If Gunnison is the quintessential Western rodeo town, then Crested Butte is its free-spirited mountain neighbor. Despite their different vibes and activities, both offer unparalleled adventures and spectacular scenery.
Kick off your excursion 15 miles west of Gunnison, where vast reservoirs feed into dramatic canyons in Curecanti National Recreation Area. It took thousands of years for Colorado’s fifth largest river, the Gunnison, to carve out the area’s most identifiable feature — the eponymous, 48-mile-long gorge.
Check out exhibits on the area’s natural history at the Elk Creek Visitor Center, located on the Blue Mesa Reservoir — Colorado’s largest body of water. Winds captured by the surrounding flat-topped buttes make for primo sailing. Anglers, too, will find deep, clean water filled with lake (mackinaw) trout. And boaters freely roam more than 41,000 acres of lake.
Another way to take to the water: The Morrow Point Boat Tour, on nearby Morrow Reservoir, is well worth the 232 steps down to the boat landing. The pontoon will float you to the foot of precipitous 1,000-foot cliffs. Meanwhile, landlubbers can stick to the four-mile Curecanti Creek Trail, which passes through ponderosa, aspen and riparian forests as it drops 800 feet below the canyon’s rim.
For the afternoon, visit Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Just 50 minutes from Gunnison, the steep and dark-colored walls of the Black Canyon rise 2,000 vertical feet from the river. Take a relatively flat walk from the South Rim Visitors Center. Peer across the chasm to Colorado’s tallest cliff, Painted Wall — you’ll know it by the white gash through the otherwise pitch-black stone.
On the western side of the canyon, stop into downtown Montrose, where antique shops, several cafes and a handful of museums exploring the history of the area can keep you busy.
Or, spend the rest of the afternoon wandering downtown Gunnison. Pop into boutiques and cafes along Main Street, or take in the Pioneer Museum’s mineral exhibit and awesome collection of 55 antique cars.
Southwestern Colorado’s night sky twinkles with stars. View them up close from the Gunnison Valley Observatory. The state’s largest research-quality telescope is open to the public on Friday and Saturday nights mid-May through September.
Drive 30 miles north from Gunnison’s scrubby mesas to Crested Butte’s granite peaks. In the 1880s, the town was a supply stop for nearby coalmines. These days, it and the surrounding Elk Mountains are the East River Valley’s adventure-sports capital. Ease into the day with a hike along a wildflower-carpeted moraine. In 1991, the state legislature designated Crested Butte the Wildflower Capital of Colorado.
True to its reputation, the area is awash in lupine, columbine, queens crown and paintbrush from June through early September. Hike the 3.4-mile Upper Loop Trail and ogle the fields of purple, gold and fuschia.
White-knuckle adventures await you on granite-topped Mt. Crested Butte: take the chairlift to access a web of mountain-biking trails. (Crested Butte is the sport’s self-proclaimed birthplace.) Or see how you fare at bungee jumping, rock climbing and disc golf at the Adventure Park, located at the base of Crested Butte Mountain Resort.
Continue the action into the afternoon by rafting or fishing the gold-medal waters of the Taylor River. Gunnison County holds four state records for the largest rainbow, brown and lake trout, and kokanee salmon, a landlocked variety of salmon.
Ready for some downtime? Head into the historic town of Crested Butte. Its blocks of charming Victorian-era buildings form what the National Trust for Historic Preservation calls one of the country’s most distinctive towns to visit.
And there’s plenty to do: Nearly every summer weekend features a gathering of some sort — the Wildflower Festival, Tour de Forks culinary festival, Crested Butte Music Festival. Or head to the Crested Butte Mountain Heritage Museum to see how the area's past residents lived.
Finally, be mellow and return to the Adventure Park for a free concert, held on Wednesday evenings, or relax and take in a play, dance exhibition or concert at the Crested Butte Center for the Arts. Of course, there’s always the option of sipping wine or beer at one of the top-notch restaurants in town. After an action-packed weekend like this, you deserve it!