of territory to explore so even when mountain biking encounters with motorized vehicles were far apart.
The Mayflower Gold Mill is a self-guided tour that gives you unprecedented access to every level of the Mayflower Mill, which processed ores for many varieties of metals all the way up to the 1980’s. Since I’m a engineer this self-guided tour kept me entertained for hours. Documentation in the mill is extensive and a wide range of the equipment can still be turned on by museum goers.
The Old Hundred Mine
The Old Hundred Mine is a genuine no-holds barred gold mine located a few miles north of town at the base of Galena Mountain. The extent and scale of this mine is hard to express until you’ve experienced it for yourself. The tour itself follows a fairly short civilized portion of the lower level that has been heavily stabilized and lit. These refinements in no way diminishes the tours effectiveness, however. Entrance to the mine is achieved using an actual rail car where you then disembark and walk with tour operators as they demonstrate period mining equipment, explain blasting strategies, do show and tells on sample ores obtained from the mine and carefully point out connecting shafts.
Outside the mine you can make your way east up Cunningham Gulch where you can look up to the top of Galena Mountain and see the Old Hundred bunkhouse and tramhouse pinned impossibly high in the savage geology. Using binoculars to really zoom in on these tiny structures the true scale of the Old Hundred begins to set in. I highly recommend the tour, though possibly not for anyone claustrophobic, scared of the dark or uncomfortable being splashed with casual spring water seepage from the surrounding rock.
Ah yes, my favorite topic – mountain biking. As much as we love Silverton, this town is geared entirely for the off-road enthusiast of the four-wheel variety. This means most of the mountain biking we’re found is along routes shared by Jeeps and RZRs, though not all of it.
Rainbow/Nute Chute Trail
The Rainbow/Nute Chute Trail is one of the few dedicated mountain bike trails in Silverton. Following an old narrow gauge rail bed out of town this ride rarely exceeds 4% and provides stunning views. The east end of the trail scampers over some pretty sketchy terrain.
At the time of this writing part of the trail was entirely washed out on this iron rich scree slope but I found an alternate drop-in only a mile east of town on the 550.
Further west the trail is rather mystical, most of which is overhung by forest.
The Rico Silverton trail is located at the end of Forest Road 585 west of town. While technically open for mountain biking I found conditions on this trail to be muddy and rutted making for frequent dismounts and a lot of walking. The ride from South Mineral Campground to the trailhead is severe and also offers occasional dismounts on the incredibly steep terrain but I found it more enjoyable than the trail itself. I also recommend ample bug repellent as the horse flies can be atrocious.
Lime Creek Road, so named for the aspens that turn lime green in summer, makes for an easy-going ride through the San Juans. Averaging only 5% this is a forest road but it’s quiet and scenic. The drive from Silverton takes about 30 minutes and passes through the incredibly scenic Molas Pass.
Colorado Trail Segment 25 can be picked up by parking at the Little Molas Lake Campground. Climbs are moderate but I felt like they were double the grade due to the extreme altitude which tops out above timberline at 12,000′ (3657m). The scenery is epic – of course.
Cunningham gulch is located on County Road 4A a few miles north of town. You can ride to the ride or drive to the intersection of County Road 2 and County Road 4 and park there. The grade is somewhere in the neighborhood of 7% over several miles. This road is popular with OHV enthusiasts but not choked with them. The ride for practical purposes begins at the Old Hundred mine and stops at Highland Mary Lake Trailhead which is popular with hikers. Along the way you’ll see marmots, pikas, alpine flowers and wild raspberries is you’re late enough in the year.
Arrastra Gulch is closer to town, beginning essentially at the Mayflower Gold Mill and following County Road 52 west. The climb is short and intense as it follows an ancient tram system that was used to haul pay to the mill. There are many offshoots but I follow a northern OHV tail off of County Road 52 to an old mine near Little Giant Basin.
Maggie Gulch is located north of Cunningham Gulch on County Road 23. This short ride offers an extremely intense climb that is also shared by OHV enthusiasts. I only take the ride a couple miles to a right-hand branch in the road that terminates at an impressive waterfall.
Forest Road 585
Forest Road 585 begins just a mile or so east of town and offers access to a half-dozen campgrounds, OHV trails and several hikes. The road is rather busy but we found it too offered nice riding from South Mineral Campground to U.S. 550 and back again.
