About Crystal Mill Waterfall
The Crystal Mill Waterfall was basically the short 15ft waterfall on the Crystal River situated right next to the famous Crystal Mill.
This “mill” was actually historically a powerhouse where the waterfall was held up by a dam so the hydropower could serve a couple of silver mines as well as the town of Crystal.
This structure was built in 1892, but it shut down when the mines no longer became profitable in 1917, and eventually it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.
As you can see in the photo above, it was the idyllic setting and rustic appearance of the “mill” that made this perhaps Colorado’s most photographed historic relic.
My mid-October 2020 visit happened to have occurred just past the peak of the Fall colors, but there were still a handful of aspens across from the mill that held onto their leaves.
Yet despite the popularity of the Crystal Mill (especially given its Instagram explosion in recent years), accessing this site requires a bit of planning.
Options for Visiting the Crystal Mill
Most of the people who visit the Crystal Mill do so from the town of Marble, which itself featured some interesting relics and sites revolving around its namesake marble.
That said, the town was easily accessible from the Hwy 133 and the CO-6, and thus it would be the more convenient starting point to access the Crystal Mill whether by high clearance 4wd vehicle or by hiking that road.
I’ve been told by a ranger patrolling the Crystal Mill that the road between Marble and Crystal was “non-technical” though bumpy with rocks, which would test most stock high-clearance vehicles and their tires.
We have attempted to book a jeep tour from Marble to access the mill, but they were closed for the season when we inquired in October.
Nevertheless, it was possible to hike to the Crystal Mill from Marble, which would be between 9-10 miles round trip depending on whether the hike began from as close as Lizard Lake or as far back as Beaver Lake or even Marble itself.
Aside from the descent from Lizard Lake to the Crystal River, most of this hike would be relatively flat.
However, given the amount of vehicular traffic that drives this stretch of the CO-3 towards the Crystal Mill, it can be a very dusty experience for hikers.
When you consider how breathing in the fine dust particles can tax the lungs (as they settle in the lungs and stay there), one can argue that this option would not be any easier than a high altitude hike under cleaner air.
Speaking of the high altitude hike under cleaner air, the other option to access the Crystal Mill was to hike from Schofield Park down to the Crystal Mill via the Devils Punch Bowl and Crystal.
This was the hike that I did, and it wound up being about 7.6 miles round-trip with around 1300ft elevation loss (and gain on the way back up) according to my GPS logs.
It took me nearly 6 hours to complete though a pretty solid hour of that time was spent taking pictures, especially at the Crystal Mill.
The rest of this write-up focuses on this hike to Crystal Mill from Schofield Park (see directions below), which had the benefit of far less 4wd traffic despite the brutal upside-down elevation profile.
Crystal Mill Waterfall Trail Description from Schofield Park
Assuming we began our hike from Schofield Park, we’d essentially descend from there along the 4wd Schofield Pass Road towards the “ghost town” of Crystal and eventually the Crystal Mill.
There are actually a couple of ways to do this hike – one involving going through two fords of the South Fork Crystal River and another that stays dry via the “Bridge to Terabithia”.
The stretch of the hike between Schofield Park and the Devils Punch Bowl is covered in detail in this waterfall write-up.
However, this only covers the first 1.3 miles of the hike (or 2.6 miles round-trip), and there’s still another 2.5 miles (or 5 miles more round-trip) to go.
Beyond the road bridge near the Devils Punch Bowl, the Schofield Pass Road continued to descend steeply as the canyon gradually opened up.
Along this part of the descent, I continued to notice tumbling cascades on the South Fork Crystal River.
I also appreciated the narrowness of the shelf road, which would be quite the challenge to stay on without sliding into the ravine nor scraping against the cliffs in a wider 4wd vehicle.
Anyways, I continued descending the rocky Schofield Pass Road, which still defied what I thought was reasonably possible to drive (though I’m not an experienced overlander so what do I know?).
The further down I went, the more I started to notice Crystal Peak and the valley that would ultimately contain both Crystal and the Crystal Mill.
