Best mountain biking trails in Crested Butte, Gunnison Valley

Crested Butte and Gunnison Valley are recognized as one of the best places in the country to mountain bike — and for sound reason. In the heart of the Elk Mountains, the area’s trails deliver exquisite 360-degree views of slopes blanketed in aspens and vibrant wildflower fields, jagged rock formations and snow-capped summits.

If you go

You can easily bike to many of the trailheads around town or catch the free shuttle to help mitigate road congestion and trailhead traffic:

  • Crested Butte Town Shuttle
  • Mount Crested Butte Condo Bus
  • Gunnison to CB South to Mount Crested Butte Town (no bike rack)

In the 1970s, the mining-turned-ski town became the incubator for the klunker bike evolution: no-gear, balloon-tire bicycles that were Frankensteined for off-trail exploration. The Crested Butte Klunker Tour launched in 1976, with 15 riders pedaling from Crested Butte to Aspen over 12,700-foot Pearl Pass — the nation’s premiere mountain bike event — and by the third tour, bicyclists from Marin County, Calif., where there was a simultaneous klunker movement, joined for the rowdy adventure. Within a decade, the Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association (CBMBA) was born, which is known as one of the oldest mountain bike clubs, if not the oldest.

Around that time in the early ‘80s, CBMBA cofounder Don Cook built an ultralight plane to survey game trails and terrain to build singletrack trails. He’d fly as close as 30 feet off the ground, scribbling down details about the topography on a notepad using a Sharpie.

The groundwork of those pioneers eventually led to 750 miles of mountain bike trails in Gunnison County, the most extensive singletrack system nationwide. More recently, CBMBA launched the Crested Butte Conservation Corps, a professional trail and stewardship crew, to help build, maintain and advocate for sustainable trails in the area, working with landowners, land managers and organizations such as Gunnison Trails and the Crested Butte Land Trust.

“These are the good old days for trails in terms of access, sustainability and durability — all those things have improved hugely in past couple decades,” says Jake Jones, executive director of the Crested Butte Land Trust, a nonprofit that helps to conserve and steward open lands for wildlife, ranching, scenic vistas and recreation. Whether you want to pedal to the trails from your doorstep, join the Adaptive Sports Center for a mountain bike lesson, or tackle the Grand Traverse Mountain Bike Race, there are all types of mountain bike adventures to experience in the region. Here are tips for a fun visit.

Lower and Upper Lower Loop, Crested Butte

  • Beginner
  • 9 miles

“The setting in the Slate River Valley, riding along the Slate River and high-quality wetlands, with Paradise Divide as the backdrop is unparalleled. I don’t know if there are enough hyperbolic statements to describe how beautiful it is — the scenery is unmatched, and the trail is user-friendly,” says Jones, adding that a new segment of trail was recently completed called Coal Train, which connects the north end of the loop with Oh Be Joyful Campground. If you’re staying overnight in Crested Butte or Mount Crested Butte, you can ride your bike from your doorstep to the trail. If you need a lift back to Mount Crested Butte at the end of the ride, hop on the bus at the 4 Way Stop.

Lupine Loop, Crested Butte

  • Intermediate
  • 13 miles

Ridden counterclockwise, “This trail provides more vertical relief than the lower loop trails, and there are purpose-built climbs for mountain bikes, so they’re relatively gentle and the descents are super fun. If I had to ride one trail for the rest of my life, I’d be happy to ride that that one,” says Jones. Also, don’t be surprised if you see elk or other wildlife. “The Slate River Valley is still a wild place. If you see wildlife, stop and soak it in. Let the wildlife pass by. Be respectful and give them space.”

Meander and Lower Meander Loop, Mount Crested Butte

  • Intermediate
  • 5.3 miles

“Honestly, the ski area trails are some of my favorite, and if the weather is iffy, you can bail,” says Dave Meyer, president of Rock ‘n’ Roll Sports. From the base of the mountain, climb to the top via Up and Away then drop off the backside via Meander for a continuous, curving downtrack through elbow-grazing wildflowers and incredible views of the East River and Gothic Mountain. You can also lengthen the loop. “You can start from town and go up Tony’s, Upper Loop, Columbine, and then Meander in a couple of hours. You could even lengthen that loop by adding Snodgrass — that’s hard to beat,” Meyer says.

