Category Archives: Colorado Road Trip
On our final day of traveling we had nothing but time as the Mt. Princeton Hot Springs outside of Buena Vista are a mere two hours away from Dillon in Summit County. Since most of our shoes were still wet from rafting the day before, we decided to kick back and enjoy the hot springs in the warm Colorado sun. Yesterday, afternoon showers had rolled in and provided a cool rinse of light rain to complement the hot springs warm water. Today is much warmer and the Colorado sun is shining bright, so make sure to use that sunblock. After taking a few quick dips, I settled down on a lounge chair and enjoyed my book, “The Ripple Effect” by Alex Prud’homme, which analyzes freshwater usage and supplies in the 21st century. An enjoyable read, I highly recommend it.
Before we pack up and headed back home I took one last dip in the river to cool off. Between the heat of the sun and the heat of the pools, ne of the best way to beat the heat is too lay out in cool Chalk Creek itself. Shortly thereafter we packed up or belongings and enjoyed a picnic lunch before driving north.
Originally our plan was to drive through Fairplay and Alma, eventually reaching Breckenridge before heading over Swan Mountain Road to get home. However, this day was the second to last stage of the epic USA Pro Cycling Challenge, which ended right in the middle of Breckenridge. As much as we would have enjoyed seeing the racers finish in, with more than 50,000 people crammed onto Breckenridge’s streets it would have been a nightmare to drive in and out of the town. So instead we drove the way we came, passing Leadville, Copper, and Frisco along the way. After stocking up for dinner at the local City Market, we arrived home sweet home. Once we unpacked and certainly aired out a week’s worth of dirty laundry, we settled down to enjoy a fine chicken dinner and gaze out at some of the best views this trip. The evening was event topped off with a gorgeous sunset across the High Country Rockies.
Hope you enjoyed this trip as much as I had folks, and if you ever get the chance I highly encourage you to take a trip and explore all of what Colorado has to offer.
Today we head down the Arkansas River rafting with River Runners. One of Colorado’s best, this rafting group does several tours here and at the Royal Gorge. After getting set up with the guides and gear on the shores just south of Buena Vista, we get started. At first things stay pretty calm, perfect rafting weather with just enough clouds to take the edge off. Soon enough we go through a series of unique and different rapids, dropping into pools and bouncing off of rocks. All of our guides were loads of fun, sharing their experiences and knowledge of the river with us. They even stopped at one section of the river deep enough to jump in from some higher rock outcroppings, very fun. There were plenty of scenic attractions throughout the trip, including The Smoking Indian and Lion’s Mane rock outcroppings. We even saw a herd of big horn sheep drinking down on the water, which was a real treat. However, despite all the fun we had, the real fun was the rapids. They are spread out throughout the 3 hours or so on the water, giving us a great experience moving from one set of rock outcroppings to the next.
After a rough and rocking ride down the Arkansas River, we headed back to the lodge and hot springs. Along the way we stopped by City Market to outfit the cabin and enjoyed a homemade lunch of sandwiches, pita chips and humus, and salsa and chips. The lodge is nice, a wonderful cabin with a bedroom, bathroom, living area, full kitchen, and second bedroom loft. We’re really able to spread out and enjoy the wonderfully comfortable decor, especially to end our trip around the state.
The springs themselves are something out of this world. Broken into three groups there are the cooler pools and a 300 foot water slide; main hot pools and riverside pools; and an adult only pool with cascading hot tubs. The water really is quite warm, reaching upwards of 103 degrees in some places. I suggest starting with the pool and slide since it features the coolest waters. Between the 400 foot slide and larger sized pools, this makes for a fun atmosphere great with kids. Down the hillside is the original Hot Springs and the main pools there are a must see as they are some of the warmest in the hot springs. Typically the lower pool is 96 degrees and the upper is 103. The lower one is great for swimming, soaking, and milling around but the upper is truly like a hot tub. Across the river are the adults only pool, much like the lower pool in the public bath house area. As well as being adults only, these pools are only allowed for lodge guests. The cascading pools are quite unique, featuring three hot tubs and a decreasing heat as the water falls from one to the next just like a steppe set of waterfalls. These were my favorite pools so far as they are very comfortable with great views of Mt. Princeton. The best though is the natural pools alongside Chalk Creek itself. Here super heated spring water meets alpine cooled creek water and creates a unique experience of soaking in a hot tub, that features running water. By moving river rocks around you can adjust the temperature of your eddy pools, as well as how much water you sit in. Unlike any other hot springs I have been to, this riverside lounging is extremely relaxing and a one of kind experience.
After spending the better part of the day soaking in the water, my family and I decided to eat at the lodge that night. Dinner was great, featuring unique Colorado fare in a wonderfully warm lodge setting. The slow-paced dinner sets the stage for an evening of relaxation after a day of soaking in the hot springs. To begin I ordered a delicious salad featuring a wasabi and cucumber vinaigrette. Though it sounds like an odd pair the two distinct flavors met in the middle to make a great dressing. For my entrée I ordered the Buffalo Rancher’s 8oz steak, with a delicious gravy sauce and sweet potato fries. The steak was extremely tender and succulent, as well as being leaner than beef. Once paired with a glass of Firestone Cabernet Sauvignon, it was a perfect pairing for a relaxing day.
