Colorado's biggest secret: The last great ski town

"I was kind of lost, but then a lot of us round here were … before we found this place," Glo Cunningham flicks aside an unruly strand of grey hair as she stares out the window of the century-old museum on Elk Avenue and up towards the mountains. "I just wanted to feel part of a community … don't we all just want a home?" My ski guide Norm (he says he's "not big" on surnames) reckons he wasn't reaching anywhere near as deep as that when he moved here. "I just wanted a big mountain and a small town," he tells me. "And the mountains don't get much bigger than in Crested Butte, and towns don't get a lot smaller."

Whatever it was that drew them here, it sure as hell didn't let them go. Cunningham's just spent her 40th winter in Crested Butte (skied 18 of the last 20 days too, she says proudly). There's a town full of them – a shock of unkempt grey hair, dressed like the '70s never did turn into the '80s, or any decade beyond – ambling contentedly around the health food stores, the crystal shops and the yoga centres off Elk Ave like they're starring in their own daylight-hour dreams. But locals say Crested Butte does that. They say the towering butte that looks right down over the centre of town – they like to call it the mother rock – casts a spell that can't be lifted. They say it starts about the moment you turn the corner on the drive in and the East River Valley opens up before you: when the peaks of the Paradise Divide blow your mind right out through your ears. These aren't any old rolling hills, see; they're the dramatic triangular peaks of Switzerland – transplanted into the Colorado boondocks. Then when you drive down Elk Avenue and you gaze out on the bright-coloured 19th-century storefronts and the bars where cowboys as far back as Butch Cassidy drank (and allegedly got shot at; there's a bullet hole still in the bar of Kochevar's Saloon) well, by then it's already too late. You're a goner, all you can do now, they say, is start your new life in Crested Butte.

I've been visiting Crested Butte for a decade and I can see where they're coming from. I'd never heard of this town, I probably still wouldn't have either if I hadn't stumbled upon it by accident. Now I'm back a third time, that mother rock is doing its thing, slowly but surely. And yet even on this, my third visit, I've still yet to meet another Australian – come to think of it, I've never seen a single foreigner here. For all its spectacular beauty – and with the possible exception of Telluride, it is Colorado's most picturesque mountain town – it's always been too far removed from the well-worn path of international skiers in Colorado. Aspen has the world-wide kudos, Vail has the convenience from Denver, Beaver Creek has the glitz. Crested Butte got lost somewhere in the slipstream.

But this ski season marks the first direct flights from Los Angeles to the town of Gunnison, 30 minutes drive away. Time it right and you could be skiing Crested Butte 17 hours after taking off out of Sydney or Melbourne (the flight from LAX takes just two hours). Whether the easy access will draw more Australians in or not will be seen in the coming months; all I can tell you is what you've been missing out all along.

Ski patroller Chris "Buck" Myall meets me inside Uley's Cabin – fashioned from local pine, it sits right out on the slopes of the resort. Uley's epitomises Crested Butte's battered charm, there's a surprised-looking deer head on the wall above where we sit, right beside the historic miners' tools from a century ago; in the corner an old stovepipe fireplace throws out a heat haze that has me down to a T-shirt. Myall moved to Crested Butte about the same time as Cunningham. He's ski patrolled around the world, but says no other ski mountain is quite like Crested Butte. "There's 54 mountains over 14 000 feet (4267 metres) in Colorado, 14 of them are right here," he says with a look of pride. "Edmund Hilary came here in the 1930s to climb because these mountains mimicked the conditions of the Himalayas. Jackson Hole (north in Wyoming) might be the most famous ski resort in the US for its backcountry terrain, but we have more of it here. Where they close runs, we keep them open. This mountain is the best for thrill-seekers anywhere in North America."

