Visiting the Crystal Mill in Colorado is like traveling back in time. When the west was nearly inaccessible and the pioneers, full of grit, forged a path through the wilderness in search of treasure. The old rugged mill sits precariously perched atop a rocky bluff. In defiance of nature, but simultaneously in complete harmony with the landscape. The building’s wooden facade conforms beautifully to the rocky terrain as if it grew naturally out of the Crystal River and over the stones. It is a scene from the mind of an artist placed on this rough Colorado canvas. Something to behold in person. Even today, this is not an easy place to arrive at so read on if you wish to visit the Crystal Mill for yourself.
Ironically the most famous mill in Colorado wasn’t a mill at all. According to the Colorado Encylopedia, the structure was built in 1892 as a powerhouse. The waterwheel was used to provide compressed air to power the tools in the local silver mine. Its structure was originally known as the Sheep Mountain Power House and derives its current name from the Ghost Town of Crystal, Colorado which sits in a meadow above the mill. After 25 years of ups and downs in the silver markets, the mine and the “mill” closed in 1917. From 1954 to 1984, Crystal Mill was restored through local charity and grants. In 1985, the mill was added to the National Registry of Historic Places forever cementing it as a Colorado icon.
Crystal Mill is located deep in the heart of a remote section of the Rocky Mountains on the Crystal River. The closest “town” to the mill is Marble, Colorado located nearly 5-miles away on a very rough road. (More on that below.) While Marble is the starting point for many adventures to the mill it has very little infrastructure. The closest town of any notable size is Carbondale, Colorado—located 30 miles from Marble. However, most adventures to the mill will really begin at the Denver International Airport located more than 220 miles away.
Best Season to Visit
The best season for Visiting the Crystal Mill in Colorado is autumn. The aspen trees in the area explode with color and the surrounding mountain tops typically have fresh white snow on them. Thus adding even more beauty to this iconic Colorado scene. The autumn season in Colorado is brief and hard to time. The fall colors typically last no more than a few weeks in one area (and based on elevation). The peak of the color only lasts a few days, a week at most. Typically the third week in September is the best bet for planning an autumn trip to Crystal Mill. However, it can snow at this time of the year making it that much harder to reach the mill.
Summers (late June to early September) are also a great time for visiting Colorado’s Crystal Mill. The river flows well throughout the summer as the snowpack melts off of the many high peaks above the Crystal River watershed.
Winters are a dangerous season to visit Crystal Mill. Avalanches are a real possibility. But some people venture to the mill via snowshoes or snowmobiles. I would not recommend it.
In the mountains of Colorado, spring is known as mud season for a reason. The runoff from snowmelt can make everything muddy and wash out gravel roads. Best to skip the spring and wait until summer to visit the mill.
How Much Time
There is very little to do at Crystal Mill. There are a couple of vantage points to take in the structure from above the river as well as on the river itself. But you cannot enter the structure nor visit the side of the river that it stands on. A few die-hard photographers will wait hours for the perfect light. The average person will linger in the area for only 15 to 30 minutes. Yet, getting to the structure can take all day and that is if you are starting the day nearby. How much time you will need to get to the mill will depend greatly on your mode of transportation.
How to Reach the Mill
The most challenging part about Visiting the Crystal Mill in Colorado is traversing the final 5 miles of Forestry Road #314. (Google shows it as County Road 3). It is a rough gravel “road” that has traffic traveling in both directions. Despite the fact that it is often only wide enough for a single vehicle. Sections of this road are a white-knuckle and butt-puckering drive as your vehicle clings to a ledge above the ragging Crystal River. Owning a high-clearance 4×4 vehicle or an ATV is the only way that you should attempt to reach the Crystal Mill parking area on your own. The road is so narrow in spots that I would advise against taking wider vehicles like our F250.
Hiking or Biking
If you don’t own a 4×4 vehicle, do not worry. You can still visit Colorado’s Crystal Mill. It is very common for people to hike or bike Forestry Road #314. The only downside is that you will share the road with a lot of 4×4 vehicles that kick up a lot of dust.
Perhaps the best way to visit Colorado’s Crystal Mill is on a guided tour. I’m not usually one for guided tours as I like to experience places on my own time and at my own pace. That being said, we took a guided tour through the Lead King Basin to Crystal Mill with the Crystal River Jeep Tours out of Marble and it was amazing. Letting someone else worry about the driving takes a lot of stress out of exploring this amazing area of the country. While Forestry Road #314 isn’t overly scenic, the drive through the Lead King Basin on Forestry Road #315 is gorgeous. It traverses the basin with stunning views of Snowmass mountain.
