After a somewhat jarring few weeks on our second Habitat stint, we headed to the mountains near Crested Butte to spend a week hiking, reveling in wildflowers, and listening to soothing river sounds. Fortunately, this has brought us back to our happy place.
Our parking spot for the week was yet another lovely national forest campground, this time the Rosy Lane Campground in the Gunnison National Forest. The small 20 site campground is one of several nestled along the banks of the Taylor River in the Taylor Canyon. Although we did not have one of the prime waterfront spots, our spot was enormous with plenty of open sky for solar power generation. The campground had a paved walkway down to a riverfront sitting/fishing area which turned out to be the perfect spot to enjoy a glass of wine in the evenings.
The canyon is also a popular spot with rock climbers, and from our site we had prime views of people scaling a seemingly vertical cliff face on the southern canyon wall. We appreciate all the climbers who risked their lives merely to provide us with entertainment just about every afternoon. We also appreciated the pair of Steller’s Jays that visited our campsite every morning and provided entertainment early in the day, even though they were too quick for me to get good photos.
The biggest issue with being in the canyon was the total absence of cell service on AT&T. Lack of cell service is our main pet peeve on the road, since we rely on our data service for everything from communication, planning, and route mapping to keeping up with the news and other entertainment. On the other hand, being lulled to sleep at night by the sound of rushing river water was pretty great.
In addition to interesting sights and sounds, the canyon offered several hiking opportunities. These trails are all pretty grueling, since they start with a steep set of switchbacks to ascend the canyon walls. When a hike starts at 8,500 feet of elevation, adding a thousand or more feet in the first two miles is tough even though we are relatively acclimated to elevation right now. The trails then head into the back country, which is filled with mixed forests and meadows. We explored the Doctor Park trail since the trailhead was close to our campground, heading in about 3 miles before turning around, making for a 6 mile hike. The trail offered nice views from the top of the canyon and wildflowers galore. The trails in Taylor are very popular with mountain bikers, so we made sure to hike here on weekday mornings when bike traffic was at a minimum. While forest service rules require bikers to yield to pedestrians on trails, the reality is that a bike hurtling down a steep incline is just going to flatten us if we don’t get out of the way in time.
Taylor Canyon is situated about halfway between the towns of Gunnison and Crested Butte, and we took the opportunity to visit both of these areas. Our initial impression of Crested Butte was of a small artsy community, but maybe that’s because the first thing that visitors see when entering town is a performing arts center with a cool knight and dragon sculpture out front. Elk Avenue, the main commercial street in town, features a dense collection of historic buildings colorfully updated for modern use and proudly displaying their historic markers. The historic City Hall now holds a gallery operated by a cooperative of local artists, whose work we enjoyed perusing, and there were quite a few other galleries as well. The large number of restaurants, ice cream/chocolate stores, and “gift” shops highlighted that this town runs on tourism. In case I needed further confirmation, there was a shop selling only hats.
The place reminded me of Silverton, which was also a well-preserved town that relies exclusively on tourism, but the caliber of the retail establishments in Crested Butte was significantly higher, with ornate paint jobs, creative signs, and gorgeous colorful flower planters everywhere we looked. A brief glance into the window of a realtor’s office immediately explained why – homes in the adjacent ski area can easily run $750,000 or $1 million, and despite the high price the ski area homes are almost certainly used on a very limited basis as vacation homes.
Crested Butte has maintained its quaint charm through several smart choices. New buildings constructed in the historic core are obviously required to conform to strict height and design requirements in order to blend in with the historic buildings. The small town feel of the entire town is enhanced by the fact that there is not a single traffic light in town, as far as we could see; all traffic control is via stop signs. Most residents (and there must be full-time residents, based on the presence of a good-sized public school) seem to move around this compact little town primarily by bicycle, at least in the summer.
We hiked two trails in Crested Butte. The Brush Creek trail was advertised as being a great place to see wildflowers, and it lived up to its billing. This relatively short, easy trail took us along hillsides that were completely blanketed in different types of flowers, in a riot of purples, pinks, yellows, and reds. As a bonus, the slight elevation of the trail over the valley below provided outstanding views of winding rivers, bucolic ranches, and impressive mountain peaks.
This hike also marked our first time a trek has been interrupted by cows. The forest service allows ranchers to graze cattle on high meadows in the national forests in the summer, and we encountered a group of about a dozen munching away on the trail ahead of us. Even though cows are obviously somewhat accustomed to humans, they are still large animals and we didn’t want to take any chances by barging on through a group full of moms and babies. We treated them like any other large wildlife: we stood a safe distance away waiting to see if they would move on, and when they showed no sign of moving after 10-15 minutes we turned around.
Our second Crested Butte hike was on a municipal trail system very close to town. We liked this trail system so much that we hiked here twice during the week. We chose to travel on the Budd Trail and the confusingly-named Upper Lower Loop and Lower Loop. Once again, the hikes featured a bonanza of wildflowers and outstanding views of the meandering Slate River and surrounding mountains. The views up the valley to the peaks with a few streaks of remaining snow were almost too attractive to believe – it looked like a fanciful painting instead of reality. It’s no wonder the few homes in the valley looked to be multi-million-dollar mansions; they certainly have million dollar views!
Gunnison does not match the quaintness and charm of Crested Butte – it has traffic lights, after all – but as a much larger town it offered far superior options for necessities like gas, groceries, and laundry. We received many great tips from fellow travelers Melanie and Cameron (@melaniemeanders and @cam_reprogrammed) but the top tip is one that can probably only be appreciated by RVers. Their info about the free public dump station in town – complete with potable water and trash dumpsters – was a lifesaver since our campground offered neither water nor a dump station. This free and convenient dump station was a critical stop on our way to our next destination after a week of dry camping.
Melanie and Cameron also steered us in the right direction for a clean and well-priced laundromat, and gave a well-deserved seal of approval to High Alpine Brewing Company. We really enjoyed the beers here because they were creative without being too wacky. A light summery basil-infused ale, a rich hazy double IPA, and an espresso stout (with real coffee beans!) were some of the highlights of the offerings. The cool downtown location was also a fun rendition of a historic building. We sat in a modern loft area that had views over the bar, and on the street side was fronted by garage doors with glass panels that were lifted up and kept wide open on the warm afternoon we visited. An inviting balcony looking over downtown essentially became part of the loft area when these big doors were lifted up, for a real indoor/outdoor feel that was perfect on a summer day. Given our love of industrial-influenced décor – our current home has aluminum walls! – we would love to install something similar if we have a sticks and bricks home again.
Now we’re ready to take on a new-to-us national park, Black Canyon of the Gunnison.