Remember the "cold/hot" game you used to play as a kid? You know, you moved from cold to hot the closer you got to the prize.
Here's our version of the cold/hot game.
A haven for downhill backcountry skiers. Cold. Wilderness areas. Cold. No groomed trail system. Warm. (This one is actually kind of tricky because some snowmobilers would say hot because they avoid trails where possible while others would say cold because they like groomed trails). Very few crowds. Warmer. Plenty of snow, even when the rest of the West is gasping for the white stuff. Hot. Wide open backcountry riding. Hot. Hot. Wide open backcountry riding with monster mountains to climb. Hot. You're burning up.
When you finally get enough hot answers in a row, you'll find yourself in the Elk Mountains west of Crested Butte, CO, near the old mining town of Irwin.
While you may not have heard of Irwin, CO, you may have seen it without knowing it. The crew at Slednecks has done a fair amount of filming there for its videos.
Much of the riding in this part of Colorado takes place west of Crested Butte (pop. 1,529) and is sandwiched between two Wilderness areas: the West Elk and Raggeds (off limits to snowmobiling). As mentioned, there is no groomed trail system here, but lots of forest service, old logging and mining roads. Once in the backcountry away from Crested Butte, services are slim to none. That means pack gas or walk out. Mountains in the Ruby Range and West Elk Range are steep and the snow is deep, which simply means avalanche danger is usually pretty high.
Pay Attention Class
Really, we're not trying to scare anyone away from this gem of riding area, but sledders should know what they're in for. Simply put, the riding is fantastic but be prepared.
It might even be tempting to say this area is not for the timid, what with the challenging terrain and all, but that wouldn't quite be true. Beginning sledders and those who just like to ride and explore at a leisurely pace have access to lots of rolling hills, open meadows and forest service roads, safe areas where you can sharpen your riding skills. There's probably enough of this kind of terrain to keep you busy for 2-3 days. Here's another warning, though. With the kind of elevation lurking about in these parts, beginners will be tempted to make the jump to expert as they climb the hills and gain confidence.
On the other end of the spectrum hardcore riders can spend days in the backcountry cornice jumping, cliff jumping, point and shoot hillclimbing and boondocking.
Here's our disclaimer. We already talked about the Wilderness areas here, but there are a few other areas where you need to keep your slednose out. Irwin Lodge has a very successful snowcat powder skiing business (the lodge claims it's the largest in North America) near Irwin and the places where its clients ski are off limits to sledders. Despite that, there is still plenty of snowmobiling out there. The only time you'll see a skier is when you stop for lunch at Irwin Lodge.
You should think of the Irwin Lodge as a sort of oasis in a sea of snow. The lodge is 12 miles from the parking area/trailhead, which is four miles from the center of Crested Butte. Irwin Lodge is, kind of loosely speaking, in the center of the riding area west of Crested Butte (elevation 8,908 feet). Irwin Lodge is only accessible by snowmobile or snowcat in the winter so its operators groom a trail from the parking area to the lodge, which sits high above Lake Irwin. The elevation at the lodge is 10,700 feet and the mountains go up from there.
Right next to the lodge is the Ruby Range with its three distinctive peaks-Ruby (12,644 feet), Mount Owen (13,058), and Purple Mtn. (12,958). The view of these mountains is spectacular from just about anywhere in the riding area, but make sure you get a view from the lodge's big deck. It's awesome. This area, which is mostly treeless, is popular with the hillclimbing, highmarking crowd.
One view you'll also want to take in while riding this area is from the Splains Gulch overlook. From this vantage point you can see the Anthracite Range to the west and the Castles across the Ohio Valley to the south. It's an easy ride and there are lots of pockets of meadows along the way to jump off and play in.
If you're bound and determined to find a groomed trail system in these parts, then head to Kebler Pass, which is just past Irwin Lodge, and you'll find a groomed trail from the pass to a trailhead about 12 miles from Highway 133.
As there are no groomed trails in the area, there is no trail map so it's best to find someone who knows the area and can show you around for at least a day or two. Irwin Lodge rents snowmobiles as part of a package if you stay there but there are several snowmobile rental outfits in Crested Butte, some of which actually ride to Irwin Lodge for lunch or supper. Contact the Crested Butte Chamber of Commerce for a list of rental operators.
And although there are more and more sledders discovering this hidden snowmobile spot, it's still out-of-the-way enough that it doesn't attract huge crowds. Hot.
So maybe not many are hot on the trail to Irwin, CO, but this is still one hot riding area.
The parking lot for the Irwin area is 4 miles from Crested Butte. Crested Butte is 28 miles from Gunnison on Highway 135. Once you get to Crested Butte, head west on Whiterock Avenue (Highway 12), which snakes along Coal Creek until plowing stops about 4 miles from town. Park there and take the trail to Irwin, which is another 12 miles from the parking area. If you think you're going to need extra gas, then get some in town before you head up the mountain. There is none after Crested Butte.
Irwin Lodge (888-GO-IRWIN) is the ideal place to bed down. The lodge offers a bed and breakfast deal for about $100 a night. You can also arrange to have a rental snowmobile during your stay. Contact the lodge for more information about rates for this option. An avalanche beacon is mandatory equipment when staying at Irwin Lodge so either bring your own or use one of the lodge's. The remote lodge has 21 rooms and a huge common area dominated by a big fieldstone fireplace. The rooms are comfortable and clean and offer great views of the area.
Irwin Lodge has its own dining facilities. The food is excellent and not what you might expect to find at such a remote location. Remember, the lodge also caters to snowcat skiers who pay a fair amount to ski the virgin powder so you know it's not your ordinary eating establishment. How about trout filets for lunch, just as an example? As Crested Butte is a well-established downhill ski area, there are plenty of accommodations and restaurants in town.