Why Crested Butte, Colorado, Is America’s Most Idyllic Family Ski Town
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Crested Butte is the quintessential North American mountain town, with hardly a chain store in sight, a ski mountain offering varied terrain for both beginners and experts and an excellent nursery and ski school just steps from the base village. And while Denver’s airport is a solid 4.5-hour drive away, consider using your American Airlines or United Airlines miles to fly into Gunnison-Crested Butte Regional Airport (a 40-minute drive from Crested Butte) instead. Once you’re in Crested Butte, you won’t need a rental car to get around with the family and enjoy the mountain and town — the free Mountain Express bus has you covered from early ’till late.
2019 brought lots of fun news and openings across Colorado for the ski season. And while the biggest news at Crested Butte for the 2018/2019 ski season was that Vail Resorts bought the family-owned mountain resort and it’s now part of the Epic Ski Pass, that wasn’t the impetus for my recent visit with my sister and two kids.
My sister and I were long overdue for an aunt-and-mommy trip with my son, 2, and daughter, 1. And what’s been dubbed the “last great ski town in Colorado” had been on my radar for a while. I’d skied Vail and Aspen, Breckenridge and Copper Mountain, and many of the other resorts closer to Denver. And while Crested Butte was definitely a ski resort name I recognized, I realized I didn’t really know anything about the place.
I tossed it out to a friend of mine who lives in Steamboat Springs, and she assured me that Crested Butte was the perfect town for a family vacation. “It’s a skier’s mountain and a killer little ski town, too,” she told me. With that, I was sold.
I’m the kind of casual skier to whom the vibe in town (no poured concrete, please) is as important as the conditions on the mountain. And Crested Butte tick both boxes beautifully.
Where Is Crested Butte?
As mentioned, Crested Butte is about 4.5 hours southwest of Denver, across the Monarch Pass. And it’s precisely the town’s more remote location (compared to spots like Breckenridge and Vail, which are closer to Denver along the oft-maligned I-70 corridor) that keep the crowds on the slopes here to a minimum for most of the season.
If locals have to wait 15 minutes in line for a lift at Mount Crested Butte, you can be sure they’ll be complaining. During my stay in mid-January, I never waited once to get up the mountain.
Travelers have a few options for getting to Crested Butte. My sister and I debated whether to fly into Denver (a 4.5-hour drive from Crested Butte) or directly into the Gunnison-Crested Butte International Airport (GUC) — serviced this winter by United Airlines from Denver and Houston and American Airlines from Dallas. The latter is only a 40-minute drive from Crested Butte, but cash fares were considerably pricier into Gunnison from Florida. After checking car rental rates, we decided it made more sense to fly into Denver International Airport (DEN) and rent a car to get to Crested Butte.
However, if you travel to ski country using airline miles, it may be the same award price (or occasionally less) to fly right into GUC and skip the drive from Denver (and the rental car). For example, I see saver awards available on United from Houston and on American from Dallas, both for 12,500 miles each way during this ski season. If you have a cobranded United credit card, such as the United Explorer Card , you may even get access to additional saver awards.
To make things sweeter, the GUC airport is even currently on American Airlines’ list of reduced mileage awards for those with select cobranded American Airlines credit cards such as the Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard or Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard. This means you could fly round-trip into Gunnison for just 17,500 total American AAdvantage miles per person. If you have an American Airlines credit card that gives you 10% of redeemed miles back, your total spent could be just 15,750 miles, which is pretty outstanding.
Alternatively, if a saver award flight is available via American Airlines (the ones that cost 12,500 miles), you can also book the exact same flight using British Airways Avios. For the relatively short flight from Dallas Fort-Worth (DFW) to GUC, it costs just 7,500 Avios in economy or 15,000 in first class to fly on American Airlines (here’s how).