The sun rises over the Mesas as we woke up ready to tackle a big stretch of driving this morning. First things first we stopped by one more site while staying in Mesa Verde. The Far View Sites are a collection of ancient Ancestral Puebloans farming structures that date back more than 1,000 years ago. Unlike the cliff dwellings we visited the other day, these structures were built on top of the mesas, just alongside their farming plots. Though not as impressive as Cliff Palace or Balcony House, these sites are easy to access as they are the closest to the park entrance. They also feature stunning civic engineering as seen in their reservoir system, ceremonial tower, and housing system. Even to this day you can see the grooves in the reservoir and the spillways in the homes. There are other sites that we did not see as part of the Far View Sites, they are all conveniently connected along a mile or so long loop. And with that we say our good byes and head north to Durango.
Durango is truly an old West town, featuring a living main street that offers many restaurants and shops. The main street ends with the town railway station, featuring Durango’s crowning jewel for tourists: The Durango – Silverton Narrow Gauge Train (D&SNG). This railway operates three train trips a day up though rugged San Juans and end in Silverton. The train station is well worth popping your head in and looks similar to what it did a hundred years ago. Aside from the historic Durango the town has grown around it, partially due to Ft. Lewis College just on the other side of town. It is here, in the “New” Durango where we ate breakfast at Oscar’s, “Where those in the know go”. The restaurant features cheap, hearty breakfasts with unique hash brown cakes and delicious eggs. The local’s spot features lots of railroad paraphernalia, photos, and drawings on the wall. They also feature posters from each of the Durango “Snow Down”, a week filled with snow and skiing fun.
With a full breakfast in our stomachs we hit the road driving north towards the Million Dollar Highway that links Durango to Silverton to Ouray to Ridgeway. On the way we got an idea why many of the ski areas around here boast some of the steepest terrain in the country. The rugged San Juans rise up steep with exposed granite at every turn. Despite the difficult terrain there are dozens of hiking and 4×4 trails that criss cross the mountain. The most noticeable of these, criss-crossing the highway, is Old Lime Creek Trail. These roads are perfect adventures for those looking to get away from the highway and explore the wild of Colorado’s southern mountains. Just in between Durango and Silverton we pass by several fourteeners, beautiful vistas, and some interesting looking mountains. One, named Engineer Mountain, truly showcases the many layers of sediment and rock that have risen up over the millenniums. We drove over two mountain passes as well, Coal Bank and Molas, both offering stunning views of the mountains and valleys for miles.
Moving along we come upon Silverton, which makes Durango look like a metropolis. Silverton is really a one horse town, featuring one major road lined with restaurants, saloons, shops, and two hotels to see. Nestled between two major mountains, the town is a quant reminder of what mountains used to be, back in the day. Silverton really goes the extra mile, featuring several blocks with wooden sidewalks, unpaved streets, and the original storefronts. The town looks so historic that it has been used for filming several western scenes. Combined with Durango, the towns have hosted great films such as True Grit, City Slickers, and The Searchers. The mountain town host 500 full-time residents, but welcomes more than 2,500? tourists. There are many 4×4 trails and hiking routes that lead to other mountain towns that begin in Silverton. We were lucky to arrive in the town close to 12:45, and caught the Narrow Gauge Train pulling into the town. Unlike Durango with a station, Silverton’s rail comes straight down the street, dropping people off just one block away from main street. After getting up close and personal with the coal train, we moseyed over to the Railway? store. Certainly worth peeking in they have an amazing collection of railway pins, patches, posters, and maps. Any and every train enthusiasts should put Silverton on the map just for this stop.
Moving upwards we drive past Red Mountain and the mining site of Idarado Mine. Red Mountain takes its name from the color of the oxidized iron in the mountain, giving the slope a rust color that trickles down all the way to Red Mountain Creek. We captured great photos at the top of the mountain pass, as well as in the mining site. The Million Dollar Highway certainly lives up to its name, both in the difficulty of its construction and the beautiful scenery along the drive. The towering mountainsides are full of deep green spruce trees and acres of Aspen trees. This drive is one of the best in Colorado during the fall as the mountains turn gold for two or three weeks. Furthermore, lower on the highway the hillsides give way to steep and massive stone cliff sides that features dozens of waterfalls that slide right off the stones. Be cautious while driving, as the road is narrow at parts and has solid rock walls on one side, hundreds of vertical drop on the other. It’s easy to see how this is the most avalanche prone area in the county, with the drive between Durango and Ouray featuring more than 100 avalanche chutes. After making it into the town of Ouray, we are met by another main street oriented mountain town, this one quite similar to Georgetown, CO. Unfortunately the weather wasn’t cooperating with rain falling, making the town’s main summer draw of the Box Canyon Falls was not an option. Of course in the winter Ouray becomes the nation’s capital for ice climbers, featuring the only designated ice climbing park in the state.
After all that excitement the rest of our drive was relatively mundane. We passed through Ridgeway, Montrose, and into Gunnison before the Colorado landscape graced us with a break in the clouds and a beautiful vista. Travelling east towards Gunnison we drove past Blue Mesa Reservoir, the state’s largest reservoir. You couldn’t ask for a better site as the mesas stone walls expertly trap the water in place, with the help of a dam, and stretch their fingers for miles and miles. The contrast between the blue water and the orange and red mesas are wonderful to gaze at during the drive to Gunnison. They offer many sites for fishing, camping, hiking, and trail driving as the National Park Recreation Area spans many miles. Entering Gunnison there isn’t too much to see, with exception to the Western State College campus. Relatively small, they enroll close to 2,500, the campus does feature a rolling green filled with athletic fields with buildings rising up the hill to the east. Still headed east we gained in elevation again, this time passing bewtween the Sangre de Christos and Sawatch mountain ranges, featuring Monarch Mountain Ski Resort. A major draw for those in Colorado Springs and beyond, this mountain is a laid back resort, perfect for locals and tourists to enjoy the powder and learn to ski in Colorado’s white playground.