Scenic Drive is a gobsmacking ride immediately west of town that looks down on Silverton like it’s a toy model Swiss village. The ride is easy and I typically rode it two times over lunch to get in a good workout, but the real reason you ride here is the view. It literally escapes my ability to crystallize into words the views you can drink in here as you look down onto this town stuck in time. Steam engines puff away, entirely unimpressed with the fact that we’re well into the 21st century, tourists ebb and flow through the many shops and restaurants and San Juans look on in silence.
What Could Go Wrong
I’m not generally a pessimist but I feel like most of the RV channels and blogs I read don’t always own up to the realities of full-time camper living. Below are some of the issues we experienced.
Allow me to make this completely clear. The weather in Silverton is terrible.
If you choose to spend your time here be forewarned that it rains much of the time and temperatures often hover around freezing, even in summer. It pays to get your activities done as early as possible as rain and hail move in around noon. I found myself in a fairly intense situation at Ice Lake and wound up with early symptoms of hypothermia as I did not bring a thick enough rain jacket.
Since we’re in a deluxe Airstream and we live in the desert, rain for us is a treat so we deeply enjoy the experience.
I work in technology for a living as a software architect and I can say, unequivocally, technology sucks. In particular, allow me to vent my rage upon on my Buffalo RAID 5 1TB NAS. That piece of crap crashed last year and sucked down a decade’s worth of photos at and around Silverton.
I’ve thought for so many years how I could write a cool travel blog, share my experiences and my dazzling photography until one morning I awoke to found I’d lost it all – despite Buffalo’s claims that this NAS it would give you warning of a drive failure because RAID is a redundant solution. Not so much.
Though not directly related to Airstreaming, I personally recommend Microsoft OneDrive over on-premises storage solutions. This is a cloud storage product that costs $100/yr for 1TB or storage, you get 5 Office 365 licenses and it’s always backed up, always on and always safe. Plus you can also configure your Android and Apple devices to automatically upload your videos and photos, make albums and share stuff with your friends.
Alas, we will of course, make our way back to Silverton and enjoy its goodness as the sting of lost memories fade and new ones are made, but I will never forget that betrayal Buffalo visited upon me.
I have to reiterate one more time – Silverton is not for everyone. The weather can be terrible and temperatures cold. In exchange, however, you can explore a savage countryside barely tamed by the 21st century and lose yourself in a myriad of exploratory pursuits that will leave your head spinning. Silverton has the it factor in so many ways I can only hope this blog leaves slightly more than just a faint impression and explains to the world why this really is our favoritest place in the world!
*At the time of this blog Chatfield State Park is undergoing extensive renovation to fill the reservoir an additional 12 ft (3.7 m). It is said the park will remain open during these renovations but perform your due diligence before booking.
This is another mega-post, primarily amount mountain biking the Denver area. Enjoy the photos and take your time!
Reservations for Chatfield can be made on the Reserve America portal. When I was a kid Chatfield was considered to be way out in the sticks. I only have one distinct memory of actually going there and at that age I felt like we’d driven to Utah. Now days though, Chatfield is in the middle of the massive urban sprawl that has become Denver. RV sites bloom over three massive loops, but owing to the park’s immediate proximity to the city it is still extremely busy and it pays to make reservations way in advance.
We were able to get reservationos, albeit over Memorial Day, but only at a site with power and water but no sewer. As a result we towed to the dump station once a week. The dump station, by the way, is the best we’ve ever used owing to small concrete bumps that tilt the trailer gently towards the driver side making it drain faster.
Chatfield State Park is located south of Denver and has two major entrances, one off of Roxborough Park Rd to the south and another off of South Wadsworth Blvd to the west, though it appears that entrance may experience interference during renovation. The entrances are guarded during the day and unmanned at night. One sour patch for us is we found it cheaper to buy an annual pass rather than pay a daily vehicle fee and the park rangers threatened us with a ticket if we didn’t affix it to the passenger-side windshield!
Camping is split among three enormous loops, Loop A, Loop B (our loop) and Loop C, as well as some group camping options. Each loop contains a combination of bath houses, laundry and bathrooms. We were somewhat put off by having to pay for showers – a curiosity that never took place before or again on our entire trip.
Pads were a mixture of asphalt and concrete backing up to extremely well groomed and open play areas with a fire pit surrounded by gravel. There was also a publicly available WiFi network that was fast and reliable, even during Memorial Day weekend. Even without the WiFi, cell signal here was strong and catching a satellite signal was a snap.
We found noise at the campground to be highly variable, depending on where you were located. Our site experienced intermittent music but the park patrol was omnipresent and we enjoyed our stay, which the deer did too.
