Epic Road Trip to the Rockies, Part 1

Back in the Day

When I was in my early 20’s on a previous road trip to the rockies, I met two elders at the top of Mammoth Mountain. One was 79 The other was 82. Both were friends of Dave McCoy, the founder of Mammoth Mountain. Their lives revolved around skiing, so it made sense that they were fit enough to be up there. However, I was still quite impressed. That day, I promised myself I would never miss a winter on the mountain, unless I was forced to do so by circumstances beyond my control. Then along came Covid, and I ended up sitting out two seasons in a row.

Road Trip to the Rockies
Glorious views from the top of Mammoth, my “home” mountain

By winter 2022, the likelihood of ending up in the hospital or dying from Covid had dropped so low, that I considered my personal risk to be near zero. I decided that I had no more excuses to stay off the mountain, and I began planning accordingly. Mammoth Mountain is essentially my “home” mountain, a home-away-from-home, a special place where I feel connected to all of creation. It is also a place with a lot of memories. I grew up going there every winter with my friend Mike Harris and his family. The Harris family introduced me to a balanced life, a life where I could look forward to having a ton of fun with family and friends, a life where adventure was the payoff for working hard and being “responsible” most of the time. My father was a scientist whose sense of adventure and creativity was experienced on the molecular level. He didn’t need to travel. His journey was one of scientific discovery and invention. That never felt right for me personally.

Road Trip to the Rockies
Richard Bilow (Me) on Crested Butte Mountain; photo by Nathan Bilow

As life progressed, my time spent with Mike and his family lessened, but my passion for being in the mountains grew stronger. The seed of adventure had been planted, and something was growing. Mike and I had both moved from skiing to snowboarding as soon as that option became possible, and we both made sure to get at least a handful of days of riding in somewhere, as our individual lives unfolded separately. Mike and his wife Heather tended to their family, while I started taking solo trips to Mammoth, exclusively for powder days. For many years I was running my aquarium art business, Aqua-Terra Studio, and all I needed to balance the work involved with that was a few epic sessions of riding powder. So, I fulfilled my promise to myself that way with a few run-and-gun trips to Mammoth every winter.

A New Adventure on our Road Trip to the Rockies

In January of 2023, I managed to get up to Mammoth for my first two incredible powder days since my Covid hiatus. They were awesome, but I decided to hit the road to explore a different mountain as the season progressed. That is where our Epic Road Trip to the Rockies with my wife Kathy began. I had an open invitation to visit Crested Butte in Colorado, so I bought an Epic 4-day pass (for $255) and started planning my trip. Depending on the day, Mammoth charges as much as $229 for a single day, so looking into alternatives made a lot of sense. I completely understand that supply and demand dictates pricing, so I will be exploring less crowded alternatives in the years to come. I will share them here at ETG, for those of you who appreciate short lift line, reasonable ticket prices and more fresh tracks to yourself.

Road Trip to the Rockies
Crested Butte’s Stunning Views and Empty Run; photo by Richard Bilow

An Epic Mountain Alternative

For those of you who think of Vail, Aspen, Breckenridge or other big-name resorts as the best options in Colorado, you might want to take a closer look at Crested Butte Mountain. Yes, it’s off-the-beaten-path and not super easy to get to. However, the terrain, the scenery and the town are special. The snow quality is typically excellent because of the low moisture content, and you simply will not find shorter lift lines at any of the more popular mountains. Crested Butte Mountain has runs for every ability level. If you are an expert skier or snowboarder however, the more extreme options are virtually limitless.

Map of the Mountain

I was determined to get to Crested Butte in my 2000 Toyota 4Runner, despite having 280,000 miles on it already. I wanted to drive through Zion National Park to photograph that area with snow on the cliffs, a relatively rare sight. It snows there every winter, but the snow typically melts pretty fast. In 2023 however, unprecedented back-to-back storms create a lot of opportunity to capture the type of photos I was after. I had some work done on my truck before we left, but what I did not factor in was that Crested Butte is a small town pretty far from any large city. That means car problems cannot be resolved quickly. In fact, the drive from Los Angeles to Crested Butte through Utah has some long stretches with very few services. If you have a breakdown, getting back on the road may not be all that easy. If it’s winter, waiting for a tow truck is uncomfortably cold, something I unfortunately experience firsthand. More on that later.

Zion National Park; photo by Richard Bilow

A Night in Springdale Utah

As luck would have it, the few hours we had in Zion on our way to Crested Butte turned out to be spectacular. It was March 3, 2023, and the shuttle into the park was not yet running. That meant I was able to drive up the road and pull over at every shuttle stop, just as the sun began to rise. Being there in winter had the added benefit of being extremely uncrowded. We arrived on March 2, 2023, after sunset and stayed at the Zion Canyon BnB. The owners Liz and Larry West created a truly magical lodging option for a handful of guests to live a life of luxury during their stay. Their property is filled with character and style. The rooms are gorgeous. The beds are comfortable, and they have the most amazing massage chairs I have every experienced. Liz explained that the rooms are always booked well in advance for the peak summer season, and she encouraged us to return before or after the crowds of tourists turn Zion into a Disneyland type experience. If you plan to hike and want a peaceful spiritual experience, you are well advised to select dates that are off-season. Zion Canyon BnB is a great option. Select the room we had (the Master Room), if it’s available. That way you get a jacuzzi bathtub and a massage chair in your room. This property was so wonderful, that my wife Kathy chose to enjoy the beauty of Zion from there, rather than get up before sunrise and go with me into the park. CLICK HERE to read Kathy’s review of Zion Canyon BnB. 

Circular Window in Master Room; Zion Canyon BnB; photo by Kathy Leonardo; courtesy of ETG

More Lodging Options in Springale Utah

If you are not a fan of bed and breakfast style lodging, we stayed at Dessert Pearl Inn on our return to Los Angeles, and it is a great option as well. They also have amazing jacuzzi bathtubs in their suites plus balconies set above a river right up against the cliffs of Zion. See Part 3 of our Epic Road Trip to the Rockies for more info about Desert Pearl Inn, or CLICK HERE.

Of course, having access to the park with so few people around got me into a zone which resulted in me losing track of time. I had promised to return well before 10am, so we could get a reasonably early start on to Crested Butte. That seemed very realistic, since I had left before sunrise. I broke that promise, and we did not start our drive until after 11am. We could not resist a brief stop in town to look at the gem shop, buy some chocolate from the local sweet shop, and look at the stunning photography of David J. West. Liz and Larry know David well. In fact, one of David’s incredible panoramic photos was shot from their property. Anyway, we were headed to CB before noon with at least a 9-hour drive ahead of us. That seemed reasonable, but did not account for the icy roads we encountered after sundown as we approach our destination. I try to error on the side of caution, so I dropped my speed considerably. My awesome wife fought off her desire to sleep as our drive progressed (so she could make sure I remained awake and alert). We arrived in CB around 11pm.

CLICK HERE to read Epic Road Trip to the Rockies, Part 2

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