Stats for Hiking or Biking
Trailhead: Beaver Lake (7,945′)
Total Distance: 10 miles (5 miles each way)
Add 0.25 miles to visit the Town of Crystal.
Total Elevation Gain: About 1,000′
Parking for Hiking or Biking
The easiest place to park is at the large parking lot at Beaver Lake. From there you follow County Road 3 as it turns into a dirt road and climbs the hill beyond the lake. Beaver Lake is the easiest spot to park throughout the day. There are a few pullouts further up the hill along County Road 3 prior to the Forestry Road #314 and #315 split. If you arrive very early you can grab one of these spots and shave off some substantial elevation gain. You don’t necessarily need 4×4 to get to this spot but high clearance is recommended. You can turn around at the #314 and #315 intersection if no parking is available.
For those who are looking for a real challenge when Visiting the Crystal Mill in Colorado, you can use the alternative route over Schofield Pass from the town of Gothic near Crested Butte. This is a journey that should only be attempted by extremely experienced jeepers or mountain bikers. The 7-mile journey (one-way) is better done as a hike from Schofield Pass. Just keep in mind that the majority of the elevation gain will happen during the return.
Do Not Miss, When Visiting the Crystal Mill in Colorado
The road (FR #314) to the Crystal Mill isn’t overly scenic but it does pass by a small lake known as Lizard Lake (8,705′), which owes its name to the miss-identified salamanders that live in and around it. This relatively small lake is thought to be a volcanic vent and has a yet unknown depth.
The Town of Crystal (8,950′)
Just up the road from the Crystal Mill lies the town of Crystal, Colorado. This is where the silver miners lived during the mill’s heyday, but today it is nearly a ghost town. Roger Neal spends his summers in the remote mountain town, and after 50 years, he is the go-to source for the area. He has written several books and visitors can typically buy one on-site and have him sign it.
Lead King Basin
The Crystal Mill is a beautiful rugged structure that captivates the imagination. But for sheer mountain beauty make sure you explore the Lead King Basin. It is a beautiful remote area with Snowmass Mountain looming over the gorgeous terrain. This is best explored on a guided jeep tour (Crystal River Jeep Tours), however, experienced jeepers can go at it on their own. The jeep road is even a great starting point for the epic backpacking trip on the Four Pass Loop Trail around the Maroon Bells with access through Geneva Lake.
The small town of Marble, Colorado may seem like nothing more than the gateway to the Crystal Mill, but it has its own notoriety. Marble is a descriptive name as this small town is home to the Yule Marble Quarry. It has the largest known deposit of white marble in the world. Many of the United State’s most famous marble monuments were quarried in this remote mountain town, including the Lincoln Memorial and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery. The town of Marble has artistic statues strewn about it making the town ideal for a little exploration.
There aren’t a lot of accommodation options to be had near the Crystal Mill. The Beaver Lake Lodge & Cabins are located in Marble and are a great spot for those seeking a relaxing getaway. However, if you are looking for a more traditional hotel room you will have to venture to Carbondale, Colorado, and the Comfort Inn and Suites. Carbondale makes a good home base for exploring Marble and the Crystal Mill as well as the Aspen and Glenwood Springs areas of Colorado.
Prefer a campsite to a room? Check out the Marble RV Park & Campground. They have hookups and are located in the heart of the small mountain town. However, if you are self-contained and looking for a free campsite check out the McClure Campground which is located just on the other side of McClure Pass above the town of Marble. While the campground is a bit close to the road the highway sees little traffic at night making it a peaceful place to camp and enjoy a summer’s night in Colorado’s cool high country.
Marble really only has one restaurant option and that is the Slow Groovin BBQ. This spot is always packed during the hiking season. While some of that could be attributed to it being the only place in town, the food is excellent. If you aren’t in the mood for BBQ then you will need to make the drive to Carbondale where the food options are more diverse. But, you really should try the BBQ. It is basically a right of passage when visiting Colorado’s Crystal Mill.
Visiting the Crystal Mill in Colorado
Cyrstal Mill is believed to be the most photographed structure in Colorado which is made all the more impressive by how difficult it is to reach. The structure and surrounding landscape look as if they were placed here for no other reason than for the surreal beauty of this iconic scene. While it isn’t an easy place to visit it is worth every ounce of effort. Visiting the Crystal Mill in Colorado is just the start of an amazing journey through some of the most beautiful country in the United States.