Once we got to Crested Butte from our drive from Denver, I realized we really didn’t need our rental car to get around, thanks to the town’s free Mountain Express bus. Next time, I’ll try to use miles to fly right into Gunnison-Crested Butte.
After a relatively smooth drive from the airport in Denver to Crested Butte (do mind the speed limit, as the route has a few notorious speed traps near the town of Fairplay) and a quick stop in Gunnison for groceries, we arrived at the mountain just as dusk was falling and checked into our suite at The Lodge at Mountaineer Square. While this hotel doesn’t participate in any of the major hotel loyalty programs, you can book it through Chase’s Ultimate Rewards travel portal. We checked dates in March and the cost was $369 per night or 24,600 Ultimate Rewards points if you have the Chase Sapphire Reserve. Many of the other resorts listed below are also bookable via Chase’s travel portal.
The lodge is right in the base village, just a minute’s stroll from the lifts and rental shop. There are traditional hotel rooms here, but larger families should consider splurging on one of the lodge’s multi-bedroom suites (with up to four bedrooms). The full-kitchen in our two-bedroom suite made it easy to cook a quick breakfast for the kids in the mornings before shuttling them off to the nursery for the day. Staying here felt far more like a serviced vacation rental than a traditional hotel, which made it all the easier to settle in as a family.
If you choose to stay in the town of Crested Butte itself (a quick 10-minute ride down the mountain aboard the free bus), consider The Inn at Crested Butte and the historic Elk Mountain Lodge, just two blocks from the bus stop.
Basing out of Gunnison requires a longer commute (roughly 40 minutes via the free-of-charge Gunnison Valley RTA bus) to reach the town and mountain. But in Gunnison you can use your IHG Rewards Club points at the Holiday Inn Express & Suites Gunnison (from 20,000 points) and your Choice Privileges points at the Comfort Inn on Main Street (from 8,000 points).
No matter how you book your lodgings, be sure to know the best credit cards to use on a ski trip.
Snowy Fun for the Kids
Our first order of business on Day One was to ship the kids off to the Snowy Bears and Cuddly Bears programs at the Nursery at Crested Butte, which accommodates kids from 2 months to 3 years old and is offered in half- (8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.) and full-day (8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.) options. You’ll need to show proof of vaccinations and pack bottles for your littlest kids, but the nursery provides a warm lunch and healthy snacks. With all the other moving parts of a ski vacation with kids (“Where are your gloves!?”), I appreciated not having to worry about those logistics.
I knew I wanted my 2 year old to try the one-hour “on snow” experience as part of his Snowy Bears program. But imagine my surprise when, an hour after I’d dropped him off, I got a text from the nursery to say my little Florida beach boy was gearing up for his first ski lesson. (Thinking about teaching your children how to ski? Here’s a list of 10 top ski schools for kids and some advice as to the right age to take kids skiing and to ski school.)
Yes, Crested Butte is a skier’s mountain indeed. And it was amazing to watch my little guy be guided atop his tiny skis to the bunny hill and magic carpet on his very first day on the slopes during a private, hourlong lesson. One day, the nursery even texted me a photo of my 1 year old being pulled on a sled through the snow. I love that they made the effort to get the kids out in the fresh air during the day, when we all know how much easier it is to just stay inside.
The nursery isn’t cheap (from $135 for a full-day program), but I do feel it’s worth it for parents who want some mountain time on their own. Keep in mind there are good discounts when you reserve the nursery in advance as opposed to making a walk-in booking.
While the kids were in the nursery, my sister and I took to the slopes. Crested Butte is not a huge mountain (about 1,500 square acres, compared to Vail’s 5,000-plus), and we were able to navigate it with ease, sticking to entirely uncrowded greens and blues, some of which still had untracked corduroy — even considering our late starts to the day.
Make time to break for a warm up of hot chocolate and chili at the cute Umbrella Bar at Ten Peaks, a circular bar with 360-degree views of the mountains, including the eponymous Crested Butte, which looked decidedly like a shark’s fin to this Floridian.
