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Quiet Times at Crested Butte, an Unsung Resort

May 03, 1987|MICHAEL CARLTON | Carlton is a Denver Post travel columnist

CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. — Let's be honest. To most folks from the flatlands, and many in Colorado, Crested Butte sounds like a species of exotic jungle fowl.

"I say, Hortense, old girl, isn't that a great crested butte up there in the top of that tree? They're quite rare, you know."

"I think you're right, Reginald. It's right underneath the pileated woodpecker in the tall cypress."

Poor Crested Butte. Hardly anyone knows much about this pretty little town and resort tucked into the folds of a valley 28 miles up the road from Gunnison.

To make it even worse, Aspen has already celebrated its 40th anniversary as a resort this year, and Vail is set to kick off its 25th-anniversary celebration next fall. So Crested Butte is getting less recognition than usual, which is to say probably none.

And that is a shame, because Crested Butte is one of the nicest resort areas, both summer and winter, in a state overflowing with good resorts.

Friendly Dogs, Too

Only 1,200 folks live in Crested Butte, and another 375 in adjoining Mt. Crested Butte, where the ski slopes and most of the hotels and condominiums are. There must be at least that many dogs in town--great shaggy, golden-pelted beasts that wag their way up to visitors on the few sidewalks in town, asking only for a pat on the head.

The residents of the town are as friendly as the dogs, and just as relaxed. The good folks at the Crested Butte Hardware & Auto Supply, for example, will ask you to sit a spell by their old potbellied wood stove and tell you how they came to have the mounted head of the largest elk ever shot, a massive creature that was killed near Crested Butte in 1899 by a fellow named John Plute.

Just down Elk Street, at Penelope's Restaurant, owner Lynn Heutchy will invite you in to inspect the place, even though it is closed and several hundred dollars are lying about on an old wooden table as she does the afternoon bookkeeping. Her fat, rusty-colored dog wags a welcome.

Such openness, aside from the extraordinary mountain scenery, is what sets Crested Butte apart from most other resort areas. A recent survey of 1,400 visitors asked the question: "What one word describes Crested Butte?" The overwhelming answer: "Friendly."

When the Crested Butte ski slopes first opened a quarter of a century ago, Vogue paired the resort with Vail as two new "in resorts where everybody who's anybody is going."

Well, that never really happened. Today Vail gets about 1.3 million skiers each year, Crested Butte about 380,000. And in the summer, when the crowds drive down Interstate 70 from Denver to Vail, few folks make the long drive to Gunnison, then up the valley to Crested Butte.

But that's fine for you and me, because we will have much of this splendid little place to ourselves. We'll be among the lucky ones to drive the 28 miles up the valley, past rivers named Gunnison and Taylor, East and Roaring Judy; past fields where herds of Black Angus and Herefords graze and calves on matchstick legs prance about the meadows. We'll drive past ancient pioneer farmhouses where weathered old folks rock in the summer twilight, listening to the crickets and the splash of a trout.

The entire town is a national historic district, with a superb collection of wonderful Victorian houses. There are houses the color of blood, and others painted like a robin's egg, and one as sweet and as purple as a Concord grape. The houses are not as large or impressive as the Victorians in Aspen; these houses, like Crested Butte itself, are understated, modest, charming.

Today, most of the old buildings have been revived. The old brothel is now a hotel; the 1883 City Hall houses the chamber of commerce and a modest art gallery; the 1883 Masonic Temple is still host to meetings, and boasts perhaps the world's only two-story outhouse; and the 1902 Croatian Fraternal Hall is now an athletic club.

The side streets and alleyways of Crested Butte offer a marvelous collection of eccentricity, from the creaking old Roman Catholic Church that is now a home, to the pair of plastic pink flamingos that stand guard in front of an aging Victorian house.

There is little of the typical oh-so-cute mountain resort look to Crested Butte, and almost none of the plastic feeling one gets in some Rocky Mountain towns. There aren't even many stores catering to tourists.

On the mountain, at Mt. Crested Butte, there are a few stores operating for tourists, but nothing like you'll find in Vail or Aspen, or even Steamboat Springs. For all practical purposes, Crested Butte has resisted too much development, and is content with the trickle of tourists that walk its changeless streets.

Old-Time Colorado

And that, of course, it why all those smart people who want to experience a Colorado little different from a century ago come here, where there is plenty do to, especially in the summer. For example:

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