This month’s destination is a place I used to like to visit when I lived in Denver. Gunnison County, located in west central Colorado, is a less visited, less built-up part of the state. It feels more authentic and most definitely more laid-back than Aspen or Vail, yet it’s no slouch when it comes to natural beauty, attractions or charm. And with an average elevation of almost 3,000 meters (9,700 feet), it’s nestled high in the Colorado Rockies.
Gunnison County will appeal to:
- Winter sports lovers
- Mountain bikers
- Fishing enthusiasts
- Basically, anyone who loves small mountain towns and the great outdoors!
Gunnison is about 3.5 hours’ drive from Denver, but it’s a world away in terms of atmosphere. With less than 17,000 residents, it’s refreshingly peaceful while still offering enough tourism infrastructure for a comfortable stay. So, if you prefer wide open spaces and Insta-worthy scenery to crowds and traffic, Gunnison County is right up your alley!
One important thing to know, however; while it can get quite warm on sunny summer days, locations in the valley such as the towns of Gunnison and Crested Butte are among the coldest places in the entire USA, and there’s really nowhere in the county that can be called warm in terms of climate. Consider yourself warned, and even in August you should make sure you have enough layers if you’re going to be outside after sunset.
The region was originally inhabited by the Ute, a nomadic people who moved around the western regions of Colorado and eastern Utah as the seasons changed. The Spanish arrived first, followed by John Gunnison in the 1850’s and the first white American settlers soon after. Gradual development of the area began, including a mining industry, but population only began to grow significantly in the latter half of the 20th century. The economy is highly reliant on the construction and tourism industries, although the presence of Western Colorado University both diversifies the economy and adds a youthful feel to the town of Gunnison.
Considering the federalized governmental structure of the US, individual states and communities have a lot of influence towards reducing CO2 emissions and protecting the environment, and particularly when it comes to tourism Gunnison County is doing its part. In 2018, the local tourism authority created the Sustainable Tourism and Outdoor Recreation (STOR) Committee to, in their words, “balance recreation with conservation”. The county has also created a Stewardship Fund, “to address resource damage, overcrowded campgrounds disturbance to wildlife, and other impacts to public lands”.
The area is also a true mountain biking mecca, and the oldest mountain bike club in the world was founded in Crested Butte in 1983, with sustainable MTB trails and stewardship of the landscape top among its missions. A similar non-profit exists for promoting sustainable multi-use trails.
Not bad for a small community, eh?
Things to do
In winter, the Crested Butte Mountain Resort (which opened in 1960, so don’t expect the old western town atmosphere here!) is king of outdoor sports in the region, with downhill skiing and snowboarding that caters especially to the adventurous (experts) and lovers of ‘freeskiing’, but offers enough terrain for beginners and intermediates as well. The ski season runs from late November to early April. Nordic skiing is also popular, and even ice fishing is possible on the Blue Mesa Reservoir.
In summer, mountain biking and hiking take over, and the area is truly nirvana for mountain bikers in particular. The scenery is gorgeous (I mean seriously, check out the photos!), and the fresh mountain air and open space are all a nature lover needs to refresh and unwind! But if you want to make sure not to unwind TOO much, whitewater rafting on the Taylor or Gunnison Rivers awaits. Oh, and if you’ve ever wanted to try fly-fishing, this is a great place to give it a go!
If you visit the area in summer and have your own wheels, be sure to visit the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. While it’s located in neighboring Montrose County, it bears the same name and its south entrance can be reached in about an hour from downtown Gunnison.
Finally, the area hosts numerous festivals and sports events throughout the year, including film and music festivals and the Crested Butte Bike Week event.
My Tips & Picks
Lodging Tip: the Elk Mountain Lodge in Crested Butte town is a century-old former miners’ lodge with 19 simple but comfortable rooms and relaxed, cozy common areas. Full breakfast is complementary, there is a small bar and an indoor hot tub for guests’ use.
For a BIG breakfast: don’t miss the W Café on North Main Street in Gunnison, an institution in the town since last century (I was there in ’98 and they were already well-established then). It’s not the healthiest menu in the world (think big portions of classic American comfort food), but if you’re gearing up for an active day of outdoor sports or coming in hungry from your morning adventures, it’ll fill you up for sure! Open 7AM-2PM, serves both breakfast and lunch all day, closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
Brewpub Tip: Colorado is known for its craft beer, and the High Alpine Brewing Company in Gunnison is a local favorite that opened in 2015. The atmosphere is airy, sleek and industrial, with a very attractive bar and a seasonal menu of their own beers on tap, plus rotating guest taps. The menu is dominated by pizzas (which get very good reviews) as well as a nice mix of starters, salads and sandwiches.
Planning Your Visit
Getting there: As stated earlier, it takes about 3.5 hours by car to Gunnison from Denver, although the drive is so scenic that you’ll want to leave yourself plenty of time to stop and enjoy the views along the way. Gunnison also has an airport, currently offering flights to Denver, Dallas and Houston, although honestly, I would recommend driving over flying because the whole of southcentral Colorado has so much beautiful scenery to offer.
Getting around: There are regular (free!) bus services operating in and between the main towns of Gunnison and Crested Butte, including the Mt. Crested Butte resort, so if your visit is focused on skiing or biking you can absolutely get around without a car. However, the area is very spread out so if you want to explore a wider area in or beyond the county borders you’ll probably want to have your own wheels.
When to go: It depends on your preferred activity! The region is a popular year-round destination, so whatever the season most restaurants and lodgings will be open. Each season offers its own beauty, such that there really is no ‘bad’ time to visit.
Thanks for reading, hope you’ve enjoyed reading a bit about this beautiful little corner of the world!