The best way to explore Crested Butte? Set up a base camp on a dirt road and explore. Our local writer dishes on just how it’s done.
The first time I car camped in Crested Butte, it was an act of necessity. After driving 2,200-plus miles from Lowell, Massachusetts, we were pushing north on Hwy. 135,looking for paradise—and a place to sleep. The views of the north end of the Gunnison Valley stopped us in our tracks: Here, long, layered ridgelines climax in serrated-looking summits, and isolated pyramidal peaks float like lily pads on the lowlands. The search was over.
We posted up for a week at a “dispersed” roadside car-camping spot on Cement Creek Road, seven miles south of Crested Butte proper, thumbing through the classifieds and soaking in the freedom of free rent in the Gunnison National Forest. Note: That freedom was relatively short lived—there is a 14-day limit for campers in the NF. But that’s a lot of leeway compared to the rules and regs of car camping in New England, where fireside conversation after 10 p.m. has the fun police swarming around like mosquitoes.
After that week, we never looked at car camping the same. For the next few years, my wife Lori and I would close out our lease after the ski season, pack our things, and hit the road, knowing there was a transitional home in the woods when we returned. We’d roll back into town, broke as a joke, set up a sleeping tent and a storage tent, put chairs around the fire ring, and keep a membership at the local health club for taking showers. In our families’ minds, we were homeless, but for us, it was good, clean and cheap living—with world-class recreation just footsteps away.
It’s this easy: Park. Pimp out your site by unloading bikes, boats, beers, fly rods and bocce. Kick back in a camp chair and soak in the solitude, or venture out into the wild. Explore doubletrack and singletrack by bike—and virtual no-track hiking in some Wilderness Areas where people tread infrequently and lightly. This is the crème de la crème of Gunnison County’s roughly 2.5 million acres of public land.
You’ve got two basic options for base camp—stay in an improved campground with some amenities like bathrooms and fire rings—or find a dispersed site where the only amenities are stellar views and the occasional free-range cow rubbing up on your tent. Some things to consider before dropping the anchor: There is no need to blaze your own trail and create new campsites out here. There are plenty to choose from, and driving off established routes leads to more user-created roads, and increases erosion, which is one of the top challenges facing land managers in the Gunnison National Forest and other Western public land agencies. Also, check for “fire bans” and be careful with fires when allowed—this place is a tinderbox when dry. Pack out your trash, and protect your food from bears—there are lots of them trolling for food throughout the Crested Butte area. I have several friends who have returned “home” to find their tents ripped to ribbons by foraging bears.
There are some other inherent risks to car camping. An RV can show up next door and gun the generator mercilessly to run the television and blender, while “Walk the Line” by Johnny Cash blares on repeat for hours on end. A bunch of people might arrive in the middle of the night, slamming doors and starting the party, while your night goes from serene to obscene. Best bet? Join the party or you’ll lie awake, wondering, “How did this happen to me?” The bottom line is, car camping can be as much about the party as the pursuit of solitude and epic rides.
Most of Crested Butte’s campgrounds were first built in the 1960s. “They [campgrounds] followed the advent of outdoor recreation as we know it,” says Gunnison National Forest Recreation Manager Bill Jackson. “After World War II, leisure time became more common, and the recreation boom followed.”
Jackson says these sites are centers for social interaction and tradition as well. “They are made to be family friendly, and some people have been coming back to the same place for 30-plus years,” says Jackson. “It’s like a reunion; it becomes tradition for family and friends.”
Living here, car camping is second nature, offering easy access to the other “home” we live in. Instead of throwing cocktail parties, people gather outside and celebrate under the stars.
Nearly 10 years after first setting eyes on the Gunnison Valley, four of us—Lori, and our friends Erika and Travis—pack up for a night of car camping in mid-May on nearby Brush Creek Road, home to several biking and hiking trailheads. Brush Creek Road is still gated partway out this early to let things dry, so many of the choice car camping spots are inaccessible. We drive up and over to Farris Creek (rough road, not recommended during peak biking season), where we literally have a valley spread to ourselves, gated on the far end by a silhouetted Whetstone Mountain. Let the games begin.
We throw up oversized tents that would never make the weight-cut for backpacking, toss in inflatable sleeping pads, bags, and overstuffed pillows. In a move even Martha would be proud of, Lori pulls out plastic-stemmed glasses and we sip vodka sodas like highbrow, garden-party cocktailers. “Bocce people?” Travis asks, pulling the set from the back of his truck. A mellow match ensues, and we tromp through grass and sage, trying not to spill our drinks, while lobbing balls against an azure sky.
The sun scrolls behind Whetstone, and I unload the leftover firewood we brought from home, add spark, and soon a fire is blazing. Instead of lugging in a propane grill, we brought a rack that sits over the fire, and after an hour the coals are hot enough for home cookin’. Dinner, drinks and drowsy—before long we make our way to the tents, shutter down and pass out.
It’s a silent night until a pack of coyotes screeches so loud it sounds like they’re bedded down right outside. It’s an eerie, soul-chilling scream, and the dog hits the roof. Passed out in the tent, we’re like pigs in a nylon blanket; tasty little snacks for the taking. And this is mountain lion country, too. The dog’s on the lookout.
They were close all right, we discover in the morning. Fresh coyote scat right next to our car, not 20 feet from the tent. They must have skittered right through camp, scrounging for a free meal.
