Aspen’s Rio Grande Bike Trail: Burgers, Bourbon And Basalt

biking a bridge on rio grande trail
Courtesy of Jeremy Swanson

I can probably be kicked out of Colorado for admitting this, but I’m just not that into bikes. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve been lugging my vintage, fixed-gear cruiser around for over 21 years. Even though I rarely ride it these days because I live in hilly Boulder, I’m devoted to it. But mountain biking and road cycling plain freak me out, and in this state, that’s like saying you hate snow.

So, when my friend S. urged me to join her on an 18-mile bike ride down Aspen’s Rio Grande Trail to the former mining town of Basalt, I was dubious. I didn’t learn to ride a bike until I was 7. I have terrible balance. What about getting back up valley? Still, there was the allure of flying down a riverside path in the high Rockies on a summer’s day. I caved.

The Rio Grande Trail is a part of the former Denver-Rio Grande Railroad bed. It starts at Aspen’s Herron Park, just off Main Street on the east end of town, and runs the length of the Roaring Fork Valley, all the way down to Glenwood Springs, 41 miles away. The trail, especially the Aspen-to-Basalt leg, is enormously popular with cyclists, walkers, and runners and, in winter, cross-country skiers.

aspen grove
WanderingtheWorld, Flickr

Last week, I met up with S. in Aspen. It was a bluebird day, one that begged for a picnic or al fresco lunch. Our plan of action, after picking up two titanium, single-gear cruisers, was to ride down to the nearby community of Woody Creek (home of the late Hunter S. Thompson), and hit the Woody Creek Tavern (bar of the late Hunter S. Thompson) for lunch. Their famous hamburgers and a margarita on the patio are an Aspen summer staple. Alternatively, if you want some truly excellent breakfast pastries or picnic bread, take a slight detour over to Louis’ Swiss Bakery in the Aspen Business Center.

The first mile of the Rio Grande Trail runs alongside the Roaring Fork River. This time of year, the vegetation is lush: wildflowers are in full bloom, and the aspens and pines provide ample shade. You’ll cross a wooden bridge or two, and after about five minutes, the pedestrians disperse, and can really start moving (do watch out for other bikers, stay in your lane and always wear a helmet).

After about 15 minutes, we arrived at the Tavern, which is essentially a roadhouse/bar/tribute to all that’s weird (there’s a reason Thompson was a regular). The burgers really are all that, if nothing fancy, and the Mexican dishes also win raves.

biking the rio grande trail
Courtesy of Jeremy Swanson

Post-lunch, we hopped back on our bikes and rode to Basalt, which has become an alluring little hamlet in its own right. Don’t expect much in the way of excitement, but it’s a cute, quiet place to kick back for a few days, and enjoy the many outdoor activities the Roaring Fork Valley has to offer.

The ride from Woody Creek to Basalt changes from sub-alpine terrain to open valley and ranchland. Horses and cattle graze ipeacefully, and the rust-red hematite cliffs so indicative of this region loom to the right. Below us, on our left, was the river. The path remained smooth and the light was so bright it almost hurt. I started to remember why I’d been hauling my old cruiser around with me all these years. Being on a bike was exhilarating, especially in a place so geographically blessed. I certainly didn’t care that I wasn’t hammering it on half-track.

When we reached Basalt, S. and I pulled into a nondescript business park. We’d decided to cap off our ride with a visit to the the four-month old Woody Creek Distillers (they’re killing it with their whiskeys and vodka made with Colorado-grown ingredients, including Polish Stobrawa potatoes farmed up-valley on co-owner Pat Scanlan’s family farm.

woody creek distiller's copper still
Courtesy of Woody Creek Distillers

The gorgeous, state-of-the-art distillery houses a gleaming, copper-and-stainless steel German still, which can be viewed from the tasting room. Distillery manager David Matthews walked us through a whiskey tasting, which made me long for an accompanying wedge of bandage-wrapped farmstead goat cheddar from Basalt’s own Avalanche Cheese Company (pick some up at Whole Foods just north of Basalt, off of Highway 82, along with some famous Palisade peaches, grown just over the mountains on the Western Slope).

Back in Boulder, I paid a visit to my dusty cruiser, which has been languishing in the basement for nearly a year now. I’m going back up to Aspen in September to see the fall foliage; my newly-tuned up bike will be making the trip with me. Thanks, S.

The details
If you’re not bringing your own bike, the best place for rentals in the Aspen/Snowmass area is Four Mountain Sports (various locations). Note that many Aspen hotels, like the The Little Nell (which will comp rentals September through the first snow), have bike rentals for guests. The easiest way to return to Aspen is to catch the Roaring Fork Transit Authority (RFTA) bus from Basalt.

For more summer biking ideas, consider one of these great coastal beach cruiser bike rides.

Ski Free In Aspen With Killer Hotel Deals

aspenThink you can’t afford Aspen? Think again. Two of the most elite hotels in town are offering can’t-miss winter season packages that include free ski passes.

Did I stutter? Nope. It’s part of a “ski free” promotion designed to draw visitors back to the Rockies after last year’s notoriously dry winter. Happily, this year looks good, as I can attest from an Aspen visit earlier in the week, and the town is buzzing with holiday festivities.

