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.

5 Alternatives To Car Camping This Summer

car camping
Jason Jones, Flickr

If you’re the outdoorsy type, it’s hard not to enjoy car camping, as long as you find a destination and campground that are compatible with your interests and needs. Not that I’m speaking from experience, but … let’s just say the romantic, roughing-it weekend my ex and I had planned in southwestern Colorado a few years ago turned into pitching a tent in a trailer park populated by elderly snowbirds.

If you’re carless, or want something more adventurous/rigorous/off-beat, or safe for your bad back, I’ve got a few alternatives for your consideration. The good news is, the price points for these adventures ensure there’s at least one that will fit your budget. Depending upon where your travel plans are taking you, some regions even specialize in these types of camping trips. So get online, do some research and don’t forget the sunscreen. Happy Trails.

Hut trip
There are hut systems located all over North America (as well as in other alpine terrain worldwide); perhaps the most famous are Colorado’s 10th Mountain Division Huts. Whether you’re a novice hiker or a backpacking machine, there’s a hut hike suited for you. Tip: book well in advance. You can sometimes find last-minute beds, but this type of trip really requires advance planning.

pack trip
Alan English CPA, Flickr

Pack trip
If mountains are your thing, get on a horse or mule and take a pack trip. The Sierras, Rocky Mountains, and Cascades in particular are known for their alpine scenery and well-regarded pack trains. Tip: there’s no reason you can’t do a pack trip if you’re a novice rider, but you need to choose the right outfitter and destination; many trips are for experienced riders (you can even bring your own horse sometimes).

Sea kayak
I love sea kayaking, but I’m too novice to attempt a big paddle on my own. When I was living in Seattle a couple of years ago, I found an outfitter who, for a reasonable price, took me on a private paddle out to one of the many deserted islets off of Puget Sound’s Whidbey Island. We camped, watched bald eagles, gorged on a Marionberry pie picked up en route, and what do you know? He taught me how to read a tide chart well enough to give me the confidence to try this type of mini-excursion by myself.

sea kayaking
UK Ministry of Defence, Flickr

Water taxi
Some coastal, riverfront, or lakeside destinations offer water taxis to get you to and from your campsite. Although Kauai no longer offers this service for return hikers coming off the famous Kalalau Trail, there are plenty of other exotic options. I once took a water taxi from Picton on the South Island of New Zealand, in order to embark on a two-day hike of the gorgeous Queen Charlotte Track. Bonus: a pod of dolphins kept pace with us the entire ride out.

Shuttle it
Sometimes, it’s just not practical or possible to do a backpacking or camping trip with a car. In a couple of weeks, for example, I’m going to do Colorado’s West Maroon Pass, which is a roughly 11-mile hike over the Elk Mountains, from Crested Butte to Aspen. Since I’m going it alone, I’m arranging for Dolly’s Mountain Shuttle to bring me back. This Gunnison Valley-based airport shuttle addition also offers summertime returns for hikers coming off the Pass. At $60 a seat (as long as they have more than one passenger), it’s worth the price to not have to sort out the logistics of a car swap or transport. Best of all, you can take a nap after all that walking.

Fresh Snow Extends Colorado Ski Season

Colorado ski resorts remain openIf you’re a skier or snowboarder who is reluctant to see the season come to an end, I’ve got good news for you. April snow showers have continued to dump fresh powder across the state of Colorado and as a result, several of the resorts there have either extended their seasons or elected to re-open for the weekend. That means that even though the calendar now says it’s spring, there is still time to hit the slopes for a bit longer.

This past week saw a big snowstorm sweep across the Rocky Mountains, depositing quite a bit of snow on some of Colorado’s most popular resorts. For instance, Aspen Highlands received 13 inches of fresh powder, while nearby Snowmass recorded 14 inches, as did Silverton Mountain. Monarch picked up more than 11 inches as well, while Arapahoe Basin, Winter Park and a host of others all received several inches too.

This late season snowfall has been a boon to the resorts, many of which have reopened for the weekend. The following destinations are still offering skiers and snowboarders a chance to hit the slopes through tomorrow: Aspen Mountain, Copper Mountain, Eldora, Monarch, Silverton, Snowmass and Steamboat. Additionally, Aspen Highlands and Winter Park will remain open through April 21, while Loveland’s season extends to May 5. A-Basin, which always has one of the longest seasons in North America, will remain open until June 2.

