Tom Ross: No two mountain towns are alike, and that includes Crested Butte and Steamboat Springs |

Tom Ross: No two mountain towns are alike, and that includes Crested Butte and Steamboat Springs

— The wet snow was falling heavily Monday morning in Crested Butte when a man emerged from a little house in gym shorts and rubber flip-flops to start his car and clean his windshield. It was April Fools Day in a mountain town.

For denizens of Rocky Mountain resort towns, it’s nearly impossible to visit another ski town without drawing comparisons between your home and the town you’re exploring at the time, as well as among all of the ski towns you’ve ever visited. And that’s a healthy thing — not only is it endlessly fascinating, but it’s a learning opportunity. And it's considered perfectly normal for people in mountain towns to dress in defiance of the weather when winter hangs on into April and May.

Crested Butte is only about 20 miles from Aspen as the eagle flies, but 275 miles and 5 hours and 19 minutes via U.S. Highway 50 by car (it’s shorter via Kebler Pass in summer). That's because you have to drive around the Elk Range to get from one town to the other. None of that prevented 90 pairs of skiers taking part in the 2013 Grand Traverse from setting out from a trailhead above Crested Butte at midnight Friday to ski a 40-mile racecourse paralleling an 1880s mail route all the way to Aspen. Some of the skiers were on course for 15 hours.

Routt County has a longer race in the 100-kilometer North Routt Glide the Divide, and Saturday's Steamboat Coureur covered a respectable 30-plus miles at elevations above 9,000 feet. But the Grand Traverse requires skiers to carry packs loaded with survival gear as they climb well above tree line through the middle of the night. Suffice it to say, both towns attract rugged individualists.

Aspen is similar to Crested Butte in terms of automobile travel in winter – both towns are at the end of a dead-end road. Colorado Highway 135 begins in Gunnison and ends 27.7 miles to the north in Crested Butte. It's another story in Pitkin County, where the winter closure of Independence Pass makes Aspen the end of the road for part of every year.

The fact you cannot visit either town in winter and continue on your way through town to another destination shapes the character of the communities; there were no over-the-road semis rumbling through old town CB over the weekend. In fact, it was eerily quiet.

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Crested Butte’s historic neighborhood is reminiscent of Old Town Steamboat — there are many historic homes, including tiny cottages wedged into small lots on alleyways. But CB has a more eclectic mix of both funky miners shacks and Victorian homes with gingerbread trim.

And there’s a significant disconnect between the historic neighborhoods of Crested Butte and Steamboat. Where nightly rentals are scarce in Old Town Steamboat, they are commonplace in Crested Butte, and many of those homes are for sale at prices ranging from $1.5 million to $2.9 million.

The biggest difference between Steamboat and Crested Butte comes down simply to population. Crested Butte, when you discount the nearby town of Mount Crested Butte (the contemporary ski village surrounding the base of Mount Crested Butte) and South Crested Butte, had a population of just 1,496 in the 2010 Census. Steamboat Springs had a population of 12,088. Hayden, by comparison, counted 1,810 residents in 2010.

Like Steamboat, Crested Butte is crazy about bicycles. Although this is one of the original mountain bike Meccas, what one notices most is that faded old cruiser bikes are laying about everywhere, and nobody bothers to lock their town bike in CB. You see them tossed on top of decaying snow banks and stacked against tree trunks. Many of them are proud old clunkers with kickstands and coaster brakes. Others are creatively hybridized cycles with flared handlebars and angled seat posts that give them a certain singularity.

No one rides his or her high-end mountain bike in town in Crested Butte. Instead, the funky nature of one’s town bike has been elevated to a status symbol.

I'll always come home to Steamboat, but a quick trip to Crested Butte or Aspen will give a person a fresh look at life in a mountain town.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email