Activities around the park include kayaking , swimming, boating, hiking, fishing, bird-watching and biking. It pays to bring binoculars when possible as the wildlife in this area is prolific along the water line.
Owing to its immersion in the city, groceries are easily fetched from King Soopers in Highlands Ranch or King Soopers on South Wadsworth Blvd.
I also mentioned we were in Denver to drop the Airstream off at Windish RV, which we did immediately after staying here. Denver is a giant city, so you can find all your needs here from propane to trailer storage.
Ah yes, my favorite topic – mountain biking. The Denver area is bubbling over with mountain biking opportunities, some of which I mention below.
Waterton/South Platte Canyon & Wetlands Connector
The South Platte Canyon trail follows the South Platte River up into the Rocky Mountains and can be accessed via the Wetlands Connector Trail directly from within Chatfield. This ride is not even close to technical and beginning at the Waterton Trailhead riding here can become exceptionally congested, especially on the weekends. This trail also suffers frequent closures so perform your due diligence before showing up to a closed parking lot.
The ride is slow and lazy climbing an easy few-percent grade along a mild-mannered road that hugs the South Platte river, which feeds the famous High Line Canal.
On the way back we often stopped on one of the bridges, ditched the bikes and stuck our tootsies into the cool water.
Another amazing feature of this ride is the bighorn sheep, which appear en masse.
The bighorn sheep are protected…
And there is extensive signage here alerting people not to interact with these guys in any way.
Buffalo Creek Trail System
The Buffalo Creek Trail System is roughly an hour from Chatfield by car though you can link into it directly from Chatfield via the Colorado Trail Segment 2 (which we did not do). This trail system is rich and complex allowing you to make your own loops, much of it threading through a former burn area, but still gorgeous and wonderful.
Though this trail system is not wildly technical nor crazy on the grades, for one reason or another I found it to require high fitness.
Staunton State Park
Staunton State Park is located just a little north of Buffalo Creek and it too offers a wide range of trail options.
Sadly I was somewhat ill on this expedition so we only rode Staunton Ranch Trail South to Bugling Elk Trail and back. I realized I was ill at the beginning of Border Line Trail so we only went up it a mile or so before bailing. Staunton Ranch and Bugling Elk were mild-mannered greens. Border Line is marked as a blue but I feel like it could easy be called black, at least owing to fitness.
The highlands ranch trail system is private, but we were granted access while staying with family. This is a twisty and satisfying system that forms complex loops through foothills scrub oak.
Even though highlands ranch is private, the trail system hooks directly into the Bluffs Regional Park which is open for all and has awesome views of Littleton, Centennial, Highlands Ranch and in the distance, Denver.
Green Mountain overlooks the C470/70 interchange and provides jaw-dropping views of the Denver Metro area. We rode the Green Mountain Intermediate Loop multiple times and found it to be massively difficult on fitness and moderate technically. I highly recommend it though, the views are worth it.
Our final ride in the Denver area was up Rollins Pass. Make no mistake about it, Rollins Pass is primarily an OHV road but lots of mountain bikers ride there too. It takes a good two hours or more to get there from south Denver so I realize this might not be “the Denver area” in the strictest terms, but this stands out as the best mountain bike ride I have ever done. Ever.
This is an eye-popping trail because it follows an old rail line over Corona Pass threading its way through spectacular Rocky Mountain vistas that straddle the continental divide. The “trail” begins at the Moffat Tunnel and tops out at the Needle’s Eye Tunnel which is at a comfy 11,600′ (3535 m). This entire ride is cloaked in thick forest until the last portion which is several hundred feet above timber line (the elevation at which there isn’t enough oxygen to support trees).
Our journey began in the early AM in Highlands Ranch.
Shortly west of Rollinsville we followed the contemporary Union Pacific rail line to the Moffat Tunnel.
Because this grade was followed by steam engines or yore, it rarely exceeds 5% – making for an extended but doable climb. Much of the former rail line was blasted right out of the rock.
My favorite part of the climb began at Yankee Doodle Lake, as you can look up see a little dot where the Needle’s Eye Tunnel exits towards the west. Knowing you’re riding a bike up there is exhilarating.
As the climb proceeds you are presented with the epic final grade where you can imagine old steam engines working hard to make the summit. Carefully examine this photo and you can see the tunnel up and to the right.
At the tunnel you can look down on the awesome climb.
The tunnel is closed but still fun to look at.
You can climb over the tunnel and look down on the aforementioned Yankee Doodle Lake.
