West Elk Loop

Courtesy of OutWest Guides ©

The Town of Marble is a favorite side trip for travelers on the West Elk Loop, a 204-mile scenic byway designated by the State of Colorado.

The West Elk Loop starts at Carbondale on Highway 133. From the stoplight in Carbondale (there’s only one), the road winds 22 miles up the gorgeous Crystal River corridor to the base of McClure Pass, where County Road 3 beckons visitors to turn off to Marble.

It is only 6 miles to the heart of Marble, so a side trip doesn’t take long. However, once travelers are in Marble, they might be enticed to stay longer than they had planned. There are interesting historical sites, an active marble quarry, a sculptor’s symposium, a cross-country ski area and an ice rink in the winter, spectacular mountains, and many hiking trails.

If travelers wish to continue the West Elk Loop, the road climbs up McClure Pass, crossing into the North Fork Valley of the Gunnison River, and down into the towns of Somerset, Paonia, Hotchkiss, and Crawford.

Somerset is a coal-mining town where several mines supply coal to many power-generating plants in the West. Paonia, just a few miles down the road, has several mines as well, but it’s better known as a source of beautiful fruit, with its orchards of sweet cherries, apricots, pears, plums, and apples.

Once in Paonia, the valley opens up and the towns of Hotchkiss and Crawford are home to cattle ranches, small farms, and open spaces. At Hotchkiss, the West Elk Loop turns south onto Highway 92, where it goes up to Crawford, a small town of about 800 people. From Crawford, Highway 92 heads to the rim of the Black Canyon, and the road winds through aspen groves and oak brush hillsides for a good hour of driving until you reach the dam at Blue Mesa Reservoir. The route crosses the top of the dam, and then parallels Highway 50 30 miles east to Gunnison, the home of Western State College.

From Gunnison, the loop continues straight north on Highway 135 30 miles to the ski town of Crested Butte, the birthplace of the mountain bike. From Crested Butte, the last part of the loop takes off over the mountains via Kebler Pass, a gravel road that is closed in the winter. Kebler Pass is a lovely 27-mile route through gorgeous aspen groves and fields of wildflowers to join up with Colorado 133 again at a small resort, Crystal Springs, at the bottom of the Paonia Reservoir.

Once you’ve emerged at Crystal Springs, your choices are to either return to the Crystal River Valley (Marble or Carbondale), or to head west again towards Paonia and Hotchkiss.

We think you’ll have the most fun staying in Marble!