Ghost town owner proposes high-end, green retreat near Marble
Crystal Ranch plan in works would develop 15 acres and offer easement on much of the remaining 700-plus acres, and preserve Colorado’s famous Crystal Mill
Since the silver mining operation went bust a year before the end of World War I, not much has been happening in the town of Crystal near Marble.
But the man who owns the 1880s-era ghost town — along with the most famous old mill in the state and much of the Colorado backcountry around them — is hoping to change that.
Chris Cox and his development partner, Stuart Gillespie, want to build at Crystal a high-end winter and summer retreat that will offer guided and unguided backcountry skiing in the winter, and hiking, biking, horseback riding and fly-fishing in the summer. The project would also include 20 luxury cabins along the North and South forks of the Crystal River and a farm-to-table restaurant.
“We’re really excited,” Gillespie said in a recent interview. “There’s gonna be tree-skiing and gladed skiing — it’s mostly for the advanced skier. We think we can give people one of the best days of skiing in their lives when they come up here.”
In exchange for the right to develop 15 acres of the 750-plus acres Cox owns — plans have not yet been formally submitted to Gunnison County — Cox and Gillespie are proposing a series of pro-environment initiatives.
To start with, the cabins are to be constructed using green building techniques, the retreat will be powered using hydro, solar and geothermal-generated energy and they want to purchase an all-electric fleet of service vehicles, including an electric snowcat when they become available.
In addition, they have offered to place a conservation easement on 85% of the property Cox owns in the area that would stop development forever, place a historical preservation overlay on the area from the Crystal Mill through the ghost town of Crystal City to ensure it remains the way it looks now in perpetuity and, finally, donate the increasingly popular Crystal Mill to an independent, nonprofit foundation that would manage, restore and preserve the building.
“You mention development in the Crystal Valley and immediately people are opposed to it,” said Cox, whose family has owned most of the area around Crystal for nearly 100 years. “I’m not going to B-S people — we are doing a development. But we’re also doing a major give to the environment and to the community.”
A backcountry retreat
Located just beyond the Crystal Mill, which is considered one of the most iconic photos in Colorado and a magnet for hordes of tourists thanks to the rise of social media, the town of Crystal was established in 1881 but mostly abandoned by 1917. Cox’s great-grandfather, Emmet Gould, bought up much of the town in the early 1900s, and Cox grew up spending summers in Crystal.
Five years ago, a majority of Cox’s family who owned most of Crystal “wanted to sell out to the highest bidder,” Cox told members of the Marble Board of Trustees on Thursday. After a legal fight, Cox said he forced his family to sell the property to him, though he had to take on a significant amount of debt to make the deal work.
Now, with the need to generate income to pay off the land, Cox and Gillespie came up with the current plan, which starts with the 10 proposed cabins along the North Fork of the Crystal River and 10 cabins on the South Fork of the Crystal River. The two forks come together just above the Crystal Mill.
The cabins will each be between 750 and 850 square feet and most will be one bedroom, according to the development proposal. Some will be 10 to 20 feet above ground “to give a ‘treehouse feel’” while others will have “treehouse decks.”
“Cabins will have floor-to-ceiling windows facing the river, ample natural light, wood burning fireplaces and geothermal heated floors,” the proposal states. “High focus (will be) on providing ‘wow’ factor that differentiates from more traditional resort experiences.”
In observance of green building techniques, the cabins will not have concrete foundations and will be made of natural materials, including utilizing dead trees onsite and milling them for construction. Water will come from a natural spring, and the plan is to custom build the 20 cabins to each specific location over a five-year period, according to the proposal.
“The cabins will be built individually with a lot of care and a lot of creativity,” Cox said. “They will be smaller cabins but with a big wow factor.”
The cabins are expected to rent for between $400 and $850 a night depending on the season, though the developers are “planning to offer local discounts to make this accessible to the community,” the development proposal states.
“The newer cabins will reach a higher level than we have now,” Cox said, referring to the five rustic cabins currently for rent at Crystal Mountain Ranch. “But it’s not going to be an exclusive club.”
Cox and Gillespie also want to build a 4,000- to 5,000-square-foot lodge in a meadow behind the ghost town’s main street, with a fine-dining, farm-to-table restaurant that will feature produce grown in an onsite greenhouse. The lodge will not have individual rooms for rent and will not be open to the public, but will function as a hang-out spot for guests, Cox said.
A site for employee housing would be constructed across the meadow from the lodge.
“Employee housing will consist of eight cabins or yurts centered around a bathhouse and kitchen,” according to the proposal, which notes that 16 employees would be living on site.
Finally, the property has “significant” geothermal activity, and the developers plan to “drill a well to tap into geothermal potential,” the proposal states.
“If successful, (Cox and Gillespie plan) to develop hot springs and utilize the geothermal for heating,” according to the proposal. “Hot springs access will be available to all guests. (The) spa will offer massages and other treatments.”
None of the new development would be visible from the Crystal Mill or the town of Crystal, Cox said.
Attention powder hounds
The backcountry skiing will be the big draw for the Crystal Mountain Ranch.
