Bad behavior in the backcountry has led to access restrictions at one of Colorado’s most iconic spots for scenic photography.
The owner of the Crystal Mill, a 131-year-old wooden structure that clings to a sheer rock outcrop above the Crystal River high in the West Elk Mountains, has wiped out a trail that used to let visitors access the riverbank below the mill building. That riverbank was the favorite spot for framing the most iconic photos of the picturesque building — photos that can be seen around the world.
And as former Marble resident Alex Menard notes, they can be seen “in every dentist office in America.”
Owner Chris Cox has also locked up the nearby Crystal General Store that for decades had sold sodas and snacks to visitors who made the rough drive up from the tiny town of Marble, a 6-mile stretch so rough that it can take hours in a 4-wheel-drive vehicle.
The mill building will still be visible from the road, but the trail that visitors could use by paying $10 to an employee who staffed the store for Cox, has been scraped away and covered with downed trees and logs. A rope blocks the area. Several “No Trespassing” signs warn people away from the riverbank.
“It’s absolutely heartbreaking,” said Harrison Lee, a professional photographer from Littleton who has captured many photos of the Crystal Mill. “We are losing what makes us Colorado.”
Lee does not blame Cox for the closures. He blames the increasing loss of a “leave no trace” ethic among too many backcountry adventurers.
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Some of the visitors to the Crystal Mill and Crystal City ghost town area — estimated at thousands a week in the summer season — had started prying off bits of the historic mill. They were carving their names into surrounding trees and spray painting on structures. Some threw a party inside the rickety mill building. One slung a hammock from the side of the mill. Some buzzed drones over the area. One pulled a gun on a Cox employee when asked to pay the $10 access fee.
Marble locals have reported that others went to nearby private historic cabins and walked in on summer residents, thinking the structures were there for more of their backcountry exploration. People relieved themselves outside the cabins after they found they couldn’t wander in and use a toilet.
It’s Instagram’s fault
Marble business owners who run tours to the mill or rent rugged vehicles capable of getting there, blame social media for the influx of ill-intentioned visitors bent on snagging the best selfies with an internationally recognized mining-era structure. That building has long been called the Crystal Mill, but it is actually a hydro-power structure built to turn dammed water into electricity that powered air compressors and ventilation systems in neighboring mines.
The weathered, double-peaked building perches on a sheer rock outcrop above a waterfall that tumbles into the aptly named Crystal River. A laddered wooden chute stretches beneath the building into the river. Aspen trees surround it, and snow-capped peaks provide a backdrop.
The scene is Colorado to the core.
“It’s Instagram,” Sam Smith Wilkey, owner of Crystal River Jeep Tours, said when asked why so many visitors were making the difficult trip to the mill but no longer respecting such an iconic historic site. “People have learned how to get here. It’s just welcome to 2023 and what is happening in the wilderness.”
Smith Wilkey and Jason Rusby, owner of RPS Rentals in Marble, said the closure of the store and the access to the river below the mill won’t affect their businesses. Those who pay for a tour or a rental vehicle to get there will still be able to see the Crystal Mill, as will the hordes who drive up on motorcycles, in off-road utility vehicles, or in their own 4-wheel-drives. Some also make the trek over Schofield Pass from Crested Butte about 20 miles to the southeast.
“The only thing that has changed is that you can’t walk down to the river. You can still see the mill,” Rusby said.
And Smith Wilkey said without the store being open, she is happy to be the one selling snacks and drinks to the 1,700 people she hauls up to the mill each year.
More change is afoot near Crystal Mill
The closure of the store and the mill access point are just the beginning of possible changes for the Crystal Mill area.
Chris Cox, the owner of the mill as well as more than 700 acres of old mining claims surrounding it, has been in the news quite a bit in the past two years for changes he plans to make on his Crystal Mill property.
He is planning a high-end resort and has already started digging a well and cutting roads. Cox has told local officials in recent years that he hopes to place most of his land holdings in that area in conservation easements to protect the mill site and nearby ghost town and to turn a small portion into a resort he is calling Treasure Mountain.
The resort is planned to include 20 well-appointed cabins with floor-to-ceiling windows framing views, a farm-to-table restaurant and employee housing. Guests will be able to hike, fish and ride horses in the summer and ski the backcountry on Bear and Crystal mountains in the winter.
Cox has promised to use sustainable building materials and renewable energy in the resort.
His plans have already raised some eyebrows in Gunnison County, according to the Crested Butte News. The paper reported that he got crosswise with Gunnison County officials in 2021 when he began building roads for the development without permission. The county issued a stop work order and later a $12,000 fine for violations of county codes involving unauthorized road improvements. The county found the improvements did not meet water quality protection guidelines or have proper erosion control measures.
Cox is difficult to reach because he spends his summers at the Crystal property where connectivity is worse than spotty, but he did leave a phone message in response to questions about his plans. He said he is in the process of putting together a stakeholder group that will weigh in on the future of his Crystal property. He said that group will include locals, members of environmental groups and state representatives.
Cox, who inherited a portion of the land from his grandfather and purchased the remainder from relatives, has told Gunnison County and Marble town officials recently that he wants to start a foundation to help with preservation of the Crystal Mill.
He has stated that his long-range goals are to minimize development of the lands, preserve the historic structures, maintain public access to the Crystal Mill and do as much land conservation as possible, all while still providing a good return to investors in Treasure Mountain.
Menard said he worries that Cox’s plans will increase the visitor saturation in an area already clogged with sightseers. Cox has said his resort should only increase traffic about 5% on the busy County Road 3 that loops up to the edge of wilderness south of Marble and leads to a spur road that accesses the mill.
Menard said that small number doesn’t matter much at this point.
“The Crystal Mill has ruined the town of Marble. It is just a pit stop for the mill now,” said Menard, who moved out of Marble because of the overload of rude and noisy visitors on motorized all-terrain vehicles.
Lee said Cox told him recently that he hopes that if he can create a foundation, it might open the door to federal funding for a full-time staff person to be at the mill in the busy summer months. If he can’t find support and funding for protection of the mill, Lee said Cox told him he has considered erecting some sort of structures that would obscure or enclose the old mill to protect it from disrespectful visitors.
Lee said, as a professional landscape photographer and a lover of Colorado’s backcountry and particularly its most iconic scene, he finds that possibility “terrifying.”
“At this point it could end up being shut down completely if this continues.”