Moving along we reach the destination town for today, Salida. The town gives off a country western, small town vibe. Everybody knows everybody and people are all friendly enough to say hello. Even out of towners like us were welcomed warmly while walking down main street by a business associate of my father; “It’s too small a town for me not to see ya.” The town seems to be caught in between, seemingly plains like with the multitude of ranchers and hay farmers in the valley, but similar to the mountain towns we have visited with an elevation above 7,000ft and a hotspot for fishing, kayaking, and river rafting. Exploring the town, we noticed much of main street houses everyday shops in refurbished and renovated, but original storefronts. This meeting in the middle makes the walks through town much more enjoyable. Make sure to stop by Riverside Park and take a gander at the mighty Arkansas River, clearly the focal point of the town and the pride and joy of its residents. While we were there we enjoyed a great dinner at the Boathouse Cantina. This restaurant sits right on the banks of the river and offers great views. More bar than restaurant, I enjoyed an Alaskan Amber Ale with my Black and Blue Cajun Burger. The beer begins with a crisp and clean bite that any amber should have, but quickly finished with a sweet and smooth taste. The ruby red coloring finishes off what I consider to be Alaskan Brewing’s best all-around, anytime beer. My burger was a little more intriguing, with a cajun seasoned cream cheese crumble and chipotle mayo it gave my mouth and spicy and dramatic kick. Though paired with delicious Colorado beef, the combination melted in my mouth…and then left my reaching for my beer. Overall a pretty tasty burger, but certainly a little spicy.
After dinner we made our way to our home for the next two nights: Mt. Princeton Hot Springs and Lodge. At the base of one fo the collegiate peaks, the hot springs boasts many mineral and heated pools as well as a 400ft water slide. However, I don’t recommend doing what we did, arriving after dark. It was close to 8:40 when we pulled up, after a nerve-wracking drive along a darkened county road, and sadly missed most of the attractions that the Lodge and Hot Springs had to offer. I’m sure the lodge looks beautiful during the day, but due to environmental covenant laws it was quite difficult to tell in the dark. Thankfully our cabin was all set and ready with the porch light on. We were all relived to get inside and lay our weary heads after making the long trek from Colorado’s southwest corner up to the heart of the High Country. The scenic and exciting drive took all day, but was enjoyable at every stop.
So after spending a wonderful day in Telluride my family and I are off to see the many cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde. Since we are only spending a day there, and the drive takes several hours, we got an early start. Hitting the road we drove through high country passes, catching great views of the San Juan mountains as we wound our way out of Telluride. Aside from seeing Lizard Head Peak and other fourteeners nearby, the rest of the drive was seemingly uneventful. We passed through gold and silver rush era towns that now cater to residents who want to get away from it all. Rico, Dolores, and Cortez all ended up in our rear view mirror as we made our journey southward. The mountains and valleys flatten out and give way to mesas and desert brush. I must say if you’re passing the same way make sure to stop by the Colorado Visitor Center in Cortez if you’re looking for tour tickets in Mesa Verde National Park. They have a wealth of knowledge about the park as well as surrounding attractions and you’ll be able to beat the crowds of visitor center in Mesa Verde.
Entering the park we drove up a two lane road with sweeping views of the Mancos Valley on either side. The drive takes us to the top of the Mesa and the entrance to the park, but features plenty of pull-outs to take in the sprawling valley and canyon walls in the distance. The park is pretty spread out, as it should featuring more than 5,000 Ancestral Puebloans’ building sites and close to 500 cliff dwellings. Before setting out to tour we explored the visitor center and had lunch. The food is what you would expect at a large tourist attraction and my tip for you is to watch out for the tour bus drop offs, they really slam the capacity for the lunch server. After our meal it was time to explore! During our afternoon in the park we visited three of the sites accessible to the visitors in the park: Spruce Tree House, Cliff Palace, and Balcony House.
The first place we visited was the Spruce Tree House. This is perfect for a quick visit to the park without going through the hassle of buying tickets or blocking out enough time for the tours. This site is one of the larger sites in the park with only 50 or so rooms and is unguided. It’s a short walk down from the parking lot and at each switchback you can glimpse the site in the cave through the trees. Once there you’ll be able to explore the site by walking from end to end, peering into homes, kivas, and storage towers. A kiva is a subterranean, spiritual gathering place that was a main focus for the Ancestral Puebloans. The typically can fit 15 to 30 people and are accessible by a ladder through the roof. This space also acted as a chimney for the smoke of the fire pit below, with several additional ventilation shafts. Spruce Tree House is the only site that allows people to enter this fully formed kiva, which I highly suggest. The descent into darkness is offsetting in the beginning, but once you step into the underground room I was amazed at the craftsmanship and advanced level of engineering it took to create such a cool and comfortable place over 600 years ago. The site offers people a unique opportunity to get up close and personal with the structures without the crowds and the tour guides, I highly suggest this slight detour from the main attractions.