Our rental car did come in handy one day when we decided to take the kids for a sleigh ride in the nearby hamlet of Almont with Fantasy Ranch. The guides bundled us up with cozy blankets in a proper horse-drawn sleigh for a ride through the forest, where we spotted coyotes and bighorn sheep and kept an eye out for the baby bob cats said to have been prowling the area (this is what makes the American West great!). The kids loved stopping to see the horses in their snowy paddock half-way through the 30-minute ride and warming up with hot chocolate fireside for a sweet finish.
There are a few other fun things families can add to their itinerary in Crested Butte that don’t involve skiing. At Crested Butte Nordic, the Nordic ski center right near downtown Crested Butte, there’s a free sledding hill where you can do runs on repeat (many hotels offer loaner sleds — just ask). Older kids might enjoy trying out cross-country skiing here, too, with several tracks around town, including a relatively easy one that leads to the cozy Magic Meadows Yurt, a popular weekend brunch stop.
A Ski Town With True Charm
I’m going to sound like a bit of a snob here, but for me, a true mountain town has to have been a town before the ski lifts arrived. And while my kids aren’t old enough to appreciate a history lesson yet, Crested Butte was a town before it was a ski town, and has lots of stories to tell.
Ski towns like Aspen (here’s how to maximize your Amex Platinum for a trip to Aspen) and Telluride, where gold was mined before the fur-sporting snow bunnies arrived, also fit that bill. Crested Butte was a mining town, too. But locals like to say that since coal rather than gold was the town’s buried treasure, that’s what’s kept Crested Butte more down to earth than other spots in Colorado (side note: I didn’t see a single person sporting fur during our stay — this is a hard core GORE-TEX crowd).
Whatever the reason for Crested Butte’s fiercely proud and independent spirit, I was blown away by the authentic charm of Elk Avenue downtown, where colorful wooden facades that were once the homes of miner families now house independent restaurants, boutiques and bars. The only chains in Crested Butte, in fact, are a True Value hardware shop and a Clark’s Market grocery store. So, there’s tons of local appeal to be found in town.
Start your mornings with an espresso drink at Camp 4 Coffee and you’ll be off and running with the locals in the right direction. Come evening, my sister and I would bundle up the kids to ride the free shuttle down to town and settle in for dinner at family-friendly spots like Marchitelli’s Gourmet Noodle and The Wooden Nickel, where part of the building dates to 1880. You’ll never go wrong with the Notorious F.I.G pizza (topped with black figs and truffle oil) at Secret Stash or the jalapeno-spiked margaritas and tacos at Bonez, also right along Elk Avenue.
It’s worth venturing a few stops further afield on the town bus to Crested Butte South, a largely residential area with a few more cafes including the innovative Tassinong Farms. Here, the owners are growing hydroponic veggies and herbs inside containers during the harsh Colorado winter, and the resulting salads are divine. My sister and I visited for lunch one afternoon and had fun sampling wines from the fancy Italian wine dispenser that you can operate with a card. It felt like a real neighborhood find.
What you won’t find anywhere in Crested Butte, however, is a McDonalds or a Starbucks.
Crested Butte is a charming little enclave that deserves a spot on your family’s vacation wish list. Here’s hoping this most idyllic Colorado ski town stays that way for many, many seasons.
Thinking about planning your own family’s ski getaway? Here are some more resources:
- How to Ski for Free With Your Airline Boarding Pass
- The Best US Ski Resorts for Families
- Best Ski Schools in the US
- 6 Tips for Taking Big Family Ski Trips
- 6 Family-Friendly New England Ski Resorts
- Top 5 Family-Friendly Ski Resorts in Lake Tahoe
- Kids Ski Free: Save on Your Family’s Next Ski Vacation
- The Highs and Lows of a Family Ski Trip
Featured image by Trent Bona / Crested Butte Mountain Resort