If you want to explore the mountain valleys around Crested Butte, we highly recommend you purchase the Latitude 40 brand map of Crested Butte/Taylor Park.
*A word about the names of one road, Highway 135, which comes from Gunnison, goes through Crested Butte, and continues three miles to the ski area: Above the town of Crested Butte is a road called Gothic Road. Gothic Road is paved for two miles past the ski area, and then beyond up the East River Valley turns into a dirt road.
Crested Butte is nestled against the southwest side of Colorado’s Elk Ridge. The Elk Ridge is among the five finest high mountain ridges in the country. In my opinion the finest looking high mountain ridge in the lower 48 is the Needles Range, south of Silverton. The Sawatch Sierra and Wind River Ranges may round out the five big outstanding high mountain ranges in the US south of Alaska. The north side of the San Juans is also among the best mountain painting areas available, but may not be a single range like the others.
The Needles, while more impressive than the Elks, are exceedingly difficult to get near. The Elk Ridge, while also in a wilderness area, (Maroon Bells/Snowmass), has two and four wheel drive roads that get close enough for painting purposes. The North(East) side of the Elk Ridge is home to the towns of Aspen and Carbondale. That side of the Elk Range is subject to the population coming off of I-70. The South(West) side of the Elk Range has the towns of Mable and Crested Butte. Crested Butte in particular has sole access to a dozen approach routes to the Elk Ridge. Then other lesser, but still high mountain ranges, wrap off the Elk Ridge around Crested Butte and continue to the west and south.
Crested Butte is surrounded by mountains, it sits at the hub of a wheel of mountain valleys. Not counting the paved route to Gunnison, there are six major backcountry routes out of Crested Butte. As a group they form a kaleidoscope of scenery. To the east and north out of Crested Butte are routes that lead toward the Elk Ridge.
Brush Creek Road heads east, becomes infamous Pearl Pass, and is the most direct, drivable route towards the Elk Ridge and Aspen. Castle Peak, the 13th highest mountain in the lower 48 and highest Elk Peak is this direction, just nine straight-line miles from the ski area.
The East River Valley (Gothic Road) also provides fairly direct access to the Elk Ridge, and runs parallel to the ridge. Gothic Road is significantly less treacherous than even the lower stretches of Pearl Pass.
The Slate River Valley runs parallel to the East River Valley, but four miles to the southwest. Slate River Valley is the valley the town of Crested Butte sits in and is among the finest view sheds of any mountain community anywhere. Slate River Road is a route into a postcard. The road eventually goes uphill over Paradise Divide to access the middle valleys of the southwest Elk Range. Gothic Road and Slate River Road connect in Paradise Basin, and together make up what must be among the best, relatively mellow, backcountry circle routes you could find.
Kebler Pass heads another direction. Kebler heads out of the southwest corner of town, and west uphill gently for seven miles and then downhill for twenty-five miles, eventually connecting to CO133 at Paonia Reservoir. This is an improved dirt road, on lower elevation terrain than the territory east of Crested Butte. This uncrowded direction is home to the largest aspen stands on earth, and spectacular stand-alone laccoliths, (Gothic Mountain and Crested Butte with their spires typify the local variety laccolith). The aspen stands occurring in the ten miles past Kebler Pass are worth seeing. Ohio Pass heads south back to Gunnison just before Kebler Pass and is another mellow and worthwhile direction.
At CB South another long route begins – Cement Creek. Cement Creek approaches the Elk Range again but wraps around the south end of the Ridge, eventually connecting in remote fashion with Taylor Park and access to the west side of the Sawatch Range.
The sixth route is perhaps a more minor direction. Washington Gulch is a shorter valley that runs parallel with East River Valley and Slate River Valley, but between them. Upper Washington Gulch connects with Slate River Road near Paradise Divide. If Washington Gulch is a shorter valley than the others, it is very scenic, has great camping once you reach the National Forest, and is close to town.
While the Slate River Valley, East River Valley, and Washington Gulch terminate near each other, Brush Creek is its own direction. Brush Creek Road leads to infamous Pearl Pass, the fastest, wildest road to Aspen. This road gets closer to the Elk Ridge itself than any other, and is a short route to three Elk Ridge valleys.