Next up is the crown jewel of Mesa Verde: Cliff Palace. This is the single largest cliff dwelling in the park and the country! With more than 150 structures it is thought that Cliff Palace was home to more than 100 Ancestral Puebloans. It boasts close to 40 kivas and huge storage structures, making some archeologists believe that the site was a religious or administrative center for the area Puebloans. The site offers tours on the half hour, guided by a National Park Tour Guide. We were blessed with a great guide, Clyde, who happens to be a modern Navajo himself. He regaled us with stories of the ancient city, its discovery, and why those people did what they did. Whether it was farming, hunting, raising children, or their interaction with nature and the community he could relate it all back to a balance and appreciation with Mother Earth and Father Sky. It was an impactful tour, featuring a thrilling climb down 1930’s era Civilian Conservation Corps steps and pathways that take you to the site. The site itself is quite impressive, with structures rising over three stories and going four or five deep into the cave. We visited several open kivas and looked into a schoolhouse tower which still had native wall art! After a thought provoking tour we were led up a series of short ladders that mimicked the ancient steps with rungs made of hardy dried Juniper wood. This site is certainly one of the best and is a must see if visiting the park. (One more tip, make sure to stop at Sun Temple on the Mesa Loop, it offers the best vistas to take photos of Cliff Palace from across the valley. The site is so big that its difficult to get the big picture when you’re there…enjoy!)
Finally, my family and I rushed over to the other tour-led site in Mesa Verde: Balcony House. By far this is the most adventurous trail and site offered in the Park and features multiple two-abreast ladders more than 30 feet long! It also requires passing through some tight spaces, even getting on your hands and knees once or twice to fit between room sections. And best of all this hike utilizes a section of slick rock wall with carved foot holds and chain link handrails to get you out of the cliff alcove and up to the top of the Mesa! Certainly not for the faint of heart the trail was well worth it. The views from the cliff are simply stunning, offering vistas directly across from a gorgeous cliff wall and panoramic views up and down the valley that can’t be duplicated anywhere else in the park. The tour is smaller and our guide, an adopted Hopi and avid Southwest gal, treated it as such with much more intimate discussions of the kiva, man’s relationship with nature, and how the dwellings have lived on through the ages. We also discussed the wealth of knowledge that it took to create this structure and utilize it for better living.Balcony House is slightly smaller than Cliff Palace and close to the size of Spruce Tree House, only located much higher in the cliffs. The whole structure seems to sit on a giant balcony extending out from the alcove a mere 60 to 80 feet from the top of the mesa. This hair-raising and adrenaline pumping tour was well worth it and provided stories and memories that will stick with us as a family forever. My personal favorite, this site should not be overlooked if visiting.
After all this excitement we went to book into our rooms. Since Mesa Verde is somewhat removed from the surrounding towns of Mancos, Cortez, and an hour away – Durango, we opted to stay at the Lodge in the Park. If you can try to get a room near the edge of the mesa as they offer the best views southwest of the park, catching gorgeous sunsets and glimpses into neighboring New Mexico and Arizona. They have a great restaurant on-site that offers a variety of dishes, many featuring local plants, vegetables, and game. With no TVs, Internet, or reliable cell coverage up here we used dinner as an opportunity to enjoy nature’s evening. The restaurant boasts large windows facing south and we enjoyed our meal over the course of a couple hours with great food, scenery, and conversation. After such an exciting day of exploring and a satisfying meal we all headed back ready for bed and the promises of more adventures tomorrow.
This morning we are on the road to Telluride from Palisade. Even though the distance is under 100 miles, the road to get there is only two lane highways filled with rolling hills, valleys, and lots of turns, making the drive time close to three hours. But before we leave Palisade we have two quick stops. The first is Herman’s Peach Stand. Anyone from Colorado knows that Palisade Peaches are some of the sweetest and juiciest you’ll ever have, and they are only available in late August and early September. This delightful stand featured dozens of peaches, as well as pears, watermelons, and other fine fruits. They also showcased a wide variety of jellies, jams, syrups, preserves, and salsa featuring their peaches. If you’re ever passing through Palisades make sure to stop off the highway and drive a couple blocks south of the exit to find the best produce stand in the town.
The other stop we made was at the Meadery of the Rockies. Mead is a drink quite similar to wine, except it is honey based and the fermentation process is a little different. Most meads are much sweeter than wines and typically have a higher alcohol content by volume. While at the meadery my father and I sampled five of their dozen or so meads, starting with driest to sweetest. The first was Lancelot, a dry mead that gives a honey aroma but packs the punch of smoke and beeswax flavor to the palate. The flavor certainly lingers and is a little much to be served with dinner. It’s too dry for dessert, and much to bitter to enjoy with dinner, so you might as well buy a nice white wine instead. However, the Camelot mead, which isn’t quite a dessert beverage features caramel and butterscotch aroma while maintaining its light body and taste of honey with hints of jasmine, a much better buy in my opinion. The next two meads are from their Fruit n’ Honey Collection, pairing wonderful Palisade fruits with honey based mead. The obvious first choice is Peaches n’ Honey, which tastes exactly as it sounds. It comes on sweet but ends with a lingering taste of peachy cream. Next up is the Cherries n’ Honey, which starts off tart like a dark cherry, but soon transitions to the sweetness of the honey while providing a clean finish. This rose bodied drink was my overall favorite from the five I sampled. Finally, this meadery features three dessert meads that truly feel like your drinking dessert. I sampled the Raspberry Chocolate Satin, which begins sweet and fruity, but has the undertones of a rich, almost bitter chocolate. The two complement each other well without overpowering your tongue.
