Crested Butte is Colorado's most serious ski resort. Seriously challenging, seriously scary -- and seriously fun.
The mountain's almost-vertical, double black diamond runs, most of them accessible from a T-bar lift, are in a class by themselves. (A T-bar? Haven't seen one of those in years.) These slopes will put the fear of God in you even if you're a lifelong skier.
And yet, the fun is serious, too. A series of much more forgiving blue and green runs are available for your kids, and there's no shortage of things to do in town, none of which involve you staring into a snowy abyss.
"I'm not going there"
Although Crested Butte is only a few miles over Italian Mountain from Aspen, Colorado's most high-profile ski area, it might as well be on a different planet. People don't come here to be seen, and there are no paparazzi tracking the few celebs who venture over the hill.
Instead, everyone is here to ski.
As soon as we picked up our lift tickets, we headed straight to the mountain.
We'd already skied two resorts in Southern Colorado, some of which presented us with challenging terrain. But this was different. Really different. After a warm-up run on the Red Lady Express, which has a lot of mellow runs perfect for families, we headed over to the Silver Queen Express, a quad that services some of Crested Butte's steepest terrain.
The last few hundred feet of Silver Queen are almost pure vertical, and you get the sense that coming down might be a chayllenge.
"OK, kids," I said to my two boys, ages 13 and 15. "Playtime's over."
Skiing down Triangle, a single black diamond run, demanded our full attention. But after a fresh snowfall, the mountain face was manageable. Then my middle son, Iden, made a turn and headed for the trees -- rated the most difficult terrain -- lured by ungroomed boulder-size moguls and cliff-like steepness, and ...
"I'm not going down there," his older brother declared.
Fortunately, you can change your mind and live to tell the tale. We pivoted on our skis and came down International, another black diamond run.
Wendy saves the day.
The next day we met up with Wendy Fisher, a former Olympic athlete and X-Games competitor who offers ski clinics to people who might find the mountain a little intimidating. Yeah, that would be us.
After just one trip down an easy run, Fisher diagnosed our problem: We were leaning too far back on our skis, which tires you out quickly and limits your ability to control your skis, especially on the steeps.
Fisher is part mountain guide, part storyteller, part instructor. She has an encyclopedic knowledge of Crested Butte, is happy to regale you with stories of the 1992 Winter Olympics, and is eager to offer tips on improving your form. Iden, the fastest skier in our group, learned how to regain control even when zipping down the hill. Fisher showed Aren, our most cautious skier, how to relax a little and enjoy his runs.
And me? Well, I had years and years of bad habits to overcome. I tend to ski with both my legs glued together. In German, it's called "wedeln." Fisher showed me how to trust my equipment, keep my legs apart, and let gravity do more of the work.
Thanks to Fisher, we spent the next few days skiing every open run -- yep, even those seriously hard black diamonds. Thanks, Wendy.
About that fun ...
There's much more to Crested Butte than its legendary slopes. After two days of intense skiing, we got off the mountain and headed into town. We met up with Nel Burkett, curator of the Crested Butte Heritage Museum, who took us on a walk through the historic downtown and then offered a brief tour of the museum. It's funny, but when I asked the kids what they remembered, they said, "That's the town where all the buildings burned down." True, more than a few buildings on the tour had burned to the ground at some point in history.
Crested Butte has a fascinating history as a coal mining town and a center for environmental activism, and there's still an interesting mix of money and idealism here. You can find impressive, million-dollar mansions in the hills, but you can also run into a few old-timers who live more modestly. And you can visit shops and hole-in-the-wall restaurants that remind you more of a college town like Berkeley, Calif.
Speaking of restaurants, there are more than a few tasty choices here. Our favorites included Teocalli Tamale, with its generous burritos and a library of palate-blowing hot sauces. And there's Secret Stash, which claims to have the best pizza in the world. Who am I to disagree? For a more formal dining experience, try the Magic Meadows Yurt, which involves a brisk snowshoe walk through the woods to a backcountry cabin heated by a wood-burning stove, with live music and a five-course meal prepared by a private chef.
At the end of the day, we always found ourselves out in the snow and cold. Crested Butte is one of the coolest places in Colorado, thanks to high mountains that pull freezing air into the valley. On a clear, subzero night, trudging through the fresh powder, we looked up and marveled at a thousand stars bracketed by dark mountains.
Crested Butte may be a serious resort, but at that moment I couldn't wipe the grin off my face. I think it was frozen in place.
Eager to ski, board or simply enjoy a little high altitude R&R as part of your family travel plan?
Getting to the slopes of Colorado is easier with new rail and flight offerings to get travelers straight to the slopes, skipping pesky traffic, rental car headaches and more.
The Winter Park Express Train, which reopened in January 2017, has expanded service to select “First Fridays” of every month. In 2019, the train will run every weekend from January 4 through March 31, 2019.
