A Winter Road Trip Hits the High Roads in Northern Arizona and Colorado
By Steve Bergsman
Photos by the Author
Planning a winter road trip is admittedly dicey. When my kids were small I would pile them all into our Jeep Wrangler and take off for the ski resorts of New Mexico or Colorado. About every other year it seemed we would hit bad weather – sometimes really bad weather like a blizzard. Even when we decided to fly to a ski destination, we ended having to rent a car and drive from, say, Reno airport to a Tahoe ski resort.
It had been over a decade since my wife and I planned an honest winter road trip, but an opportunity to attend the (Country & Western) Songwriters Festival in Crested Butte, Colorado made me rethink things. I took out my trusty, old-school road maps and decided we could make the drive, but I would break up the trip with numerous stops on the way to Crested Butte.
Now this was the winter when a hellacious storm hit the Midwest and New England. The west had gotten many good storms starting in late autumn and through most of December. Then the weather seemed to settle down over the Rockies. When we took off from Mesa, Arizona, the sky was bright blue and remained so all the way to our first stop, a beautiful, hidden resort called Amangiri just outside of the town of Page on the Arizona-Utah border. The temperature at the desert resort was in the 40s during the day and only the shady mountainsides still had snowy remnants from the season’s earlier storms.
Sunny and in the 40s is good hiking weather and my wife and I took advantage of the many desert trails originating at the resort. Two of the most interesting were the long and short of it all. The easiest and briefest trail is to a cave that ancient peoples inhabited about 8,000 years ago. There are still petroglyphs on the outer walls of the cave.
Our longest hike was to a slot canyon, which is a very narrow, almost cave-like space, but with an open roof. This one wasn’t very long, and the rock walls were worn smooth and nicely spiraled, having been washed by the occasional flash flooding along the creek bed.
For those who find slot canyons interesting, one of the most unusual, if not beautiful, can be found on the Navajo Reservation to the east of Page. It’s called Antelope Canyon, and since it sits on reservation land, a Navajo guide has to drive you to the cave entrance and then bring you through the natural formation. It costs a pretty penny for the guide and the drive is like reliving a dust storm, but it’s worth it because in the canyon, at some points 140 feet deep, the sun dapples the smooth, curved red rock walls in astonishing ways.
We left Page and then drove to the fun city of Durango. Although Purgatory ski resort sits outside the town, this was just an overnight stop for us. The only hiking we did was along the city’s main street, chock-a-block with bars and restaurants. The weather was down to single digits at night, but the sky remained clear.
The next stop was Telluride, an old mining town that has been one of the premier ski resorts in North America for decades. My wife and I were last here twenty years ago, when they just began to develop on the upper mountain. We stayed at the lovely Hotel Madeline, with a pleasant room overlooking a small ice skating area. We were here so long ago that it was for the dedication of the gondola, which offers a free ride over the ski mountain to Telluride proper.
We spent only two nights here and chose just one activity, some higher elevation snowshoeing. A small group met at EcoAdventures near my hotel, then took a couple of lift rides to about 10,300 feet. A yurt was constructed at this base and it was here we were outfitted – snowshoes and poles – before taking off.
Our guide, Jane, had lived in Telluride for 40 years and was the first female member of the Telluride ski patrol. She’s in the local hall of fame. Easy-going and knowledgeable, she was a joy to be with. The journey across the wooded area of one of Telluride’s ski mountains would eventually climb to just under 11,000 feet. The outing was supposed to be three hours, but we were having such a good time, snowshoeing through the virgin forests on Nordic ski trails and even having to cut across the lanes for downhill skiers, that we ran an hour longer.
We had departed on our hike at 10 a.m., and by then the temperature had risen above 10 degrees. The sky was a perfect azure and the sun so strong that after a long period of uphill, many of us had to strip off a layer of clothes or at least unzip our outer jackets because we were too hot.
It was not just a good trek — there were also great vistas of surrounding peaks; a little bit of wildlife (lots of tracks but just one live snow hare crossing our path); and some history – spotting the aspenglyphs, or carvings in the aspens done by Basque sheep herders early in the 20th century.
Our last stretch was a long uphill and I finally felt the elevation at work on my body, but I didn’t care. As Jane noted early in our journey when we were cutting a path through virgin forest, “Don’t you just love the quiet?”
After two nights in Telluride, we moved on to our final destination, Crested Butte, another old mining town that became a famed ski resort. We had never been there before and enjoyed this part of the ride. The weather got colder, but the sky remained clear.
