Crested Butte Mountain Resort (CBMR) brands itself as “one of Colorado’s best-kept secrets,” but I’ve often wondered why that secret isn’t out yet. Maybe this is the year.
Simply put, this is a great mountain, boasting a whopping 1,547 skiable acres and a nosebleed-high elevation of more than 12,000 feet. The mountain gets about 300 inches of snow a year, and avid fans of powder skiing will find plenty of it here.
Another draw is the town of Crested Butte, an appealingly authentic Wild West town about two-and-a-half miles away with historic, Victorian store fronts, one-of-a-kind shops and some seriously good dining.
So what’s the problem?
Admittedly, when I first started visiting the mountain over a decade ago, the infrastructure was tired, the lifts were outdated and there wasn’t a lot going on at the base area. The ethos was that of a skier’s mountain, focused more on vertical pitch than amenities.
Enter Club Med, which took over the Crested Butte Marriott at the base of the main chairlift in 2000 and introduced its trademark village concept to the property. And while the acquisition brought some attention and pizazz to the mountain, locals I spoke to at the time expressed mixed feelings about whether this would be a good match. Although I’m a fan of Club Med, especially for families with children, the European-style nightly shows, the all-inclusive dining – possibly not appealing for visitors looking to dine in town – and the choice to use the Club Med kids ski school rather than the already established and very good CMBR kids club, seemed out of place with the mountain’s folksy character.
The match didn’t last, and Club Med left in 2006. Tim and Diane Mueller, owners of Okemo Mountain Resort in Vermont, stepped in to buy the mountain and pumped much-needed capital into upgrading the lifts and snowmaking equipment. Although the family has since sold the resort, they retain a 40-year operating contract and still run it.
Improvements have continued steadily under their watch, but challenges persist – most notably that the mountain is tough to get to.
According to Erica Mueller, who handles marketing for CBMR, Crested Butte’s location is its biggest asset and its biggest challenge; the Gunnison-Crested Butte Regional Airport (GUC) is 30 miles away, and up until two years ago, had been losing seat capacity, making flights less frequent and more expensive, "a difficult hurdle to overcome,” Mueller said.
A study commissioned by CBMR showed that GUC saw a more than 45% reduction in seat capacity between 2008 and 2013. Visitors were still able to access the mountain by flying to Denver and driving about four hours to the resort, but those visitors tended not to stay as long or spend as much, according to the study.
“We are now gaining some ground in air service, but it is not easy,” Mueller said.
United added nonstop service from Chicago to GUC last season, for example, and capacity for this coming season is projected to increase by as much as 7%.
“By all means, it is worth the trip to get here, but people like convenience and things they have heard of,” Mueller said, adding that continued improvements to the visitor experience are part of the strategy to get the word out.
This winter season, CBMR will open 40 new acres of expert terrain called Teo 2 and is planning future expansion.
“Coming off a season of great snowfall, this is something we have wanted to do for some time,” said vice president and general manager Michael Kraatz. “We want our guests to see the possibilities of skiing on the back side of the mountain. While this may only be expert terrain now, we are very much focused on providing a family experience back there when the Teocalli Drainage is fully expanded into.”
CBMR also is upgrading its tubing hill and snow biking and glade skiing offerings.
With a mountain this appealing, I suspect that the combination of increased flights and beefed up amenities are all it will take to let this best kept secret out of the bag.