The town bills itself as Colorado’s Wildflower Capital and that’s no idle boast. Online and in travel brochures, Crested Butte advertises its claim to fame. Nearly daring travelers to the state, come here and see for yourself! This town isn’t selling itself short. Moreover, this title has been made official by a resolution passed in 1990 by the State Senate.
Just to lay proof to what it so daringly flaunts, Crested Butte backs it all up with an annual, full-fledged and official Wildflower Festival, ongoing since 1986. Always set with a full week of activities, it takes place in early July. A full schedule of events covering all things flowery, you’ll find guided wildflower hikes—both on outlying trails as well as town gardens, wildflower photography sessions, wildflower identification and even some wildflower art classes. Workshops on medicinal plants, cooking with native plants, and landscaping are also offered. It’s definitely the place to find wildflower memorabilia, as well as wildflower posters, note cards and the ubiquitous T-shirts. Souvenirs there are aplenty.
It’s no fluke and definitely not propaganda . . . this place literally explodes with colorful wildflowers—even compared to other Colorado locations known for their blooming beauty. So, what’s the explanation? In a sentence—it’s all about accessibility and habitat diversity (local botanists will tell you). Before you even leave the town’s borders, you’ll be confronted by flowering meadows and wildflower-lined pathways. Maintained dirt backroads can transport bikers as well as motorized vehicles up into the higher elevations. Along the way, blankets of wildflowers can be seen from your car windows (but the scenery gets even better along the mountain trails).
Situated in the Gunnison Basin, Crested Butte has a high elevation (nearly 9,000’ in town) and a cold climate (even by Colorado standards). The combination of a high elevation range, abundant snowfall, varied geology, and a relatively undisturbed landscape creates a diversity and abundance of native flora rivaling any other Colorado mountain town. The Crested Butte area has 8 major distinct habitats or plant communities, within which are dozens of microhabitats that explain the broad variety of flowers. In just a relatively small area, a wildflower seeker can access sagebrush, aspen, spruce-fir, and alpine tundra zones, as well as mountain meadows, lodgepole pine, Douglas fir and riparian wetlands, to find the flora distinctive to each place.
Thus it was no fluke that my Colorado itinerary included this special haven . . . we had 6 glorious days set aside for a wildflower orgy of sorts . . . undoubtedly too short for Melinda, but pushing the limits for Chris (so call our tenure a compromise).
Our arrival in Crested Butte was less than auspicious. Despite its spectacularly scenic location, nestled deep within the high Rockies literally miles off any well-beaten, major road, we were making our approach on a mid-afternoon as storm clouds were looming overhead. Summer monsoon season was well underway in all of the high country of Colorado. Crested Butte was no exception.
Yes, we were soon to learn that the rainy summer season was upon us. Not exactly music to the ears of one not accustomed to early mornings such as I, the plain fact was more often than not, afternoons would bring on sudden deluges of rain. To see the best of skies and bountiful sunshine, one best be up and out soon after sunrise. Day One didn’t prove to be such a hurdle . . . but could I hold out?
Early on our first morning found me retracing our final approach made the previous afternoon. Today the view was seen in a much more favorable light. Now this is an iconic Crested Butte setting!
Early risers also receive the benefit of having popular trails all to themselves. A pre-breakfast hike along Brush Creek Road known for its profusion of flower-carpeted hillsides was a perfect beginning to our time here at Crested Butte.
Sunflowers, Mule’s Ears and Purple Larkspur were the dominant flowers covering the landscape here.
And this was just the beginning . . . the start of an incredible experience in Crested Butte. The coming days would be filled with hikes and high country scenic drives. Each outing brought on a crescendo of sensory overload—be it a spectacle in flowers or a postcard-perfect landscape. Too often I was pulling out my camera—would I ever manage to sift through the myriad of images I was recording? But oftentimes, the scenery was of so pure and unadulterated beauty, all one could do was stand in reverence and awe. Six days . . . six heavenly days . . . six unbeatable, insurmountably gorgeous days. The coming destinations still remaining in our travels will be hard-pressed to exceed what Crested Butte had to offer.