After oatmeal and cowboy coffee, Travis and I ride up Strand Hill in choice conditions—mid-60s, blue skies, and no wind. We top out and tangle with the downhill: it’s all singletrack, all the way through aspens, evergreen and sage, technical one second and street-cleaner buff the next. Following the Canal Trail back to Brush Creek Road, we roll on up to the Deer Creek Trailhead after a lengthy road ride, and climb… and climb… and climb some more. I’ve never ridden Deer Creek before, and I’m starting to wonder if there’s any downhill on this ride, when I hit a torturous, leg wobbling hike-a-bike wall of grease and running water.
Several painful minutes later I meet up with Travis at a bend in the trail, where I get my first look at the East River Valley below. “That’s the worst of it,” Travis says. “One more climb after this downhill.” It feels good to let ’em run, until I lay my bike down on a loose sidehill and slam my derailleur. A couple feet ahead, fresh-looking bear tracks decorate a moist stretch of singletrack. And now my chain is popping off, and I can’t downshift far enough to make this next hill. It’s a grunt, more hiking then biking, and at the high point we tweak my derailleur hanger enough that I can “ka-clank, ka-clank” the rest of the way out. Fortuitously, we’ve finally hit the downhill, and it’s mostly aesthetic, snaking singletrack backed by Gothic Mountain’s fearsome east face. It’s not over yet—after dumping out onto Gothic Road, we’ve still got eight-plus miles to go.
The road ride stings, but we get some satisfaction from not getting back in our cars, though I’d lie down in the back of a garbage truck if I could hitch a ride right now. Travis and I spin slowly up the road, out of water and fuel. On the way down, I scout out campsites and trailheads, rivers and vistas. A list of camp-to-cairn possibilities runs through my head as I grind out the last few uphill miles. •
The Epic Epic
Fifty miles of singletrack with 10,000 verts? Meet the Crested Butte to Gunnison Trail.
The link between the neighboring communities of Crested Butte and Gunnison is potentially about to get a whole lot stronger. Gunnison Trails, the trails development brainchild of multi-time Leadville 100 champ Dave Wiens (who made national headlines last year by beating Lance Armstrong), has mapped out a proposed 50-mile route between the two cycling-centric towns that could become the country’s next must-do epic ride. The Crested Butte to Gunnison Trail, which would boast 5,000 to 10,000 feet of elevation gain or descent depending on the starting point, would connect the vast array of Crested Butte trails to the under-the-radar (but up-and-coming) trail system in Gunnison.
“I was looking at local maps and was amazed to see that we had uninterrupted public lands all the way from Gunnison’s Western State College to Keblar Pass Road in CB on a really appealing route,” says Wiens. “The geography would lend a contouring route through high desert sage country up to 10,500 in deep aspens with spectacular views of the San Juans, the Continental Divide, Monarch Pass and Utah’s La Sals on a clear day.” The only issue with this proposed heritage trail, which is under review by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, is that it happens to run through a proposed wilderness area. “Because of the existence of a historic trail in there, the ideal alignment is right through the center,” says Wiens, who is hoping for a split in the Wilderness Area or another trail alignment around it. The final word on this epic’s future should be laid out in the fall. Stay tuned and check www.gunnisontrails.com for updates.
The CB Car-Camp Road Map
Several key roads leave the greater Crested Butte area, providing access to public land and campgrounds in the National Forest and BLM. Some pass through private property and you’ll be sharing these DIRT roads with bikers, hikers, dirt bikers, truck drivers, and wildlife, so drive with care. The roads can be quite rough—rutted, rocky, greasy from mud, and wall-to-wall washboard—and will eat your car/truck alive if you don’t pay attention.
Regarding trails: Some are multiple use trails, others, like designated Wilderness, have more stringent travel regulations; both will be posted. Be kind to the trails and wildlife, and be courteous to your fellow users. That said, here’s the road map to car camping in Crested Butte, starting from the south end, with some options for going tent to trail.
Cement Creek Road
Camp: Cement Creek Campground (USFS). Hike or bike: Walrod Cutoff to Caves Trail. Epic Ride: Reno-Flag-Bear-Deadman Gulch. Skills Session: Pump Track in Crested Butte South.
Brush Creek Road
Camp: Dispersed camping only, no facilities. Bike: Strand Hill, Farris Creek. Epic Rides: Deer Creek, Teocalli Ridge. Hike: Brush Creek Trailhead, Teocalli Mountain.
Kebler Pass Road
Camp: Lake Irwin Campground (USFS). Hike: Around the lake, or summit Mt. Ruby. Epic Hike: Traverse the entire Ruby Range. Bike: The Dyke Trail.
Slate River Road
Camp: Oh Be Joyful Campground (BLM). Hike or bike: Lower Loop and Upper Lower Loop. Hike/Horseback Only: Oh Be Joyful Trail in the Ragged’s Wilderness. Paddle: Oh Be Joyful Creek (Experts only).
Washington Gulch Road
Camp: Dispersed camping only. Rides: Trail 403, Snodgrass. Hike: Gothic Mountain, Mt. Baldy.
Camp: Gothic Campground (USFS). Rides: Snodgrass, Trail 401. Hike: Judd Falls and Copper Lake Trail; Rustler Gulch.
For information on what amenities and recreational opportunities are available, whether reservations are required, and campground locations go to blm.gov/co/st/en/fo/gfo/recreation_information/camps.html; blm.gov/co/st/en/fo/gfo/recreation_information/campmap.html. For information on trail conditions, go to the web page of the Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association (cbmba.org) and/or Crank Collective, which provides GPS coordinates for local trails, conditions and gear reviews (crankcollective.com). Rain Delays? Check out the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame in town: mtnbikehalloffame.com.