Brush Creek Road can be reached by traveling south out of Crested Butte on Hwy 135 towards Gunnison about two miles, then taking a left at the Skyland sign. Keep straight at the golf course entrance, the road soon turns to dirt; this is Brush Creek Road (fr378). The road wraps around the south side of the ski mountain, and then crosses the East River in a beautiful old ranch scene (Cold Spring Ranch). Then it climbs a mile or so before crossing West Elk Creek. If you are two-wheel drive, you should park before you get near that crossing. 4WD high-clearance vehicles can continue up this awesome but serious route and can also take the steep left shortly before the crossing, up West Brush Creek Road (fr738.2a). The 4WD road goes some miles all the way onto the side of Teocalli Mountain. Because this valley doesn’t have an official trail past Teocalli Mountain, it receives the least traffic of any Elk Ridge valley that has a pass route across the ridge. This is an exceptional painting area, which has heavy aspens, copious flowers, beaver dams, high mountains above, and late snow.
Brush Creek Road gets progressively more serious as it becomes Pearl Pass. Five miles past West Brush Creek, a trail heads left up towards the Elk Ridge via incredible Twin Lakes. Some more very bumpy miles bring you to Cumberland Basin, which is crowned by Castle Peak itself, in glorious display, with its southern turrets immediately above you. When Pearl Pass climbs out of the bottom of Cumberland Basin it gets truly extreme, I would suggest you don’t go past Cumberland Basin or Pearl Pass Road.
Cement Creek Road heads towards and through Crested Butte South, which is nine miles south of CB on Hwy 135. This road accesses the far southern end of the Elk Ridge at Italian Mountain. I have never taken this long southern route, but would be interested to hear about it.
Past the town of Crested Butte, the road that was Hwy 135 from Gunnison is called Gothic Road. It continues paved through Mt. Crested Butte at the base of the ski area. Numberous public residential roads in Mt. CB go uphill and provide wonderful painting views. At the end of the town of Mt. CB, Gothic Road turns to dirt and enters National Forest (fr317). Views down to winding East River through fine aspen groves make the drive to the town of Gothic memorable. The town of Gothic and its namesake mountain are picturesque and extreme. However, the town of Gothic itself is private property. This is a very sensitive biological research facility, (they are studying everything in Gothic). You can paint on this public road, but please stay on the main road. The short route to Judd Falls gives perfect access to Cooper Creek and Virginia Basin behind Gothic. Just past Gothic on the right is a parking area and a road (fr317.3a). Low-clearance parks here, high-clearance can continue .6 miles to another parking area. A lovely .6 mile hike leads to beautiful Judd Falls. Beyond Judd Falls, Cooper Creek Trail enters the wilderness area and continues up to the Elk Ridge. Three passes cross the Elk Ridge proper on the upper reaches of Cooper Creek.
Continuing up Gothic Road 2.1 miles, another road takes off to the right, this is Rustlers Gulch Road. After crossing the East River (medium depth), this 4WD road climbs steeply uphill at first and then through fields to the wilderness boundary, where a trail continues. The 4WD road then cuts left up through fields with wonderful down-valley views to Gothic and the spired ski area. The road continues a distance uphill through wildflower fields, and eventually, if you walk, reaches a mine. The trail up Rustlers Gulch curves in a great arc to the right. Views and flowers are plentiful. The valley is capped by scary looking Precarious Peak, on the Elk Ridge itself.
Continuing past Rustlers Gulch, Gothic Road ascends reasonably along the upper valley until it nears Emerald Lake. Here the road gets tighter, and a short road to Emerald Lake parking drops off to the left. Gothic Road stays high and thin above Emerald Lake for a quarter of a mile, reaching mellow Schofield Pass just above. Emerald Lake, Schofield Pass, and the 401 trail have high concentrations of wildflowers.
Kebler Pass is a direction to itself. This is a low route to the west, through aspen forests and volcanic spires. Kebler Pass Road, (County Road 12), is what you are on if you take Whiterock Ave. west out of town. The road rises gently for seven miles to the pass at 10,000 ft. and then drops through miles of aspen forests. Before the pass, a road, (fr526), heads off on the right to Lake Irwin, a beautiful lake under the Ruby Range. Continuing towards Kebler Pass, another road, (fr730), heads off on the left immediately through Ohio Pass, and downhill to Gunnison through the Ohio Creek Valley. Ohio Creek Valley has many fine agricultural scenes. Because the area between CB and Kebler Pass is the town’s watershed, camping is not permitted until you pass over Kebler or Ohio Pass. However, once you do you’ll see many drive-in informal camping areas. Over Kebler Pass the aspen/laccolith territories, including Horse Ranch Park and Lost Lake, are worth checking out.
