The White River National Forest in northwest Colorado is absolutely breathtaking, it also happens to be the most visited National Forest in the United States. It spans over 2 million acres, has 12 ski resorts within its boundaries, and contains 10 14ers. The White River National Forest is rich in history, you can still see many abandoned mines, old mining towns and other structures from early settlers here.
For me this was the furthest west I have ever traveled in Colorado, so it was a very special and exciting venture! The drive from Denver was unreal, the road twirls through canyons, peaks, and follows along the river at times, it is really a site to see. This drive is anywhere from 3-3.5 hours from Denver depending on traffic. This is a really great trip for folks who have friends and family visiting that want to see more of the Rocky Mountains. Being the history buff I am, I was so inspired learning about The Crystal Mill. Hearing of its far remote location so deep in the forest, and the infrastructure of the mill itself really intrigued me. I find it so inspiring how people in the past made such huge leaps and bounds to make the lives the sought a reality. It is hard enough to make it to the mill in a 4x4 vehicle, I can only imagine the difficulties these people faced trying to get building material and mining equipment to this location in order to make it livable. If you have ever been to the mill you will understand what I mean, and why it has been on my bucket list for so long!
I made this trip to during the beginning of October when the Aspens were peaking, it was incredible. The days were warm, and the nights had just started falling into the 40s. We camped along highway 133 between Carbondale and Redstone. We stayed at Avalanche campground which was free, and easy access to Penny Hot Springs, and the Crystal Mill near Marble, CO. I highly recommend going during Autumn, the Aspens are just gorgeous and the water at the mill against the fall foliage is unreal. We arrived at our dispersed campsite at dusk on a Friday and started setting up.
Avalanche Campground has 6 sites, each with a picnic table and a bear locker there is a bathroom as well, our campsite was situated along a creek. We decided to go to the Crystal Mill Saturday morning and Penny Hot Springs after that. The Crystal Mill was a long, steep, rocky, narrow drive super deep into the forest for about 4.4 miles. We were in an FJ Cruiser and it was very doable in this vehicle. However we did experience lots of people walking, and some on dirt bikes and 4 wheelers. Be cautions when passing others on this road! It took us around 1 hour and 15 minutes to travel the 4.4 miles to get to the mill due to the severity of the road conditions, and the heavy foot traffic. This hike on foot would be very taxing in my opinion, not to mention dusty with all the vehicle traffic, personally I would not recommend. The "trail" you walk on is actually a rocky road with many cars and other off roading vehicles.
Once you arrive at the Mill there are minimal parking spots, so keep that in mind and be courteous to other visitors while parking. There is 1 out house in the parking lot. There is Crystal resident charging $10 for you to go down to the bottom for better views. There is also a waiver you must sign in order to go down to the bottom which I highly recommend doing. We took a picnic down to the bottom and ate, drank a beer, and took some photos. It is just so beautiful and much better views from the bottom so I highly recommend bringing cash and going on down. If you decide not to there is not a lot of space to chill and look at the mill at all, so plan accordingly. It is a good idea to bring a snack or lunch along, this trip was is easily a 4 hour journey for us in a car. I cannot imagine walking to the mill, the dust from the passing cars alone is enough to prevent me from ever going on foot.
I recommend driving past the mill and checking out the town of Crystal as well! Contrary to popular belief, Crystal, CO is NOT a ghost town, though many refer to it as one. it is home to 12 people, but only in the summer months. The town has a general store with books and a lot of history to learn about, and a few cabins. We bought a few local ghost story books from the general store and really enjoyed reading them back at camp! Please advise that the beautiful cabins and other buildings you see in Crystal are all inhabited and are peoples homes, so stay off their porch and don't go poking around their property.
*If you want to bring a pet with you to The Crystal Mill please note that the drive up and back down is VERY bumpy, and I mean VERY VERY bumpy. If your pet gets car sick or scared on bumpy roads I would highly discourage you from bringing them on the ride.
Once we made the trek back down from Crystal, we stopped by Penny Hot Springs which was right near our campsite. This hot spring is a primitive riverside spring with multiple built out pools. I would say there were about 10 pools when we went, and some were too scalding to enter! I am sad to say that the town is looking to develop this area, fingers crossed there will not be a bathhouse built here. Penny was very clean with no trash and the people visiting were very courteous of the natural surroundings. Always remember to pack out what you pack in and leave the natural areas cleaner than how you found them. No dogs and no glass in the springs! You can find this location easily via google if you are interested in visiting.
This is definitely my favorite adventure in Colorado I've taken so far. I am a huge history buff, so visiting The Crystal Mill was such a thrill. Seeing the mill up close really inspired me to get into the back country more often and visit other historical locations in Colorado. It is so intriguing to see these old homes still standing after years and years of element exposure. Having the opportunity to learn about the mills past purpose as a power plant in person and being able to step foot into the extremely old general store in Crystal is an experience I will never forget.
Camping during autumn in this area is a MUST, the aspens are beautiful, there are so many hikes, historical spots, and hot springs to visit. I adore Penny Hot Springs, however with it being less known, I think I will let you do a little digging to discover its whereabouts. You already know which two cities it lies between. Happy Adventuring!