The White River National Forest is absolutely breathtaking and for that reason is one of the most visited National Forests in the United States. It just so happens to be nicely located in northwest Colorado, near my home. In its entirety, the forest spans over 2 million acres, has 12 ski resorts, and contains 10 14ers. It is rich in history; with the old mining towns you will find abandoned mines and other structures from early settlers.
For me, this was the furthest west I had ever traveled in Colorado. It was an incredibly special and exciting venture! The journey started from Denver and even the drive was unreal. The way the road twirls through canyons, peaks, and at times, follows along the river making it a unique site to see.
Depending on traffic, the drive from Denver is anywhere from 3-3.5 hours. Which is the perfect amount of time for a great trip for folks who want to see more of the Rocky Mountains.
When I had the opportunity to learn about the history of The Crystal Mill, I was so excited. Hearing of its far remote location, deep in the forest, and the infrastructure of the mill itself sure is one bit of intriguing history. Learning how the natives made huge leaps and bounds to establish the lives they sought a reality is genuinely inspiring.
It is hard enough to make it to the mill in a 4x4 vehicle, I can only imagine the difficulties they faced trying to get building materials and mining equipment to this location to make it livable. If you have ever been to a mill you will understand what I mean, and why it has been on my bucket list for so long!
If you are looking for a great time of year to make this trip, I suggest going in the beginning of October when the Aspens are peaking. It is incredibly beautiful. In early October, the days are warm, and the nights trend down to the 40's. To us, that made perfect camping weather, so we set up camp along Highway 133 between Carbondale and Redstone.
We stayed at free public campground called, Avalanche. Honestly, the best part about the campground is its location. It provides easy access to Penny Hot Springs and the Crystal Mill near Marble, CO. Again, I highly recommend planning your trip during Autumn, the Aspens are just gorgeous and the water at the mill against the fall foliage is unreal.
Avalanche Campground has 6 sites, each one comes with a picnic table, a bear locker, and bathrooms. On Saturday morning, we decided to explore Crystal Mill and Penny Hot Springs. The drive to Crystal Mill was long, steep, rocky, narrow, and about 4.4 miles super deep into the forest.
Thankfully, we were in an FJ Cruiser that made this drive a breeze. When driving this, is it important to be extra cautious when passing others. There were many people walking, riding dirt bikes, and foul-wheelers. Between the severity of the road conditions and the heavy foot traffic, the total drive time was around 75 minutes.
In my own opinion, this hike on foot would be very taxing. With all traffic from vehicles, dirt bikes, and other off-road vehicles it makes the roadway very, very dusty. And, the “trail” you walk on is a rocky road not an actual trail dedicated to those on foot.
Once you arrive at the Mill, you will discover that there are limited spots to park. This is a good reminder to stay courteous to other visitors. Another great thing to know is that there is an outhouse in the parking lot.
Once you have parked, you will likely find a Crystal resident charging visitors ten dollars to go down to the bottom. In addition to the ten-dollar fee, you must also sign a release of liability waiver. While that may seem a bit extreme, I highly recommend going as the bottom is where the stellar views are. To me, the view and experience is beyond worth it.
Not only can you enjoy the view, but you can also have a picnic and a few beers while you take all the photos your heart desires just as we did. There are not enough descriptive words to emphasize just how beautiful and better the views from the bottom truly are. If you would like to see this for yourself, I highly recommend bringing cash, signing that waiver, and going on down for an incredible experience.
If, you decide against it, you should know that there is not a lot of space to chill and look at the mill at all, so plan accordingly. Round trip, this adventure was is easily four hours for us in a car. As I mentioned above, we had a nice little lunch at the bottom, given the amount of time we spent getting here, we were thankful we did.
Contrary to popular belief, Crystal, CO is not a ghost town. Although many refer to it as one, I still recommend driving past the mill and checking out the town of Crystal. You will find that the town of Crystal, is home to 12 people, but only in the summer months. There are a few cabins and a general store filled with books, especially history books. One of the highlights of our trip was having the opportunity to read a few local ghost story books purchased from the general store.
Please advise that the beautiful cabins and other buildings you see in Crystal are all inhabited. They are people’s homes, so please be sure to avoid standing on their porch or poking around their property.
If you want to bring a pet with you to The Crystal Mill please know that the drive up and down the road is very, very bumpy. If your pet tends to get car sick or scared on bumpy roads, I highly discourage you from bringing them on the ride.
Our next stop was, Penny Hot Springs. This was so great as it is located near the Avalanche campsite we stayed at. This hot spring is a primitive riverside spring with multiple built out pools.
In total, I would say there are 10 pools, or at least there were when we went. Caution, as some were too scalding to enter! The town is looking to develop this area, fingers crossed there will not be a bathhouse built here, it would be a sad sight to see.
Penny was exceptionally clean with no trash and the people visiting were exceedingly courteous of the natural surroundings. Always remember to pack in what you pack out and leave the natural areas cleaner than you found them. Be advised, there are dogs or glass allowed in the springs!
By far, this was my favorite adventure in Colorado I have taken. Being that I am a huge history buff, visiting The Crystal Mill was rewarding to my soul. Being able to see the mill up close inspired me to visit the back country more often and make the time to visit other historical locations in Colorado.
Again, camping during autumn in this area is highly recommended. The aspens are beautiful, there are so many hikes, historical spots, and hot springs to visit. Even though, it is lesser known, I adore Penny Hot Springs. You may have to do a little digging to discover its whereabouts, but you already know which two cities it lies between and it is well worth it.
Seeing all the old homes standing after years of exposure to the harsh elements is fascinating. The opportunity to learn about the mills past purpose as a power plant and being able to step foot inside the extremely old general store in Crystal is an experience I will never forget.
1. Three hours early to the airport or running to the gate? 3 hours early!!!
2. Pretzels or Lotus Biscoff cookies? Lotus Biscoff cookies
3. Excel planned trip or just wing it? Planned!
4. Favorite continent? Australia
5. Dream destination? The Maldives