Well, with that behind us my family and I hit the road South towards Telluride. The drive was simple enough, but very plain as I watched vineyards and orchards give way to desert and mesas which eventually gave way to aspens and mountains in no time. There are several small towns we passed through, such as Delta, Montrose and Ridgeway, each boasting their own claims to fame. However, the real fun came as we creeped up on the backside of Telluride, getting a gorgeous view of its mountain range. Telluride is an interesting town as it sits at the very end of a long box canyon, essentially nature’s cul-de-sac. In order to drive in from the north we had to drive around this mountain range and back up through the canyon valley. Things were going well until halfway up the valley when a freak torrential downpour occurred! It created standing pools of water on the road and a fierce thundering of rain on the roof of the car. But, in the blink of an eye we were on the other side with dry pavement and sunny skies. (Gotta love that Colorado weather)
The town of Telluride really harkens back to a simpler time. The town is quite small and prominently features the shops and restaurants along their main street. Outdoor enthusiasts flock to Telluride to take advantage of their ample hiking, mountain biking, and 4×4 trails. (Not to mention their skiing). After stopping for lunch at Smuggler’s Brewpub, (try the Wildcat Wheat, especially if you’re a fan of Boulder Beer’s Pale Ale), my family and I suited up to trek up to Bridal Veil Falls.
The most iconic of all trail routes in Telluride, this hike features two massive cascading waterfalls that help run a generator for the town during the summer. The road up to the falls is well maintained and can be traversed so long as you have a high clearance vehicle, 4×4 drive, and a steady hand. Since we didn’t have that at our disposal we opted to hike the 1.2 miles up to the base of the falls. Vehicles and hikers alike can continue up to the power house above the falls where several other trailheads begin. However, with the spectacular views of Telluride and the canyon walls from the road below there was no need to hike any higher. The waterfalls are a sight to behold, towering down from the rock face. After a warm hike in the sun the cool breeze and light mist that comes from the water rushing over the rocks is a welcome relief. All of us were delighted to scamper across the rocks to get as close to the falls as we could, taking memorable photos and making memories scaling loose rocks along the way.
After coming back down we decided to get an eagle eye view of the town by making our way to the Telluride Ski Resort and Mountain Village. Though the ski resort and mountain village is based on the other side of the ridge from the town, there is a handy FREE gondola that connects the two. This gondola whisks you up and over the main peak of Telluride, offering a one of a kind view down the valley. Once in the mountain village you’ll be met by a European themed master plan of towering hotels, restaurants, and shops. All are connected through massive squares and plazas, all brick paved and populated by outdoor furniture. In the winter this seems like a vacationing skier’s paradise with the amount of offerings all at the base of the mountain. That being said, it does give off the Disney vibe for ski resorts, featuring over the top sized hotels with a uniform European theme, all featuring fo-stone and timber work. If you want to really get the authentic mountain experience it’s time to head back over to the town of Telluride.
For dinner we strolled the main street, enjoying the sunset down the box canyon walls and taking in the beautiful simplicity of a small town’s turnout on main street. As opposed to Aspen there were fewer cars on the road and the people were very social as they went from shop to shop. Of the many dinner options available we ended up at La Cocina de Luz. This mexican restaurant is laid back and relaxed with order service and plenty of seat your self space, both indoors and out. But don’t be fooled, the service is top-notch and the food was to die for. Clearly they have passion for Mexican cuisine as there were many entrees and beverages unique to the restaurant. Everything from their daily specials, to the limeade and hibiscus ice tea, to the salsas and margaritas available. Even though I ordered a traditional dish of carne asada enchiladas, the rice and roasted vegetables sides were something I didn’t see coming. Perfectly seasoned and just the right balance for the red chili salsa, this plate was a great cap to dinner.
The early bird gets the worm, or at least that’s the theory behind waking up at sunrise for some one of a kind photos of the Maroon Bells. Since our rental unit is only 30 minutes or so away from the Maroon Bells Wildernest Recereation Area. Driving up through a quiet downtown Aspen and scenic Aspen Highlands, I arrive at the bells with the sun lighting them up full force. The tourist crowds aren’t there, only a handful of other photographers and day hikers. Maroon Lake is deathly still, allowing for beautiful photos highlighting the natural beauty of both the water and the mountains. After shooting to my heart’s content I hustled back down to meet my family for a fulfilling breakfast feast at the Hickery House. Boasting the best value breakfast featuring massive portions. My advice, eggs over easy with ham, they smoke most of their own meats and have a great contract with their meat supplier in Denver. You won’t go away hungry with the mega portions here!
After leaving Aspen we headed to the Hanging Lake hiking trail and waterfalls. Located just east of Glenwood Springs, this leg of our roadtrip was certainly my sister’s favorite. She took charge and lead the way as our tour guide, which only made sense as she was the only one who had hiked this trail before. I wish she would have warned us though! Despite being just over 2 miles round trip, the trail has an outrageous vertical rise, essentially climbing up the canyon walls. Despite the 90 degree heat and the never ending stone steps, the hike is well worth the trek. Once you reach the top of the mountain we were met by a cool breeze and the picturesque sight of twin waterfalls of spring fed water. The lake is a beautiful shade of blue hues, but clear enough to vividly see the bottom. The waterfalls trickle down more than 30 feet, creating a wave of cool air that is well earned. Just a little further above Hanging Lake, named as it suspends between a series of waterfalls that follows the trail down, is the source of the water: Sprouting Rock.
