Leaving Crested Butte is always hard, but it was especially hard this time. We had spent the past three days in Colorado's version of late-summer heaven, pedaling some of the finest trails on earth, out of cell range, in the often-overlooked yet predictably empty window that falls between mid-August and Labor Day. The sun shined from dawn to dusk, and the dirt, watered by a week of afternoon rainstorms, felt like it had been made specifically to grip rubber.

As we drove out of town and back home to Breckenridge, I felt the same pang of sadness I do every time I depart the Gunnison Valley. That was before my friend Sam asked me what trail, of the dozen or so that we'd ridden, had been my favorite. It was too soon, I told him, staring out the window at a passing aspen grove. I wasn't ready to rank the memories. What mattered right then was that we were leaving, and I wished we didn't have to.

The trip already felt like a blur, even if its premise was nothing special: just a few middle-age dudes escaping life's realities for long enough to exhale. We'd come to feel pain in our legs and daydream on singletrack; to get away, up high, for as long as we could take each day, then reflect over a few suds at night.

It had been a tough summer personally. My wife and I spent much of July and August with our infant son in a hospital in Denver. Normally I rely upon trail time to balance my life in stressful periods, but the rides were rare during that stretch. My psyche tilted in the wrong direction.

Summer is already fleeting at 10,000 feet, and I felt like we'd missed most of it by the time we got home. I'd kept this assignment on the back burner for a while, but with our son in a better state and perfect weather in the forecast, I called photographer Liam Doran and a few more friends to see if they could swing a quick getaway to the Butte. Sam Brede, a former bike mechanic and shop manager who tolerates my sarcasm more than most, committed immediately. Jeff Tarczon, who has two kids under 6 and was mired in a long stretch of marathon work days, signed on the next afternoon. Later, when I told him I was surprised he was able to make it, he looked at me and said: "I need this."

A few days before we left, I called an old ski partner, Alex Banas, who grew up in Breckenridge and now lives in Crested Butte, to see if he might be able to ride with us. I'd known Banas, who is 27, as more of an aerobically gifted trail runner than a mountain biker, but the quality of riding in CB made him all but cease running, he explained. As a trailbuilder with the Crested Butte Conservation Corps (CBCC)—the stewardship arm of the Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association (CBMBA), which was founded in 1983—Banas knows the local network by heart and happened to have a few days off.

All we had to do was not get hurt.

The first time I rode in Crested Butte was not that long after my first mountain-bike ride, period, and it still might be my weakest moment. In 2005, I was camped at Oh Be Joyful with my girlfriend and her parents, and I had heard about Trail 401, the legendary descent off of Schofield Pass. I thought it would be a couple-hour ride from our site when I set off on the Lower Loop toward town.

The dirt road climb up to Schofield was dusty and busy, but the descent blew my mind. By the time I had explored the town of Gothic and ridden the Upper Loop back to downtown CB, then followed the Lower Loop back to our spot on the Slate River, six hours had passed and people were worried. I was barely able to pedal—and more than a little sheepish—when I limped into camp. On one hand, I felt bad that I'd been so clueless. On the other, my understanding of what was available increased exponentially.

The next time I rode in Crested Butte was in 2009. My wife and I honeymooned there, and we followed a friend's advice to ride a pair of CB classics: Reno-Flag-Bear-Deadmans and Doctor Park. I remember the trails as well as I remember the rider we met in the middle of nowhere, who was all fired up about the soggy cow patties splattered along the trail by cattle on grazing permits. "It's subsidized capitalism!" he yelled.

A few more visits followed, but by the time we arrived this August, it had been three years since I'd passed through Crested Butte in summer. The last time was for a story about the town's new klunker exhibit, which replaced the departed Mountain Bike Hall of Fame when it moved to Fairfax, California, in 2015. There has always been some inherent imprecision when people talk about where mountain biking began. Because, while the Repack crew in Marin County was racing down fire roads on prototype bikes, Crested Butte locals were taking 40- and 50-pound klunkers up to Paradise Divide and testing their own novel technology. Specialized shot the poster for its first Stumpjumper on CB's Lower Loop (tagline: "It's a whole new sport"). Raleigh, one of the leading bike manufacturers at the time, even named its high-end steed the "Crested Butte."

The upper Gunnison Valley fat-tire scene began in the mid-to-late 1970s, anchored by a fabled group ride down 12,705-foot Pearl Pass. Locals would work on their bikes until midnight on the eve of the ride, trying to slick them out to a point of enabling high-speed survival. Word of the Pearl Pass ride reached the California crew—including Gary Fisher, Charlie Kelly and Joe Breeze—and they caravanned east to join the fray in 1978. How much of a party was it? The shuttle truck had a bathtub in back, and everyone camped out in Cumberland Basin, kegs and all.