Before walking the streets of Crested Butte we pulled off the main road about seven miles south of town, as our accommodation for two nights was the Pioneer Guest Cabins, a group of eight beautifully outfitted, individual, log cabins strung along a narrow canyon that followed Cement Creek, which has nothing to do with cement other than the consistency of some of the rocks that reminded early travelers of cement.
Back in 2001, Matt and Leah Whiting bought the property, which had gotten a bit run down, and refurbished and refurnished all the cabins pretty much by themselves. Some of the amazing woodwork, such as the carved banisters to the loft in our cabin, was done by Matt. These cabins were some of the best my wife and I ever stayed in, and we have stayed in quite a number.
By the way, the original ski hill in Crested Butte was on the mountain slope just behind the cabins.
Crested Butte was 10 minutes down the road, and it was an unexpected treat. The old coal mining town has a funky, joyful, restored main street with all the things you expect from a ski resort town — good eateries, coffee shops, bars where you can listen to local music, and a variety of idiosyncratic shops. Like Telluride, Crested Butte is really two locations — the town itself, and the more modern developments close to the ski slopes. The latter is called Mount Crested Butte. A free shuttle bus connects the two.
Although I didn’t downhill ski, I certainly got enough outdoor exercise while in town including snowshoeing, Nordic skiing, and, for the first time in my life, an afternoon of fat-tire biking.
Fat-tire bikes, sometimes known as all-terrain fat tire bites or ATBs, are galloping in popularity. They are like mountain bikes except these bikes rest on extremely wide tires with elevated treads – all good for riding in the snow.
While in Crested Butte I met former snowboard champion Erica Mueller, who had never done fat-tire biking either. She said to me, “let’s do it,” so, one afternoon we rented two bikes, threw them in the back of her truck, and went out to a popular Nordic trail along the Slate River. It turned out to be a tremendous amount of fun – and some hard exercise for the leg muscles. Can’t wait to do it again!
Oddly, I didn’t come to Crested Butte for the outdoor activities. I came for another attraction — the Crested Butte Songwriters Festival, a three-year-old, annual, charitable event where some of the most successful and prolific country-western songwriters come to play their own music at different venues across town.
It’s a four-day event with the songwriters playing individually at a number of Main Street venues such as Talk of the Town, The Eldo, and Kochevars. Then on the last day they all gather at Crested Butte’s Center for the Arts for a final show.
At the Talk of the Town show by local favorite Lizzy Plotkin, I met Cjay Clark, the local restaurateur (he runs The Slogars, where I ate dinner that night), who had helped organize the event. He introduced me to a number of the songwriters, including local resident Dean Dillon, who has his name etched at the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, and Jesse Rice, who co-wrote the immensely popular Florida-Georgia Line’s tune, Cruise, which I’m told is the number one downloaded song ever.
It was, as Tim McGraw sings, “One of Those Nights,” which, I should add, was written by Rodney Clawson, who showed up for the festivities as well.
The next morning we drove back to Arizona. When we awoke, the temperature was in the minus range but by the time we hit Flagstaff, it was about 40 degrees. The sky remained clear.
IF YOU GO:
Accommodations: For Amangiri, check the Aman Resorts Website at http://www.amanresorts.com
Activities: To Antelope Canyon, from Amangiri. Drive back through Page until the intersection of Highway 98. Turn left, heading east. The parking for Antelope Canyon is on the right. If you reach the Navajo Power Plant, you’ve gone too far. Navajo guides take you into the canyon and there is a variable cost depending on time of day. Apparently, most visitors like to go before the noon hour and the charge when my wife and did the journey at this hour was $46 per person.
Where to stay: The lovely and roomy Hotel Madeline Telluride in Mountain Village (http://www.hotelmedelinetelluride.com).
What to do: EcoAdventures offers single or group snowshoe tours to, as it promotes, a part of Telluride Ski Resort that is normally unseen by the average skier (http://www.tellurideskiresort.com/tellSki/info/eco-adventures.aspx).
Where To Stay: After two nights at the Pioneer Guest Cabins (http://www.pioneerguestcabins.com), we spent a night at the more luxurious Grand Lodge, closer to the ski runs, in Mount Crested Butte (http://www.grandlodgecrestedbutte.com).
Crested Butte Mountain Heritage Museum: One of the better small-town museums as Crested Butte has a fascinating history. http://www.crestedbuttemuseum.com
Crested Butte Nordic Center: Expert trainers if needed, otherwise terrific trail system. http://www.cbnordic.org
Big Al’s Bicycle Heaven: The place to rent fat-tire bikes. http://www.bigalsbicycleheaven.com
Songwriters Festival: One of the best winter festivals in the country, http://http://www.skicb.com/things-to-do/events-calendar/Songwriters-festival