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Take a trip to Crested Butte, Colorado to experience Kebler Pass, famous for fall color, beautiful hiking trails, and plentiful dispersed camping.
Situated between the town of Crested Butte and the small bank of cabins known as Kebler Corner, Kebler Pass is a mountain pass that winds 30 miles through one of Colorado’s most spectacular national forests: the Gunnison National Forest. Topping out at just over 10,000 feet, Kebler Pass is best known for having some of the best fall colors in Colorado and home to the largest aspen grove in the state, rivaling neighboring Utah’s record-holding aspen grove at 106 acres. Tucked behind the aspens and pine trees are alpine lakes and cascading rivers and streams, only discoverable by several hiking trails along the pass. It is a stunning mountain destination and a year-round playground for locals. Even though I live just outside of Crested Butte, it seems there is always a new trail to be discovered, new wildlife to be seen, and new views to admire.
The Kebler Pass experience is easily done in a day, taking around two hours to get from one end to the other without stops. It’s often used by locals to head out of town if they’re traveling west. The speed limit is slow due to the winding, dirt roads (aside from small paved sections on the Crested Butte side), which gives ample opportunities to take in the scenery and trails along the way. If you are coming in from out of state or want to turn a day trip into a weekend adventure, you can find ample lodging at either end of the pass.
From the rugged mountain town of Crested Butte to the welcoming vibe of Kebler Corner, Kebler Pass is a beautiful snapshot of all that Colorado has to offer. Here’s a guide to one of the best regions in my hometown.
Kebler Pass: When to Go
Kebler is known for its astounding fall colors, namely because you travel through the largest aspen grove in the state of Colorado. Aspens are actually one large organism that shoots newly cloned aspens out from a shared root system, making them one of the largest living organisms on earth. The aspens on Kebler are dense and seem to go on as far as you can see. In late September, it is a stunning blanket of yellow and gold. Paired with rocky mountain peaks and the always-green pines, it feels impossible to look away.
Because of this, the fall colors bring people over to Kebler in the masses. If you are wanting a quieter time to visit the mountains, try a weekday in mid-summer when the wildflowers are still in bloom; it is equally as stunning. It’s also worth noting that Kebler is a summer (and fall) access road only. It typically closes by December and remains shuttered until late spring or early summer once the snow has melted.
Bottom line: Visit between the months of July and October for the best views.
Kebler Pass: Where to Stay
The town of Crested Butte is a perfect starting point for your journey over Kebler, as the start of the pass is right in town. Tucked in the valley floor of the 10,000-foot mountains, Crested Butte is a small but thriving town of just under 1,700 people. If you plan to spend a night in town before heading over Kebler, you’re sure to find delicious food and charming accommodations
Pro tip: Most of the town closes for mud season in the spring and late fall so the locals can get some much-needed rest in between tourist seasons.
For food, head to bustling Elk Avenue and grab a bite to eat. Whether it’s a quick bite after a bike ride or a night out with friends, The Stash always delivers with quirky flavors. My personal recommendation: the Notorious F.I.G. pizza and The Stash Marg. If you’re looking for a more cozy setting with seasonal menu options, make reservations at The Breadery where they have the best sourdough in town. After dinner, top off the night with some locally made ice cream at Tin Cup Creamery or a cocktail at the local rum bar, Montanya Distillers.
For an intimate hotel option, check out the Vaquera House which is an adorable 10-room house-turned-hotel within walking distance of town. For a room with a view, travel up to Mount Crested Butte and book a room in the Nordic Inn – the only remaining hotel from when the ski resort opened in the 1960s.
If you’re looking for a true Nordic feel, book the local Whetstone Sauna. Not only is this a traditionally made, wood-burning sauna, but it can be delivered directly to your front door.
Bottom Line: Start your journey in Crested Butte for an authentic mountain-town experience.
Kebler Pass: Camping
If you are looking for a full Kebler Pass experience and want to eat and sleep among the trees, you can stay the night at one of the several campsites along the way. With a mixed selection of designated dispersed and established campgrounds, you’ve got a lot of options. Just remember to stay flexible, as all are first come, first served.
The Lake Irwin Campground is just six and a half miles from the town of Crested Butte and has several campsites, including three that are accessible. The views are stunning with Lake Irwin on one side and the Ruby Mountain Range on the other. During your stay, take an easy hike around the lake, mountain bike, or enjoy the water with a cold swim, some fishing, or on your stand-up paddleboard. The water is so clear that when I paddleboard here with my young son, we can spot the fish swimming below us!
Around the halfway mark of Kebler Pass is Lost Lake Campground. Also first come, first served, the 18 campgrounds are family-friendly and open to both tent camping and RVs. Many campsites look out at Lost Lake and have quick access to fishing and hiking. The Three Lakes Trail starts from the campground area and circles high above the lake, giving you some amazing views. I found the hike to be a fun one to do with my toddler, as we stopped at one of the two alpine lakes for a snack and were able to get a close-up view of a waterfall before finishing the loop.
Colorado is full of free camping and Kebler Pass is no different. Designated, dispersed campsites can be found along Kebler Pass as well. Designated campsites were created after 2020 to preserve the forest, the experience for campers, and to prevent areas from being overused. These campsites are visible by a post with a tent marker and a metal fire ring.
Bottom Line: Plan to arrive at your camping destination mid-day to be sure to secure a spot!
Kebler Pass: The Best Hikes
Throughout the drive, stop and stretch your legs on one of Keber’s many hiking trails. The scenery is impressive from the car but even more so walking among the trees. The pass is home to rivers, lakes, and hikes right off the road. In addition to the Lake Irwin trail and the Three Lakes Trail, check out the Lily Lake Trail, just outside of Crested Butte on Kebler Pass. This moderately challenging trail takes you to a remote lake and back in just over three miles. For a challenging hike and some serious elevation gain (over 2,500 feet), the Scarp Ridge to Mt. Emmons hike starts just past Lake Irwin and takes you on a strenuous 8.3 mile hike that tops out at 12,343 feet on Mt. Emmons.
In the fall, keep your eyes open for bald eagles, moose, deer, and if you’re lucky, a black bear. With all of the visitors to this wilderness area, it is imperative that everyone does their part to protect these natural and wild spaces. Review the Leave No Trace principles, stay on the trail, leave what you find and pack out everything you bring in.
Bottom Line: Take your pick of easy, moderate, or challenging hikes along Kebler Pass.
Kebler Pass: Keeping it Wild
To be sure Kebler Pass is taken care of for many fall colors to come, please be sure you are doing your part to protect this beautiful section of wilderness.
You may see initials of (hopefully) years past carved into trees – do not follow suit. Your photos will suffice for proof that you were there and carving into trees does harm them.
If you are traveling over Kebler during peak fall travel, be sure to pull over and park in safe areas to take pictures and explore.
Stay on designated roads and trails at all times. If you aren’t sure, don’t go.
Be courteous and polite! We are all out there for the same reasons, to marvel at the beauty of these mountains and enjoy nature. If you’re in a hurry, well…take a different route.
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