- Difficulty: Moderate
- Type: Out and Back
- Distance: ~10.5 miles
- Elevation Gain: ~1,050 feet
Take a hike to Crystal Mill, one of Colorado’s nationally registered historic sites outside of Marble…wait, where? Let me be more specific: 40 miles south of Glenwood Springs is Marble, Colo. which hosts a population of 138 people, according to the last Census Bureau survey in 2010.
Although there is a tiny amount of mouths to spread the word, I heard about Crystal Mill as one of the most photographed places in Colorado, second-best to the Maroon Bells. (You probably have a photo of the Mill in your monthly calendar.) Marble is named because of, you guessed it, marble quarrying. As you drive through the quiet town, most homes have blocks of marble in their yard. I guess it’s the normal thing.
Head east out of Marble on CO Road 3 and when the pavement turns to dirt, you can either park the car at the mailboxes or four-wheel up the road.
Jeepers and hikers alike can crawl ~6 miles of the jeep road to see the mill, and where rental cabins stand just passed it.
The trail follows Crystal Creek on a wide, rocky path with a steep, steady incline the first ~1.5 miles from the parking area in Marble. The first few steps up, Bryce and I walked up on a crashed Jeep. Somehow, the Jeep was perpendicular to the trail with tree branches smashed through the windows. And to make it even more weird, there was a box of fresh peaches in the backseat. I had no idea what to think about the scene, but I was more comfortable in my boots at that moment.
Anyway, this first stretch of the trail will knock out the 1,000 feet of your elevation gain. Bryce and I were lucky enough (hah!) to have rain downpour on us during this stretch. My hair was a sopping, tangled mess, my rain jacket had reached its dew point, and we were dodging puddles. As a fairly new backpacker, I wasn’t happy.
The sun came out by the time we summited this never-ending hill and there was a beautiful, still pond, Lizard Lake, that mirrored the trees around it.
Jeepers and other vehicles passed by as we took a snack break, but one vehicle I’ll never forget was packed with three teen-aged boys that buzzed by on a custom-motorized golf cart. They romped passed us, splashing through the deep, muddy puddles and my spirits rose with their ahh!’s and yeah!’s as we gave each other high-fives.
The trail rolls up and down for the remaining ~3.7 miles but you won’t have to tackle a hill like that again.
As you make it out of the forest, the trail leads you to quite an unsettling sight. The piled rocks and absence of trees make for an obvious snow slide area during the winter months, but if you look closer, you can spot a totaled truck mangled within the boulders. Like I said, unsettling, but it really sets the tone of the area. This trail leads to Crystal City, a once-upon-a-time settlement that was the hub of a mining camp in the 1890s. The Mill was built to power mining operations and since 1892, Crystal Mill is still standing thanks to preservation efforts. Let the history sink in to fully immerse yourself into imagining how these people had to live.
Some reviews on this trail reflect how busy it is during the summer with lifted Jeeps, trucks and dirt bikers; but for us, we enjoyed watching the suspensions take the beatings of the rocks.
At the end of the 6 miles, you feel as though you just stepped into a painting. Across the gulley stands the handcrafted Mill, situated perfectly next to a plentiful waterfall, surrounded by glowing Aspens, green and glowing against the dark forest pines. The scene is a model, incomparable. The good thing about the flawlessness is that photos actually do it justice, as you’ve probably seen.
Bryce and I continued up to Crystal City, seeing just one other person who was chopping firewood behind a cabin.
We found the camping area at the end of the city and sent up the tent close to the river, then changed out of our drenched clothes. I slept terribly that night.
The hike down the next day was full of sunshine and rock crawlers once again. Bryce and I stopped to let a Jeep pass us, but they stopped next to us. It was a crew from a Jeep tour and the guide whipped up a conversation with us immediately. I don’t know if I was still shook by the creepy dreams and sights of crashed cars, but something about each interaction we had with the people in the area was a little off. The guide was a very nice man and even offered us some Smarties and Laffy-Taffys, and we made it out alive.
There’s something about Crystal City that will always stir in my mind. It’s isolated, quiet, and holds a strong presence of the past that I don’t think will ever fade.
You can make this trail a loop if you’re willing to go the extra mile, or two, rather. Keep on the trail out of the “city” as it curves left. The trail will be marked as Crystal Mill to Lead King Basin and you’ll ascend up Schofield Pass. You’ll gain an extra ~1,500 feet of elevation from Crystal City. This extension is rated as hard for both hikers and jeepers.
Know Before You Go:
- Dogs are allowed but must be kept on-leash
- Bring a camera and make sure it’s charged
- Be prepared for afternoon storm
- I’ve read reviews about paying $10 to walk down to the river at the base of the Mill, but Bryce and I didn’t have that “experience”
- The path is rocky so make sure you’ve got your boots on, and hiking poles if needed
- From CO Highway 133 through Carbondale, turn southeast on CO Road 3. Continue through the town of Marble, and follow signs up to Crystal City.