Summer comes late to Colorado’s high country, but as the snow finally recedes from the peaks of the West Elk Mountains, the wildflowers grow bolder, get taller and paint the slopes with a veritable rainbow of colors.
By July, the Alpine valley that is home to Crested Butte is blanketed with swaths of red and orange Indian paintbrush. Periwinkle blue columbines drape the hillsides around and above town. This natural artist’s palette is rounded out by dainty scarlet gilia, iridescent blue flax, cheery yellow sunflowers, deep purple delphiniums and dusky blue lupines.
All this means it's time for the annual Crested Butte Wildflower Festival, July 7-13 this year. There’s plenty to see and do before and after the festival, too --- and the town will be less crowded then.
But during the festival, there are guided wildflower hikes, herb talks, painting classes, cooking classes, in-town garden tours, butterfly hunts, aromatherapy classes and dozens of photography classes. Or mountain bike on your own to remote fields of flowers. For those not into hiking or biking at 9,000 feet and higher, there are 4-by-4 Jeep tours up to Paradise Divide at 12,000 feet, and also easy walking tours at lower altitudes.
Check out the gardening classes, with tips on growing wildflowers at home. Learn about wildflowers’ purported medicinal values. Perform yoga or pilates in a field of flowers. Or wind down at the end of the day with a Wildflower Happy Hour, maybe with a chamber quartet performing classical works while you sip a glass of wine. Or, if you’re feeling oxygen-deprived, you can visit one of two oxygen bars – one in town, the other at the ski slope. They’ll fix you right up.
Born as a mining town, as many of Colorado’s ski resorts were, the village of Crested Butte resembles the wildflowers for which it is famous: small, hardy, colorful and charming. Though the town’s initial growth was fueled by the rich coal deposits found in the area, the town’s more recent growth came from the ski industry.
Its name, it is said, harks back to 1873 when a geologist who was mapping the area referred to what is now Crested Butte Mountain and nearby Gothic Mountain as the “crested buttes.” Makes sense.
It has great little restaurants – in fact, it boasts more gourmet restaurants than any other Colorado town its size. Try Soupcon and Django’s, both of which have been around a long time and both of which are reliably good. You also can choose from Mexican food, pizza, deli delights and the usual array of dining choices. Or head south of town, toward nearby Gunnison, for a fabulous Italian meal at Garlic Mike’s. As tasty as it sounds.
The town of Crested Butte is set apart just enough from the ski area so that it has maintained its historic ambience. Yet there’s a mother-lode of rooms for festival-goers at that same ski area, just three miles and a few minutes away by shuttle.
More than 200 inches of snow each winter produce this profusion of flowers. Not to be outdone by Mother Nature, local residents and businesses plant their own bounty of blooms, seen in every public street planter box and in private yards and gardens. It’s fun just to wander around town and admire them all.
It’s a town for bikers – of the cycling kind. Bring your own and ride it everywhere, like the locals do. Also, many area lodges have free bikes for guests to use and there are a number of bike rental places, too.
But, biking, hiking or whatever -- every little bit, be sure to stop and smell the wild roses.
For more information on the festival, visit www.crestedbuttewildflowerfestival.com. Sign up for classes before you go. The best ones fill up fast. Or call 970-349-2571. For general information on visiting Crested Butte (including lodging and dining), visit www.GunnisonCrestedButte.com.
Linda DuVal is the former travel editor for The Gazette, a freelance travel writer and winner of several Lowell Thomas awards. She is the co-author of Insider’s Guide to Colorado Springs and writes a local Web site, Pikes Peak on the Cheap (www.pikespeakonthecheap.com).
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