On the Trail: Better on foot
The Crystal River Valley, high above Marble, is as popular as it is picturesque. That’s why I quit going there.On my last outing to the quasi-ghost town of Crystal, in early summer several years ago, motorized traffic nearly put an end to my love affair with the scenic valley. The roar of engines – four-wheeling SUVs and an endless stream of ATVs growling up and down the road – drowned out the rush of the Crystal River and left me to choke on the dust and exhaust.But Sunday’s chilly, overcast skies bode well for a return. The aspens in the high country have been mostly stripped of their leaves and big-game season doesn’t start until Oct. 14. With rain threatening, I figured there was little to draw a mass of motorheads to the road from Marble to the oft-photographed Crystal Mill and the small townsite just beyond it. And I was right, mostly.A friend and I and two frenzied dogs in need of exercise set off up the road under cloudy skies that absorbed the snowcapped peaks jutting above the steep valley. From a small parking pullout on the far side of Marble, it’s about a 4.5-mile hike – walk, really – to the mill. It’s about 10 or 15 minutes of uphill, and then a downhill that has to be climbed on the return trip, but the rest of the trip is pretty much an undulating road of rock and dirt that flattens out to easy about halfway there. The Crystal River, so often muddy or cloudy by the time it reaches its confluence with the Roaring Fork River at Carbondale, is, well, crystal-clear above Marble. The rocks of the streambed are visible even when the road climbs high above the water. As always, I thought about how I should have a fly rod with me. Next time, I promised myself, again, especially after I saw another guy with one.A couple in an SUV passed us at the start of our walk and we didn’t see another soul for nearly the entire two hours it took to reach the mill. Then, we were passed by six ATVs and two runners. The mill, as always, was worth stopping to admire and photograph. It’s an amazing piece of history, held up by cables preservationists have put in place to keep the ancient structure from tumbling into the river. Built in the late 1800s, it was, I presume, used to crush ore from area mines (but I’m just guessing here).Just beyond is what’s left of Crystal, a collection of old cabins that have been mostly refurbished by new owners, along with the boarded up Crystal Club – a saloon in the mining days – and a smattering of new abodes. After a picnic lunch, it was time to head back. Just for the record, we ran into another ATV, one SUV, one dirt bike and one intrepid mountain biker on our hike out. Not bad. Not bad at all.Getting there: Take 133 south from Carbondale and beyond Redstone, to the Marble turnoff on the left, just before McClure Pass. Drive 7.4 miles through Marble and past Beaver Lake (watch for signs to the Crystal Mill). The dirt road makes a sharp turn to the left and heads uphill. There, on the right, is a pullout with enough space for two vehicles. Though you can drive to the mill, with four-wheel drive and some cajones, get out and walk. Its worth it.
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