This entire journey actually taught me the meaning of Rocky Mountain High.
What Could Go Right
I mentioned several times we got “caught” in Denver much longer than expected due to Airstream problems. But my god, look what it brought us. Windish RV did an awesome job on the trailer and their fixes got us back on the road. In the meantime while the trailer was undergoing repair we saw the most unbelievable side of Denver and surrounding area.
Yes, Chatfield State Park and the surrounding area has “it”! Go! Go for the water, go for the mountain biking and go for the trains and more trains!
In our continuing series on places we’ve stayed in the Airstream, I am proud to introduce Fruita Colorado.
*According to a local we spoke with, Fruita is pronounced “Froo”-“tah”. Apologies to any other locals reading this blog if we got that wrong.
Free! That’s right – we boondocked on BLM land north of Fruita near the 18 Road Trailhead for free. As American citizens BLM land belongs to all of us so you can stay out here for up to 14 days at no charge. Etiquette suggests however, you try your very best to occupy only a campsite that has previously been established, pack out whatever you packed in, never dump water (not even gray water), be mindful of fires (as in dead out when unattended) and in general leave things better than they were when you got there.
Amenities & Activities
The 18 Road Trailhead is about 40 minutes north of town on a curiously non-linear route that threads itself among beautiful rural Colorado farmsteads and frustratingly slow school buses. Buses aside, the seemly endless series of lefts and rights eventually gives way to dirt as 18 road crosses onto BLM land; finally heading north uninterrupted.
We stayed at a dispersed spot slightly south-east of the trailhead and made use of a previously established fire ring and turn-around for the Airstream.
Since we were boondocking we were entirely cut off from services. Survival consisted, therefore, of a combination of solar and generator for power, our 50-gallon tank for water and every nook and cranny stuffed full of food for provisions. At the end of our stay we stopped by the Colorado Welcome Center, which offers a free dump station and water fill.
Our camp site was comprised of dense compressed clay and sadly we were also heavily surrounded by foxtails, an aggressive weed-like grass that is very harmful to pets. This heavily limited our dog-walking activities and definitely blemished the experience. The best thing about boondocking, though, are the stars, which are just unbelievable out there.
This area is wildly popular for off-road enthusiasts and there seemed to be a good balance of roads and trails for everyone. We also saw some horseback riders and plenty of other mountain bikers, noise was low and everybody pretty much kept to themselves. Also best of all cell signal was strong.
We came to this spot because Fruita is somewhat legendary in the mountain biking community, essentially right up there with Moab. Unfortunately, while we were staying there (early November) it rained quite a bit and I discovered on my first attempt to ride Western Zippity that the ground here is actually dried super glue, and when mixed with even the slightest amount of water, it turns into a dreadful slag that instantly cakes on wheels, gears, pedals and chains making riding impossible.
Once the rain subsided I did finally squeeze in one ride on the Zippity Loop.
This trail is marked blue/black and I would agree this is an accurate designation. Altitude makes for moderate fitness and there was one intense hike-a-bike on the north portion of the ride.
The ride wasn’t wildly technical except for one downhill on these ridges where I dismounted due to a puckery incline. As you all know by now I ride to zen out, and I got that on the western part of the trail but had to reel it in so as not to die on the black part of the eastern leg.
What Could Go Wrong
No Airstream Issues!
We came through Fruita in mid November, a full month later than we’d intended. This was due to a massive six week delay in Denver while Windish RV replaced a broken A/C unit and addressed a dozen other quality issues. They did excellent work, though and the repairs have held to this day. I also would not recommend hanging out in the Rockies this late in the season, we got lucky with only some moderate rain but at those altitudes anything can happen.
No Riding in the Rain
Because of our November arrival we were on a bit of a schedule and moved through Fruita quickly. The rain caught up with us there really giving me only one day to explore. When I tried to ride in the rain anyway I was severely punished by the cement-in-disguise. My only takeaway is don’t try to ride in the rain here, as I had to carry my bike out a mile (1.6 km) and take it to a car wash to get all the crud off.
As I mentioned previously foxtails are harmful to pets. We had a severe incident with one of those little buggers embedding in one of our dachshund’s paws leading to an abscess. Because of this lesson we very carefully charted a course to walk the dogs and inspected them after each walk to remove any hitchhikers.
Fruita is an interesting stop on our journey because my silent partner and I almost always agree on what locations we liked, except for here. I loved the remoteness and the one trail I got to ride was gorgeous. My silent partner, on the other hand, thought it was too lunar in appearance and found the foxtails ruined dog-walking. I suppose this means this particular location in Fruita, for us, did not have “it”.
