My left hand clung desperately to the perimeter rope as I craned my neck keeping my face above the whitewash. The chill of the Arkansas’s churning water hit with a shock even though we’d discussed the possibility of our raft flipping just minutes earlier. Hoisting myself back atop the inflatable craft, I took a gasping string of breaths after gulping down river water.
The line was sound, and our paddles were in the water, but it was hopeless with just two paddlers in such a light raft. Our guide from Blazing Adventures (555 E. Durant Ave., Aspen, 970-923-4544) had hinted at the futility of taking on the meaty line through Brown’s Canyon at high water, and I got the sense he was secretly looking forward to tossing me in the drink. We’d worked together as raft guides in the Northeast after graduating college and I’d gone soft sitting behind a computer. But the excitement was exactly what we’d signed up for—whitewater’s in the name, after all—and I was secretly grateful the sudden swim had cut through my foggy head from the prior evening out on the town.
Burning the candle at both ends is part and parcel of being in Aspen. Early morning wakeups for multi-sport days in the mountains lead to late nights around town. As mountain towns go, Aspen isn’t exactly quaint, but as a home base to explore the Roaring Fork Valley it isn’t dull. Utahns have a healthy rivalry with our Colorado neighbors, but that comes with genuine respect for the immense landscapes and quirky culture permeating the Centennial State’s mountain communities. Load up the car with as much gear as it can carry and don’t forget to throw in the formal western wear. It’s time see if the grass really is greener in the high wild hills of Colorado.
A Little Place Called Aspen Roaring Fork Valley
“If we can’t win in Aspen, we can’t win anywhere,” failed Pitkin County Sheriff candidate Hunter S. Thompson told The New York Times in 1970. The Gonzo prophet’s doomed bid for elected office had garnered nearly 46% of the vote, a losing but nevertheless surprisingly robust ration considering one of the campaign’s pillars was changing the town’s name to Fat City to “prevent greedheads, land-rapers and other human jackals from capitalizing on the name ‘Aspen.’” The town, oft regarded as a haven for the ultra-wealthy, has clearly always maintained an iconoclast streak.
Thriving among the vibe-chasing influencers in mountain-adjacent Balenciaga clothing and cowpoke cosplaying interlopers is a collection of river rats, artists, ski bums, chefs, brewers and distillers. These personalities, frequently relegated to the background behind Aspen’s glossy veneer, are as integral to the town’s character as the eponymous resort’s gondola, the historic mining infrastructure and the hulking edifice looming over the Roaring Fork Valley, Mount Sopris. Freak Power reigns, election results be damned. Whether that means exploring oxygen-depleted heights above treeline in the surrounding Elk Mountains or plumbing the depths of a whiskey glass in a dimly-lit local dive, it’s waiting here for you to carry on the legacy.
Where to Play
After receiving a good thrashing in rapids of Brown’s Canyon, I thought it best to recuperate in some warmer, more placid waters northwest of town in Glenwood Springs. The mineral pool in Glenwood Hot Springs Pool (415 E. 6th St., Glenwood Springs, 970-945-6571) is the largest in the world, drawing from the 3.5 million gallons of water produced each day by the Yampah spring. For years I’d driven right through Glenwood Springs on the way to and from mountain misadventures. Once I’d “taken the waters” from the 104-degree therapy pool, I realized my mistake. Invigorated, I headed to the spiritual home of Freak Power at the Gonzo Gallery (601 E. Hyman Ave., Aspen, 970-510-0656). Inside is an eclectic collection of gunshot art from “Doctor” Hunter S. Thompson himself as well a selection from his collaborators and compatriots, including political posters produced by activist Thomas W. Benton and artwork by subversive illustrator and Gonzo sidekick Ralph Steadman. The Gonzo Gallery is a fitting tribute to the legacy of these artists, who would delight in the legalized cannabis available throughout the town.
Post-Gonzo, it was time to hit the waterway for which the valley is named, the Roaring Fork River. Being the inept fly fisherman I am, I sought out some guidance from the local experts at Elk Mountain Anglers (100 Smuggler Mountain Rd., Aspen, 970-456-6287). A half-day wade fishing trip just minutes from downtown Aspen saw me land a couple of trout that would have certainly evaded my hook had I gone it alone.
I’d spent quite a lot of time in the waterways dissecting the area, but not much time high in the hills, so I hopped aboard my mountain bike to grind out the Snowmass to Aspen shuttle ride. If you need to rent a bike or get some trail beta, head to Hub of Aspen (616 E. Hyman Ave., Aspen, 970-925-7970). They have a great rental fleet and a wealth of insider info. We left a car at Buttermilk’s Tiehack lot and shuttled to Snowmass to start the 18-mile ride. We shuttled back just in time to catch the Thursday Night Concert Series at Snowmass, kicking back to listen to live tunes with a frosty beverage in hand.