Hartman Rocks Technical Loop, Hartman Rocks Recreation Area

  • Intermediate/Advanced
  • 11 miles

Hartman Rocks is a choose-your-own adventure playground for bikers with 40 miles of singletrack and 40 miles of road — composed of short segments that feature their own character. Mix and match as you go. “I like that you can tweak your ride a million different ways. Hartmans is the best place,” says Meyer, whose favorite trail sections include Top of the World and Rocky Ridge, which are included in the Hartman Rocks Technical Loop.

The Pup 20, Hartman Rocks Recreation Area

  • Intermediate/Advanced
  • 21 miles

If there’s a downpour in Crested Butte, keep in mind the trails down valley could be in different shape. “When Hartman’s is moist and tacky, it’s fantastic and it drains quicker and the decomposed granite dries faster,” says Dave Wiens, executive director of the International Mountain Bicycling Association. When choosing a route, “I never put a ride together the same way twice. Though, if I’m looking for longer ride, I’ll do a variation of the Growler course,” he says, like the Pup 20, which combines some of the most flowy and fun beginner, intermediate and advanced segments in a collection of loops.

Etiquette and impact

As a cyclist, remember to yield to hikers, horses and dirt bikes. For uphill riders, stop and lean to the side (but don’t ride off trail). When you come to a muddy section, ride or walk through the wet soil versus around it. “We want to keep singletrack single,” says Jones and adds, “Remember basic Leave No Trace: pack it in, pack it out — there’s no one out there cleaning up after us or our pets. Warn people when you go to pass. Be friendly, respect other trail users, give people a smile, and say ‘hi’.”

Use the restroom before you head out; human waste leads to environmental damage.

Read more about trail etiquette via CBMBA .

Trail reports and closures

If a trail is muddy, it’s best for its longevity to not ride that route. Stay up to date with trail conditions and closures:

  • Gunnison Trails
  • Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association

Local mountain bike events

  • Junior Bike Week, June 22-26
  • Outerbike Crested Butte, Aug. 19-21
  • Grand Traverse Mountain Bike race, Sept. 4

Mountain Bike Rentals

  • The Alpineer, Crested Butte, 970-349-5210
  • Big Al’s Bicycling Heaven, Crested Butte, 970-349-0515
  • Crested Butte Sports, Mount Crested Butte, 970-349-7516
  • Double Shot Cyclery, Gunnison, 970-642-5411
  • Rock ‘N’ Roll Sports, Gunnison, 970-641-9150
  • Tomichi Cycles, Gunnison, 970-641-9069
  • All Sports Replay, Gunnison, 970-641-1893

Camping around Gunnison Valley

All of the camping that surrounds the town of Crested Butte was recently transitioned to designated-only campsites, which are marked with a wooden post with a number and camp symbol, as well as a metal fire ring. Those designated campsites include spots up the Slate River, Washington Gulch, Brush Creek, Cement Creek, Kebler Pass (and Lake Irwin), and Gothic Road drainages. Two vehicles are permitted per site, which are first-come, first-served with a 14-day maximum stay. Campers must pack out their trash and human and pet waste, and property cannot be left unattended for more than 24 hours. Site saving is not allowed.

On the valley’s south end, Hartman Rocks Recreation Area likewise features 50 designated campsites. Read more about the designated campsites and view a camping map via the Crested Butte Conservation Corps.

Beyond those designated camping areas, more than 1 million acres of national forest is available for dispersed camping. There’s also a great collection of campgrounds with amenities such as picnic tables, RV hookups, water, toilets, and showers — some sites are even reservable in advance. Consider checking out the 10 campgrounds in Curecanti National Recreation Area southwest of Gunnison, the Gunnison KOA, Taylor Canyon’s Campfire Ranch and Crested Butte RV Resort.

Lodging in Crested Butte

You’ve got an array of choices. In the town of Crested Butte, consider staying at the Elk Mountain Lodge, built in 1919 as a miners’ hotel, which serves a nutritious breakfast buffet. For an exceptional reset, stay at a private cabin at the Taylor River Lodge with five-star meals and a therapeutic bathhouse with a saltwater pools, sauna and hot tub. The best part? It’s halfway between Gunnison and Crested Butte.

Morgan Tilton is a freelance writer based in the Gunnison Valley

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