Little Mel Yemma snowboarding in Crested Butte circa 1997

Little Mel Yemma snowboarding in Crested Butte circa 1997

By Eileen Ogintz

Tribune Content Agency

The 6 year old was determined to set herself apart from her older brother and sister on vacation.

My youngest daughter, Mel, declared she was a “big girl” and could decide for herself what fun she would have in the snow that week in Crested Butte, Colorado. If her brother and sister were strutting their stuff on skis, she would learn to snowboard, all the better that no one in the family knew one end of a snowboard from the other.

As all parents know, it’s important to take the kids’ wishes into consideration on vacation when possible — even when they are only six — because unhappy kids can derail even the most perfectly planned family trip.

In this case, it wasn’t that difficult. We sent Mel to snowboard school rather than ski school and she was a happy camper, very proud that she was learning something her brother and sister couldn’t do. In those years, we liked Crested Butte for the reasons families visit today:

“Everyone is so friendly and it’s not too fancy or too crowded,” explained Judy Levin, here recently from Chicago with her husband and 6-year-old daughter. In fact, Crested Butte prides itself on its down-home attitude. You won’t see furs or fancy ski clothes here.

Laura Blackman, here with her husband and four sons from Austin, Texas, opined that “People have been super helpful,” which has allowed her to enjoy the trip, not always easy for moms heading to the snow.

Even better, the ski school classes are typically small without the upcharge you pay to guarantee small class size at other resorts, promises ski school director Nick Herrin. Much of the 200-member ski school staff return year after year. “They are here because they are part of the community and because we’re small,” Herrin said.

There is also the well-regarded Adaptive Sports Center that promises plenty of outdoor adventures (and scholarships for those who need them) for those adults and kids with special challenges. “Like other families, they are looking for a shared outdoor experience, but they can’t do it without help,” explains Chris Read, director of the program.

Our family in Crested Butte circa 1997

Our family in Crested Butte circa 1997

Another plus: The plethora of great restaurants to choose from in such a tiny town (population 1,500) — places like the recently opened Bonez for a not-so-traditional take on Mexican food and Coal Creek Grill in the Forest Queen Hotel that has been a fixture here since 1881. They’re famous for their elk burgers and Buffalo steaks. The owners opted to open a restaurant here because they thought it was a good place to raise kids. Crested Butte, located in the southwestern part of the state, incidentally boasts one of Colorado’s largest national historic districts and is that rare place, local parents say, where it is completely safe to let teens and even tweens wander on their own, taking the free bus for the five-minute ride from the mountain village. Even the family-owned Montanya Rum distillery is kid-friendly with mocktails and a kids’ play area.

“This is the last great ski town!” says Oklahoman Terry Toole who loves it here so much he now spends half the year here, hosting grown children and grandchildren on their vacations.

Yes, it often requires a change of planes to get here, but that can be the case when heading to other larger snow resorts, too, and we’ve always loved the vibe — the tiny historic town that is mostly on the Register of Historic Places; the friendly locals who unlike those in other ski towns genuinely welcome tourists.

(Check out the $99 companion-airfare deals into Gunnison, about 40 minutes from the mountain. This deal must be booked by calling Crested Butte Vacations at 1-844-262-2289. Also check out the Lift Ticket to Fly, providing one day of free skiing, a $107 value for adults, at Crested Butte Mountain Resort for each person on the air itinerary going through certain hub cities like Dallas and Chicago. Or check out the Gunnison Getaway package that includes lift tickets and lodging starting at $51 per person, per night.)

“This is a real community,” says Wendy Fisher, the champion skier who gives private lessons and teaches in the “Wednesdays with Wendy” clinics twice a month. “We’re very appreciative of outsiders coming to town and we embrace everyone,” said Fisher, who serves as the mountain’s ambassador and is raising her two snow-loving boys here.

Let’s not forget a mountain that’s not too big offers everything from beginner terrain to some of the most famous extreme terrain anywhere. Those who come in winter love the place so much they return for summer (the area is famous for its wildflowers, hiking and mountain biking.)

There is plenty of off-the-slope action — snowshoeing (how about a moonlight snowshoe tour?), an Adventure Park at the base complete with bungee trampolines and a climbing wall, a zipline and even the chance to learn to drive a snow cat that grooms the ski slopes.

Reggie Yemma in CB Extremes 2004

Reggie Yemma in CB Extremes 2004

But as much as we loved the place, we hadn’t been back in seven years until now and the memories hit me at every turn — the junior extreme competitions when my heart stopped at the steep, rocky terrain my daughters were skiing; the Christmases and February breaks where the kids happily raced us down the mountains, their first time on an expert slope and, of course, that first year when Mel decided to stake a claim for her individuality.

The snowboarding, by the way, only lasted one season but Mel’s love of snow sports has grown each year — so much so that she’s been spending the season working here, like many recent college graduates.

Mel Yemma doing her thing on Crested Butte Mountain

Mel Yemma doing her thing on Crested Butte Mountain this year (Photo by Chris Segal)

This trip we’re back with Mel’s older sister and extended family joining us from California and staying together in a condo.

That it’s harder to get here, we agree, seems to add to the appeal. “The beginning of paradise,” locals promise. My daughter certainly thinks so. Her job, in fact, is convincing callers to choose this resort.