We still talk about it though, and if you’re in the area I say go for it and ride the rides! Just be very careful with your pets and please respect the land, we saw a fair amount of damage from ATVs, which seemed so senseless.
In our continuing series on places we’ve stayed in the Airstream, I am proud to introduce one of my favoritest places in the world, Crested Butte Colorado.
This post takes a slightly different format from the others, as we stayed in and around Crested Butte for so long it can’t be boiled down to a simple review.
Instead, settle in and enjoy a slow-roll through the “it” that makes this entire region so special.
I lived in Colorado on and off for 15 years and ultimately got my degree at CU Boulder. After that I wandered off into the southwest to spread my wings, build my career and meet the love of my life. Maybe it’s because I lived in Colorado during my formative years, or maybe it’s because my parents took me on so many camping adventures to eat dirt and catch stuff on fire. Whatever the reason, Colorado stayed in my soul and I now it forms the core of my spiritual power source. Over the years I’ve always made my way back to visit, of course, but the Airstream gave us the chance to explore Colorado in more depth than I ever did when I lived there.
After I bought the Airstream and secured the opportunity from my employer to travel full-time, my thoughts immediately turned to Colorado. Specifically, Crested Butte. Very crudely speaking, if you were to stick a pin in the middle of Colorado, that’s Crested Butte.
But why there? The reason is simple – Crested Butte and the surrounding area straddles the most iconic ranges in the Rocky Mountains called the Collegiate Peaks. This range forms a savage chain of “14ers” that literally materialize the term “rocky” mountains. Here you can travel to incredible altitudes, see some of the most brutal terrain in the state, soak up primal forests, camp next to lakes, rivers and streams and mingle with alpine critters.
And of course, you can do all these things mountain biking!
The plan, therefore, was to launch our full-time Airstream living from Phoenix, and then work our way north – quickly.
Leaving Phoenix we stayed briefly in Flagstaff, AZ:
Then Cortez, CO.
Then Silverton, CO.
And finally the Crested Butte area.
In & Around “CB”
We talked a lot about financial resources, and how much time to spend there and ultimately decided we wanted to spend an entire summer in the mountains. As a result we stayed in Gunnison, CO (which is ~1/2 hour south of Crested Butte) for a month, then two weeks near Lake Irwin (which is about ~1/2 hour west of Crested Butte) and finally six weeks in Crested Butte (aka “CB”) itself.
Colorado means “The Color Red” though some people choose to interpret it simply as “Colorful”. I subscribe to the latter and invite you to really take your time when looking at my photos. In particular, pay attention to the sky. Oh my gosh that blue!
As we worked our way north from Silverton we passed through Montrose, CO staying one night at the Montrose KOA.
Then finally into Gunnison, a smallish college town about 1/2 hour south of Crested Butte. This lovely mountain community is home to Western State Colorado University and also has an airport which caters largely to vacationers. According to the internets, it has ~6000 residents.
Camping here was comfortable, though when the cottonwoods shed it did cause a little trouble with satellite reception.
Gunnison has exceptional mountain biking, both north of town and south of town.
The north side of Gunnison has a tangled rats nest of trails that concentrate more or less around the university. I explored these trails extensively on my lunch-time rides and wound up forming my own loops much of the time.
My favorite trail though is Contour, so named as it follows the contours of the local geography with very little climbing.
Even though the trail is an easy green, riding here was zen-like, quiet, fulfilling, and wonderful.
The south side of Gunnison has an extensive trail system collectively referred to as Hartman Rocks. I’m entirely competent on technical terrain but I generally stick to technical blues and low-end blacks. At my age I really just don’t need a broken collar bone or shattered wrist.
That said, I immediately went out there and rode The Ridge, a black diamond, and then cut into part of the Hartman Rocks featured ride. I found the Lower Jack’s drop-in to be somewhat of a lung-buster and quite a high cost of admission just to get up there, and The Ridge was just a little more technical than I like so I dismounted plenty of times. This area is BLM land so it’s also shared with a lot of ATV enthusiasts and I was dodging some off-roaders on my way back.
Gunnison is over 7600′ (2347m) in elevation, that’s over a mile (2.3km)! At these altitudes flat-landers begin to appreciate the local advice – if you’re not habituated to the altitude plan for rides halfas long as you normally would. The general wisdom suggests that it takes about six weeks to adjust to high altitude and that is about what we experienced.