Eventually Crested Butte's range expanded to trails like 403 and 401, where daredevils charged down wildflower hallways using V-brakes and forearm suspension. Don Cook, one of the most influential pioneers, scouted new routes from a friend's plane. In 1983, he and his wife, Kay, founded the Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association—the first mountain-bike club in the world. The town's distinction among a growing population of fat-tire devotees helped it become the first international destination.

In many ways that renown and cutting-edge clout has carried on. CB hosted an Enduro World Series stop in 2015, and CBMBA remains one of the most active and robust clubs in America, claiming responsibility for more than 450 miles of trail. If that number is hard to comprehend, think of it this way: You would have to ride 30 miles a day for 15 straight days just to ride everything once.

We pulled into town at 1:30 on a Monday afternoon and met Banas 30 minutes later. He and his CBCC coworkers—if we can agree that riding your bike to build trail in the Crested Butte backcountry counts as work—had spent much of the summer finishing a key connector trail called Baxter Gulch. We had heard it was worth an afternoon, and Banas agreed to give us a tour.

The loop also includes the Carbon Creek and Green Lake trails, for a total distance of 15 miles. The first six miles is almost all climbing—and you can rest assured that it feels like 10. Banas, who works as an Irwin ski guide in the winter and leads occasional rock-climbing and mountain-biking trips in the summer, towed us through a meandering pine and aspen forest under the towering north face of the Whetstone massif. The Baxter Gulch portion is so fresh that it's not on maps yet, but Carbon Creek was getting a makeover too, we learned. "This feels like it's not even an hour old," Doran said at one point—and sure enough, 100 yards later we bumped into the U.S. Forest Service duo responsible for the reroute.

Tarczon flatted as we began the Green Lake descent, an event that turned into a half-hour ordeal when two patches failed. It was rare and refreshing that nobody cared about the delay, or was suddenly late for something else; we just sat in the sun listening to reggae and trying not to fall asleep, as Jeff cursed his luck and failed patches.

Finally we got going again, and immediately I understood why one would climb Baxter Gulch to descend Green Lake. The swooping, tacky, utterly rippable 1,600-vertical-foot playground pops you back into the heart of town—one of the reasons why locals who are pressed for time often ride it out and back.

We spent the rest of the afternoon watching the sunset from a friend's yard on Whiterock Avenue, talking about nothing and everything at once. The town's ever-eclectic roster of residents rode, walked and skateboarded by, many on the vintage cruisers that define Crested Butte.

The scene felt perfect, but we also knew the next day would be bigger, so we stopped just short of debauchery. After a monstrous pizza dinner at the Secret Stash, we melted into our mattresses like fondu. No one stayed awake past 10:30.

We left it up to Banas what to ride the next morning, with the only condition being that we preferred not to start our day with the brutal climb up to Teocalli Ridge. It is not easy in a place as vast as Crested Butte to plan a big ride for a group of slightly hungover, more-ambitious-than-they-should-be visitors. We recognized that. We also knew we couldn't really go wrong in this situation, no matter what Banas picked.

Every world-class riding zone is known for something unique when it comes to terrain. Although it's easy to call CB an alpine mecca because of the consistently stunning backdrop, in my opinion what makes it special are its big, open valleys. Each one seems to contain perfectly pitched, wavy, superfun ways in and out. Banas promised a long, hard ride in gorgeous country, but also not a usual suspect. Which meant we wouldn't be doing the Brush Creek to Cement Creek to Brush Creek ride, a 40-mile classic that features more singletrack than anything else in CB, including a number of trails that have been refurbished in recent years.

Banas and his CBCC boss, 31-year-old Crested Butte native Nick Catmur, met us on Brush Creek Road a little after 9 a.m., the sun already beating down above Strand Hill. In many ways we were following the future: two young, talented riders who are expanding the network—in Catmur's case, the same network that he learned on as a kid. For all the problems that plague Crested Butte—crowds, a housing shortage, wages that fail to keep up with the cost of living—it retains an authentic charm. Native sons and daughters come back to live in their 20s. Catmur, whose parents ran a downtown inn for nearly three decades, has no plans to leave. Neither, for that matter, does Banas.

We climbed Strand Road to Strawberry, which was newly rerouted and riding delightfully right down to the barely doable, kinda-thrilling creek crossing at the end. A quick yet relaxing spin on Brush Creek Road sent us past a shirtless hippie on a touring bike headed up Pearl Pass. We turned right onto Block and Tackle, a steep, punishing climb that rewards you with one of the smoothest, flowiest moto descents any of us had ever experienced. I felt like I'd been spit out of a happy cannon at the bottom, but it only got better from there. Upper Cement Creek, perhaps the perfect combination of gravity, tread and pitch, led to another junction along the river where we picked up a surprisingly radical singletrack through quaking aspen leaves.

