Adventure 101: Mountain Biking in Crested Butte

Few places exude bicycling culture as much as Crested Butte, a quirky mountain hamlet tucked into the southern Rockies at close to 9,000 feet above sea level.

The Western Slope town (population 1,500) is just 25 miles from Aspen as the crow flies, but a world away in style. Just beyond Crested Butte’s city limits, the pavement ends and dirt roads snake up the valley, leading to world-class mountain-biking trails amid some of the most striking scenery Colorado has to offer.

Crested Butte is one of the birthplaces of mountain biking, and, fittingly, was once home to a museum and hall of fame dedicated to the sport (it was recently relocated to Marin County, California). Since the 1970s, two-wheeled tinkerers here have been cobbling together makeshift steeds to test on the town’s steep and pockmarked terrain.

Today’s mountain bikers take their pick from 750 miles of trails around Crested Butte and its Western Slope neighbor Gunnison, including wide starter trails, flowy single-track paths, technical rock gardens, and white-knuckled descents.

With so many options, Crested Butte is the perfect place to explore on two wheels. Here’s how to get started.

> When to Go: 

Summer in Crested Butte is short, owing to the high altitude. Lower-elevation trails like the Lower Loop trail system melt out earlier and are ridable as early as June. Higher trails, like 401, might be covered in snow until late July.

The wildflowers are astounding, particularly in July. Expect entire hillsides covered with cheerful bright yellow mule’s ears, and mind-boggling mounds of purple lupines. Just try to keep your eyes on the trail as the kaleidoscope of colors whizzes by.

Mountain-biking season extends into fall, until the snow starts flying. Rolling through aspen glades in late September is a delight, with fall foliage on full display. Aspen leaves coat the trail in a carpet of red, yellow, and brown, while golden-fringed branches shimmer in the sun and wind.

> Getting Started: 

If it’s your first time mountain biking, start slowly. Try riding on a paved path, then progress to a wide dirt path. Slowly attempt more rocky and narrow trails as you get comfortable on uneven terrain. The Lower Loop trail system in Crested Butte is a great place to start.

Crested Butte Mountain Resort offers lessons and clinics to help you master the basics. You can also hone your skills in the bike park, where a full range of trails lets you progress level by level.

If you’d like someone to show you around the trails outside of town, Irwin Guides offers full- or half-day guided rides, as well as technical skills clinics.

> Essential Gear and Tips:

The first thing you need is a mountain bike. If you don’t have your own, the friendly folks at Big Al’s Bicycle Heaven can hook you up. Their rentals include essentials, like a helmet, lock, flat repair kit, and choice of pedals.

If you opt for clipless pedals, bring your own shoes. Beginners will likely be more comfortable using flat pedals with toe clips, which make it easier to bail out in the event of a fall.

It’s a good idea to wear fingerless gloves to protect your hands. A backpack with a hydration bladder makes it easy to sip as you spin. Wear padded shorts to protect your buns, and bring warm layers and rain gear in case the weather turns. Don’t forget snacks. And always pack a spare tube, patch kit, and pump (and know how to use them) in case you get a flat tire.

MTBHome is a great place to learn about trails in Gunnison County. To keep from getting lost, add these maps to your phone via the CBG Trails website. Click the “How To” button and follow the instructions to add the app to your home screen. Then download maps, which you can access even when you’re out of cell range.

> Where to Go: 

The hills around town are bursting with places to crank into high gear. Here are a few iconic spots:

Beginner: Lower Loop trail system

If you’re new to mountain biking then this trail system—right outside Crested Butte’s back door—is the perfect place to start.

The Crested Butte Land Trust, a local nonprofit that works to preserve scenic areas and wildlife corridors in the area, has created an impressive network of 16 miles of beginner to intermediate trails that are accessible right from town.

Tip: Roll out from Elk Avenue to Peanut Lake Road and string together any combination of these well-marked tracks.

Intermediate: 401

No talk of Crested Butte mountain biking would be complete without mention of the 401, a Crested Butte classic that will leave you swooning for years. This trail starts at the top of Schofield Pass and immediately climbs, single track, to 11,350 feet. The steep trail and thin air can be a dangerous combination. Don’t feel bad if you need to jump off your bike and walk at points.

The trail winds down the valley to the abandoned mining town of Gothic, and features landscapes so stunning you’ll want to stop and admire the view. Expect some exposure (with the trail dropping off steeply to the side) and another steady climb along the way.

Tip: For best results, make it a loop by parking in Gothic and riding 5.5 miles up Gothic Road to the trailhead.

Advanced: Deer Creek Trail

This trail circumnavigates Mount Crested Butte, with a series of fun climbs and descents through mind-blowing wildflower fields. Counterclockwise is best.

Locals ride it from town, a stiff 28-mile loop that includes pavement, dirt road, double-track, and single-track. But be warned that come August, you’re almost guaranteed to encounter several cows on this trail, not to mention their poop.

Tip: The initial climb is a serious grunt. If your bike legs aren’t up to the full effort, shuttle a car up Brush Creek Road and leave another one at the finish near Gothic.

> Other Great Mountain Biking Destinations in the United States:

  • Black Hills, South Dakota: In western South Dakota, the Black Hills rise from the Great Plains, creating the perfect setting for more than 500 miles of mountain-bike trails. The famous Centennial Trail stretches for an epic 111 miles, rolling through prairie lands to the summits of buttes. (Note: Some sections of the trail are closed to bikes, but there are alternate routes.) Beginners should beeline for the Hanson-Larsen trail system (aka “M Hill”) in Rapid City.
  • Fruita, Colorado: This western Colorado town put itself on the map by building world-class trails specifically for mountain bicycling. Enjoy the flowing trails of 18 Road or immerse yourself in red-rock desert in the Kokopelli area.
  • Whistler, British Columbia: Test your chops at Whistler Mountain Bike Park, where you have your pick of swoopy single-track, root-riddled descents, boardwalks, rocky drop-offs, and bermed turns. If cross-country is more your thing, roll through the rain forest and marvel at the towering trees.

Boulder-based freelance writer Avery Stonich has traveled to more than 40 countries in search of adventure. Visit her website at averystonich.com and follow her on Twitter and Instagram @averystonich. 

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Comments

  1. Jimmy Pants
    August 18, 2015, 8:16 am

    How is it not a western slope town, Rick? Pretty sure the divide is east of CB along the collegiates….

  2. Rick Dunnahoo
    Alamosa, CO
    August 12, 2015, 4:07 pm

    Good article but Crested Butte is not a western slope town

  3. Ana
    NE
    July 29, 2015, 3:33 pm

    How do you not include Moab, UT when writing about mountain biking destinations?