The Cost of Groceries, OMFG!
One misfire on our trip arguably would be the cost of groceries. It’s no surprise in retrospect that groceries are absolutely lunatic expensive in Gunnison, given that it’s far from everything and all roads are twisty and mountainous. We learned, however, that expensive as things are in Gunnison, they’re positively bonkers in Crested Butte. That would be, of course, because Crested Butte is even more Rocky Mountainish, snuggled way up into a valley with essentially one way out.
We learned, therefore, even when we stayed in Crested Butte to make a bi-weekly migration down to Gunnison where our groceries ran us “only” triple what we were used to in Phoenix.
The Gunnison area offers endless outdoor activities but one of our favorite weekenders was exploration. In particular we made several excursions north out of Gunnison, took a right in Almont and followed county road 742 to Taylor Park Reservoir. This drive is slow and winding and we wanted it that way.
We saw bighorn sheep on this drive though there are also purported to be mountain goats, bears, moose and mountain lions readily seen here too. There’s so much wildlife to see on this drive it’s punctuated with paved pull-offs to let you enjoy the critter ‘watchin.
Once at the reservoir we explored some of the 4WD trails on the north side of the lake and drove over to check out the Colorado Dream Ranch RV Park. The unbelievable Cottonwood Pass is also close by, though we did not drive it this time.
One of the other more amazing parts of Colorado is the ghost town of St. Elmo, which is on the east side of Tin Cup Pass. If you have the fortitude to drive this road (I do not) the west end of this road ends at the unincorporated community of Tincup.
After spending a month in Gunnison it was time to pull up stakes and move along to Lake Irwin Campground, Colorado. This campground is mostly reservation only on the federal portal, though there are a few first-come-first-served sites, which we were lucky enough to snag for almost two weeks.
It should be noted this is an incredibly busy campground so reservations are tough to get. There is an extensive amount of dispersed camping on county road 826 after the lake. While that area is easily 4WD accessible I would never attempt to pull the Airstream up there. We asked the host on a previous weekend what the best day was to snag a walk-up site and she said Thursdays – which turned out to be exactly right.
The campground is located west of Crested Butte deep in the craggy, intense middle-earth like Ruby Range. This range is part of the Maroon Formation which gives the mountains their characteristically red color.
Lake Irwin is a placid body of water brimming with fish and ideal for zenning, dog-walking, fishing and of course kayaking.
I rode up to the Irwin Lodge on my mountain bike for this incredible view.
Lake Irwin is the headwaters for some excellent mountain biking. Keeping in mind this lake is at 10,000ft (3108m) we planned for the extreme altitude but found by then we’d pretty much acclimated and didn’t have any trouble.
I would also point out the weather here is incredibly testy. It pays off to get out and do your activities before noon as the rains and hail usually move in by then.
The Dyke Trail departs directly from Lake Irwin (the trailhead is a tiny bit west on county road 826) and, I believe, earns its black diamond rating more from fitness than tech. The mountain biking season here is incredibly short so we found the trail was also muddy and filled with post-holes from horseback riders. Once you reach the east trailhead you can, if you have the fortitude (we did not), ride east on county road 12 and back to lake Irwin.
My partner and I made our own loop from Lake Irwin down the dirt county road 826 from the lake to county road 12, then rode west towards Kebler Pass.
We also caught some of the 4WD drive offshoots around Irwin Cemetery in a free-range lazy day of exploring.
Kebler Wagon Trail 606
While staying at Lake Irwin we also rode the Kebler Wagon Trail 606 beginning at the campground, again rolling down county road 826 from the lake and then left at county road 12. This isn’t an especially technical trail, and it follows road, but still fun.
After two weeks at Lake Irwin it was time to move on to Crested Butte proper. We splurged on six weeks at the Crested Butte RV Resort. The owners were incredibly pleasant and offered us a discount for the extended stay. They also once ran a landscaping business and it shows, look at those flowers!
Also it would seem the city of Crested Butte was less than enthusiastic about the idea of an RV part so they didn’t cooperate much on the zoning. They allowed the park to be built, they allowed a bath house (which was glorious by the way), but they prohibited site sewer lines due to “proximity to the Slate River”.
We found this more or less astonishing, considering the Slate River runs directly behind the industrial park in which the RV resort is located. Nonetheless, this meant we had to tow once a week to a public dump station in town.
Crested Butte is (bleeping) awesome. If I was a millionaire I would live here no questions asked. It has the small town Colorado feel.
This is how the locals commute.