With the revival of the Winter Park Express Ski Train and the new commuter rail line from Denver International Airport to Denver's Union Station, visitors from throughout the country and across the globe can use train travel for the entire trip from flight to Winter Park.
Discounted tickets are sold on a first come first served basis.
With one-way tickets and service on Saturday and Sunday make it a day trip, a weekend-long trip or an extended vacation. Customize your length of stay at Winter Park Resort and get as much skiing/riding in as you'd like.
Here's a look at the Winter Park Express schedule:
Sounds like a plan!
Get in on the snow action this winter. Here are five ways you and your family can enjoy the ski season.
1. Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Once a rugged, Western outpost popular with extreme skiers, the resort now offers plenty of beginner and family-friendly terrain. Expect new lifts and on-mountain dining experiences as well as lodging options that offer a range of packages full of pre- and post-ski amenities. Avid skiers and boarders can explore new territory with the Golden Ticket. Bring your season pass from any other resort for discounts.
Contact: 1-888-333-7766; jacksonhole.com; www.FourSeasons.com.
2. The Mountain Collective.
Why settle for spending all your time on one mountain when you can access 11 of the world’s top winter destinations with a value pass? Ski two days at Alta/Snowbird, Aspen/Snowmass, Jackson Hole, Mammoth Mountain, Ski Banff-Lake Louise/Sunshine, Stowe, Sun Valley, Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadows, Taos, Thredbo and Whistler Blackcomb, with discounts available for additional days. The pass is $399 for adults and $99 for children 12 and younger. Supplies are limited.
3. Vail, Colo.
The Sebastian is a Rocky Mountain winter wonderland. Its amenties-on-demand program delivers ski and snow essentials to your room along with an energy-boosting breakfast. Order an extra pair of toasty socks, hand warmers for the kids or another round of sunscreen. Guests can arrange to have a steaming bubble bath drawn prior to a return from the slopes.
Team up with the adventure concierge to plan a moonlight snowshoe adventure or ice skating.
Contact: snow.com; thesebastianvail.com
4. Keystone, Colo.
The ground game can be one of the most challenging aspects of skiing with youngsters. But Keystone is committed to making your mountain vacation memorable for the entire family.
It offers a recently renovated reception center, parking reserved for families as well as hundreds of red wagons throughout the property to ease the transport of little ones plus gear.
The Kidtopia program offers a range of activities for children including snow forts, arts and crafts, and music. Stay two nights in resort lodging and kids 12 and younger ski and ride free. Ask about private lessons for family groups.
5. Mount Rose-Ski Tahoe, Nev.
Families will certainly appreciate the more than $1 million worth of enhancements that were finished on the mountain in the off-season. Climb aboard the newly christened Wizard Chairlift for access to beginner-friendly terrain and the Enchanted Forest Family Zone. Also, Nevada’s Heavenly Mountain Resort will celebrate its 60th anniversary this season with special packages, free concerts and pop-up mobile DJs on snowcats.
TIPS FROM THE NATIONAL SKI PATROL
Since 1938, the 501(c)3 non-profit, National Ski Patrol (NSP), has dedicated itself to providing service and safety to the outdoor community. As the preeminent authority for serving the outdoor recreation industry, NSP provides the highest quality Outdoor Emergency Care education and credentialing care to safety services providers. Ski and Snowboard Patrollers keep both you, and the mountain safe. Next time you see them on the mountain or ride with them on a chair lift, stop and talk with them. They're friendly people willing to share their knowledge of the resort with you. They can even give you some tips on great gear and where might be a good place for you to ski and ride based on your ability level. Check out these Safety Tips written to give you some snowsmarts and in collaboration with the NSP Safety Team. For more information, please visit nsp.org.
Since 1938, the National Ski Patrol has been advocating safe practices on the slopes so that skiers and snowboarders like you, can enjoy the most out of the mountain terrain. So, to share the message of how to have fun, while staying safe, NSP developed the slogan "Be Snowsmart! Play It Safe!"
What does "Be Snowsmart! Play It Safe" mean? Well, while it can mean a multitude of things depending on what situation you're in and what terrain you're on, the basis of it can be summed up in 3 key points.
1) Prepare for conditions.
Knowing what type of terrain you and your equipment can handle is extremely important when playing it safe. To be Snowsmart, know your ability level and where that appropriate terrain is on the mountain.
2) Reduce your risk of injury.
To reduce the risk of injury, always wear a helmet. Helmets can reduce your risk of head injury by 35-50%. You can avoid risk of injury in other ways too, including tuning your equipment, skiing with a friend, being aware of other skiers and riders on the slope and being aware of your surroundings and on mountain signage.
3) Prevent emergency situations.
Situations on the mountain can quickly turn into emergencies without warning. Unexpected weather changes, backcountry and side country skiing areas, and getting down the mountain with an injury are just a few factors that may turn into emergencies if you are not prepared. Preparing for situations such as these can help tremendously and can be as simple as being aware of weather forecasts, carrying a reliable communication device while on the mountain, snowboarding with a friend, and knowing how to contact Ski Patrol.
