Recognized as a mecca of mountain biking, Crested Butte is also a pioneer of fat biking. Fat bikes use oversized tires to boost stability and traction while you’re riding on packed snow or slick roads, through sand or deep gravel, or on trails with mixed conditions.
Since the 1980s, Gunnison Valley local Dave Wiens — Mountain Bike Hall of Fame inductee and executive director of the International Mountain Bicycling Association — has been pedaling trails across the valley year-round. But early on, riding on snow was tough, he said. Technology didn’t match the conditions, and winter-spring trail grooming didn’t exist. Now, fat bikes make riding mixed conditions easier for everyone.
The seeds of change for improving trail conditions started when Dave Ochs drove his Toyota pickup — with Samoyed spaniel Trapper in tow — through Crested Butte en route to Aspen in 2001 and never left. Instead, he joined roommates to dig Tony’s Trail with the Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association (said to be the world’s first mountain bike club), founded in 1983 to unite Gunnison Valley riders through trail development and events. Ochs was hooked. He volunteered as CBMBA’s secretary, worked as a remote drafter, rode his $500 Jamis, and developed a “credit card problem” collecting single speeds, clunkers and townies. In 2016, his philanthropy evolved into a still-held position as the first executive director of CBMBA. That same year, the passionate biker launched the Borealis Fat Bike World Championships, an annual four-day fat bike event for upwards of 1,400 riders that features costumes, whiskey, and backside branding.
“We needed more winter business and we were already a mountain bike destination. Fat bike technology was catching up — tires were becoming better with more options and abilities and the bikes were getting lighter,” said Ochs.
To groom trail, CBMBA purchased a Yellowstone Track Systems groomer (then realized, it didn’t work in the snowpack). Troubleshooting, they MacGyvered a groomer using a giant rubber horse stall mat from Tractor Supply with metal teeth and bolts welded on to it.
“It’s like a medieval torture device that works better than a multi-thousand-dollar machine,” said Ochs. The group’s grooming techniques get more dialed-in every year.
Today, the Fat Bike World Championships travels around the U.S. — the 2023 is in Wisconsin — and CBMBA grooms more than 16 miles of trails on the north end of the Gunnison Valley for use in winter and through spring. And that’s just the start. Additional fat biking routes are groomed by Gunnison County SNO Trackers (a nonprofit that advocates for snowmobiling and provides multi-use trail grooming), Crested Butte Nordic, and Crested Butte Mountain Resort. Many fat bike routes are remote doublewide roads or sidewalk-width tracks but 33 miles south of Crested Butte, Gunnison Trails grooms nearly 20 miles of singletrack at Hartman Rocks Recreation Area.
To pack down the narrow trail network, the Gunnison Trails drives a track sled — “basically a lawn mower engine on top of a snowmobile track,” explained executive director Tim Kugler.
Compared to the steep views around Crested Butte, the fat bike trails in Hartman Rocks meander through high-elevation sagebrush country speckled with mixed pine, junipers and gigantic granite boulders.
“Hartman Rocks offers ridiculously cool views south to the San Juans, west to the West Elk Wilderness, and to the north end of the valley. In winter, the landscape is dramatic and brings a contrast of being in the high desert surrounded by mountains,” Kugler said.
Altogether, fat bikers can enjoy more than 38 miles of groomed track throughout Gunnison Valley — not to mention Kebler Pass and Ohio Creek Roads, which Gunnison County SNO Trackers regularly grooms from Kebler Trailhead to Erickson Springs and Ohio Pass Trailheads, as well as up to Lost Lake Campground and Lake Irwin, which offers about 40 miles of corduroy.
The best part of fat biking, beyond the fun and exercise, is the sustainability.
“You can put a track for fat biking in snow, and it won’t have any impact to the ecosystem or landscape. In the summertime, those tracks melt and you’re back to pristine meadows,”
said Kugler. Plus, no pass or trail fees are required. Fat bikes are also a great option when the conditions are unpredictable during the shoulder seasons — a mix of snow, dirt, gravel and mud.
Here are six of the best winter trails with jaw-dropping views throughout the Gunnison Valley, according to local riders.
Distance: 1.7-mile loop
Location: Crested Butte town
You might be steering your bike at 9,000 feet, but this loop is wide, compacted, flat, simple, and ideal for beginner fat bikers and to acclimate to the altitude, says Ochs. Plus, the circuit sits at the base of 12,162-foot Mount Crested Butte and is an easy-to-access trail on the southeast corner of town. “You don’t need to stay centered in a skinny track and can zigzag all over the course. You can also work on tire pressure,” said Ochs, recommending a range of 4 to 6 pounds of pressure to “float on top of the snow and increase surface area.” Note: A regular bike pump doesn’t register tire pressure that low, so borrow or rent an appropriate tire gauge for your trip.
