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Off Roading To Crystal Mill, Colorado

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2020 is the year of the staycation, but even I was getting antsy for something really different. We had done the Gaylord of the Rockies and the YMCA this summer, and both were awesome. But I was ready to do something we’d never done before. We loved our time in the Maroon Bells a few years ago, so I wanted to go back to the area and see what else we could do.

As I was researching destinations that were low on people and high on fun, I came across the Crystal Mill. Not only is it one of the most photographed places in Colorado (perfect for Instagram!) it’s also near the Crystal River, and my kids are really into wading this year. Add in a secret hot spring and we were sold.

crystal mill colorado with full sun - upper view

Off-Road Crystal Mill- Can I Drive?

To prepare for the trip, I researched how to get to the Crystal Mill and realized that our current car wasn’t going to make it. The hike to Crystal Mill is about 9 miles, which is too long for my girls (aged 5 and 7), and there was no way we could go on a mountain bike.

I needed a vehicle with high clearance and all-wheel drive. While there are tons of options in the area for Jeep Tours, I wanted to drive the road myself. (I love to off-road, and have had plenty of experience in Costa Rica, so it seemed natural to try this iconic road.)

For our adventure, we decided to test the 2021 Chevy TrailBlazer, which was not only fully loaded but featured AWD and a decent clearance. We loaded all our gear, car seat and booster and my camera equipment and headed off. The trunk space was decent- comparable to our Honda CR-V but  not as big as the Chevy Equinox we tested earlier this year. 

We left Denver about 9 am on a Thursday morning to avoid traffic along I-70. After a fun outdoor picnic lunch in Silverthorne, we headed to Redstone, a tiny town west of Carbondale along the Crystal River. It took us about 3 and 1/2 hours to get there thanks to some heavy construction outside of Glenwood Springs. I was glad we had Sirius Radio with KizBop to keep the kids happy, and our own wireless network too. 

hamburger with mountain view in silverthorne colorado

Accommodations Near Crystal Mill

I had found some adorable lodge rooms with kitchens in Redstone, so we quickly checked in and got everything ready for the trip up to Crystal Mill. I wanted to hit the mill at sunset, and I chose a Thursday because I figured there wouldn’t be many people. We had a super sexy car, but the woman who owned the inn thought there was no way we’d make it up to the mill- the car was just too low. 

two double beds at redstone cliffs inn colorado

Not deterred, we set off with a picnic dinner, bathing suits and sturdy walking shoes, photography equipment and a sense of adventure.  We drove first through the town of Marble, home to Slow Groovin’ Barbecue and zero cell phone service. I was happy I had a paper map. 

We passed Beaver Lake first- last toilets and a great little fishing spot. Then up the narrow road about 2.3 miles east of Marble we found Lizard Lake.

If I’d known more about Lizard Lake before leaving we would have planned to spend a few hours canoeing or SUP-ing, wading and hiking here. It’s a Colorado gem!

Before we started up the road to the town of Crystal, we saw a brand new BMW sedan heading down the mountain- driver couldn’t make it. I started to get super nervous about the TrailBlazer.

We asked a ton of locals if they thought we were ok in our vehicle. They took one look at the car and said we were going to have a blast. And we did.

The beginning of the road is a tough hill straight up, and the all-wheel-drive vehicle just blazed me right up. I didn’t go super fast though, the road is shared out and back, so you never know if there is another vehicle just around the bend. 

The road is SUPER bumpy, and there are a lot of huge rocks and boulders right in the middle of the road. There aren’t a ton of steep drop-offs, but the road is winding. I haven’t experienced a road like this in the States, but it was pretty akin to driving dirt roads in the mountains of Costa Rica.

two young girls walking towards a tan 2021 chevrolet trailblazer in the mountains of colorado

Without the high clearance and AWD, it’s definitely possible to really mess up your car, so we were so glad we had the TrailBlazer. I had some pretty tough hits even with the higher clearance, and we did have to go a bit slower than the ATVs, but it was fun

The girls loved looking at the sweeping mountain views and the Crystal River- up there it’s a gorgeous turquoise/emerald color and ice cold. The girls were getting a tiny bit antsy towards the end of the trip and feeling like the drive wasn’t worth it… until we turned a corner and we had arrived! They were immediately enamored.

The trip fro Beaver Lake to Crystal Mill took us about 30 minutes in dry summer conditions.

crystal mill and crystal river in summer

Do I Have To Pay At Crystal Mill?

Arrival at the mine is pretty non-descript until you get out of your car and walk to the lookout. Except to find a guide on-site to tell you about the mine, and to charge you the $10 per person you’ll have to pay if you want to go down to the river and view the mine from below. If you just stay up above, you don’t have to pay.

The guide was super friendly- he told us all about the mine. It was constructed in 1893 to power nearby silver mines. Made of wood, it had an air compressor with a horizontal wheel inside that drove the air down and water up to create a wooden powerhouse for the area. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places too.

crystal mill colorado at sunset

What’s awesome about the Crystal Mill is the gorgeous blue-green water right underneath it. You can jump off rocks into the cold water, wade in the stream, or fish and throw rocks to your heart’s content. Which is exactly how we spent about 3 hours at sunset in August. 

I had packed snacks and water shoes and all my photo equipment (was sad to see no drones were allowed!) and we just chilled at the mine. We didn’t see anyone else until the very end of our stay. No one was brave enough to jump into the water, but we did wade and explore. We saw hummingbirds, chipmunks, hawks, and dragonflies lazing over the cool water. 

vertical shot of crystal mill colorado in summer

Crystal City Ghost Town

Once we had our fill of the mine, we went up about 1000 feet to Crystal City itself- one of the most iconic ghost towns in Colorado. They had a small general store (an outhouse, souvenirs and light snacks), a few cabins for rent, and just gorgeous views of Sheep Mountain and surrounding peaks. Everyone there was so nice- and also loved our car. 

ghost town of crystal general store at sunset in summer

Sunset was about 7:30, dark by 8:30 so we headed down the mountain to Redstone for beers and pizza at Propaganda Pizza. We didn’t meet another soul on the way down, and Lizard Lake was amazing at sunset.

If I had it to do over again, the only thing I’d do differently is to spend more time in the area. We’ll definitely be back. Thank you, Chevy for providing the vehicle for us to explore!

About the Author

Christa profile image

Hi- I’m Christa! I fell in love with Latin America in my 20s, and I’m still head over heels! Here at Pura Vida Moms I celebrate what it means to be bicultural- Costa Rican recipes, bilingual parenting and family travel.

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Christa profile image

Hi- I’m Christa, and I’m on a mission to help the world fall in love with Costa Rica through food, travel and language. I’m a mom of two Latinas, bicultural, bilingual (English/Spanish), and 100% in love with celebrating parenthood in all its forms, (even the sucky parts). I’m so happy you found the site- WELCOME! Find out more about me here

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