Drives through the high country and over the back roads offered another kind of awesome scenery. Add a touch of adventure and a little rough-and-tumble, it gives us the ingredients for an exhilarating experience. We might be getting older, but we’re still young at heart and looking for some fun!
The town is a great attraction in its own right. With the wildflower theme being carried throughout its streets, we found it full of character, colorful and quaint. Although real estate prices can soar to prices way beyond practicalities, we found pleasure just walking its streets and admiring the scenes.
Like so many other Colorado mountain communities, Crested Butte was founded as a supply town for gold and silver mines. A year after its incorporation in 1880, the town was assured a future when the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad arrived from Gunnison. Even the bust of its silver mines after the 1893 Crash did not deter Crested Butte, which was buffered by vast stores of coal discovered in 1880. Coal mining sustained the local economy until 1952, when the Colorado Fuel and Iron Co. closed its Big Mine.
Still, the town hung on, as Crested Butte’s remote beauty encouraged newcomers to invest in real estate. When the Crested Butte Mountain Resort opened in the 1960s, the town’s languishing economy began to bounce back. People were drawn to both the historic town and the pristine forests surrounding it, and Crested Butte began to see ski cabins and second homes pop up in its outskirts.
The prosperity of the ski resort and the efforts of environmentalists and historic preservationists have given new life to this quaint old town. Residents today remain joined in their lengthy and successful battle with the huge AMAX molybdenum mine to retain the character and dignity of their town and its surroundings. And the people of Crested Butte haven’t allowed their town to be compromised by either the ski industry or water interests, as they continue to fight for their wetlands, their wildflowers, and some of the most gorgeous landscapes in Colorado. It might be a town off the beaten road, but those lucky enough to have found it, don’t soon forget its charms. They, like us, will continue to return.
Perhaps the one big drawback to Crested Butte (at least from our perspective) is the lack of camping space near town. Two primitive campgrounds lie several miles outside the city limits—having camped in both before. As national forest campgrounds go, both Lake Irwin and Rosy Lane Campground trade amenities like hookups and paved roads for being in wonderfully scenic locations. Now there’s another choice—with water and electrical hookups and proximity to town its biggest selling points. Crested Butte RV Resort does have hookups, along with rather stiff prices. A small place with about 18 sites, it’s definitely a mixed bag. A few sites face extremely nice views of mountains, but the majority face a rather rundown area of ramshackle buildings. And all sites are pretty closely packed in, with very little privacy surrounding them. Most inconvenient of all is the lack of sewer hookups, as well as not having a sanitary station on site. Wifi is very weak and iffy to boot. Nevertheless, the owners are friendly and the location can’t be beat. Our first few days there had us making friends with a nice lady, Robin, who was traveling solo in her new 28’ Airstream. We were lucky to be her neighbors as we shared road stories and Airstream travel tips.
Our last day was planned with one final hike (no surprise there) located in the high country around Lake Irwin. We got an early start and snagged one of the few parking spaces high above the lake with tremendous far-reaching views over mountaintops. Scarp Ridge Trail is about a 6-mile loop that climbs well over 1,000 feet in elevation to a ridgeline with panoramic views of mountain ranges and high alpine tarns. The climb has some steep places, but the path is well-worn. Our advice—take some lunch and be ready to stretch out at the top, taking a well-earned rest in the sunshine looking out over snow-dabbled mountains receding to the horizon. Perhaps it will be the time when John Muir’s words will come to mind . . .
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy; while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. “
Truly a place to treasure–
as well as to nourish our spirits,
Melinda & Chris
Just where do you find this magical town in Colorado???
From Buena Vista, we traveled south on Hwy. 285 (aka, The Highway of the Fourteeners) to Salida (a good place to make a Walmart stop). Then travel west on Hwy. 50 crossing over Monarch Pass (a Jake-brake would be a help on this one), and cruise on down to the old west town of Gunnison. After a last stop for provisions and gas, take the final leg on Hwy.135, making your very scenic approach into Crested Butte. It’s a drive of slightly over 100 miles in all.