There are regular art fairs, music festivals, and artwork scattered around the city.
Mountain biking, mountain biking and more mountain biking. We biked our butts off here!
One of the most extraordinary aspects of our Airstreaming and mountain biking experience was “riding to the ride”. We made strategic choices on our entire cross-America trip to make sure we could always ride from the Airstream to our destination.
In Crested Butte our RV park was located in the Riverland Industrial Park, which is a little bit south of town. To get into town, and virtually every ride therefore, we always began with a northerly ride on New Deli Trail. This connector gave us a traffic-free interstate from the Airstream into the heart of Crested Butte, where we branched out on dozens of rides.
Upper Lower Loop
Beginning in the heart of Crested Butte, the Upper Lower Loop forms one leg of nearly the only easy going ride in Crested Butte. This portion of the trail hugs the mountains in a thin ribbon of single-track looking out across a valley.
You lose exactly nothing in the majesty of the Rockies even though this trail is rated green, proving you don’t need a lung-buster to enjoy the trails here.
The Lower Loop trail is the second half of the Upper Lower Loop. It runs along the Slate River and you can ride clockwise or counter. I did both to mix it up.
Evolution Bike Park
When it comes to mountain biking, I am a “eat your veggies and then desert” kind of girl. I like a tough climb then a rewarding downhill at the end.
You can saw screw it, eat desert and no vegetables and ride an entire day of insane heart-stopping gravity filled adventure at the Evolution Bike Park. The entrance fee was pricey but well worth it for the hoursand hours of clamper cramps and smiles we had to surgically remove from our faces.
The park has too many trails to really list individually but suffices to say we rode about 6 hours (including lunch break) and we did all the greens and blues.
I highlyrecommend the experience.
Upper Upper Loop
The Upper Upper Loop runs directly across the west face of Mt. Crested Butte offering breathtaking views of the granite face before you are enveloped by the forest. Taking Tony’s Trail to drop in you can even see people practicing their rock-climbing skills on nearby boulders that have clearly broken free from the face.
The Upper Upper Loop is a blue-black and indeed I found it to be fairly technical and heavily demanding on fitness. Sadly I dismounted a handful of times. Still I deeply enjoyed the thick forests of Aspen trees and joined up with the south part of Deer Creek Loop to get back to the Airstream.
The Snodgrass trail is so named for the family owned land it crosses. Luckily at the time we were there it was open and dry. This trail has a massive price of admission fitness-wise and demands a huge lung-busting ride up to Mt. Crested Butte (the ski town just north of Crested Butte) then up grades in excess of 10%.
The reward however, is mind-boggling views of the city below, sweet-smelling Aspen and awesome downhills on the other side.
The Lupine trail, so named for a local flower, offers the same lung-busting ride up to Mt. Crested Butte as Snodgrass but only a small heart-attack inducing climb after that. As this trail is somewhat in the same area as Snodgrass it too dives into Aspen groves and supplies a glorious descent on the other side.
The Strand Hill trail was directly east of the Airstream on county road 738, about 4mi (6.4km). As with many other trails in this area the price of admission was intense – the climb starts with some four-legged observers.
But then turns into a sustained 10% climb for about 3mi (4.8km). The reward being an alpine meadow surrounded by Aspen groves.
Once at the top Strand Hill offers an awesome sustained mildly technical descent and joins into the Canal trail. This portion of Canal is benign and makes for a nice wind-down but I discovered in a later ride upper Canal offered near death.
The Brush Creek trail is also located on county road 738, though only in about 3mi (4.8km). Other than Lower Loop this is really the only non-chairlift assisted trail in the Crested Butte area I would describe as easy. The trail is remarkable owing to the fact it’s the only trail directly on the east side of Mt. Crested Butte. It makes for an easy out-and-back with the turn-around dead-ending at the East River.
I mentioned earlier the weather in Crested Butte is unbelievably temperamental. The weather report was essentially worthless, I assume owing to the complex geology of the Rockies. We hit an unfortunate skid of about a week of heavy rain that drove me to depression at all the rides I was missing.
And in keeping with Colorado’s mantra, “If you don’t like the weather then just wait for 15 minutes” it freaking snowed, in August!
Farris Creek (one of those rides)
The Farris Creek trail is one of those rides you can look back on and see the things you did wrong. I’m still glad I rode it, but this trail is rated as black and that’s for a reason – it’s highly demanding in fitness and on the last third very very technical. I also made assumptions about the return leg of the trip, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
I set this ominous tone because it had been raining for days and I was near to chewing my own legs off when the weather finally broke.