These twin waterfalls seemingly shoot right out of the rock face and begin the cascade down to Hanging Lake. These falls, equally refreshing, deliver their water from a height nearly double of the falls below. All the while the trail offers gorgeous views of Glenwood Canyon, showcasing the unique rock formations that the Colorado River uncovered over the years. So overall, I would warn folks that this hike isn’t for the faint of heart, very vertical and the ground is filled with loose rock and big steps. That being said the pay off on the top is well worth it and so long as you pace yourself, this hike can be tackled by any climber.
Once we made it down the mountain and rehydrated, we were off to Colorado’s wine and peach country of Palisade! After a quick nap during the hour and half drive, we were settled into a hotel in the middle of one of the Rocky Mountain’s best vineyards. The Wine Country Inn is the perfect locale for any wine tasting weekend warrior. Located in the heart of grape fields and nearby several wineries, this is the perfect base camp for exploring Palisade and Grand Junction wine country. Which brings us to our whirlwind wine tasting tour. As the wineries closed at 5 p.m. and we arrived in town close to 3, we only had an hour and half of time to devot to tasting as much wine as possible before we set out to Telluride tomorrow.
Beginning the Talon Winery and St. Kathryn Cellars Winery share a tasting space and offer a multitude of wines. Talon, known for their robust red wines certainly lived up to their reputation as we tried 3 different red wines. The first is Red Rock, an earthy blend with a surprising hint of mango that packs a punch but finishes smooth and smoky. Next up is their classic Merlot, which I found to be a bit dry and rough on the pallate. Finally, we sampled their Wingspan Red, a blend of wines that seems to appeal to all. Mostly a merlot, it carried the robust flavor of the classic Merlot, but certainly less dry. With respect to St. Kathryn Cellars Winery, their expertise lies in their fruit based dinner and dessert wines. Everything from apples to pears to peaches and more are featured in their wines. We sampled their Elderberry dessert wine, which is an ideal pair with dark chocolate for after dinner. The rich, but sweet flavor is impactful but not forceful on the tongue and should definetly be served cold. On the whole I would reccomend the Red Rock wine as it is so unique and tasteful.
Next up is the Plum Creek Winery, whose wines are more well known across Colorado and is available in Denver. While there we sampled several wines, but only one of them being white. Their chardonney is a simple wine, light on the oak and not buttery enough to really coat the roof of your mouth. As the Western Slope isn’t well known for it’s white wine this one lives up to that title, being a fairly light drink that would go well with any meal pairing. Moving on to reds we tried their house Merlot, which I found bitter and abrupt, but then settles into a smooth finish. Moving down the line was the Red Blend which, like Talon’s, was simple, smooth, and had a clean and refeshing feel for a red wine. A hint sweeter compared to the Merlot it was certainly more up my alley. On the other spectrum of reds is the Cabernet Souvigon which was dryer, but with a subtle finish that surprised me. It truly had a unique aftertaste that lingered only as long as it should have and became my favorite from Plum Creek. As a special treat we tried a Reserve blend from 2008, which was certainly entertaining to drink. Dry but sweet, smoky but smooth, it seemed like it could use a few more months in the barrel before reaching us. Finally, what tasting would be complete without finishing with a semi-sweet Riesling. It lived up to its title being sweet, but not overpowering. It certainly would be a fitting end to a light fish or pasta dinner.
The last vineyard we toured was the Grande River Winery. By far the most diverse and plentiful selection for tasting, but only give out 3 free tastings. So to make them count I tried three wines that caught my attention. Begining with their chardonney was certainly better than Plum Creek’s as it was buttery but not quite as oaky. Still smooth and light it matched the motiff of whites on the Western Slope. The next up was a real treat. Their Syrah is certainly fruit forward with a bit of a kick. However it settles quickly and cleanses the palate acting as a great light, yet impactful red. Finally, I sampled their Cabernet Franc which was relatively bitter from the onset, building on the spice from the Syrah. It takes a little longer to settle, leaving a lingering aftertaste which would compliment rich meals featuring dark meats.
Well, now that we sampled some of the area’s finest wine it was time to relax by the hotel pool with…a nice glass of wine! Right at 5 p.m. our hotel offers a free glass of an area wine to patrons. I enjoyed a nice blended red while comparing notes on the wineries we just passed through, a seemingly correct fit to an afternoon in Colorado wine county. A little later on my sister and I took a quick dip in the pool to relax and cool down before heading to an unforgetable dinner at the Palisades Brewery. Now I know what you’r thinking, “Why would you go to a Brewery in the heart of Wine Country?”, and the answer is simple: they have the best food (and beer) in Palisade! From the outset it certainly looks the part of a brewery, being in a warehouse. But it truly is the belle of the ball for Palisade as dozens of vehicles littered their parking lot. We walk in to find a warm and welcoming atmosphere, country music on the radio and locals sharing the experiences of their day, truly a snapshot of life in Palisade. The decor isn’t Aspen and the furnishings aren’t Vail, but this place has character. After ordering our food and picking out three of their unique brews, we were seated by a local patron who rounded us up some tables to sit indoors. There was no space as Monday is the town’s Poker Night, bringing in the whales and sharks from blocks around. Throughout the evening we tried four different beers, each of varying levels of color and hoppiness.