It didn't dawn on me until we bumped into a male hiker near the bottom of the trail, but it had been more than an hour since we'd seen anyone—despite riding awesome multi-use trails accessible from town on a 75-degree, bluebird day in August. When I rode up, Banas and Catmur were having a conversation with the guy. I got there just in time to hear the last exchange.

"Good seeing you, Martin," Banas said.

"Bye, Dad," Catmur said.

I smiled to myself. Of course it works like that here.

At the bottom, Banas warned us to prepare for one more "proper" climb. "But then we get to ride the most bitchin' descent of the day," he added. Considering what we'd descended so far, his promise got our attention—and made the climb seem like a bargain. So we all sucked it up and slung our bikes over our shoulders to ascend the Wall, an aptly nicknamed calf-tickler that leads to Trail 405.2a (a.k.a. Dark Side), then Double Top, then the descent of Banas' desire: 409.5. We bombed down the mountain back into Brush Creek, taking in the valley and town from above.

Later, back at the trailhead, Catmur reflected on the day and how rare it was to ride the loop we rode. "A lot of trails get overlooked, because so many people come here and just ride 401. There's a lot of focus on that, Teocalli Ridge and Doctor Park," he said. "That ride we did today, not many people ride that. They don't really want to do climbs like we did today."

If my legs could have nodded in agreement, they would have.

Another 10 o'clock bedtime narrowly enabled our 6:30 a.m. meeting with Banas the following day. The plan was to shuttle up Washington Gulch to Trail 403, ride that to the Gothic drainage, climb Schofield Pass to 401, then head back to town and eventually, inevitably, real life.

The cloud of wildfire smoke that had enveloped Colorado for much of the summer was gone, which meant an enormous alpine backdrop was visible high on 403—including five 14,000-foot peaks. As much as we'd tried to avoid the crowded classics, the "804," as this combo is called, sucks you in like late-night ice cream. Luckily, because we started so early, we had the trail to ourselves. It also meant there was still frost on the ground.

You get 10 miles of world-class, wind-inflating-your-cheeks, drooling descent from the 804. Stopping is verboten—usually. This time, however, I couldn't help myself. I was here to slow down and recharge, and the views, highlighted by 12,789-foot Mount Baldy and 12,653-foot Avery Peak, are best experienced at a standstill.

We saw not a soul until we got back to Gothic, unless you count the hawks hunting rodents above us. The wildflowers were not handlebar-high as they are in July, but the fireweed and tundra were as red as lipstick and you could actually see the trail for a change.

By the time Brede, Tarczon and I left for home at 1 o'clock, we were drained. I would have a hard time staying awake for the next two days. Still, as I do every time I leave Crested Butte, I felt restored.

Ride, Eat, Sleep, Repeat: Staying in Crested Butte

Access
Crested Butte is about a four-hour drive from Denver and slightly less from Colorado Springs. You can also fly into Montrose, Grand Junction or, closest of all, Gunnison. It's nice to have a vehicle, but if you can avoid it, you'll make it work on two wheels.

Stay
The Old Town Inn  offers affordable hotel rooms downtown, a few minutes from the Baxter Gulch and Green Lake trailheads. The Elk Mountain Lodge is pricier and includes breakfast. Dispersed camping abounds on forest land surrounding Crested Butte; alternatively, if the Oh Be Joyful campground isn't full, it's often the best option with restrooms.

Eat
There's no shortage of menus to choose from in CB. On the more affordable side, try the Last Steep, Brick Oven Pizzeria and Pub, Secret Stash and Ryce Asian Bistro. Teocalli Tamale is your best bargain. Camp 4 Coffee is famous for a reason when it comes to a quick-stop fuel-up in the morning, and if you still have enough energy to socialize after dinner, the Eldo Brew Pub will treat you right and often has live music.

Ride
Through its interactive trail guide, MTBHome.com shows all 750 miles of singletrack in the Gunnison Valley, ranging from green to black, town loops to epics, and offers downloadable maps for distinct trail areas on its CBGTrails App. They’ve even created a game within CBGTrails called TrailQuest in which riders can compete to rack up the most unique trail miles in the Gunnison Valley. The Alpineer rents bikes from Trek, Santa Cruz and Yeti, while Big Al's Bicycle Heaven offers demos from Rocky Mountain, Devinci and Kona.

This piece was produced in partnership with the Gunnison Crested Butte Tourism Association.