Crested Butte: Wildflowers, Mountains and Fall Colors
July 28, 2023| Updated on
Deep in the heart of the Rockies is one of Colorado’s famous mountain towns: Crested Butte. Famous for it’s beautiful wildflowers, Crested Butte has it all. It has wildflowers for sure, but it also has beautiful fall color displays of aspen trees, amazing mountain backdrops, great skiing, hiking and one of the best destinations for off-roading in a state full of great off-roading destinations.
History of Crested Butte
Originally home to the Ute Native American tribe, Crested Butte sits at an elevation of almost 9,000 feet and about half an hour north of Gunnison. The name Crested Butte originally came from Ferdinand V. Hayden, a geologist who was surveying the surrounding mountains in 1873. He referred to nearby Gothic Mountain and Crested Butte Mountain as “crested buttes” giving Crested Butte its namesake. By the late 1870s, Howard Smith, the founder of Crested Butte had laid the groundwork for the town, and by 1880 it was incorporated with around 400 settlers and as many as 1000 miners in the area. Mining was king here. Extensive coal deposits and silver attracted many to this beautiful region. In fact, the Crystal River Valley, not far from Crested Butte, supplied stone that was used in the construction of both the Lincoln Memorial and Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington D.C.
By the late 1800s, many silver mines closed in surrounding areas, while Crested Butte remained due to its abundance of coal. For decades, this was the primary driver of the town. However, like many mountain resort towns that still exist today, Crested Butte turned from mining to tourism in the middle of the 20th century. By the early 1960’s, Colorado’s first gondola was created and Mt. Crested Butte was born as a recreational skiing destination. Other tourist activities have helped mould Crested Butte into a world class destination for skiing, hiking and exploring the backcountry via Jeep’s and other 4 wheel drive vehicles. For many years, Crested Butte and surrounding areas have been known for spectacular displays of wildflowers, which have earned it the nickname of the “Wildflower Capital of Colorado”.
The Wildflower Capital of Colorado
Every summer, the picturesque mountains around Crested Butte come alive with a kaleidoscope of colors along the meadows and mountainsides as wildflowers bloom into amazing displays. From the aspen-laden forest floors filled with flowers of Kebler Pass to the meadows surrounding Gothic, wildflower displays can be found in all directions! Flowering begin to bloom in May and June in the lower elevations, moving up the mountain slopes as each summer week goes by. By late July and early August, the alpine areas above tree line are covered in wildflowers as the snow melts and gives way to fields of color.
Crested Butte Wildflower Festival
Because of its status as the Wildflower Capital of Colorado, Crested Butte is well known for the Crested Butte Wildflower Festival. What began in 1986 as a way to celebrate one of the most beautiful spots in Colorado has turned into one of the most vibrant and awe-inspiring natural events in the region. The wildflower festival is a true haven for nature enthusiasts, photographers, and curious souls seeking an unforgettable experience. For almost four decades, the Crested Butte Wildflower Festival has been enchanting visitors from near and far, offering a captivating opportunity to immerse oneself in the stunning beauty of wildflowers that blanket the landscape with their radiant hues. As you wander through meadows, traverse trails, and explore the lush mountain valleys, you’ll find yourself surrounded by a kaleidoscope of blossoms, from delicate alpine sunflowers to vibrant columbines, creating a scene straight out of a fairytale. If you come to Crested Butte for the wildflower festival, the Crested Butte Visitors Center is the best place to get the lowdown on some of best displays in the region.
Fall Colors in Crested Butte
While Crested Butte is well known for its wildflower festival, it’s also famous for those classic beautiful Colorado fall color displays. In September, the aspens begin their change from green to gold. One of the best places in Colorado to be in the thick of it is Crested Butte. Great fall color displays turn the hillsides golden, from Gothic down to Crested Butte. The true gem of fall colors in this region, though, is the stunning aspen grove of Kebler Pass. Located in the West Elk Mountains, the aspen grove along Kebler Pass is thought to be even larger than the famous Pando aspen grove in Utah. Aspen groves have an interconnected root system and are considered one large organism rather than individual trees. Kebler Pass offers the chance to photograph and view the aspen forest close up, with huge fern covered forest floor. When you come out on the west side of the forest, the scene opens up to the west, showcasing some of the Elk mountains showered in gold. The sunsets from here can be absolutely fantastic!
Top Landscape Locations Near Crested Butte
Some of Colorado’s most beautiful scenery can be found near Crested Butte. Read on to learn more about them.
I’ve already mentioned how amazing Kebler Pass is for fall colors. Driving, or better yet, getting out of the car and walking along the forest floor makes you feel like a tiny speck in the grand scheme of things. The vastness of the aspen forests up here cannot be understated. Large ferns that would make you think you are in a Jurassic Park movie cover parts of the forest floor. And no matter the time of year, whether the aspens are green or gold, the beauty of this area cannot be denied.