If you’re not quite done playing in the snow just yet and would like to use those skies or that snowboard one more time, then get yourself to Colorado where there is still some powder to shred.

[Photo Credit: Arapahoe Basin]

The 10th Mountain Division Huts: Colorado’s Historic Legacy To Outdoor Lovers

Since moving back to Colorado last August, I’ve actively tried to gain more experience in backcountry pursuits. I’ve been a downhill skier all my life, but prohibitive costs and weekend warrior traffic are a drag. At this point in my life, I also find more enjoyment in the contemplative, peaceful nature of snowshoeing and nordic skiing.

My ultimate goal for the backcountry has always been to explore Colorado’s extensive and historic 10th Mountain Division Huts. It’s a long-standing source of shame that I’ve lived in this state off-and-on for 17 years, and have never stayed in a hut (pictured: McNamara Hut).

The non-profit hut system was established in the early ’80s by 10th Mountain Division veteran Fritz Benedict and a handful of other Aspen locals. Its origins date back to pre-World War II, however, when the U.S. War Department began training mountain troops for combat. Camp Hale, located near Colorado’s Eagle River Valley, was selected as the army training grounds for over 11,000 men, in December, 1942.

In January, 1945, the 10th Mountain Division found themselves in Italy, where, according to the website, “they played a crucial role in several battles.” During this time, many of the Division had developed a shared love of the mountains and Colorado. Post-war, a number of 10th Mountain vets settled here; some were instrumental in the founding of ski towns such as Vail and Aspen.

The hut system is in part a memorial to the soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division, and some of the early huts were built with donations from the family and friends of fallen vets. Today, the huts rely upon donations (click here to contribute) for construction, maintenance, and operation, which help to keep overnight fees low. The average bed runs about $30/night; it’s also possible to book the entire hut for a flat fee. It’s best to make reservations months in advance since the huts fill up, but if you become a member (fees range from $25/year to $1,000/lifetime), you’ll be able to participate in the 10th Division reservations lottery, and book early.

The 10th Mountain manages and takes reservations for all 29 of their off-the-grid huts. They’re connected by 350 miles of suggested routes, and range from cabins located fairly close to trailheads, to serious backcountry locales. Some of the huts are owned and operated by the Braun and Friends hut systems, near Aspen, as well as Summit Huts Association, near Breckenridge; information on all can be found on the 10th Mountain website, huts.org.nordic skiingMy interest in the huts goes back to childhood; my dad is a WWII vet, and prior to enlisting, his dream was to be part of the 10th Mountain so that he could ski and work with horses (along with mules, the animals were used to transport gear and explosives over the Alps). Instead, he joined the infantry, and moved to Colorado to attend veterinary school at Colorado A & M (now CSU) on the G.I. bill.

Today, at 86, Dad is one of the world’s foremost experts on equine medicine and behavior, and until a couple of years ago, he was still skiing. My love of Colorado must be in my DNA, because my parents met at A & M, and I grew up skiing in Colorado (Dad, along with a few colleagues, also founded the Sierra Veterinary Medical Association, or SVMA, over 50 years ago; like him, it’s still going strong). So. My need to do a hut trip has perhaps been biological imperative.

In the final days of 2012, I visited Crested Butte with the express purpose of learning how to do alpine touring (AT). It’s a discipline of nordic skiing that involves wider skis with convertible bindings, which enable you to ski on a “fixed” or “free” heel. The boots can also be switched into “walk” or “ski” mode. In traditional cross-country skiing, unlike downhill skiing, only the toe is fixed to the binding, and the skis are narrower.

You can tour uphill with the aid of “skins,” which are self-adhesive, reusable fitted liners that adhere to the bottom of your skis. The outer surface has a fibrous covering, which provides traction so that your skis don’t slip. When you’re ready to ski downhill, you peel off the skins, and away you go.

Note that ideally, you should never attempt any backcountry pursuit alone, or at least not without having your avalanche certification. Plenty of people do it, and every season sees totally preventable deaths (see end of story for tips, and where to get certified).