Outside Uley's, skiers sun themselves in deckchairs by an ice bar as a guitarist puts his brand on Eagles and Neil Young classics. I'm taken across almost entirely empty ski slopes and up to the challenging north face of the mountain. Ski guide Chris Matison warns some runs round here slope beyond 50 degrees, including Rambo, North America's steepest in-bounds run (at 55 degrees). "Part of the Crested Butte skiing experience is that if you fall, you get up as quick as you can," he says. "Because you will not stop. And you don't want to be going down the mountain head first." The US Extreme Skiing Championships have been staged here, as have the X Games. But there's terrain for every type of skier or boarder. Sixteen per cent of the ski resort is set aside for adrenalin junkies among the upper reaches of the mountain, but further down the remainder is ideal for intermediates and beginners.

The base of the ski resort offers little in the way of apres atmosphere: it's the town of Crested Butte which offers the best counter-cultural vibe in the western United States. If peace, love and rock'n'roll is your mantra, then Crested Butte is your town. Free mountain shuttles painted by local artists take me into town, a 10-minute journey away.

Town is an adventure in technicolour: Tibetan prayer flags and rainbow banners flutter in the ever-so-light afternoon breeze, as vintage Dodges and decades-old utilities that scarcely hold together amble down the main street, driven by men of the same vintage. It looks like the silver mining days of the 1860s never ended, restaurants, shops, bars and cafes retain their original Victorian-era exteriors, while old mining shacks are sprinkled in between, painted every colour of the rainbow.

As the sun sets between the mountains, throwing an apricot hue onto the tie-dyed folk wandering the sidewalks and onto the spruces and aspens that line the main street, the town comes alive. Live music filters out from century-old taverns, in one, Top Of The Town, old timers take to the dance floor, careful not to trip on their flowing grey beards, as a bluegrass band beats out a steady beat.

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"This is a real town, these are real people, this is Aspen maybe 30 years ago," Myall told me in Uley's earlier. There's white picket fences around the homes off Elk Avenue, down narrow laneways where dogs sit but never seem concerned enough to bark. Crested Butte was once a silver mining town 140 or so years back, then coal paved the way into the 20th century. When the last mine shut in 1952 the area died a slow death, that is, till the ski resort opened in 1962.

These days – aside from ranching in the surrounding valley – it's tourism that keeps Crested Butte ticking over; though it's of the subtle variety, the type where you often feel like you're the only outsider. Maybe that's why they dub this place "the last great Colorado ski town". All the shops, bars and restaurants in their original mining-era buildings are locally owned and operated – you won't find a chain in these parts, perish the thought.

And yet for all its rustic charm, Crested Butte actually has more gourmet restaurants than any other Colorado town for its size. Visitors can choose cuisine from just about every country on Earth, and there's some fancy lounge bars sprinkled among all the counter-culture. But you can get all that in Aspen – what I like best about Crested Butte are the simple things: like $1.50 pints during a happy hour that lasts five hours from 3pm till 8pm each day of the week on the sunny deck of The Eldo, where signs welcome those looking for "a sunny place for shady people". Or that the best place to eat in town is still one of the simplest – you'll have to wait for a table at the bar with locals at the noisy, open-plan Secret Stash Pizzeria on Elk Avenue, but it's the best pizza in Colorado.

It's highly doubtful direct flights from LA will do much to disturb the peace and quiet of Crested Butte, though its relative isolation has kept it preserved, like it's in some kind of living, breathing time capsule. "We won't be getting any chains, never, we're proud of that," Cunningham says. "Nothing much changes around Crested Butte, it's still the same town it was." On its day there's no finer ski mountain on Earth – metres and metres of dry, powder snow fall on some of the tallest mountains in North America. "Crested Butte has it all," Norm the ski guide tells me. "There's no other place."

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

skicb.com

GETTING THERE

Fly with any of the major airlines from Australia to Los Angeles and there are direct flights from LA to Gunnison (a 30-minute drive from Crested Butte) on Wednesdays and Saturdays, see travelplanski.com.

STAYING THERE

Sleep metres from the chairlift at the base of Crested Butte Ski Resort at Mountaineer Square, rooms from $US169 ($240), see skicb.com/lodging/mountaineer-square. Travelplan has a variety of ski packages including discounted accommodation and lift tickets, see travelplanski.com.

Craig Tansley was a guest of Crested Butte Mountain Resort and Travelplan.

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