Road Trip 2018: Part 3, Crystal Mill

Palms are damp, heart is racing, stomach is churning as I grab the truck’s “Jesus handle” and see my life flash before my eyes while Mr. Trekker slowly inches the vehicle ever closer to the drop-off….

Let’s back up and start this story at the beginning…

The Crystal Mill is one of the most photographed sites in all of Colorado and a key reason we embarked on this road trip to begin with.  First off, let’s just get the technicalities out of the way.  This isn’t actually the mill (even though that’s the common name for it), it’s actually the powerhouse for the mill.  This is all that remains of the abandoned site.  The actual mill lost it’s battle with nature many years ago.  I just wanted to get that out of the way for all the sticklers-for-detail out there, now for the fun stuff!  😁

After several days at Grand Mesa, and a wonderful breakfast at Connie’s in Cedaredge, we traversed a beautiful gorge dotted with coal mines and then a spectacular canyon on Route 133.  The drive into Marble (the departure point for our adventure) was a site to behold in itself!  This was the first real alpine view we’d had on our trip to date, and the drive over McClure Pass and down the switchbacks into town was incredible.  Before reaching the pass we could already see the dichotomy between opposing ecosystems; the drier scrubland on the western slopes and the wetter, alpine peaks on the eastern slopes of the pass.  As we rounded the first curves and began our descent down the eastern side of the pass, the yawning chasm of the valley opened up in front of us, edged by the towering peaks of the nearby mountains.

THIS is why I love the mountains so much!  That first glimpse of the majestic, alpine peaks is what keeps me coming back time and again, never tiring of their pristine beauty.  It’s a humbling experience, feeling so small next to those gigantic monoliths that continue on, one after another, for miles on end, standing the test of time eternal.  How many eons has the rock that forms them been in existence?  How many more will it continue existing, affected only by the passage of time?  It makes our puny, maybe-a-century-long, human existence on the planet seem paltry in comparison.  Viewing vast expanses like this, for me, is a transcendent experience.  My spirit is refreshed more by a day in the mountains than a week in a church pew.  Being allowed the privilege of experiencing creation on this visceral level; as you breathe in the damp loam of the forest floor, and feel the competing elements of heat from the sun and the cool, mountain breeze that simultaneously caress your skin.  For me, these experiences leave no doubt of the presence of a Creator.  What better way to appreciate said Creator than by encountering its creation?       

Marble, a tiny town with a permanent population of little more than 100 people, is nestled into the Rocky Mountains along the Crystal River.  It’s claim to fame is the marble–hence the name–in it’s quarries that has been used for a few well-known places. These include, portions of the Lincoln Memorial and Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington DC!  The road to Crystal Mill, Forest Road 314, is listed as “moderate” in the 4×4 book I mentioned in this post.  It’s about a 10-mile, round-trip excursion from Marble to the mill and then the ghost town of Crystal, beyond.  So, be prepared for a several-hour adventure, especially depending on your mode of transportation.  The road is open for hiking, biking and vehicles, so all should proceed cautiously and be ready to encounter others on the path.  

I approached this route with a bit of trepidation.  This road connects with Schofield Pass to the east, via the sometime’s-deadly Devil’s Punchbowl.  (As I mentioned previously, we chose not to attempt that adventure on this trip, maybe someday, though!)  We knew this would be one of our more challenging 4×4 adventures to date, so, with sweaty palms and a pounding heart, we passed Beaver Lake and headed for the unknown.  As it turned out, the technical difficulty of the road was completely manageable, our earlier drive on Montgomery Pass Road, as outlined hereactually proved more challenging.  The road was rocky, for sure, with a water crossing or two in places, but any high-clearance, 4WD vehicle could manage it in fair weather conditions.  The difficulty arose when you met people coming the other way on this one-lane, two-way, shelf road!  😳  The smashed cab of the ancient truck I saw lying at the bottom of one of the ravines didn’t help to quell my nerves any!  😕

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The road to Crystal

There was only one, truly nerve-wracking moment, when we were forced to hug the edge of a cliff as we waited for an ATV to pass us.  Fortunately, this was an area with a bit of a turn-off where the road “widened” to about 1 1/2-lane width, so it was actually the perfect place to meet an oncoming vehicle.  As we hovered on the rim of the canyon, several hundred feet in the air, my acrophobic tendencies spiked as Mr. Trekker had to inch towards the drop-off to make room for the other vehicle.  These conditions are a normal part of driving back roads in the mountains so, while manageable, these roads are not for the faint of heart!  (Did I mention this was the “safe” and “easy” portion of this road?)  😜   

We did arrive safely at Crystal Mill, and it is, truly, all it’s lauded to be.  There’s a reason why this is one of the most photographed sites in all of Colorado.  The mountains provide a picturesque backdrop and aspens frame the Crystal River as it courses down a small waterfall and edges the side of the mill before continuing on to Marble, farther down the valley.  The water roars as it rushes past, caring naught for anyone or anything that gets in it’s path.  It presses on with one purpose, to obey the demand of it’s master, to continue on to where the call of gravity slackens.

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The iconic Crystal Mill (powerhouse) 😉

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The ghost town of Crystal is located only a few hundred feet beyond the site of the mill and is not, truly, abandoned–at least in the summer months–as many of the old buildings have been restored and are now privately owned as small, mountain getaways.  The town itself makes for a good turn-around point on the road for those of us who are less brave (wiser?), and are not willing to take on the Devil’s Punchbowl.  We returned to Marble, the way we had come, without further incident.       

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Crystal ghost town

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After that adventure, we decided we had earned a celebratory meal (also, we were hungry!)  There is a cool BBQ restaurant, in Marble, called Slow Groovin BBQ.  The food was wonderful and was just what our appetites had ordered!  You can visit their website here, they also have a location that is open year-round in Snowmass.  I liked the message they had printed on the bottom of their menu (see the pic below).  I took the message to mean we should focus on the present, appreciating the potential joy that every experience has to offer us.  So, we adopted this attitude for the rest of our trip.  Now that we’ve returned home, this is something I’m trying to implement into my everyday life as well.  (I always try to garner insight from our trips, and I always come away inspired when we visit Colorado–have I mentioned I LOVE this state? 😉)  It’s a struggle for me, particularly with my anxiety, but I’m always trying to be more Present…not rushing from task to task, not constantly being worried about how the next item on the list is going to get accomplished (or even what it is); just “groovin'” through the current moment.   

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This is the message that is printed at the bottom of the Slow Groovin menu that I found so inspiring (reprinted with permission).

We had planned to camp at an RV park we located on the map in town.  Unfortunately, it was full for the night.  Since there is no cell service to speak of in the valley, and we were fresh off our life lesson to “just groove”, we decided to press on to see what camping options awaited us in the Gunnison National Forest.  We were SO glad we did!  It turned out, merely 20 minutes down the road, we came upon a National Forest campground that was nestled against the Crystal River and found, what ended up being, one of our favorite campsites of the entire trip (have I mentioned National Forest campgrounds are AWESOME?) 😉  We happened to arrive shortly after the most scenic campsite in the entire campground became available, early.  So, we snatched it up!  Sometimes, “winging it” works out for the best!  It was located mere feet from the river itself.   Due to the Stage 2 fire ban, no campfires were allowed, so we enjoyed a relaxing evening riverside, dangling our feet into the cool water, reading the books we brought along, while enjoying the sounds of the bubbling river.  

Stay tuned next week for the final post of this series discussing all the cool ghost towns we saw on our trip!

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