These safety tips are just part of being snowsmart! Before you even head out the door you need to have a few things lined up, like what you are going to wear and knowing how to dress for conditions outside.
Having the right equipment is important too. Borrowing is not the best idea, but renting is a great way to try different gear and see what you like before spending money on purchasing your own skis, board, boots, poles, and helmet. The National Ski Patrol highly recommends wearing a helmet while skiing or snowboarding, but encourages those participating in the sports to realize that helmets do have limitations and are not a complete answer for slope safety. Check out this helmet fact sheet from the National Ski Areas Associationto get more information on the benefits of wearing a helmet.
In addition to the proper use of helmets, the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) has developed Your Responsiblity Code to help snow sports enthusiasts avoid injury and make their experience as safe and enjoyable as possible.
If you're adventuring in the backcountry you must be knowledgeable in avalanche safety and the equipment used to help keep you safe; NSP provides information and classes on backcountry avalanche safety.
Find out more from the National Ski Patrol.
Where will you venture this year?
What sounds appealing? A warm, sandy beach? An active, alpine adventure? Here are seven ideas to consider as your family plans for the year ahead.
1. Consider Costa Rica.
More than a quarter of this Central American country is composed of natural and conserved territory, making it an extraordinary destination for nature lovers. Surfers give the richly diverse nation top marks as do adventure lovers who visit the small country for river rafting, hiking, biking, canopy tours and volcano watching.
Families can take advantage of wildlife or culturally-focused volunteer vacations, clan-friendly resorts and beachside boutique accommodations. Pura vida, the local’s friendly attitude and approach to life, provides a hospitality-rich backdrop.
Contact: www.visitcostarica.com; AustinAdventures.com.
2. Amazing Alaska.
Still America’s last frontier, our 49th state offers year round adventure for families. Scope for whale tails while cruising the Inside Passage, celebrate more than 100 years of sled dog racing on the Iditarod Trail or explore the far reaches of Denali National Park. Learn about Alaska’s native culture, hike and bike in the backcountry or make wildlife watching the centerpiece of your adventure. A favorite among anglers, wade the state’s rivers and streams and you’ll return home with amazing fish stories and pictures to prove your prowess. A free vacation planner is available to help get you started.
3. Float The Grand Canyon.
Whether you travel by raft or dory, for a few days or a few weeks, the majesty of the Grand Canyon may well provide a transformative experience, as it does for many visitors. This national treasure stretches 277 miles across northern Arizona, and plays host to more than five million visitors each year. From your craft on the Colorado River, geologically diverse canyon walls rise as high as 9,000 feet toward the western sky. Hike the side canyons, plow through storied rapids, relax on sandy beaches and revel in the grandeur of one of nature’s finest accomplishments. You’ll want to go back for more.
4. Cruise the Caribbean.
Now rated fourth in the country in cruise traffic, the addition of Galveston as an important point of departure, offers sea-faring travelers expanded opportunities. Four cruise companies – Royal Caribbean, Carnival, Disney and Princess – offer itineraries ranging from four to eight nights on board ships bustling with activity and entertainment.
Cruise companies eager to lure parents with young children as well as multigenerational clans, provide a smorgasbord of kid-thrilling options ranging from wave machines and super slides to teen lounges and zip lines. Deals abound, particularly for those with flexible dates.
5. African Safaris.
Multigenerational families celebrating a “milestone moment” are among those seeking the excitement and adventure found on safari. And more tour operators, eager to capture this growing segment of the market, are creating itineraries that cater to both ends of the age spectrum. The chance to observe a lion stalking his prey, a wildebeest migration or to learn the customs of the Masaii people are experiences more families are putting at the top of their lists.
Contact: FamilyAdventures.com; AustinAdventures.com; Wilderness-Safaris.com ; www.FourSeasons.com/Serengeti
6. The Bahamas.
You’ll find grand resorts in a bustling enclave as well as small getaways on tiny spits of sand just 50 miles off the coast of Florida. Choose your preferred environment from among 700 islands surrounded by crystal clear water and the world’s third largest barrier reef. Visions of snorkeling, fishing, ecotours, horseback riding, boating or just relaxing on soft, sandy beaches will provide plenty to compel your family to consider a visit to this breathtaking archipelago.
7. Get some altitude!
Are you ready to embrace winter sports? Perhaps this is the year to push beyond the local sledding hill and expand your winter sports experiences. Lace up the skates, strap on the snowshoes, learn how mushers round up their sled dogs or consider an ice climb. Go downhill, cross-country, into the back-country and then warm up in a steaming hot spring. Skate ski to dinner served in a yurt or ride aboard a horse-drawn sleigh headed to cozy cabin where you and your family can savor supper served fireside.