Set in White River National Forest at nearly 9,000 feet above sea level, Crested Butte has only about 1,500 year-round residents and none of the flash and dash associated with places like Breckenridge and Telluride. The main drag, Elk Avenue, is lined with modest square and rectangular structures built in a style often described as “Old West Victorian.” Most have façades that make the place feel like a movie set and are made of wood, because Crested Butte was not a rich town and never had the means or inclination to build the sorts of brick buildings one finds in, say, Aspen, which is only 11 miles or so to the northeast as the crow flies. There are no brand-name retail outlets either, or stoplights, and everyone seems to own a dog.
The coal business thrived into the 1950s, and then came the opening of the ski area in 1961, which marked the beginning of a new era for the town as an adventure destination.
Long the domain of Native Americans who followed elk, deer and other game to this area in the warmer months and who harvested trout from its cool, clear streams, Crested Butte saw its first European settlers in the early 1800s, most of whom trapped beaver in its waters. As demand for the pelts plummeted, however, the fur traders left. Then came the prospectors, and after they discovered gold and silver in the 1860s, Crested Butte became a vibrant mining town. A crash in the silver market in 1893 shook up the local economy, but the discovery of high-grade coal allowed a shift from one natural resource to another. The coal business thrived into the 1950s, and then came the opening of the ski area in 1961, which marked the beginning of a new era for the town as an adventure destination.
The first settlers in CB (as the locals call it) were Anglo-Saxons, and they were followed by Eastern Europeans, some of whom founded associations through which they could socialize in the New World. One such place was the Croatian Fraternal Union of America, and its headquarters was a two-story hall that stood initially on Elk Avenue but was moved in 1902 to Second Street by miners who hoisted the entire edifice on logs and then rolled it to its current site. Soon after, CFU members started staging dinners and dances there and wedding receptions that lasted as long as three or four days. Today it enjoys a much more sedate existence as the Scarp Ridge Lodge.
With an exterior painted a robin’s-egg blue, Scarp Ridge is part of the upscale Eleven Experience family of lodges that also includes properties in Iceland, Patagonia, France and the Bahamas, as well as three others in Colorado. The lodge has six bedrooms, five of which boast baths with steam showers and cast-iron soaking tubs that at first glance look like something one might have found in a Crested Butte hotel 100 years ago but, upon closer examination, are clearly more lavish than anything that would have existed back then.
Our room was called Red Lady, for a crag that rises more than 12,000 feet above sea level to the west of town and was visible through the three windows that lined one side of our quarters. The wooden beams that ran across the vaulted ceiling were from an area barn, the rugs evoked Morocco, and the posts on the king-size bed were made of wrought iron and held tweed curtains lined with corduroy. There was also a wrought-iron ladder that led to a loft, where a desk and chair were located. Galvanized buckets served as wastebaskets. A minibar was stocked with snacks and drinks that were offered at no charge, and the bath cabinet was full of toiletries that were also provided gratis. While the aura was most definitely old-school, the Red Lady had multiple modern touches, too, like extremely fast and reliable internet service, an Apple TV, iPod ports and an oxygen system that made it much easier to deal with the thin air. It seemed as if we had the best of both worlds and felt immediately at home.
The atmosphere of ease and comfort at Scarp Ridge comes as much from the service as it does the accommodations. The staff are young, efficient and affable, and I still chuckle over the exchange I had with a young woman at check-in. I tried to take my duffel bag away from her, saying it was too heavy. “Oh, this is nothing,” she said. “I spent all day yesterday stacking bales of hay.” She and her colleagues also showed their stuff on pre-trip calls to determine what we wanted to eat and drink, as well as sizings for things like fishing waders. And they rose to the occasion when we were stranded in Denver after missing a flight connection due to weather and were unable to rent a car because it was a holiday weekend and none were available. Their suggestion was to take an Uber, which is what we ended up doing, arriving that evening rather than staying a night at the airport. Knowing we were going to be late checking in, I inquired if they might leave us a bottle of wine and a couple of salads in our room so we could dine when we finally made it there. They cheerfully obliged.
As it is situated in town, Scarp Ridge Lodge does not have a restaurant. But it offers up a superb breakfast, with eggs cooked to order, fresh-cut fruit (mostly luscious strawberries and peaches during our stay), freshly baked bread and muffins, and coffee that is both flavorful and strong.
The in-room oxygen systems mitigate the effects of the high altitude and make it much easier to sleep.
The isolation of Crested Butte can be problematic if travel issues arise, as they did for us in the form of flight delays and missed connections on both ends of our journey.
Eleven Experience also owns the building next door, called Sopris House. Built in 1882 and operated for a spell by Slovenian immigrants as a saloon, it is now a four-bedroom inn.
Located a 35-minute drive from Crested Butte, Taylor River Lodge is also an Eleven Experience property. There we found the service to be just as good and the ambiance equally warm and welcoming. A high-end fishing camp set on an eight-acre estate, it has six one-bedroom log cabins, each of which is named after a famous trout fly (Parachute Adams and Golden Stone to cite but two) and two larger homes (dubbed Green Drake and Royal Wulff) with kitchens and fireplaces. The cabins have neither phones nor TVs, but the internet connection is strong, and the Marshall Stanmore speakers made to look like vintage amplifiers allowed us to access our Pandora playlist and enjoy our favorite tunes. Except, of course, when we were content just to listen to the rushing waters of the Taylor River below.