Local favorite The Little Nell is offering two separate packages for skiers. “Ski Free” gives guests who stay three nights or longer up to two free lift tickets (by comparison, a two-day, seven-day advance purchase adult pass will run you $202, high season) per day. The “Ultimate Ski Free” package: Stay four nights, and ski gratis at all four mountains of Aspen/Snowmass (Aspen, Aspen Highlands, Snowmass, and Buttermilk), on top-of-the-line demo equipment. A full-day private lesson is also included.

The newly revamped, groovilicious Limelight Hotel is doing its own “Ski Free” special, in addition to offering complimentary snowshoes to all guests. The ski package includes up to two free lift tickets per day (good at all four mountains), with a three-night minimum stay, based upon availability; some blackout dates apply.

[Photo credit: Aspen/Snowmass]

Planning An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving Dinner, Portlandia-Style

farmersAbout four years ago, I wrote an Edible Aspen story on Brook LeVan, a farmer friend of mine who lives in western Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley. Brook and his wife, Rose (that’s them, in the photo), raise heritage turkeys, among other things, and part of my assignment was to ask him how to celebrate a locally sourced, cold-climate Thanksgiving.

Brook, whom i’ve since dubbed “The Messiah of the Roaring Fork Foodshed,” embarked on a lively discourse about apple-picking and root vegetable storage. It was inspiring, and sounded like fun … to a food geek like me. But how many urbanites realistically wanted to make their own pumpkin butter, or sausage for stuffing?

Fast-forward to 2011, when a little TV show called “Portlandia” blew up with hilarious, bitingly satirical (and dead-on) skits about farm-to-table dining (Remember Colin the chicken?), mixology, and preserved foods (“We can pickle that!”). Suddenly, being an avid home cook, home brewer, and fermenter of sauerkraut had become part of our cultural zeitgeist.

With that in mind, I’d like to offer up Brook’s lovely ideas for making Thanksgiving not just eco-friendly and delicious, but fun and educational for family and friends. Ideas after the jump.

farmGet an early start on future holiday meal planning, especially if you want to order a heritage turkey – meaning an antique breed raised for flavor, rather than maximum output and yield. If you can’t find a heritage or organic bird, serve a different type of poultry or farmed game bird. The LeVan’s usually sell out of pre-ordered turkeys by July.

If possible, order your bird from a local farm, and make a field trip of picking it up. Maybe you can pick apples or winter squash as well, or purchase eggs, cider, preserves, or homemade bread or stuffing-mix.

Shop your local farmers market, food co-op, or specialty store for locally and/or sustainably-grown ingredients for your holiday table: potatoes, onions, or other root vegetables; winter squash, apples and pears, persimmons, pomegranates, even cheese.

Preserve seasonal foods. Whether it’s a bumper crop of summer peaches or pickled celery root or beets, there’s no end to the type of ingredients you can put up to last throughout the winter. Apple butter, fresh cider (you can often find local distilleries or farms that will press apples for you), poached pears, or pickled radishes all make wonderful additions to the holiday table.

Even if your Thanksgiving shopping consists of nothing more than a trip to a local farm stand or specialty market, it makes a difference, from both a taste and food security standpoint. As Brook said to me back in 2008, “When you make your dinner from all that local, fresh or preserved food, you’re going to put a taste memory in your family. It’s all about the little things we do, as individuals, each day. It’s flavor, and love.”

For more information on the LeVan’s family farm and learning center, Sustainable Settings, click here.

[Photo credits: Sustainable Settings]


Aspen’s St. Moritz Lodge rolls back room prices to $69/night

Snow enthusiasts salivating over last week’s dump in the Colorado Rockies, don’t despair. A fall vacation in Aspen is affordable thanks to the St. Moritz Lodge’s “Roll Back Our Rates to 2006 Levels” promo.

Starting now through November 24th, get a low-season rate of $69/night for a standard Lodge room (double bed, twin, mini-fridge, TV, and private bath). If you’re a returning guest, call 800-817-2069 and receive a 10% discount. Early winter and spring ski season is still a screaming deal if you’re traveling with a friend or two, with standard Lodge rooms going for $99/night. It’s Aspen’s only hostel, and thus the best accomodation bargain in town.

Enjoy an outdoor heated pool and hot tub (summer/winter only), steam room, daily housekeeping, laundry, a well-equipped kitchen, free Wifi, coffee, and deluxe Continental breakfast, and a cozy lounge/TV room/library, and off-street parking.

The St. Mortiz is just 10 minutes walking from the hopping scene in the center of town and the Silver Queen Gondola, spitting distance from a handful of trailheads. Even if you don’t ski, take advantage of the gorgeous running paths and hiking/snowshoeing trails for free.

%Gallery-106423%

Need more incentive? United and Frontier just announced they are increasing their flights into Aspen. In addition to the 14 to 17 flights per day from Denver International Airport (DIA), there are more direct flights from San Francisco, Los Angles and Chicago, and the newly added Houston-to-Aspen route. Delta and American Airlines serve Eagle County Regional Airport, an hour-and-half-away (FYI, this is the closest airport to Vail, 30 miles away). Colorado Mountain Express has shuttle service to/from DIA to Vail, Eagle, and Aspen, as well as Keystone, Breckenridge, Copper Mountain, Beaver Creek, and Snowmass.