To give AT a try, I hooked up with Crested Butte Mountain Guides (photos above and below, owner Jayson Simon-Jones) for a half-day trip ($125), led by part-time guide Amy Stevens. Amy is adorable, but also admirably tough (ask her to tell you about her fall from an 80-foot cliff some time). She schooled me on AT basics, and we embarked on a four-mile round-trip tour of the backcountry of the Snodgrass Trail, just past the ski area of Mt. Crested Butte.
alpine touring
It was a glorious, two-hour skin up to the Lookout, which provided us with a view of the tiny town of Crested Butte and surrounding peaks. By contrast, the trip down took a matter of minutes, since we were effectively downhill skiing. I was hooked, and immediately began plotting how I could do a hut trip, given my lack of experience.

Fast-forward to early March. I’d enlisted Scott Messina, longtime field operator for the 10th Mountain and an employee of Aspen Alpine Guides, to take me and a fellow hut-virgin, E, on an AT trip to the McNamara Hut, outside of Aspen. One of the first of two original huts, McNamara was built in 1982 as a memorial to Margy McNamara, whose husband, the late Robert McNamara, served as Secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1968. It sleeps 16 on its two floors (which include bunk and single beds, and one private double).
10th Mountain hut
After meeting at the 10th Mountain office in Aspen, Scott drove us a few miles up Red Mountain Road to the Upper Hunter Creek trailhead, in the White River National Forest. The hut itself is just under five miles away, in the Hunter-Frying Pan Wilderness, at 10,306 feet. A recent dump meant there was loads of snow, making this a particularly scenic trip.

We could only stay one night because the beds were booked, but it was enough to provide us with a taste. E and I both share bad backs, so our primary concern was how we’d fare packing in our sleeping bags and other gear, as well as food. The huts are solar-powered, with gas cooking equipment and compost toilets in the outhouses. You source water by melting snow in huge stockpots atop the wood-burning stoves (at right, Jackal hut, similar in appearance to McNamara)

The trip in, mostly uphill, is considered intermediate. E and I quickly overheated and shed layers every 10 minutes, but we were entranced by the beauty of our surroundings. We skinned through snow-covered meadows, into aspen groves, and up through forest thick with spruce, Douglas fir, and Lodgepole pine. There were bear claw marks on trees and ermine prints in the snow. This time of year, much of the wildlife is hibernating or lying low, but the McNamara is actually one of the few huts closed in summer because it’s in the midst elk calving grounds (it’s open Thanksgiving through April 30). As we climbed, Scott told us about the moose he’d seen the previous weekend in the nearby Maroon Bells.
aspen
We arrived at the hut– a most welcome site if ever there was one– approximately four hours after setting out. The first to arrive, we shoveled snow, lit the stove, and hauled in buckets of snow for water. The hut itself was more than just functional: it was a cozy wooden cabin that reflected the conviviality that defines the hut trip experience. There were rows of built-in beds; communal dining tables; a book shelf and board games, and an open kitchen. The outhouse was outside on a small back deck, and a side room was stacked full of cords of wood.

While we changed into warm, dry clothes and got settled, our hutmates began to straggle in. It had started to snow, and the sun was setting. We ended up with a friendly group of six snowshoers and skiers, and by night’s end, we were sharing our food and drink. I put together a cheese plate; handcrafted elk sausage was passed around; wine was poured, and beers were cracked. As the snow outside intensified, we sat around talking the outdoor life. Two of the group, a young couple, had spent the previous night sleeping in snow cave they’d dug (by choice). “It only took a few hours,” the female half of the couple said. Talk about a match made in heaven.

For dinner, I prepared a pasta dish for E and Scott (as a food writer, I had to prove to myself that it’s possible to eat well on a hut trip, even when one has a crapped-out back) While we cleaned up, the other groups moved in to prepare their dinners. Later, two young women prepared S’mores to order for the rest of us using the wood-burning stove (my eternal devotion to these ladies).
aspen
That generosity is characteristic of the hut trip mentality. Sure, people visit for romantic getaways (if sharing a cabin with up to 14 other people can be considered as such) or for a solo escape. You certainly don’t have to mingle or be an extrovert, but you’ll likely be depriving yourself of some great conversation and experiences if you don’t. It’s so rare these days to connect to other people in an environment that prohibits the beeping, blinking, ringing, honking distractions of daily life. A hut stay, for lack of any other description, is pure.

