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Crested Butte's snowy faces.

As the crow flies, Crested Butte, Colorado, is only about 25 miles south of Aspen. In a long summer day, hardy hikers can make the trek over the Elk Mountains from Aspen by way of West Maroon Pass.

But in winter, when an average of 225 inches of snow falls on this old mining town, Crested Butte is a 287-mile drive from Aspen over snowbound mountain passes. And on days when the snow is knee-high along Elk Avenue, and nearby Gunnison is reported to be the coldest spot in the nation, Crested Butte seems even farther away.

Despite its apparent winter isolation, Crested Butte is readily accessible. Riding into town on the airport shuttle bus, we overheard a group of Texas skiers ask if Crested Butte, which has grown considerably in the last five years, would end up being like Aspen. "Nah," said the shuttle driver, "we've got too many dogs and mountain bikes in town."

Crested Butte has always been a town of great character, albeit one with two faces of late.

There's the mining town, born in 1880, full of falsefront Victorian buildings, and listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. And then, 3 miles up the road, there's the thoroughly modern ski area--Mt. Crested Butte--with its classy hotel and condominium villages.

THE MINING TOWN

A good place to begin a tour of historic Crested Butte is at the unofficial chamber of commerce, which happens to be the Hardware and Auto Supply (and Conoco station), on the corner of Elk Avenue and Fourth Street. Established in 1883, it's the kind of store where you're still likely to find snowshoes and kerosene lamps.

The store is a living history museum of sorts, owned and operated by A. J. (Tony) Mihelich, who was born in Crested Butte in 1903. Some days, Botsie Spritzer drops by and pulls up a chair by the stove. Spritzer talks about the days when Crested Butte was a company town, servicing the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company from 1880 to 1952.

"Most of the miners were Croatians or Slovenes," Spritzer says, "and my dad got a band together. They'd play polka music in the saloon 'cause that's what the miners wanted to hear." Spritzer chuckles as he adds, "But skiers don't polka."

From the hardware store, stroll west down Elk Avenue past the brightly painted storefronts, many of which housed saloons (there were as many as 17 once). The oldest watering hole still around is the Wooden Nickel (222 Elk), a good place for steak and half-pound hamburgers. Next door is the Idle Spur, a new microbrewery where you can sip a Red Lady ale and dance to a live band on weekends.

Despite its small size, Crested Butte (population 1,100) has some fine restaurants. Donita's Cantina (330 Elk) serves up hearty Mexican food.

The best restaurant in town is Soupcon, tucked away in an alley off Second and Elk streets, which serves a rotating French menu. Reservations are a must; call (303) 349-5448.

The town has 10 bed-and-breakfast inns, ranging from The Claim Jumper, a historic log house with six theme rooms (about $85 a night; 349-6471), to the recently refurbished Cristiana Guesthaus with 21 rooms (about $70; 349-5326).

For other lodging options, call the chamber of commerce at (800) 545-4505.

THE SKI AREA

The old town's good-natured character extends to its younger neighbor--Mt. Crested Butte, an independent ski resort town where you'll find the 262-room Grande Butte Hotel and hundreds of condominiums ringing a plaza of gift shops and ski stores.

Mount Crested Butte, the mountain, has a base elevation of 9,100 feet. The season runs Thanksgiving through mid-April.

Skiers used to kid about the area's venerable (and slow) covered double chair, Silver Queen, joking that it was the only lift in Colorado where you could enjoy a leisurely picnic lunch while riding up the mountain and still have time to take a nap before reaching the top.

That changes this season as the old lift gives way to a new high-speed, detachable quad chair. Skiers can now get to the top in about 8 minutes. Lift tickets cost $39. Ages under 13 ski free when an adult buys a lift ticket (except March 13 through 27).

The area has always had plenty of wide-open, uncrowded beginner and intermediate trails. But since 1987, it has opened more than 550 acres of ungroomed powder glades and bowls where you'll find some of the finest extreme skiing in the West. If you want to try the extremely steep North Face or Phoenix Bowl, we suggest you ski with an area guide. The ski patrol offers free guided tours of this area twice daily. Or take one of the 2- or 3-hour extreme skiing workshops ($35 to $50).

If you want to try some powder skiing but prefer more moderate runs, Irwin Lodge, 12 miles west of Crested Butte and accessible only by snowcat or snowmobile during winter, will take you by snowcat to untracked powder runs even intermediate skiers can handle. A day trip costs $160; a ski package, including lodging and meals, starts at about $200. Call (800) 247-9462.

Several airlines, including American, Continental Express, and United Express fly from Denver to Gunnison, a 28-mile drive south of Crested Butte. (Nonstop service to Gunnison is also available out of Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston.) Van shuttle service ($15 one way) is available from the Gunnison airport to Crested Butte, and free buses run every 15 minutes between Crested Butte and the ski resort.

Ski area information and arrangements for travel, lodging, and lift tickets are handled through Crested Butte Vacations; call (800) 544-8448.
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Title Annotation:Travel and Recreation; Crested Butte, Colorado
Author:Lansing, David
Publication:Sunset
Date:Feb 1, 1993
Words:943
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