Where to Eat and Drink
Aspen’s tendency to late nights that make for hazy mornings means it’s prudent to kickstart the day. Head to the Marble Distilling (150 Main St., Carbondale, 970-963-7008) for the best Bloody Mary in the valley, made with vodka from Colorado grains and water. It’ll shake out the cobwebs.
For a more substantial breakfast, there’s no better place than Mawa’s Kitchen (305 Aspen Airport Business Center, Aspen, 970-710-7096). Chef Mawa McQueen serves up delightful twists on traditional brunch fare. The Maine Smoked Salmon Benedict and the Croque Madame are both favorites.
When it’s time to fuel up midday, head to the Meat and Cheese Restaurant (319 E. Hopkins Ave., Aspen, 970-710-7120). The menu extends far beyond what’s in its name with inspired cuisine merging multiple influences. Try the Bánh Mi and Korean Fried Chicken.
In the evening, sidle up at the J-Bar (330 E. Main St., Aspen, 970-920-1000) for a Flat Iron Steak and Chevre Cheese Cake.
Catch last call at The Red Onion (420 E. Cooper Ave., 970-925-9955). The local’s favorite hosts the most eclectic collection of personalities in town, mixed with affordable drinks and delicious fare, including everything from classic Colorado Buffalo Burgers to Pistachio-Panko Chicken Schnitzel.
Where to Stay
Hotel Jerome (330 E. Main St., Aspen, 970-920-1000) The historic hotel just steps away from the base of Aspen Mountain has been an institution in town since 1889. Decades before Aspen became an exclusive retreat, through the silver boom and bust, through the Great Depression and the rise of American recreational skiing, the Hotel Jerome hosted all manner of travelers. It’s eccentric, it’s old and it’s luxurious. It’s damn-near perfect.
Aspen Meadows Resort (845 Meadows Rd., Aspen, 970-925-4240) Nestled in Aspen’s quiet West End, the resort’s 40-acre property is home to both an elegant mid-century lodge and several art galleries. The Resnick Art Gallery features works by Herbert Bayer, while the Paepcke Art Gallery hosts a rotating collection of artwork. Art installations like the serpentine “Stone River” provide an immersive experience unlike at any other hotel in the area.
St. Moritz Lodge (334 W. Hyman Ave., Aspen, 970-925-3220) With shockingly economical rates for Aspen and flexible lodging options, St. Moritz Lodge is perfect for those who’d rather spend their cash adventuring in the mountains. The classic European-style chalet lodge has standard hotel rooms, condominiums and even private hostel rooms with shared bathrooms for the budget-minded traveler. Topping it all off, St. Moritz Lodge is located within walking distance from the heart of town.
ROAD TRIP 1
History to Hot Springs in the Hills
Starting Point: Colorado Springs / Ending Point: Salida
Stand in awe among the Garden of the Gods and travel west through the Centennial State’s mining history to find hot springs, horseback rides and handcrafted cocktails.
1. Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs
The stunning sandstone formations throughout the Garden of the Gods rewired my brain when I first saw them decades ago. The magic still exists for every person who hikes and bikes beneath the Cathedral Valley.
2. Western Museum of Mining & Industry, Colorado Springs
The insatiable thirst for ore drove settlement and development through much of the Mountain West. The museum digs into that past with interactive, historic exhibitions.
3. Pikes Peak Cog Railway, Manitou Springs
Topping out on the summit of Pikes Peak at 14,110 feet, the Manitou and Pikes Peak Cog Railway is reopened for 2021 with new trains and a Strub rack-toothed rail system.
4. Horseback Riding at Elk Mountain Ranch, Buena Vista
Daily trail rides through remote, mountain trails in the Colorado backcountry let you relive the region’s frontier history. Suitable rides are available for all ages and abilities.
5. Deerhammer Distilling, Buena Vista
Blending traditional distilling processes with creative flavor profiles, Deerhammer is redefining what it means to be a truly independent American whiskey producer.
6. Mt. Princeton Hot Springs, Nathrop
Soothe those aching muscles and saddle sores with a visit to the Mt. Princeton Hot Springs Resort. Scenic, natural hot springs and larger relaxation pools are the perfect place to kick back in healing, heated waters.
7. Absolute Bikes, Salida
This full-service bike shop is the gateway to the immense mountain bike trail network at Salida’s doorstep. All the equipment, rentals and local beta you need to shred the local singletrack can be found here.
ROAD TRIP 2
San Juan Summer
Starting Point: Delta / Ending Point: Durango
Sample Colorado’s lesser-known craft beverage from wineries nestled in Delta’s parched landscape. Head south for some high-altitude jams at one of the west’s most beloved music festivals and sign up for the adventure and a taste of a bygone era in Durango. The San Juans are home to the best of Southwestern Colorado.
1. Stoney Mesa Winery, near Delta
One of Colorado’s oldest wineries, Stoney Mesa has been producing delightful vintages for more than three decades. The area’s mild climate is perfect for producing exquisite wines.
