Precariously perched on a rock outcropping on the Crystal River is a mining powerhouse dating back to 1893.
Crystal Mill is one of the most iconic photographed spots in Colorado. The picturesque place had eluded me for years, partly because it has to be your destination. It’s between Glenwood Springs and Crested Butte. The closest town is the tiny place of Marble.
My buddy Darrel and I made the trek to Marble and wandered around the massive chunks of the stone. The town’s claim to fame is being home to the largest single piece of marble ever quarried. The 100-ton block created the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Marble from the local quarries was also used in the Lincoln Memorial. Check out my blog The “Marblelous” town of Marble” to learn more about the town.
After spending a little time exploring the small town, we drove past Beaver Lake and up to a small parking area along the road.
Depending on recent rains, the road can sketchy. If you hike from the road, the steepest part is right off the bat.
We hiked up a little ways and decided to jump back in my Subaru and drive the rough, one-lane, 4-wheel-drive road that turned into a white knuckle drive as we navigated the steep and curvy approach to Lizard Lake. The lush and intensely green Lizard Lake was our stopping point for the Subi. That put Crystal Mill about 4 miles away.
You can only get to Crystal Mill in the summer and fall months by a road that requires a four-wheel-drive vehicle with high clearance, a pair of good hiking boots, a mountain bike, or a horse (although it’s really rocky). Those are your only modes of transportation beyond Lizard Lake. The mill is 6 miles from the town of Marble and the road is dusty, rocky, and rugged, but it’s also ultra scenic.
The iconic mill is the pièce de résistance, but following the winding rocky road along the Crystal River in the magnificent mountains of the White River National Forest gives you many wow moments. You’re hiking along the old mining road between Marble and Crystal City. The road dates back to the 1890s. At times the view of the river is from a ledge high above, while other times you’re right next to it.
A bonus for us was seeing several waterfalls along the way.
You’re fully exposed for most of the trail. As we hiked through an aspen grove, we knew we were close. You hear the thunderous roar of the river first and then get a glimpse of the mill through the aspens.
Keep walking and…..it appears in all of its glory. I stood in awe looking at the picturesque old mill improbably perched on a rock ledge along this curve of the Crystal River. With a name like Crystal, you expect the water to be clear, but seeing the rocky stream bottom through the crystal clear water just makes you appreciate the beauty of the old mill even more.
The old mill used the river’s energy to power the air compressor housed inside used in ore processing. Historically the mill was known as the Sheep Mountain Power House and was sometimes dubbed the “Dead Horse Mill.”
Continue hiking for less than a quarter of a mile to the quasi-ghost town of Crystal. It was founded in 1880 by prospectors. With seven working silver mines by 1886, about four hundred people lived in Crystal. As a booming mining town, it had two newspapers, two hotels, saloons, parlor, barber shop, and the men-only Crystal Club. By 1915 with the silver depleted, only 8 people lived in Crystal. The mill stopped operating in 1917 when the Sheep Mountain Mine shut down and the town went bust. Today it is known as the Crystal Mill. In the town, there are about a dozen old cabins and the Crystal Club.
There are still some seasonal residents in summer who are descendants of the early prospectors. Darrel and I met one of those – a teenager – who makes walking sticks and he gave us a ride on his ATV back to Lizard Lake. What an adventure!
My advice on this hike – don’t do it on weekends. Avoid the crowds and do it during the week, especially if hiking. There are a lot of ATVs on the dusty rocky road on weekends in the summer and fall.