Connecting Kebler Pass with Gunnison to the south is the road over Ohio Pass. Much like Kebler Pass, this road is great for fall colors every year! For those looking to get off the pavement but lack 4WD capabilities, Kebler Pass and Ohio Pass both over a great chance to get away from town and into the forest. Some of the best views from Ohio Pass showcase the Anthracite Range of the West Elk Mountains.
With a rich mining history, Gothic has been around just about as long as Crested Butte. Surrounded by the West Elk Mountains, Gothic is a great place to view the wildflowers each summer. The Rocky Mountain Biological Lab operates currently around the townsite. It is also used as an area to study the local ecosystem by the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab in the summer.
The Crystal Mill
Over Scholfield Pass (or the long way around via Kebler Pass and McClure Pass for those without 4WD experience) is the town of Marble, and the ghost town of Crystal. In the Crystal River Valley sits the famous Crystal Mill. One of the most iconic locations in all of Colorado, this mill has been around since the 1890s. It’s one of Colorado’s most photographed locations, especially in the fall when the mill is surrounded by golden aspen trees.
The Maroon Bells
By car, Aspen is over 100 miles from Crested Butte. But from trailhead to trailhead, the hike over West Maroon Pass between the two areas is only 12 miles or so. What you experience on this hike is breathtaking, however. Imagine being surrounded by 14,000 foot mountains (14ers) in multiple directions, with fields of some of Colorado’s best alpine wildflower displays and the remoteness of the backcountry. This hike is considered a must do for those wanting to truly experience the Colorado outdoors. On the Aspen side of the pass, at the end of the hike, lies Maroon Lake, one of the most photographed lakes in all of North America! And with good reason. The Maroon Bells are one of those Colorado gems that are instantly recognizable.
Crested Butte Off-Roading Trails
In addition to all of the locations above to visit, there are hundreds of miles of off-roading in this region of Colorado. Jeeps and other off-road vehicles enjoy the snow-free months of the year with some of the most famous drives in the country. In fact, many Jeep owners I know consider it almost a rite of passage to do the drive from Crested Butte over to Marble to see the Crystal Mill, then eat BBQ at Marble’s famous Slow Groovin’ BBQ restaurant.
Restaurants in Crested Butte
Speaking of food, a number of highly rated restaurants exist in Crested Butte. All of the restaurants listed below I have either eaten at or have had suggested to me:
- Breadery – Bakehouse
- Izakaya Cabin – Sushi
- Margaux’s (Slap Burger) – Burgers
- McGills Cafe – Breakfast & Lunch
- Ryce Asian Bistro – Asian Cuisine
- Secret Stash Pizza – Pizza
- Sherpa’s Cafe – Nepalese, Tibetan & Indian
- Slogar – American (known for fried chicken)
- Soupcon – French American
I’m sure there are other deserving places to make this list. Hopefully I will expand it in the future as I continue to try out new restaurants.
Where to Stay in Crested Butte
Many who come to Crested Butte looking for lodging stay in either Crested Butte itself or Mount Crested Butte. Here are a few of the higher rated hotels or some of the few that I’ve stayed at:
- Elevation Hotel & Spa
- The Lodge at Mountaineer Square
- Nordic Inn
- Old Town Inn
- Purple Mountain Bed & Breakfast
- Scarp Ridge Lodge
Airbnb’s and vacation home rentals are plentiful in the area too, for those looking for more space and privacy than the typical hotel room.
And don’t forget – many come to Crested Butte for the outdoors. The best way to do that is by camping! Options range from camping near town at the free Mt Crested Butte campground to dispersed camping along Kebler Pass. The Lost Lake campground is a particularly good one.
Crested Butte Art Festival
Having been around since the early 1970’s, the Crested Butte Art Festival is one of Colorado’s premier art festivals. Usually taking place the first weekend of August, it brings in over 100 artists to display their work to locals and tourists alike. In addition to the art festival, many beautiful galleries line the streets in Crested Butte. From photography galleries to paintings and more, the mountains of Crested Butte have inspired artists for decades.
Crested Butte Photography from Mickey Shannon
If you’re looking for a nice piece of art from your trip to Crested Butte, consider a fine art print from one of my Colorado galleries, including my Crested Butte photography gallery. With wildflower photos, fall color images and more, there are a lot of options. I also have many other Colorado galleries, with images from Rocky Mountain National Park, Estes Park, the San Juans and more. While many of the photographs above come from the Crested Butte area of Colorado, the images below are some of my other Colorado photos worth checking out. You can see my full body of work in my Colorado photography galleries.