Starting off light is their Laid Back Blonde, a smooth and simple wheat beer that that is just light enough to be enjoyed all summer long. Next up was the Mindless Chatter Hefe, a delicous beer that blends the smooth and refreshing taste of the blond with a little bit of a hop kick before its smooth finish, my clear favorite and reccomendation if you’re ever passing through. Moving along we arrive at Our Bitter Lust Pilsner, a surprisingly hoppy pilsner but still crisp enough to be enjoyed with dinner. Finally, we reach the hoppiest beer of the night: Off Belay IPA. This doubled hopped brew truly lives up to it’s name being a light but dangerously hoppy beer. But what really shone through was their house smoked meats! I must say that their chicken wings are the best I’ve had in years and the pulled pork with grilled onions is truly unique, with fresh seasonings and a spicy kick I can’t do it justice here, you’ll just have to try it. So, the next time someone asks if you want to join them in Palisade to try some of Colorado’s finest wine you say “Yes, but can we stop for a beer too? ;)”
So Sunday morning came with bang as my family and I feasted on a pancake breakfast and re-packed the car. No need to worry about lunch as we had sandwiches, apples and delicious Palisade peaches packed. By 9:30 a.m. we hit the road and began winding through Ten Mile Canyon on the way past Copper Mountain Resort. The Warrior Dash was going on and they had great weather for it with low 70s and scattered cloud. The Warrior Dash is a mud-crawling, fire-leaping, extremely crazy run where participants will conquer extreme obstacles on demanding and unique terrain, celebrating their feat with music, beer, warrior helmets and muddy shorts. Moving along I see the beauty of the Western side of Ten Mile Range and Turquoise Lake. The trees look like it used to with hardly any beetle-kill in sight. Maybe its the difference in heat, elevation, or weather but most likely is the diverse mixture of firs, spruces, and pines that staved off the beetle-kill. Juxtaposed to the natural beauty is Climax Mine, which features its own mountain, clear-cut and stripped away, as well as its own copper-colored lake. While the natural beauty of Fremont Pass is wonderful, the magnitude and appearance of Climax Mine is just as startling.
Arriving in Leadville we couldn’t miss the scenic buildings of the gold and silver eras; most notably, the Tabor Opera House and the original Saint Vincents Hospital. The Tabor Opera House is still in operation and marks the southern edge of Leadville’s mainstreet. The Saint Vincents Hospital building has been renovated and rejuvenated to become one of the best places for multifamily housing in Leadville. Featuring one of Colorado’s best mainstreets, truly blending the classic Wild West Mainstreet idea with the setting of a high country meadow. Truly Leadville feels like a cross between Georgetown and Breckenridge, but certainly smaller than both. But what Leadville lacks in size it certainly makes up for in spirit. While we drove through we could see the tail end of the Leadville 100 mile ultramarathon event. Spread across two days, this ultramarathon criss-crosses many of the hiking and running trails surrounding Leadville.
Moving along, we begin our ascent up Independence Pass, a scenic route that crosses over the Sawatch Range and drops right into the back of Aspen. Highlights of the pass include the pristine Twin Lakes, quiet and glassy, which are ideal for high country fishing. Accompanying the Twin Lakes is the small community of Twin Lakes. The town serves almost as a base camp for RVs and road trip families preparing to ascend the pass. For any one who gets blindsided by erratic Colorado weather, the Twin Lakes Lodge is there to lend a hand. As we continue up its obvious to see many opportunities for hiking, fishing, mountain biking, or camping on and around the pass. Massive aspen groves line the road, making the drive gorgeous in Autumn, just don’t get snowed in. All along the miles of creeks and marshes below the pass create a bonanza of beaver dams and lodges. Eventually we hit true mountain and began our ascent across daring switchbacks and roads with no guard rails. We soon reached the top and got a gorgeous panoramic view of the Sawatch Range, with the temperature dropping to a balmy 63 degrees. Among the rugged peaks around Independence Pass, Colorado’s largest Fourteener Mt. Elbert, at 14,440 feet, looms in the background. At 12,095 feet, clearly the pass is above timberline and is littered with snow-fed ponds. A balmy 63 degrees at the top. What my parents, who had last driven this road in the early 1980’s, promised as the scariest stretch of road for our trip, was surprisingly mild. Over the years guard rails have been added on the way to Aspen, as well as better marked pavement. There still are some dodgy sections where the road switches from two lanes to one, but those are few and far between.
Directly at the base of Independence Pass is the town of Aspen. It truly has a small town charm, despite featuring boutique shops and mountains of cars parked along the roads. interesting side note, the street design is a little frustrating as there are a multitude of people walking about, but every intersection is 2 way stops! This creates long backups on half the roads in and around “downtown” Aspen. All the same we finally navigated the car to a parking spot and walked into the town center. After looking around we ended up finding a quiet, secluded park complete with a pine cut picnic table. We took advantage of the park, located behind the City Hall, to enjoy our sandwiches and snacks for lunch. After visiting for the first time it’s certainly easy to appreciate the town’s location, right at the base of Aspen Mountain Ski Resort. The skiing looks to be superb and now is a must do for my winter season. But in the summer, Aspen seems to be a great place to shop, if you’re making more than 6 figures, otherwise its a great place to walk around and enjoy their outdoor mall or admire the multitude of gorgeous homes on the town’s West End. Also, Aspen has done a great job of preserving its history. Between the refurbished and fully functional Wheeler Opera House or Hotel Jerome and the pavement markers showing what stores used to be in the late nineteenth century, its easy to see Aspen’s mining town roots.
