Crested Butte: Making Dreams Come True
For as long as he could remember, Joe Williams wanted a cabin in the woods. In the 1980s, when his and wife Becky’s three kids were still at home, they would go to Colorado and explore different towns, and Joe would dream of building that cabin.
Finally in 2000, the kids – Adam, Kelly, and Rachel – were grown and gone off to lives of their own, and he got serious about looking for property. After searching in Telluride, Steamboat, and a handful of other places, he thought of Crested Butte, where they’d visited back in the ’80s.
“It’s got a very different vibe – like no place in Colorado that we’ve been to,” said Joe. With no national chains or box stores, a vibrant local economy has evolved, set like a jewel at nearly 9,000 feet in the Elk Mountains. There’s no McDonald’s, and no Starbucks – just a variety of wonderful local coffee shops, restaurants, and other local establishments.
“It’s just the simplicity of it,” said Becky. “It wasn't Vail, it wasn't Aspen, and it wasn't Telluride, which are wonderful towns, but they're bustling. Crested Butte is just a real town with very real people. It was a funky mining town; now it’s a funky ski town – and in the summers it’s even more vibrant.”
It was the dead of winter when Joe finally found the place where he would make his dream come true – for himself, and the whole family. It had been a long search, and he was about to give up. But the realtors convinced him to go out and check one more site – “at least you’ll get a snowmobile ride,” they told him. So he went.
“I stepped out of the snowmobile into snow up to my waist. And I took one look around – we were in the middle of a grove of aspen trees – and I said, ‘This is it.”
The land looked out over the whole town of Crested Butte with the eponymous mountain behind it. And that scene would come to serve as the backdrop of their son’s wedding, their friend’s bar mitzvah, and so many other special moments in the Houston family’s parallel Crested Butte life.
It would be 2005 when they finally finished the house – July 30, the very same day of Adam and Sarah’s wedding, and the painters were still putting the final touches on the railings. “We were literally scurrying around putting on the doorknobs the weekend we got married,” recalls Sarah with a laugh.
Their wedding became the first of a long line of treasured Crested Butte memories that they would share with their three daughters over the years, along with the rest of Adam’s family: the quirky and fabulous Fourth of July parade, the art and music festivals, hiking and biking and fishing, whitewater rafting, snowshoeing and skiing.
Sarah will never forget the first time she drove into Crested Butte, 18 years ago.
“It’s not a town you pass through to get to other places – it’s kind of at the end of a road, nestled in the mountains,” she says. “You’re driving down this highway with old barns and then suddenly you’re in the perfect quintessential small mountain town. It’s so quaint and charming, it’s like literally out of a movie, with buildings of different colors and people walking everywhere, and the most gorgeous, greenest grass you’ve ever seen.”
Meadows filled with brilliant wildflowers have earned the town the title of “Wildflower Capital of Colorado.” High season for wildflowers is mid-June through late July, according to Travel + Leisure magazine, but you can “chase the spring” by following the snowmelt up into the mountains to find the displays until late August. You can also enjoy more than 200 workshops, hikes, garden tours and other wildflower-related activities at the annual Crested Butte Wildflower Festival, this year from July 7-16.
The winters, by contrast, see three to four feet of snow, and so Crested Butte is of course famous as a ski town – but it’s definitely a four-season happy place. Sarah and Adam have romantic memories of getting snowed in there in their younger years; they love the massive wildflower displays in the spring, and the spectacular fall colors. Horseback riding, a favorite activity, happens in all the seasons, through the wildflowers and through the snow.
But summer is really their sweet spot, and summer vacation in Crested Butte has been a big part of growing up for their three girls – Emily, now 16; Lois, 14; and Ruby, 11. It’s also where they’ve had a chance to bond with their cousins: Kelly and Daniel’s children, Noam and Raphi and Eden; and Rachel and David’s daughters, Nella and Hazel.
Every summer, Sarah and Adam take the girls whitewater rafting, setting off on the Taylor River at nearby Almont, a high-adrenaline activity that is as much a favorite as paddleboarding on the peaceful Lake Irwin right outside of town – especially for Lois, the family’s “water baby,” in Sarah’s words. Ruby’s specialty is going on hikes and picking flowers and putting together bouquets; and Emily is a foodie, says her mom, for whom the perfect day includes going out to eat or packing a picnic for the weekly Wednesday concert in the park.
The open-hearted friendliness of Crested Butte’s residents became apparent right away, says Sarah; she hired a local wedding planner, who brought in lots of locals to help – people who remain friends of the family to this day. Small town that it is, the videographer was also their window washer; a local bluegrass band provided the music, and Marchitelli’s Gourmet Noodles, now a longtime family favorite, catered the wedding.
Now they see old friends and make new ones at special events like the Fourth of July Parade where, among other highlights, scientists from the local Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory dress up in wacky skunk cabbage costumes and parade down Main Street. They also love the annual three-day Crested Butte Arts Festival in August.
The absence of chain stores gives Crested Butte a special charm, said Sarah. “The town is very authentic, very true to itself,” said Sarah. “There’s a sort of sweet innocence about it.”
For dining, the girls love Secret Stash, voted best pizza every year since it opened. Other family favorites include Slogar Bar and Restaurant, famous for their fried chicken (be sure and make reservations, it fills up fast), and Camp 4 Coffee, repeatedly voted Best Cup of Joe by The Crested Butte News. They also love the classic Nepali, Indian, and Tibetan cuisine of Sherpa Cafe.
“We see it as a little piece of paradise we’re so lucky to be a part of,” says Sarah. The family-friendly town is home to a huge art scene with galleries and frequent art walks. Sometimes they’ll take the kids to Rainbow Park, their favorite of several city parks. “It’s got a fabulous playground,” said Sarah, and with Crested Butte Mountain in the background, “It’s the most gorgeous place to sit and watch the kids play.”
But the absolute best part of Crested Butte is just being in nature, says Sarah. Surrounded by the Gunnison National Forest on all sides, the whole area is a playground for outdoor adventure, with a huge network of hiking trails for hikers and bikers at all levels.
“It’s really about just being together outside as a family – doing the hikes, going shopping in town, going to the concert in the park on Wednesdays, coming back to the house and sitting by the fire pit – we’re really outside like 95 percent of the time, and that’s truly the blessing, is that you get to spend all your time outside.”
Sometimes, as Joe likes to tell it, nature comes inside, as well. He and Becky will never forget the morning when they were awakened by the sound of their dog barking furiously. Joe headed down the stairs and from the landing, something caught his eye. “We had a fairly significant sized bear in our great room,” he recalled. “I didn't know how the bear got in, but whether it was foolish or smart, I ran to the front door and opened it, and then ran back up the stairs. And that gave the bear a direct sight line on the front door. And after a couple of minutes, it dropped down on all fours and just walked out.”
“I don't think it was foolish; I thought it was very brave,” said Becky with a laugh. “But, you know, it was all very friendly. The bear thought he was in a cave with food. And once he realized it wasn't, he wanted out as much as we wanted him out.”
That was their closest encounter with the local wildlife, but far from the only one. They’ve often been able to observe a family of moose that lives nearby, as well as elk, deer, and a wide variety of smaller mammals and birds. Joe credits the locals with working to keep development in the area under control. In particular, he mentioned the Crested Butte Land Trust, which works with local landowners to raise money for conservation credits as incentives to keep the land unspoiled – one of many organizations and individuals that have contributed to the unique flavor of the town and surrounding countryside.
“Crested Butte has tremendously enriched our life – the people, the community, and the land itself is humbling,” said Joe. “I just feel humbled to be in that space.”
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