We were assigned to Pale Morning Dun, which possessed the feel of an old yet elegant trapper’s shack, with a queen-size bed, a fluffy down comforter and a headboard upholstered with a kilim rug. The wrought-iron door handles were forged in the shape of fish tails by an area blacksmith, and we used the lanterns the lodge provided when we walked to and from dinner at night. The bath was small, but the steam shower more than made up for that slight deficiency. On the porch facing the river were a pair of rocking chairs and several hooks, from which we hung our waders and fishing vests to dry.
The social center of the property is the main lodge, which houses the bar and dining room and is where guests take most of their meals. It is a convivial place, with rough-hewn beams, weathered wood paneling and racks of antlers on the walls, as well as a dual-sided fireplace. A bearskin rug is draped across an ottoman, and a massive television screen behind the bar shows live images of browns and rainbows from a so-called “trout cam” that Eleven Experience owner Chad Pike installed in the river. Music is also a passion of his, and songs from various online stations play throughout the day.
Unlike Scarp Ridge Lodge, Taylor River offers breakfast, lunch and dinner. The strong cappuccinos get each morning off to a good start, and the hearty sandwiches at lunch sustained us through our afternoons of fishing. As for dinner, the first course on night one was a bourbon-onion soup, and the choice of entrées was between a Colorado bison flank steak and a roasted steelhead that had also been harvested in the Centennial State. Mostly, my wife and I ate inside the lodge. But one night we opted for a table on the deck outside. And as we appreciated the warmth and aroma of the logs burning in the fireplace and savored the sounds of the river, we each enjoyed a cocktail called, quite appropriately, a Back Porch Bourbon Sipper before considering what was on the evening’s menu.
Among trout anglers, Colorado is regarded as one of the best places on earth to wet a line. And the Taylor River, which is named after an early prospector in the Crested Butte area, is considered among the top spots in the state for trophy rainbows, browns and cutthroats, as well as the occasional kokanee salmon, which is a landlocked, freshwater version of the sockeye. The lightly fished waterway cuts through a rocky canyon that is also home to deer, elk and bighorn sheep. Before leaving home, my enthusiasm had been tempered by a phone conversation with the head fishing guide. He fretted about a recent lack of rain in Colorado and said the river was so low that we might not even be able to fish it. Fortunately, conditions had improved by the time we arrived.
The lightly fished waterway cuts through a rocky canyon that is also home to deer, elk and bighorn sheep.
While I have fly-fished on and off for most of my life, my wife had never picked up a rod before, so the people at the lodge put us with different guides who were able tend to our individual needs and abilities. My wife was paired with Colleen, who was as congenial as she was competent, while I was matched with Colleen’s boyfriend, Moose, a burly and bearded fellow who was equally kind and skilled. After outfitting us with waders and fly rods, they took us to a pond by the lodge, where they watched us make some casts. After a bit of work on my roll cast, Moose then took me to the river, while my wife stayed behind to take fly-fishing 101 with Colleen.
The first thing I liked about the river was its proximity to the lodge and our cabins; the first pool Moose and I hit was only about a 10-minute walk away. Several trout could be seen holding in the water, including a couple that easily exceeded 20 inches. I made several casts, but the fish were not the least bit interested, largely because no mayflies were hatching, which meant nothing was prompting the trout to rise to the surface. At lunch, I learned that my wife’s outing had been as unsuccessful. But that had not discouraged her in the least. In fact, she seemed quite smitten with the sport, an awakening for which I give Colleen much credit.
The mayflies started hatching shortly after we returned, and the fish were more active as a result. But all I could hook, and land, was a smallish brown trout. As for my wife, she was skunked. “But I am starting to get why people like fly-fishing so much,” she said over dinner that night.
We hooked up with Moose and Colleen after breakfast the following morning and went back to the casting pond for some more work. As I had been unable to hook several fish that had hit my flies the day before, Moose thought I should practice doing that. So I cast to some of the small trout that had been stocked in the pond and after catching and then releasing a couple went back to the river while Colleen kept working on my wife’s technique.
Alas, I was unable to hook another fish. But when I returned to the lodge late that afternoon, I learned that my wife had caught and released three rainbows, the largest of which was about 22 inches. I was thrilled for her, if slightly chagrined. She could not stop smiling. Truth be told, neither could I.
The pond by the lodge that allows anglers to warm up or work on casting techniques before they head to the river, much as a practice range prepares golfers for upcoming rounds.
A dearth of electrical outlets in our otherwise very well-equipped cabin, which made charging phones and computers something of a challenge at times..
There is a bathhouse that boasts a pair of heated pools in which anglers can soak after arduous days on the river. And if they open a garage-like door at one end, they can listen at the same time to the sound of the waters they were just fishing.