2. Mesa Winds Farm and Winery, near Delta
In addition to the six acres of land the winery uses to produce grapes, Mesa Winds also grows 14 acres of organic peaches and apples, which they sell on their own and use to produce fruit-infused wine varieties.
3. Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Telluride
The iconic music festival set in dramatic surroundings returns for the 47th year and runs from June 17-20. This one isn’t to be missed for the banjo enthusiasts out there.
4. Telluride and Mountain Village Gondola, Telluride
This free gondola shuttles people over the 10,500-foot Coonskin Ridge to the base of the resort in just 13 minutes. It’s perfect for bikers, hikers, festival-goers or just those wanting a little aerial scenery.
5. Bread, Durango
This simply named, iconic, cash-only bakery in Durango has an incredible selection of bread, pastries and sandwiches in a rustic, reimagined warehouse.
6. Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, Durango
The historic steam engine runs the line from Durango to Silverton, providing a taste of history with incomparable views of the mountains and canyons of southwestern Colorado.
ROAD TRIP 3
Escape to the Elks
Starting Point: Montrose / Ending Point: Crested Butte
The journey from Montrose to Crested Butte is a transitional one. Geologically the terrain transforms from the arid chasm of the Black Canyon to the high peaks and thin air of Crested Butte. Along the way, the vibe evolves from ruggedly hardscrabble western to quirky mountain retreat. Get rolling and find enjoyment in every mile.
1. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, near Montrose
The 2,700 foot-deep chasm cutting through Precambrian rock on the Gunnison River receives just 33 minutes of sunlight per day. Visit the park to see the steepest, most dramatic 12-mile stretch.
2. Museum of the Mountain West, Montrose
Home to a collection of historic buildings including log cabins, shops and saloons, the Museum of the Mountain West preserves the living history of the pioneer era’s western expansion across the state of Colorado.
3. Dillon Pinnacles Hike, Near Sapinero
A moderately difficult out-and-back hike just shy of four miles brings you to the Blue Mesa Reservoir surrounded by wildly eroded volcanic formations, the Dillon Pinnacles. Spectacular views of the distant San Juan peaks are an added bonus.
4. High Alpine Brewing Company, Gunnison
With a delightful menu of brick-oven pizzas accompanying a wonderful selection of craft beers, like their Green Gate IPA and Sol’s Espresso Stout, High Alpine Brewing Company is a great stop for lunch or dinner.
5. Gunnison Valley Observatory, Gunnison
A 30-inch reflector telescope lets you peer into deep space through dark skies free of light pollution. This ain’t your run-of-the-mill campfire star gazing.
6. Camp 4 Coffee, Crested Butte
Fuel up for a day of adventure the right way with a caffeinated beverage from the quirky coffee shack right in the middle of town.
7. Mountain Bike at Crested Butte Mountain Resort, Crested Butte
Crested Butte has staked its claim as the birthplace of modern mountain biking. See if your lungs and legs are up to the challenge with endless miles of pristine singletrack in the town’s thin air.
8. Montanya Distillers, Crested Butte
Wind things down with some award-winning rum and an eclectically delicious menu of cuisine right on historic Elk Ave.
ROAD TRIP 4
Front Range Adventure, Art and Brews
Starting Point: Fort Collins / Ending Point: Denver
Endless plains to the east suddenly jut skyward at the Front Range. More than just a gateway to the mountains, this area is the creative capital of Colorado, brimming with artists, brewers and adventurers. Dive in for full-pint glasses, captivating murals and, of course, a splash of outdoor exploration on Colorado’s Front Range.
1. Odell Brewing Company, Fort Collins
The 20 breweries in Fort Collins produce 70% of Colorado’s craft beer, and it’s hard to do better than Odell Brewing. Stop into the brewery to try their latest, like the Witkist White Grapefruit Ale or a classic like the 90 Schilling Amber Ale.
2. Kayaking in Poudre Canyon, Fort Collins
Get your paddle on at the Poudre River Whitewater Park. Whether you’re an expert kayaker or just someone looking for a nice float in a tub, this park just north of Old Town is a unique treat.
3. The Art Hotel, Denver
Explore Denver’s burgeoning art scene from your accommodations at the Art. A curated collection of in-house art transforms your lodging into a rich museum experience, just steps away from the iconic Denver Art Museum.
4. Denver Art Museum, Denver
The building itself is pretty much a work of art, but the inside boasts 70,000 pieces from around the world and across the centuries. You won’t find a better collection of art between the west coast and Chicago.
5. Mural Tour by Bike, Denver
The city is decorated throughout with murals. Travel by bike to see expressions of civic pride (“Love This City” by Pat Millbury on W. 7th Ave and Santa Fe Dr) and celebrations of multicultural heritage (“Afro Flower Lady” by Jiacuy Roche at The Stanley Marketplace).