Towards the bottom of the descent, there was a signed turnoff leading to the Lead King Basin on the right, but I kept left to continue towards Crystal and eventually Marble.
After a little over 2 miles from the Devils Punch Bowl, I then entered the “ghost town” of Crystal, which was situated in a somewhat open clearing flanked on one side by a lot of aspens.
Beyond Crystal, the road eventually veered another quarter-mile or so before reaching another wide section of the road directly opposite the Crystal River from the Crystal Mill.
Crystal Mill Waterfall Paid Access
At the Crystal Mill lookout area, there was a roped off “fence” preventing most people from going any closer to the banks of the Crystal River.
So this only yielded a view of the Crystal Mill itself but not of the waterfall adjacent to it, and this suited the majority of visitors just fine.
However, with a $10 cash payment to the patrolling ranger there (and signing a waiver), I was able to go past the rope next to a boulder fronting a steep and eroded path.
This finally led down to the banks of the Crystal River right at the waterfall’s plunge pool.
The only thing that the ranger asked of my visit was to not cross the Crystal River.
I’d magine that he said that so there would be no temptation to get closer to the Crystal Mill and risk further damage to it besides the effects of weathering.
During my mid-October 2020 visit, most of the Autumn foliage was gone except for a tree above the waterfall and opposite the mill.
That said, I was also alone during my midday visit for nearly an hour before a handful of other people joined me.
After having my fill of the Crystal Mill, then I went back the way I came from Schofield Park, which meant I had to gain back 1300ft of elevation in nearly 4 miles.
Even though this was a far less-traveled way of accessing the Crystal Mill, I found it to be more rewarding, especially since it included a visit to the Devils Punch Bowl as well as being subject to less motorized traffic (and the dust kicked up from them).
The Crystal Mill Waterfall resides near the “ghost town” of Crystal, which itself was near the towns of Marble and Crested Butte in Gunnison County, Colorado. As of this writing, it is privately owned and administered by the Crystal Mill Foundation though it’s apparently in the process of being sold. For information or inquiries about the area as well as current conditions, visit their website as well as this page from the National Forest Service.
I’ll describe the 16-mile drive from Crested Butte to the trailhead at Schofield Park since that was how I made my visit.
The Road 317 (Gothic Road) becomes unpaved shortly after passing through the village of Mt Crested Butte, but it was quite doable by 2wd sedans (with care since there were some potholes, especially in the beginning).
After roughly roughly 25 minutes of driving (or around 6 miles from Crested Butte), we then reached the Judd Falls Lower Trailhead.
At this point, the road gets a bit rougher but still doable in a our stock SUV though I’d imagine it gets increasingly difficult for lower clearance passenger sedans.
At about 4 miles beyond the Judd Falls Trailhead, we then reached a fork in the road just past a pretty scary shelf road.
The rough road on the left went to Emerald Lake, but the Schofield Pass Road continued on the right, where after another mile, it reached the Schofield Pass (denoted by a pair of signs with stickers all over them).
Beyond the Schofield Pass, the road descended towards the small hamlet of Schofield (technically a “ghost town”), where we kept right at the major forks.
Eventually after 2.3 miles beyond Schofield Pass, we reached a parking areas in an opening that the maps on my Gaia GPS tool called Schofield Park.
We knew to park here because we were then greeted with an ominous sign warning of a steep and narrow road ahead that should only be attempted by experienced drivers with small 4wd vehicles with a narrow wheel base.
Overall, this drive between Crested Butte and Schofield Park took us around an hour.
For context, Crested Butte was about 28 miles (over a half-hour’s drive) north of Gunnison, 92 miles (under 2 hours drive) northeast of Montrose, 128 miles (about 2.5 hours drive) northeast of Ouray, 157 miles (over 3 hours drive) northeast of Telluride, 152 miles (about 3 hours drive) east of Grand Junction, 153 miles (about 3.5 hours drive) south of Marble, 199 miles (about 4.5 hours drive) south of Aspen, and 187 miles (about 4 hours drive) southwest of Denver.
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