The next morning, we powered down breakfasts of instant oatmeal mixed with almond butter (my pre-hardcore workout fave), and looked in wonder from the front porch at the thick frosting of powder that coated the trees. Scott suggested we skin up the north face of Bald Knob, nearly 1,000 feet up from where we stood, so that we could have a downhill sesh before heading back to the trailhead. Despite E’s and my initial doubts about skinning a steep ascent, Scott was, as always, patient and encouraging, and distracted us with information about flora, fauna, and avi safety (he teaches certification classes). Before we knew it, we’d reached the summit.

It was thoroughly rewarding. We could look down upon the entire valley, and over the Elk Mountains. There was also a front moving in, so we stripped off our skins, converted our bindings and boots, and thigh-burned our way through unmarked powder back down to the hut.

By the time we made it back to our truck at the trailhead, it was a white-out, but that’s honestly the time I most enjoy running and cross-country pursuits (as opposed to downhill, in which I’m an utter wuss about weather). It’s like I’m in my own country, a place where the only sound is the whoosh of my feet moving through drifts of snow, and my own breath. For just a brief moment, the world is muffled and still, but my connection to it is far more tangible than that of my daily life spent behind a computer. It feels like a good day to be alive.
backcountry
How to safely experience the backcountry

  • Avalanches occur due to the convergence of a series of conditions. Never treat a backcountry outing casually, especially when these conditions are ripe.
  • If you’re not experienced at backcountry pursuits, get a guide or go with friends who have certification.
  • Always check conditions and let someone know where you’re going and when you’ll be back before heading out.
  • Have the proper avi gear with you, with will include a shovel, beacon, and probe.
  • Depending upon where you live, get a backcountry rescue card. The 10th Mountain offers CORSAR (Colorado Outdoor Recreation Search and Rescue) for $3.00/year, or $12.00/five years. To quote their site, “Money generated from the sale of these cards goes to the Colorado Search and Rescue Fund, which then provides reimbursement for expenses incurred during search and rescue missions.” It can not only mean the difference between life and death; it can save you and taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in the event of a mishap. It’s the cost of a PBR; no excuses!

[Photo credits: McNamara and Jackal huts, 10th Mountain Division; skiers, Jayson Simon-Jones; aspen backcountry, Flickr user KR1212; Bald Knob, Laurel Miller; white-out, Flickr user Cangul]

Three More Ski Resorts Join The Mountain Collective

The Mountain Collective offers great savings for skiersWay back in August of last year we told you about the Mountain Collective, a group of independent ski resorts in North America that had joined forces to offer skiers and snowboarders access to each of their mountains at an amazing price. The collaboration between these iconic ski destinations was unprecedented at the time and yesterday it got even better.

The resorts that were on board at the launch of the Mountain Collective included Alta in Utah, Aspen/Snowmass in Colorado, Jackson Hole in Wyoming and Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadows in California. On Tuesday it was announced that three more great resorts would join their ranks as Snowbird, Mammoth Mountain and Whistler Blackcomb were all added to the Collective.

The inclusion of these new resorts makes an already amazing ski deal even better. The Mountain Collective Pass costs just $349 and provides two free days of skiing at each resort with an additional 50% off an unlimited number of lift tickets thereafter. Furthermore, the pass grants discounts on lodging and other amenities too, making it a fantastic option for those who simply can’t get enough time on the slopes.

After announcing the addition of the new resorts, a limited number of passes for the 2013/2014 season went on sale at both the Mountain Collective website and Liftopia.com. These passes are being offered at the same price as the 2012/2013 tickets, but once they are sold out, that price will be gone. If you want to be able to take advantage of this amazing deal, you’ll want to grab a ticket while they last.

I know that the 2013/2014 ski season sounds like a long way off, particularly since we’re still wrapping up the current season. But this is just too good of deal to pass up. The price is likely to increase in the fall, so get your hands on one of these passes while you can.

[Photo Credit: Alta]