Golf Course Loops (Club at CB)
Distance: 3.5 miles
Location: Crested Butte town
“Not a lot of people ride the golf course loops, but it’s a really fun fat bike singletrack, because it’s not a huge, wide path. There are lots of ups and downs. The route takes you to an area you’d never be [on a bike] in the summer — and you won’t see anyone else out there,” said Beth Shaner, a winter fat bike commuter and athlete. Based in Gunnison Valley, she completed the 2022 and 2020 Iditarod Trail Invitational, a 350-mile race in Alaska. To reach this trail at The Club at Crested Butte golf course, pedal .5-mile on the Town Ranch loop in southeast Crested Butte to the 1.1-mile Riverbend Trail, then hop on the Skyland bike path. At the golf course, you can ride the 2-mile Front 9 loop or the 1.1-mile Back 9 lollipop, which are linked via a 1,000-foot-long connector trail.
Crested Butte to Mount Crested Butte
Distance: 2.2 miles one-way
Location: Along the CB Rec Path
From town, enjoy a moderate climb to Mount Crested Butte, then turn around and coast downhill. “The rec path is a more beginner-friendly and close-to-town ride. You get some elevation gain, the route gets groomed regularly and is in good condition for fat biking,” said Shaner, who commutes to work via the rec path with stunning 360-degree views.
Distance: 3 miles one-way
Location: Snodgrass Trailhead
Many of the routes in Gunnison Valley are open to all users including human-powered, motorized and hybrid recreationists — which is all great for packing down the snow for fat bikers. Gothic Road stretches from Snodgrass Trailhead to Gothic, a historic ghost town at the base of the rugged 12,400-foot Gothic Mountain, and the route is solely dedicated to non-motorized travel but still gets groomed. “One of my favorite rides is to go to Gothic and back. You can also ride from Crested Butte town if you want more mileage but most people park at Snodgrass Trailhead,” Shaner said. Be sure to understand if your selected route is in avalanche terrain — snow-filled slopes that are 30 degrees or more have a potential risk to slide — and check the avalanche forecast published each day by the Crested Butte Avalanche Center. “The caveat is that any time you ride up these drainages — such as Gothic, Cement Creek and Kebler Pass — there’s always avalanche potential,” added Shaner. Stick to trails near town if avalanche danger is reported.
Josie’s, The Luge, Buddy Bear Loop
Distance: About 5 miles
Location: Hartman Rocks Recreation Area
Park at the southwest entrance of Hartman Rocks Rec Area and start pedaling eastbound at a mellow grade on BLM 3500 road, then veer north on Josie’s, a 2-mile segment. “At the prominent top, Josie’s has good views and a contoured descent that’s flowy. The route is south-facing and often it’s good to go at 2 p.m. in January. Even when it’s cold, the sun is so bright, you don’t need many layers, work up a good heat, and you’re never going that fast on a fat bike,” Kugler said. Next, head south on The Luge and continue onto Buddy Bear to finish the long loop. “The loop is a ‘holy cow, that was amazing’ ride. In the summer, that’d take you 40 minutes. In the winter, plan for twice the amount of time,” he added.
Top of the World
Distance: 2 miles one-way
Location: Hartman Rocks Recreation Area
On the northeast corner of Hartman Rocks Rec Area, start at the parking lot off Gold Basin Road then pedal less than 1 mile up Lower Jack and Jacks: It’s a climb out the gate. Head west to connect with Top of the World, a 2-mile route that lives up to its name. “Put Top of the World on your must-ride list. It’s a long trail that contours along an east-facing hill, there’s a nice prominent high spot, and it’s a proper 15-minute climb whereas a lot of other trails are rolling,” Kugler said.
If You Go
For a premium therapeutic experience and optimal location — midway between the towns of Gunnison and Crested Butte — stay at the Taylor River Lodge, which boasts private cabins with luxurious steam showers, artisan meals at a communal table, and a bathhouse with a saltwater pool, sauna and hot tub. In Crested Butte, the Elk Mountain Lodge, built in 1919 as a miner’s hotel, is cozy and serves a robust breakfast buffet. If camping is more your style, drive up to Elk Creek Campground in Curecanti National Recreation Area, which sits southwest of Gunnison with your tent or RV. At 7,540 feet, the sites overlook Blue Mesa Reservoir, where the water freezes over for ice fishers and ice skaters in winter. The campground is open year-round. Reservations aren’t needed in winter, and the price drops in October to $8 a night.
To replenish after your ride, grab a meal and brews at High Alpine Brewing Co. in Gunnison or at the Secret Stash Pizza in Crested Butte.
Trail Grooming Season:
• Crested Butte: roughly December to March
• Gunnison: roughly December to February
CBMBA, Crested Butte
Crested Butte Nordic, Crested Butte
Crested Butte Mountain Resort, Mount Crested Butte
Safety & Courtesy:
• Learn and follow basic fat biking etiquette.
• Crested Butte Mountain Resort uphill access policy
• Crested Butte Avalanche Center avalanche forecast
Fat Bike Rentals:
• The Alpineer, 970-349-5210
• Double Shot Cyclery, 970-642-5411
• Rock N’ Rock Sports, 970-641-9150
Fat biking trails throughout Gunnison Valley are free to use, with many nonprofits pooling resources to maintain winter access. Consider becoming a member or donating to any of the organizations providing safety and access:
• Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association
• Gunnison County SNO Trackers
• Crested Butte Nordic
• Crested Butte Avalanche Center
• Gunnison Trails
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