This Tiny Colorado Town Is the Quintessential American Ski Getaway
As we sat before a crackling noonday fire in the Cat Barn — a rustic, après-ski cabin owned by Eleven Experience, in Irwin, Colorado — Alan Bernholtz waxed mystical on the pleasures of winter: the stillness, the fresh powder. “When you feel that resistance of snow, and it’s quiet, it’s just an indescribable experience that you want to have again,” he said.
I wasn’t sure I fully understood what he was talking about, but like an acolyte who had traveled far for a guru, I nodded enthusiastically. Bernholtz is the “minister of fun” for Eleven, an international luxury hotel group that has three properties — Scarp Ridge Lodge, Sopris House, and Public House — in Crested Butte, the self-proclaimed “last great ski town in Colorado.”
Though Crested Butte, which is located 120 miles southwest of Denver, does have fantastic runs, Eleven chooses to base its skiing operations in Irwin, a once-thriving, now mostly empty mining town 10 miles away. Irwin racks up 300 inches of snowfall in a year — almost twice as much as Crested Butte.
After Bernholtz, a longtime mountain guide, had hauled me and a handful of other guests up to Irwin in a rubber-tracked 10-passenger snowcat, we set out to explore the wilderness: some on foot, others on skis. It wasn’t hard to discern the magic of Irwin on a clear February morning. Instead of crowded lift lines and slopeside bars, there was a preternatural stillness and untracked snow as far as the eye could see. I strapped on snowshoes for a recon of the area, walking past Eleven’s Movie Cabin, originally used as the house in The Further Adventures of the Wilderness Family (1978) and Mountain Family Robinson (1979), two films that follow the escapades of an exasperated city family that has moved to the woods. (I could relate.) Like the Cat Barn, so named for its resident snowcats, Eleven often uses this intimate cabin as a casual hangout for guests.
Indeed, Eleven is all about creating bespoke, luxurious adventures in the wilderness. Founded by Chad Pike, a senior managing director at the Blackstone Group, the company takes its name from the infamous Marshall amplifier from This Is Spinal Tap, the one with the extra digit of loudness. The base of operations is in Crested Butte, where Eleven opened Scarp Ridge Lodge, the flagship, in 2011. Typically booked on an exclusive-use basis, it sits on a side street in the circa-1885 Croatian Hall, its interior now updated with ski lockers in the foyer and a rooftop hot tub offering a perfect view of Mount Emmons. The four-room Sopris House followed in 2013, and in 2017, Eleven added the Public House, a restored 19th-century building on Elk Avenue. It has a pub on the ground floor, and three loft-style lodgings above, which guests can book individually.
Crested Butte lacks the social-register buzz of towns like Aspen and Vail, so it may seem an odd home base considering Eleven’s rarefied clientele. While there has been a quiet influx of money — typically second-home owners from Texas and Oklahoma — Crested Butte, like Telluride, is often regarded as the sort of place other places used to be. When people aren’t skiing or mountain biking, they are participating in quirky events like the Chainless World Championships, in which participants ride a bike without a chain seven miles downhill.
But after spending some time at Eleven, the choice of Crested Butte began to make sense to me. Locals like Bernholtz really do think of nothing but the outdoors; some restaurants will even halt their lunch service because everyone is up on the mountain. And with those mountains, who could blame them?
Colorado Trip Planner
From Denver International Airport, rent a sturdy car for the five-hour drive to Crested Butte. Or fly on from Denver to Montrose (a two-hour drive away) or Gunnison (just 40 minutes).
Eleven Experience has three properties in town. The new Lofts at Public House (doubles from $350) are on Elk Avenue, Crested Butte’s main street, with a lovely pub and underground taproom open to the public.
Multigenerational groups should consider Scarp Ridge Lodge (from $15,700, all-inclusive), available for buyout only, which has six rooms and a saltwater pool.
The four-bedroom Sopris House (from $9,600, all-inclusive), also buyout-only, has a private saloon and a copper hot tub.