People who know me would say I might not be the best at exercising patience (understatement). Instead of waiting a couple days for the trails to dry out I headed out the very next day, determined to ride Farris Creek before we left Crested Butte, or the Earth was struck by a meteor.
Though of course the outset was fine, I found on the far side of Strand Hill (which is close to Farris Creek) the trail was epically muddy and churned into a black soupy pudding by cattle. Not to be deterred I soldiered on at which point it began to rain. Again. As time went by the pudding-like trail got more pudding-like. My tires caked with mud and I walked/rode large segments of the final climb.
Now every mountain biker can empathize with me: Near the summit I stood there in a rain jacket, shivering, and wondering if I should turn around. Looking at the phone I could see I was half-way, or so I thought by distance. I could also see I should be on the “easy” part of the trail, the downhill. I decided it would be better to do the downhill rather than go back through the black-goo pond that alleged to be a trail.
While I didn’t die descending that last mile of Farris Creek, it left me rattled. The descent on the north side was intense, easily exceeding 14%. Mix in rain, mud and cold and it was an extremely dodgy way down, even for a very experienced technical rider with a very good rig. When I finally made it down I was muddy, wet, cold and annoyed at dismounting on the downhill, which I rarely do. I was also a bit surprised that I popped out on a forest road instead of dumping directly into the Canal trail, which is not what I was expecting on the map.
Reorienting myself I found that I needed to follow what I believe was Pearl Pass Road until I hooked back into the Canal trail. This entailed more climbing, which I wasn’t mentally prepared for, and then I finally met back up with the Canal trail.
Keep in mind while this is going down it’s raining, and the temperatures are not much above freezing.
So, back to the assumptions I mentioned at the beginning. I assumed that the Canal trail would be the mild-mannered kitten I had experienced when hooking into it from Strand Hill. Instead I find this trail crawls along the side of extreme mountain exposures with long certain-death drops into Brush Creek. To further enhance the fun I came to find that this trail had been washed over in a half dozen spots by landslides. Not a good situation to be in, alone, wet, cold and probably making risky decisions.
Ok, I am blogging so obviously I made it out alive. I very carefully picked my way along the Canal trail and finally decided it was too risky so I bailed back to the forest road and took it out. By the time I hooked back into county road 738 and rode home at least four hours had gone by, possibly more. My partner was near hysteria and I did get a good talking to.
I should throw a couple shout-outs for the food in Crested Butte, which was excellent.
Paradise Cafe. Awesome lunch and breakfasts and incredibly affordable for the locale.
Gas Cafe One Stop. Yes, it’s a gas station. Best food ever after a mega-ride like Snodgrass or Lupine.
Mountain Earth Whole Foods. Good local grocery store carrying natural products.
Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association
The Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association is responsible for the incredible number of trails in Crested Butte and their amazing condition. I dropped them some cash as my own way of saying thank you!
Our RV park did not have laundry, owing to the Riverland Industrial park’s limited electrical capacity. We used the Crested Butte Lodge & Hostel, which has a laundromat next door. The hours weren’t great though, and they were expensive so if you can hump your laundry down to One Stop Wash & Laundry in Gunnison while you’re there on a grocery run anyway, then all the better.
I mentioned early on that Crested Butte RV Resort was not allowed by code to install sewer lines so the sites had city water and electric (some 30 amp, some 50 amp) but no sewer. As a result we used the publicly available Septic Dump Station located at the southeast corner of 800 Butte Avenue. The system operates on an honor system and for a small fee you can dump and fill with fresh water.
Also keep in mind when you exit you can simply continue east on Butte Ave and then take a right on 9th then right again on Teocalli Ave; not sure why so many drivers were intent on u-turning right there.
What Could Go Wrong
Considering we were only full-timing in the Airstream for four months by this time we encountered a few problems. We found out we had a pretty bad leak.
It was also sometime here we discovered that one of the Dometic A/C units had failed. Getting that fixed lead us to a six week layover in Denver while Windish RV got a replacement.
Thank god we had family in Denver, we were not prepared to incur the costs of a hotel for that long.
By now you know, Colorado has “it”. Actually, I think “it” was born here. Go to Crested Butte if you have the means, stay a while, ride the rides and enjoy the people. I just can’t say anything better about this entire region.
Remember though, this is savage country. Bring cold-weather gear even in summer, do your rides with a buddy if you can, and if you are not acclimated to the altitude plan for halfwhat you would normally do.