We arrived in the mountain valley that is home to Crested Butte, a small Colorado mountain town, in mid-afternoon. This served as an idyllic alpine stopover on the way home from a family visit in southern Colorado and proved a great place for a retreat.

Before checking in to our hostel, we found a hike just off the Kebler Pass Road. We followed an old mining road lined with wildflowers: a whole meadow of yellow columbine, tall reddish fireweed and an Indian paintbrush in a most unusual shade of red-violet.

Crested Butte claims the title as Colorado's wildflower capital -- and right away, we were discovering why. We hustled to Copley Lake with thunderstorms threatening and made a counter-clockwise loop around this scenic alpine lake. From here we enjoyed nice views of the Ruby Range and Scarp Ridge.

That first night after checking into our centrally located international hostel, we found a wonderful small restaurant, Sherpa Café, in the town of 1,500. This cozy, three- or four-table cafe is run by Pemba G. Sherpa and family.

It turns out in conversation with Sherpa that he has summited Everest twice and nearly summited Annapurna. When not running the delightful and inspiring Sherpa Café, he guides groups of travelers on trekking adventures in his homeland of Nepal.

TIME AT THE LAKE

On our first full day here, we first visited Meridian Lake on the recommendation of local oil painter Susan Marrion. Her impressionist-like paintings are on display in the John Ingham Fine Art Gallery on a side street of the main street.

The paintings are displayed right next to landscape photographs taken by her husband. Sometimes the two will team up. He takes an image, she then paints the scene from it.

I asked about a photograph of a long lake with the town of Crested Butte and Mount Crested Butte in the background. Marrion said it was a favorite swimming spot for locals and there was even a canoe up there for anyone to use.

The next morning -- after a short, steep hike up to Meridian Lake from Washington Gulch Road -- we didn't find a canoe, but our son, Mason, quickly found an old windsurfer board and paddle, and he pushed off onto the glassy lake from shore for explorations as a wakeboarder.

Across the lake, we saw deer working their way up the steep slope after a morning drink lakeside. We enjoyed the crisp, clear chirps of a mountain marmot, and Mason investigated this alpine denizen on the windsurfer-wakeboard.

Mason stayed up, paddling smoothly without a crash until he spotted a muskrat and lost his balance while turning around to get a better look. My wife Sue and I enjoyed a quick swim; the water was not too cold to dip in, but not warm enough to stay in.

BIG SUMMIT

Our primary goal for this day was the 12,162-foot summit of Mount Crested Butte. We parked in one of the ski area lots and began our ascent on fire roads and sometimes straight up ski runs.

This mountain community has many attractions for tourists, including a ride on a ski lift that connects the "trailhead" to the summit of the peak, a mountain bike course for downhill thrill seekers and even a bungee attraction at the ski area's base for thrill seekers looking for that moment of weightlessness while securely strapped in and tethered.

Once again, we were pushing uphill, seeming to race an impending thunderstorm. We paused at one of the ski lift operator huts and shared a dry space during a strong shower under the roof's eaves with a family hiking with their small child.

Then, we made the push to the top, past the last day trippers who were also hurrying to get to the summit and return for their ride down on the lift before it closed for the day. Views of the Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness opened up as did nice vistas of Snodgrass Mountain and Gothic Mountain to the north.

Our final scramble over a high pass and up the rocky ridge to the top was hair-raising, literally -- we were keenly aware of electricity in the air as our hair was standing on end, and you could taste that disturbing metallic flavor as the thunderstorm swept in closer and closer.

We spent only a few seconds on top but I did get a nice view, seemingly straight down, of Crested Butte and the spectacular mountain valley to the south toward the towns of Almont and Gunnison.

After our quick stop on the summit, we huddled under an open-sided shelter for the strongest rain shower to pass before hiking back down to the car. On the lower part of our descent, we veered to the right past one of the mountain's ski lodges into a lush valley with an old trail that took us through aspen groves and thigh-high skunk cabbage.

We were soaked to the skin from our hike in the rain, but smiling and pleased to have made our goal.

That night, back at the excellent Sherpa Café, we mentioned our day's adventures to the owner and learned about his next planned guided trek with gung-ho tourists around some of the world's tallest peaks in Nepal.

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That next day, as we drove down valley toward Gunnison, we were stopped for a moment or two to watch cowboys moving cattle across the two-lane highway with the swift and impressive help of their herding dogs.

It's really a marvel that this older culture still coexists with the more recent outdoor adventure tourist scene. Crested Butte really has it all -- even for these tourists from the mountains and canyons near Flagstaff.

On our next visit, I'll bring our mountain bikes for those long runs downhill, smiling and laughing, through fields full of spectacular wildflowers.

If you go ...

Directions: Take U.S. 89 north to Route 160 through Tuba City, Kayenta, past the Four Corners and on to Cortez, Colo. Take Route 145 out of Cortez then catch Route 62 (Placerville) to Route 550 (Ridgeway) and take 550 north up to Route 50 in Montrose. From there, take Route 135 out of Gunnison to Crested Butte. Allow nine-and-a-half hours.

For more information: Visit www.visitcrestedbutte.com or www.CrestedButteLodging.com for accommodation information.

All photos by Steele Wotkyns

2937fnl. Mason Wotkyns wake-boards on Meridian Lake near Crested Butte.

2948fnl. Mt. Crested Butte looms above town with a mountain bike sculpture

2917fnl. The Copley Lake trail is bordered by wildflowers and framed with trees.

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