Since moving back to Colorado after my time as a nomad, I have prioritized exploring places I didn’t get around to the first time I lived here. One of these areas is the West Elk Mountains around Marble and Crystal, Colorado, and in early July I decided to visit a friend who lives in the range – down near Carbondale, Colorado. This trip reminded me that Colorado has so much to offer, and that even after five or six cumulative years in the state, I can still be surprised by new experiences and adventures.
The first half of the trip was social and relaxed, as I explored local spots in Carbondale and Marble with a friend of mine. One of the perks of staying with him is that his dog, a pit bull, loves to cuddle with new visitors. She is a sweetheart and seemingly lives the best dog life – having plenty of space outdoors to roam, and many adventures on which to accompany humans. We wandered around Marble, identifying various wildflowers (they were just popping up), visiting a remote waterfall, and grabbing lunch at a famous barbecue joint in town. If you are ever visiting Marble and hungry, you must stop by Slow Groovin BBQ. Primarily because it is delicious, but also because it is the only food available in town (it is that remote). When the day was almost done, we headed back to the house and chatted on the porch, watching the sun set opposite the iconic Mount Sopris, which forms the backdrop to his home near Redstone.
Meandering Around Marble
The following day I set off back toward Marble in search of a dispersed campsite. I had considered visiting the famous Crystal Mill (the leading image in this post), but the day was getting late (and hot), and so I figured it might be better to hike to it early the next morning. It was also July 4th weekend, so I was nervous about not finding a campsite. Luckily enough, I drove up McClure Pass and found a private (and spacious) spot on one of the first turns onto the dirt road. It was lovely; verdant corn lilies and dense aspens dotted the area, and the sound of birds was loud as a chorus. At one point I just stood there with my eyes closed, listening to them sing as if it was a musical production.
Since I had some time left in the day, I headed back down to Marble to do a short section of a hike I saw on the map that my friend Sheehan lent me. I believe it was up to Anthracite Pass, and the views were sweeping and gorgeous. It looked as if spring had just made it to the alpine, as most everything looked green, with wildflowers just starting to bloom. I saw plenty of columbine flowers – both red and blue – and glacial lilies up near the pass itself. In the image below, you can just barely spot a cascade running down the middle of the mountain in the background, due to recently melted snow on its banks.
Marble is an interesting town, and something I learned on this trip was that a special type of marble, called Yule marble, is found only in this region. This particular type of Marble was used to decorate the exterior of the Lincoln Memorial, and all of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This was an interesting piece of trivia to learn on Independence Day! I was pretty blown away with this hike, as it offered incredible views of the Elk Mountains, and snow melting into cascades in the distance. After the hike I grabbed dinner in Redstone, then went back to my campsite to enjoy dusk, as the birds continued to sing and the sun began to set.
The crystal Mill
The next morning, I awoke to a cacophony of birdsong. Alright, alright; I know that is strong language but birdsong sounds a bit different when you are awakened before 5:00 in the morning. I suppose I should be thankful, as the noise got me out of bed and down the pass early for the hike on this day. It was July 4th, and today I planned on hiking the road up to the Crystal Mill.
First – some details about the route: there is an old jeep road that one can drive to get to the mill and the town of Crystal. Many people choose this option, as it is much quicker (and easier) than walking along the road. On busy days it is often preferred over walking, since ATVs and other vehicles kick up dust on the road, resulting in poor visibility and unfavorable breathing conditions.
That being said, if you can start this trail early – like sunrise early – you can avoid any vehicles at all (and people, for that matter). This is precisely how my morning went, and I was pleased for it. I hiked the five miles on the road to the mill, and was the first person to arrive. It was peaceful having a view of the mill to myself, and so I took many photographs and ate a snack while taking it all in.
Eventually, some mountain bikers arrived, and they asked me to take a picture of them. We chatted a bit afterward, and they recommended that I continue hiking into the town of Crystal, and a bit further to a landmark called the Devil’s Punchbowl. This name rung a bell in my head, as I recalled (from a previous trip to Crested Butte) that there is a route between Gothic and Crystal that passes the punchbowl. The biker said it was only about 1.5 miles past the mill, and since I still had much of the day left, I decided to take his advice.
Up towards the Devil’s Punchbowl, the scenery changed quite dramatically. Trees thinned out, as the elevation approached treeline. There was lots of scree alongside the dirt road, and still some huge snowbanks blocking the path toward Gothic and Crested Butte. I was most amazed by the abundance of columbines within the rocks, which had a color I had not seen before in the wild. Instead of the typical blue and white that is our state’s flower, these had a light pink exterior and yellow interior.
While the devil’s punchbowl is definitely the main attraction at this point of the route, I was more impressed by this incredibly tall waterfall draining onto the road. I imagine these falls are ephemeral, drying up at some point in the summer. As if on cue, clouds started to roll in which allowed me to take some interesting long exposures of these falls. It was at this point that I decided to head back into town, and start the long journey back home. Unsurprisingly the road was a lot busier, and I had to step aside for a few vehicles driving up the road.
If one can begin early enough in the day, then I would recommend hiking the road to Crystal Mill. In my experience, hiking gave me the opportunity to take in the scenic wonder of the Crystal River, and not be hurried or rushed. Starting early enough gave me time along the trail and at the mill alone, which is a rarity with how popular the area is. It also allowed for nice lighting conditions along the way, and cooler weather.
I heard some rumblings that the Crystal River is eligible for status as a National Wild and Scenic River. It is apparently one of the last remaining untamed rivers in Colorado, being free-flowing without any dams. Other requirements for eligibility would include outstanding remarkable values, or ORVs, which make the river unique or rare compared to other rivers. In my opinion, the Crystal River meets many of these considerations its outstanding scenic, recreational, historical, and botanical value. If the Forest Service deems the Crystal River as Wild and Scenic, then it will be protected as such for generations to come.