Outside of Crested Butte, Colo., there is a trail that delivers intrepid mountain travelers to a high-altitude paradise erupting with wildflowers, lush meadows and views so arresting that you won’t believe your eyes.
This trail, the 401, climbs 1½ miles out of Schofield Pass, elevation 10,707 feet, through an evergreen forest to access a high-alpine moraine. Then it meanders through grassy fields rimmed with boulders and scree fields before gently descending more than 2,000 vertical feet over seven miles. As it drops, the 401 plunges through fields of cow parsnips and delphiniums, vibrant red and purple wildflowers that burst skyward as high as your chin during peak wildflower season in the last half of July.
The 401 is Crested Butte’s most celebrated mountain bike ride, and in 2016 Outside Magazine dubbed it the “most epic loop of single-track riding anywhere.” But here’s a secret: As good as the 401 is for mountain biking, it’s even better for trail running.
I discovered this firsthand last September while reporting on an athletes summit in Crested Butte that was sponsored by La Sportiva, a maker of technical mountain footwear — including running shoes. For three days, the athletes, some of the best ultrarunners (long-distance runners) in the world, tested various models of footwear and apparel, posed for catalogue photo shoots and talked upcoming races. Meanwhile, I huffed to keep up when we were on the trails. But though my legs and lungs were no match for those of the pros, it didn’t matter, thanks to the sublime surroundings.
On the day we bounded down the 401, the flat-topped Gothic Mountain towering to our right and layers of peaks and valleys peeling off to our left, endorphins flooded my nervous system, adding spring to my step and sparking an epiphany. Though Crested Butte has long been a mecca to mountain bikers — it’s even home to the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame — trail running may well be the best way to experience all that it has to offer.
Mountain-biking die-hards, hear me out. I grew up in Colorado and have logged many summer days since my teens pedaling the CB (as locals call it) single track. When my sons were born, I sought solace on solo rides deep into the wild backcountry and far from the mewling infants who had taken command of my life. I’ve ripped down the 401, flowing over miles and miles of undulating dirt. Initially, I thought it would be sacrilegious to explore these trails, which rank among the best I’d ever ridden, on foot.
But as I trotted for miles in the shadows of stronger, better-trained runners, I came to recognize the absolute peace created by the combination of mountains, physical effort and the elements — the hot hand of the sun on my neck, the brisk wind at my face. As I ran, I meditated on the simplicity of trail running. Lace up your shoes, grab an extra layer, some water and a snack, and you’re off. When you run, there aren’t derailleur gears that can break or chains that might fall off. You don’t lug around a huge rucksack as many hikers do. You bring only the essentials, and that lightens your load to explore further, to push yourself more.
I know more than one set of couples in which one person is an avid mountain biker and the other isn’t. Their trips to Crested Butte tend to leave he-or-she-who-doesn’t-pedal in charge of the kids/pets/logistics while the other partner finds nirvana on the trail. Alternatively, the non-biker attempts to ride, gets scared out of their pants and crashes, bruising limbs and ego.
On the other hand, most anyone can run. Some folks jog, others are speed freaks. Some complete marathons, others ultras. It doesn’t matter how “good” they are at running. So long as you’ve got a pair of cushioned shoes with tread and some quick-drying clothes, you can trail run.
Consider my run on Doctor Park, a popular ride south of town in the Taylor River valley. We started up a rugged Jeep road, our legs loosening as our lungs adapted to the oxygen-deficient air. At the top of the hill, we were rewarded with a smooth path leading into a thick forest of Douglas firs, pines and spruces. Soon, the trail hit a high, grassy ridge with views of serrated peaks in every direction. Because it was autumn, the hillsides were ablaze with the burnt yellow of golden aspen leaves. Add in the runner’s high, and we were all giddy. The descent ramped up that euphoria. It was the kind of run where your feet work independently of your brain and your body moves in sync with the world around it, everything operating exactly as nature intended.
Not every run was as dramatic. We hit the Loop Trails adjacent to town and enjoyed a mellow three-mile loop through a relatively flat valley. What this route lacked in vigor it more than made up for in, you guessed it, views.
To be honest, I didn’t need another reason to love Crested Butte. This small, dead-end hamlet sits at 8,909 feet above sea level in southwestern Colorado’s rugged Elk Mountains. The town is populated with fun-loving mountain folks. There’s lots of facial hair, craft beer, artisanal bread, good coffee and friendly dogs roaming the streets. The shopkeepers actually smile at the tourists’ kids, and there is nary a stoplight in town.
But spending a few days running the trails I’d come to know by bike made me fall in love all over again. And while I’ll never keep up with the likes of ultrarunning phenomenon Anton Krupicka, who was at the summit, or the other ridiculously fast professional runners I met, I don’t care. Because getting out in the cool air, where wind whistles through the aspens and creeks gurgle downstream, and where mountain magic manifests in colorful blankets of wildflowers, isn’t about being the fastest or the strongest. It’s the simple act of putting one foot in front of another and remembering to keep your eyes up as you take in the world around you.
Rachel Walker is a writer based in Boulder, Colo. Find her on Twitter: @racheljowalker.
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Elk Mountain Lodge
129 Gothic Ave.
A boutique 19-room, three-story inn located blocks from downtown, this hotel includes a delicious continental breakfast featuring smoked meats, homemade granola, huevos rancheros and delicious coffee. With local residents as inn keepers and a spacious, wooden interior, the lodge is charming and friendly. Rooms range from $120-$250, depending on the season.
Crested Butte Hostel
615 Teocalli Ave.
This centrally located lodge has everything from gender-segregated bunk rooms to an apartment that sleeps six at surprising low rates. Clean and simple, it also has shared living space, bathrooms and kitchens. Rates start at $25 for a shared bunk room and climb to about $200 for an apartment.
First Ascent and Mountain Oven Bakery
21 Elk Ave.
Come for First Ascent’s pour-over coffee — house-roasted in small batches — but stay for Mountain Oven Bakery’s house-made chilaquiles, a sumptuous, gluten-free, southwestern egg dish featuring mole, avocado, cilantro and blue corn chips ($12). The coffee roaster and bakery share a beautiful space inside a renovated miner’s cabin with plenty of seating inside and out.
311 Elk Ave.
The menu is simple at this locals’ spot: burritos, tacos, tamales and fresh-made salsas. The burritos are enormous and stuffed with your choice of beans, rice and fresh meats ($7.55-$10.75), and the house-made salsa packs enough spice to keep it interesting but not painful.
330 Belleview Ave.
Exceptional mountain guides trained to take clients on a range of adventures, Irwin Guides can customize running itineraries. After consulting on your goals and fitness level, the guides will create a customized itinerary featuring the best Crested Butte has to offer. Prices start around $100 per person for a half-day.
DIY Trail Running
If hiring a guide holds little appeal, consider a self-guided tour of the area. The most important asset you will need is a trail map, available at any of the myriad bike shops in town. For easy runs, start with the Loop Trails in town and venture out to Tony’s, which connects town to the ski area. For more advanced, opt for the 401, Doctors Park and Teocalli Ridge.
Crested Butte Angler
229 Elk Ave.
With a wide range of fishing options from small streams to massive rivers, backcountry lakes and reservoirs, Crested Butte is a fly-fisherman’s dream. Hire an expert who knows what’s hatching where and what’s in season. Rates for half-day trips start around $250 per person.