Everyone who goes to Crested Butte loves Crested Butte. Devotees possess a strong “if you know, you know” attitude about the place that suggests it’s Colorado’s best-kept secret—and with good reason. The mountain is a skier’s mountain, known for its relatively uncrowded runs and steep, rugged, challenging terrain. The town is part French Alps and part Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid—triangular roofed-cabins are nestled among western-style false front buildings, restored to their old Western glory.
Founded as a coal mining town in the 1870s, Crested Butte was slow to transform into the winter sports destination that it is today. The town’s main street, Elk Avenue, wasn’t paved until 1976. In the early 1990s, the mountain began hosting extreme skiing competitions—one of the first in America to do so—and its indie ski spirit was born.
Family-owned since 2006, with the tagline “Colorado’s last great ski town,” Crested Butte’s identity is that of a holdout against corporate forces—a ski destination that has resisted the encroachment of resort conglomerates and their cookie-cutter, characterless new developments.
Such developments are the calling card of Vail Resorts, owner of premier destinations including Breckenridge, Beaver Creek, Whistler, Park City, Stowe, and—of course—Vail. Known for acquiring and glossing-up mountains en masse, Vail has become the adversary of those winter sports lovers with an independent sensibility.
In 2018, Vail expanded its footprint in the skiing world by acquiring four new resorts, including Crested Butte—creating a bit of an identity crisis for the proudly unpretentious, bohemian mountain. But while locals and visitors outwardly balked at the concept of being acquired by a corporation, excitement quietly brewed beneath the surface.
Being independent came at the expense of the mountain’s infrastructure—the lift system fell into disrepair over the years, with inefficient pulley lifts servicing some of the most popular extreme terrain and several lifts out of commission altogether. Vail’s purchase promised an infusion of capital that the mountain needed—a promise the company is already making good on by replacing the decrepit Teocali lift for the 2019-2020 season. “The mountain brings so much joy to so many people,” remarked Natalie Phillips, proprietor of local eatery Sunflower. “Anyone who is able to keep that mountain operating has my gratitude.”
While Vail has a bad reputation for wiping out the personality of the mountains they acquire, in recent years their strategy has shifted away from real estate and towards a dedicated focus on on-mountain experience and amenities. While there may be a trickle-down effect of rising real estate prices—which could lead to staffing shortages and other challenges for small businesses—Vail likely will not directly confront the colorful in-town après ski spots and lodging with new commercial real estate development. Jake Jones, Managing Director of locally-run luxury hospitality group Eleven Experience, notes that “the services and amenities offered by Eleven Experience and Crested Butte Mountain Resort are more complementary than competitive.”
Above all, Vail’s acquisition of Crested Butte will mean an influx of new visitors to the mountain—and an expanded clientele for the small businesses in town. John Leonardi, chef and proprietor-owner of Crested Butte’s fine dining landmark Soupçon, is happy to see a broader array of area codes calling for reservations. “In the last year, we’ve seen more of the state come further west,” he says, noting an increase of patrons from Denver. “We still have the long timers from Texas, Oklahoma, California, and the front range [of Colorado], and now we’re seeing new faces—which isn’t a bad thing. I’m really excited to see what Vail will bring.”
This year, Vail announced an even broader expansion: by acquiring Peak Resorts, they added 17 new mountains to their portfolio, many of which are on the East Coast. For New Yorkers who ski local resorts like Hunter Mountain, that means Crested Butte just got a lot closer, as all of Vail’s properties are covered under its Epic Pass.
Where to Après Ski
At the end of an adrenaline-fueled day on the mountain, head to Uley’s Cabin on the mountain for an après ski drink. The circa-1880 cabin boasts a roaring fire inside and a sunny deck outside, perfect for putting your feet up and resting your sore legs. From there, the runs are green all the way down.
For those who love an après ski margarita, buzzy Mexican restaurant Bonez, in town, serves six varieties and runs happy hour specials from 4 to 5 p.m. Go for the 2-for-1 top shelf tequila shots and stay for the hearty taco plates.
While rum might seem more island-paradise than ski-town, the Montanya Rum distillery on Elk Ave has a distinctly alpine take on the spirit: It’s made from Louisiana-grown sugar cane and bottled with water from a local snowmelt-fed aquifer. Cozy flavors of coffee, chai, clove, and cardamom come together in the “Smoke Show” cocktail, perfect for those with an après sweet tooth.
Where to Eat
Nestled in an alleyway behind Elk Avenue, Soupçon feels right out of a postcard from the French Alps. The petite French bistro serves a seasonal, classically-inspired menu of French-American cuisine featuring luxe ingredients (think: truffles and foie gras). Dinner is served in two seatings per night, at 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. On New Years Eve and Valentine’s Day, a special five-course tasting menu is available. If lobster is on the menu, order it.
Sunflower offers a California-esque dinner menu with a focus on salads, soups, and small plates in a cozy, charming space. On weekends in summer, they serve brunch, with beet-cured salmon toast and grits with pork belly gracing the menu. Their sourdough bread is the best in town.
Where to Stay
Headquartered in Crested Butte, Eleven Experiences offers three luxurious options for visitors there: Scarp Ridge Lodge, Sopris House, and Public House. The first two are stand-alone properties available on a buyout basis only, while the others are available for individual room bookings. Public House consists of three well-appointed lofts situated atop a gastropub and music venue with the same name, and offers a quiet retreat from the happenings downstairs.
Originally Appeared on Vogue