Slate River Road, (fr734), takes off Gothic Road to the left as you go from CB to Mt. CB (just past the cemetery on your right). This road has spectacular scenery from start to finish. Past private Nicholson Lake, Slate River Road enters National Forest and camping abounds. The first valley past Nicholson Lake opens on your left. This is the Oh-Be-Joyful Valley that our gallery is named after. There are two routes across Slate River towards OBJ Valley. The first is Gunsight Pass Road (fr585). There is a pedestrian bridge across the Slate River here (and a deep water 4WD crossing). Gunsight Pass Road goes uphill quickly and you can gain big views walking or driving up this precipitous road. You can also abandon the road after a bit and drop down to Oh-Be-Joyful Creek and its waterfalls on the right. The second route to OBJ Valley is OBJ Road (fr754) 1.1 miles past the turn for Gunsight Pass. Here is a trail that crosses the river, and follows OBJ Creek into a long, spectacular valley. The bottom of OBJ Creek is a series of waterfalls famous for extreme kayaking. 2.3 Miles from the Slate River crossing, OBJ Road turns trail and enters the Raggeds Wilderness and the upper OBJ Valley.
Continuing past OBJ Valley on Slate River Road, you drive through beautiful alpine scenery for about two miles until you reach Pittsburg. Here, Poverty Gulch Road (fr552.2) takes off to the left, immediately across Slate River (less deep), and 4WD uphill into Poverty Gulch. The scenery and camping in Poverty Gulch are spectacular, and relatively quiet due to the 4WD road. You can continue about 1.8 miles up Poverty Gulch, where you reach old precipitous mining roads probably not worth tangling with. You can walk left or right where Poverty Gulch Road crosses its creek. Forest road 552.2a goes up to the left, towards Daisy Pass. To the right another mining road disappears into a waterfall chasm. Continuing uphill on foot this way leads past a long series of lovely waterfalls.
Staying on Slate River Road past Poverty Gulch the road gets more seriously uphill and 4WD-appropriate. The road goes uphill through miles of beautiful switchbacks, which give you good elevation and views. Most of the way up, Washington Gulch Road (fr811) comes in from the right. This is an alternate way back to paved Gothic Road. Past this juncture, Slate River Road becomes exposed. Although the road is in very good shape, it has large drop-offs. These are great view spots, but not for a height-squeamish driver. At the top of this hill is amazing Paradise Divide. A short trail up Cinnamon Mountain provides a full-blown view of the backside of the Maroon Bells. This is pure high-alpine scenery, mostly above treeline.
The road continues downhill from here through Paradise Basin, which is the head of the Crystal River Drainage. 2.6 Miles from Paradise Divide, the road connects with Gothic Road (fr317) at Schofield Pass. Going to the left at this juncture is downhill towards Crystal. West Maroon Pass trail heads uphill to the right .8 miles this way, from a parking area. Be careful not to go too far towards Crystal this way. If you cross a river going this way you are about to enter Crystal Canyon which is a hard-core 4WD and necessarily one-way, which is to say you can’t drive back up Crystal canyon if you go down it. Taking a right at Schofield Pass instead leads you directly into the top of East River Valley, on the way to Gothic and Mt. Crested Butte. At Schofield Pass, an obvious bike trail goes uphill on the NE side of the road. This is the world-famous 401 mountain bike trail. It winds through wildflowers galore. Snowmass Mountain and Capital Peak are visible from this trail once you clear the trees coming up from Schofield Pass.
Washington Gulch parallels East River Valley and Slate River Valley, but is between them. Washington Gulch Road (fr811) takes off to the left from Gothic Road 1.7 miles from CB heading towards Mt. CB. This is a short valley that connects with Slate River Road as previously noted. Despite being short, the valley is worth seeing for the great scenery, camping, and closeness to town. The road is paved to the neighborhoods at Meridian Lake. After that, the road turns dirt and enters National Forest. The valley is dominated by the south and west aspects of Gothic Mountain. Open wildflower fields and great views down-valley to the ski area make this a fine painting valley. The upper end of Washington Gulch road is 4WD.