Crystal sits at about 9,000 feet, and Cox’s property runs to 10,700 feet on Bear Mountain on the south, which features north-facing slopes, and up to 10,300 feet on Crystal Mountain to the north, Gillespie said. That’s up to 1,700 feet of vertical tree and glade skiing on 500 privately owned acres, with the possibility of up to 5,000 acres if the U.S. Forest Service approves the use of public land above the Cox’s property.
In addition, the Scofield Pass area is said to have the second-highest snowfall in the state, next to an area near Steamboat, Gillespie said.
“It’s pretty exceptional,” he said. “We have a lot of natural features on the property (like) couloirs and old growth trees. The (tree) spacing is just right. It’s all north-facing and it holds the snow really, really well.”
The cat skiing operation they have planned for will serve up to 15 people.
“Given the limited availability of seats for cat skiing, we expect that the majority of guests will come to backcountry tour (skin up, ski down),” according to the development proposal. “Additionally, (the operation) plans to offer miles of cross-country skiing on the property.”
Transparency and the rumor mill
The development proposal should be submitted to Gunnison County in the coming weeks, Gillespie said. Members of the county’s planning commissioner paid an informal visit to the property last month in advance of that submission, according to Cox and the Gunnison County Planning Commission website.
Gillespie said he expects construction to begin in 2024 and finish in 2028 if all goes according to schedule.
In the meantime, Cox and Gillespie have been making the rounds in the Crystal Valley to let people know about the proposal and to try to shut down rumors about the proposed project, including the one that says they plan to build another Steamboat at Crystal, Cox said.
“There’s been a lot of rumors going around about what’s going on,” Cox told members of the Town of Marble Board of Trustees and about 30 area residents Thursday night. “We wanted to put it out there and be transparent. We want you to know the facts.”
Cox and Gillespie spent about an hour Thursday night explaining the proposal and answering questions.
Residents wanted to know about the project’s impacts on Gunnison County Road 3 — which runs a rough six miles to Crystal — how parking in Marble might be affected and whether the crew plans to utilize services from the Marble area in the event of an emergency.
Cox and Gillespie estimated about a 5% increase in traffic on the road if their project is approved and said they will have visitors who don’t want to drive themselves to Crystal park on property Cox owns in Marble. Cox said they would use area emergency services if need be, though that already happens, sometimes with assistance from Cox and his crew.
Others wanted to know about the investors in the project, how ski terrain would be accessed and the possible impacts to two nearby wilderness areas. Investors will include some people from Gillespie’s hometown of Memphis, Tenn., though most are from Colorado and Cox is the main investor, Gillespie and Cox said.
They said they plan to access ski terrain using old mining roads — and perhaps extend them if the Forest Service allows them to use higher terrain — and that impacts to wilderness areas will be negligible, especially if the skiing is limited only to the terrain Cox owns.
John Armstrong, president of the Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association, said Cox and Gillespie outlined their proposal to about 45 members of his organization at the group’s annual meeting in late August.
“I think for a lot of people, they were quite surprised (and) quite stunned,” Armstrong said. “Because nothing has happened in Crystal for 100 years. Everybody was very interested.”
At the CVEPA meeting, Cox emphasized that he felt compelled to act and propose the project after several billionaires expressed interest in buying the property, he said.
“He didn’t want it to become another trophy for a wealthy person,” Armstrong said. “And he wanted to protect his family legacy.”
On Thursday in Marble, Cox also referred to interest from wealthy people in Vail and Aspen, and said he’s come close in the past five years to selling because of the massive debt he took on to buy out his family members.
“There’s no shortage of wealthy individuals upvalley who want a presence here,” Cox said.
Armstrong said he respected Cox and Gillespie for being open with the community about the project and getting out there to try to stanch the rumor mill. However, he declined to take a position on the project yet.
“I’m reserving my opinion and I’m still learning about it,” Armstrong said. “If anything happens it will probably be a lot different than anyone’s vision. There’s just so many moving parts.”
Suzanne Stephens, executive director of the Aspen Valley Land Trust, said talk about a conservation easement for 85% of the 750-plus acres is still in the beginning stages. Cox and Gillespie have approached AVLT with the idea of an easement, but AVLT’s board hasn’t had a chance yet to hear about the easement or the development, she said.
Still, Stephens and AVLT are well aware of the pristine location of the property, she said.
“That’s the biggest in-holding in the area,” Stephens said. “(It has) a high degree of interest and importance to us. It’s been high on the radar for a long time (as an area) that’s worthy of conservation.”
Cox and Gillespie also have consulted with Wilderness Workshop, another longtime conservation nonprofit in the Roaring Fork Valley.
“We really appreciate (Cox and Gillespie) reaching out to Wilderness Workshop and others in our community early in the process of proposing new development in the Crystal Valley,” said Juli Slivka, policy director. “We’re hearing from them a commitment to work with us to ensure the expansion doesn’t impact the spectacular public lands or wildlife habitat in their backyard, and we look forward to that ongoing conversation.”