Something’s strange about this picture.
The former mining camp looks like the ghost town it was labeled early last century. The remote meadow under these mountains in western Colorado grows tall grass that chokes the withered wood of the cabins, some of which with their cracked tin roofs appear abandoned.
But they’re not. People are here, and people keep coming.
“It’s a paradise,” Rob Anderson says as to why he’s made Crystal his seasonal home since 1977, along with other residents he counts on two hands. (No one stays for winter.)
The surrounding aspens are glowing on this recent weekday, bringing in the post-summer rush: Jeep tours join the four-wheel drives, ATVs, dirt bikers, hikers and mountain bikers. Motors rumble and cameras flash in a place that seemingly should be left to fade away.
But the dirt road that runs through Crystal is very popular, however wicked. However steep and thin, however many warnings for people with unsuitable vehicles for the rocky terrain or unfit hearts for the drop-offs, Gunnison County Road 3 is the way to an irresistible sight.
Probably you’ve seen the old Crystal Mill in brochures or magazines, postcards or calendars. Along with the Maroon Bells, it’s said to be Colorado’s most photographed scene: Deep into the forest, the log building emerges atop a granite slab where water gushes from the rock below, tumbling into an emerald pool.
“It’s just a really magical place. It never gets old,” says Carolyn Ansell as she pulls out her Nikon to take the picture she’s taken countless times. “Every time I look at this, I think someday it’s gonna go.”
While it might attract tourists for its fairytale appearance, it’s really the remains of a gritty mining operation that ended exactly 100 years ago.
“This historic building has withstood the elements since 1892,” reads the plank posted to a nearby tree, reminding crowds how amazing that is as they stare at the structure’s bending legs.
The sign also invites donations ahead in Crystal. Those are given to historical groups protecting the building, in recent years replacing roof shingles, coating walls with fire-resistant preservative and installing support structures.
The donations are collected at Neal’s cabin, the first one up the hill. His father in the 1950s rallied support for the mill because history was important to him, as it is for his son today. That’s why Neal’s written books on Crystal, filling pages with old newspaper clippings and tales told through time, poems passed down by people who have come and gone. “Well, Crystal’s got a magic that I’m sure God gave,” one goes. “A magic that only God could have made….”
In the books, Neal also tells his own stories, of rowdy horse races and scary bear encounters, of childhood adventures in the woods and later celebrations of life with fellow aging neighbors, celebrations that came with sweet apple pie baked over hot wood.
“Back in the day, if a vehicle was coming up, it was big news,” Neal says as his wife greets book customers outside the cabin. “Traffic. That’s the main change.”
Meaning more business for him? He shrugs. “I’d rather have less traffic.”
If he sounds like a curmudgeon, he’s not. He honors his mother, who was warm and welcoming to passersby, inviting them in to eat if they got stranded. More than her, though, Neal feels the burden of a caretaker. He eyes the Subaru Crosstrek that a pair of visitors arrived in and advises: “You’re as far as you need to go.” No need, Neal says, to drive ahead toward Schofield Pass, toward the treacherous stretch known as Devil’s Punchbowl – a thrill for skilled off-roaders and death trap for others.
County Road 3 to the Crystal Mill is no Devil’s Punchbowl. But it’s also no drive to your local park, and that’s what first responders want tourists to know.
“You have no idea what I see,” says Tony Petrocco, a volunteer firefighter in the nearby village of Marble and a guide with Crystal River Jeep Tours.
The guy in Marble with the backhoe that pulls up toppled vehicles knows. As do Neal and Crystal’s other residents. They often serve as the first line of help in an emergency; The radio in Neal’s cabin is to report anyone available for duty.
“It’s not like we can say, ‘Sorry, not interested,'” says Anderson. He recalls in June reaching a trembling woman whose ATV rolled, causing her injuries that were treated in Glenwood Springs after a helicopter lift. Also that month, a man reportedly went airborne in his ATV, crashing into the stand of trees destroyed by Lizard Lake, a few miles from the mill. Also in view high on the road is a copper-colored pickup truck, mangled and swallowed by grass down in the basin.
Scenes like these are familiar: A Suburu pulls close to a rock wall, making space for a coming ATV that inches along the ledge. “Oh my god, oh my god, I’m gonna have a heart attack,” a passenger says as the ATV crawls closer, revealing Stella Artois in the cupholders. “Oh my god, oh no, no, no, ooohhh nooo.”
On this road, the Wild West meets Colorado’s modern age of booming outdoor recreation. Once the gnarly route trekked by hardscrabble workers, it now serves as play time.
The contrast of old and new was striking at the mill on this day, accentuated by the hip-looking 20-somethings from Denver who fly a drone. The buzzing, picture-taking aircrafts are another change for Crystal’s residents.
Change is all part of living by Colorado’s most photographic site.
“But what’s remarkable,” Anderson says, “is how it hasn’t changed.”
For more in-depth reads about Colorado, check out the OutThere Colorado JOURNAL.
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