A trip to Aspen would not be complete without a visit the Colorado’s famous Maroon Bells. Certainly the most photographed mountains in the state (probably in the country), the Maroon Bells are synonymous with Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. We began our tour if the peaks at the Aspen Highlands Village, where one can catch the shuttle bus up to the Maroon Bells Wilderness Area. Our driver did an excellent job of discussing the wildlife, terrain, avalanche chutes, and natural aspen flora. Once we arrived, we were awestruck by the natural beauty and symmetrical lines of the bells. Personally I was amazed by the beauty of the surrounding peaks. Seivers Mountain, a red wall to the northwest and Pyramid Peak to the southeast are just as grand and photogenic. Maroon Lake is alpine fed, leaving it clear and beautiful, perfect to see the reflection of these maroon giants. Beaver dams lodges dot the shoreline and wildflowers are in full bloom throughout the summer. Several trails are available for hiking, many under 3 miles roundtrip, one of which we did that lead to the waterfall that feeds into Maroon Lake. For more adventurous types there are several trails that connect Aspen to Crested Butte. Typically 12 to 20 miles from start to finish they certainly fill your day with breathtaking scenery, plentiful photo ops, and a great workout. After getting our fill of photos and Rocky Mountain scenery, we proceeded back down the mountain to Aspen for dinner.
Walking around the West End of Aspen is a treat as it features original Victorian era housing, restored and refurbished to look as new as it did in the 1860s. Most of the homes feature wonderful wooden shingles, detailed trim and lattice works, wraparound decks, and tall wood window shutters. Mixed in with more modern bungalows and townhomes, these small one story wonders make the past come alive. Many historic parks, typically a block or 1/2 wide, litter the neighborhood. These green spaces, combined with the aged tree growth and canopy of the neighborhood create a great avenues to live and work in. We continued on to search for dinner, passing shops and storefronts that make Aspen Colorado’s mountain shopping headquarters. Despite having a strict grid layout, the town features many brick paved, pedestrian only walkways and urban parks, making it enjoyable to explore. For dinner we ate at Brunelleschi’s Pizza, no doubt named after the famous Italian architect.
Despite some poor service, (the waiter forgot our drink order) the restaurant was a good pick. The pizza is wood-fired cooked and served thin, many featuring classic Italian toppings. The restaurant is a bit loud, but only because the locals pack in, looking forward to fairly priced and authentic Italian fare. Personally I recommend the Ajax pizza and, if it’s a nice evening, request to eat outdoors as they have a lovely covered seating area away from the hustle and bustle of the kitchen. Also, if you’re looking for a drink before or after dinner, the Aspen Brewing Company is just across the street and features original brews like Independence Pass IPA and Ajax Pilsner. Rounding out the evening we retired to our rental for the night, exhausted and thankful for an exquisite day in Colorado’s High Country.
So after waking up and having a lazy Saturday morning breakfast, my family and I packed up our stuff and loaded the car. With a full truck and leaving a little later than planned, we were on the road. On the road indeed! After getting some gas outside of Golden we were surprised to see that we weren’t allowed back on the highway. Apparently Fastracks was working on their light rail line and half the on-ramps to I-70 were un available…oh well. We eventually make it back to the highway and ready to head to the high country. But what do you know! We get diverted again, except this time a big rig got wedged under an overpass and the state troopers shut diverted the highway to C-470. Oh boy, well it ended up being a nice little detour around North Dinosaur Park which is the ridge just east of Red Rocks. After passing through the quite scenic town of Morrison, the drive got us back to the highway and out of any traffic for the rest of the drive. The rest of the drive, past Idaho Springs and Georgetown, was uneventful until we reached Dillon, ready to raise the sails and cast off with the wind in our hair.
Once in Dillon, my father and I were ready to do some sailing. Most people know that Dillon is a hot spot for skiers in the winter as there are four world-class ski areas all within 15 minutes. But what many don’t realize is the wonderful summer escape that is Dillon Reservoir. Created in the mid 1960s, the reservoir is one of the largest in the Rocky Mountains, supplying much of Denver with its water supply. Though the water is too cold to swim in, there are plenty of opportunities for fun with fishing, canoeing, kayaking, sailing and boating. If you’re thinking about stopping by and paying Dillon a visit, make sure to stop by either the Arapahoe Cafe or Dillon Marina’s Tiki Bar, both Grade-A places to grab some delicious high country burgers and beer, all while enjoying the pristine body of water. These restaurants have two of the best outdoor decks in Summit County, and I highly advise eating outside. Interesting side note, the Arapahoe Cafe building was one of the original structures of Old Dillon, which was located right at the bottom of the valley. When Denver Water decided to create the dam the whole town was either moved up the hill or demolished. Now only one other commercial structure from Old Dillon still stands, as a Historical Museum a few blocks away.
Once on the water everything sincerely slowed down and relaxed for vacation. The wind was here and there, but with full sails up, Whirlwind cut through the glassy water with the breeze. The racers were out and about, shuttling from buoy to buoy. Despite the inconsistent wind there was a consistent breeze off of the Dillon Dam that allowed for the racers to utilize their large Spinaker sails, typically only used when sailing downwind. It was a pleasant mountain reminder about all the fun one can have in the high country as I watched the J boats sail with Keystone‘s mountain trails in the background. Well after soaking up some sun, playing with the breeze, and watching the J boats race around the lake it was time to head back in.
The night winded down quietly, enjoying an evening at our home away from home in Summit Cove. After enjoying a delicious steak and salad dinner, paired with an equally delicious Boulevard Brewery Amber Ale, we all settled in and watched the Denver Broncos stomp the Buffalo Bills in preseason. Here’s to a wonderful vacation ahead (and to a great football season) Go Broncos!