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.

The Tour De France Takes Over Nice

By Rob Annis

Nice, the resort oasis in the south of France, may be best known for the intense, steel-blue of the Mediterranean Sea, but for a few days this July, yellow was the color of note.

We arrived in Nice less than 24 hours before nearly 200 of the world’s best bike riders took over 25 kilometers of the city’s streets. The Tour de France is more than a sporting event for the French people; it’s a nearly month-long national holiday and point of immense national pride in France.

Just how popular is the race? Last year, nearly 20 percent of the French people lined the roads to catch a glimpse of the peleton screaming past. Although it’s been nearly 30 years since the last French champion, five-time winner Bernard Hinault — a fact that gnaws at the collective French psyche like bad red wine — it doesn’t diminish their love of the event.

Leading up to the race, Nice was awash in yellow — the jersey color signifying the Tour’s leader — as seemingly every other person wore a hat, T-shirt, or other article of clothing dug from the back of their closet matching the distinctive hue. Tour talk dominated conversation, both among the French and the thousands of cyclotourists who swarmed into the city to catch the action.Sitting in an outdoor café near the Promenade du Paillon the night before the race, fans good-naturedly joked about the team time trial happening the next day. A couple of Britons near us predicted a victory for Team Sky and its leader, Chris Froome, while a table of Aussies rooted for their countryman Cadel Evans and his BMC squad. (They were both wrong. Australia’s Orica-Green Edge would eventually win the stage.) I can only imagine our French waiter was waiting for the next stage more suited to the strengths of Team Europcar’s co-leaders, Thomas Voekler and Pierre Rolland.

Blocks away from our hotel, the Mercure Promenade, thousands of fans crowded an expo sponsored by Tour organizers. The giveaways from the various sponsors were a massive hit with the fans; every other person wore a hat adorned with the logo of LCL Bank, sponsor of the yellow jersey. Nearby, a DJ spun tracks atop a specially modified Skoda hatchback, attracting numerous bikini-clad ladies from the rocky beach below. The cycling kit of AG2R la Mondiale is often ridiculed for its garish baby-blue and brown hues, but fans still lined up six deep to grab a scarf with that same color scheme. We managed to grab several of each as cheap souvenirs for our jealous friends back home.

In the days before the event, the streets were nearly overrun by amateur cyclists of all shapes, sizes and abilities, who took to the streets test themselves on the same roads the pros would later conquer. Bike riders are commonplace in Nice – the city boasts an impressive bike share program called VeloBleu. After a quick phone call, my wife was able to rent one of the heavy, steel-framed behemoths for an hour for a mere Euro. We tooled around the city streets, amazed at how courteous and patient the drivers were. (It shouldn’t be too surprising, given how seemingly important bicycles are in day-to-day French life.)

I’m hoping the rest of the country is equally as bicycle friendly as Nice. For the next week, I’ll be riding some of the Tour de France courses with more than a dozen riders with Sports Tours International, a British outfitter specializing in adventure travel. Included on the route are two of the giants of Tour lore, Mount Ventoux and the Tourmalet, both of which top out around 2,000 meters. For a cyclist who spends most of his time training in the relatively flat state of Indiana, it should be a heck of a ride.

Chicago Hops On The Bike Share Craze

@ChiGreenOffice, Twitter

Chicago has put a fleet of 700 sets of wheels on the pavement as part of the city’s first bike share program, Divvy. Sixty-five solar-powered docking stations now dot the area within a few miles of the lakefront, and as many as 4,000 bikes and 400 stations are expected to pop up across the city by next spring.

The bike share’s goal is to provide Chicagoans with an additional transportation option, but at $7 per day there’s no doubt tourists will be using pedal power to explore the city, too. As with other bike shares, the heavy-duty commuter bikes come with built-in-lights and a small front basket, and can be returned to any station after a jaunt around town.

[via Skift]

Cycling The Niagara River Recreation Trail: Ice Wine, War Of 1812 History, And A Back Door To Niagara Falls (Part 2)

war of 1812 niagara river recreation trailClick here to read part one of this story. In recent weeks, U.S. and Canadian officials have been fighting over a development issue at the Peace Bridge, but when I drove over the bridge, built to commemorate 100 years of peaceful relations between U.S. and Canada, one warm day late last summer, I had much older hostilities in mind. Two months before, I had taken a bike ride from Niagara Falls to Niagara-on-the-Lake. This time, I returned to cycle the Fort Erie to Niagara Falls section of the trail, with the goal of learning a bit more about the War of 1812, and to approach Niagara Falls from a direction I’d never seen before.

I ditched my car in Fort Erie, a town on the Canadian side of the border where the U.S. army withstood a six month long siege during that forgotten war. On the New York side of the border, Fort Erie is known more for its proliferation of gentleman’s clubs, know as the “Canadian ballet” in these parts. Ontario’s drinking age is 19 and Americans have long flocked to Fort Erie’s strip joints, which offer full bars and nude women, a combination that isn’t legal in New York.

I followed the road that paralleled the river until the dedicated bike path started just outside of town, next to a seedy looking campground across from the Frenchman’s Creek War of 1812 Memorial.

Right beside the trail there’s a plaque describing the Battle of Frenchman’s Creek, which was a failed American invasion described as a “fiasco” that took place on November 28, 1812, and some “War of 1812” wreaths adorned with British and American flags. I rode on for miles with modest homes on my left and Buffalo’s oddly beautiful tableau of disused industrial plants and oil refineries just across the river on my right, until pulling over to check out the Willoughby Historical Museum, about 12 miles north of Fort Erie.

The one-room museum (see below) features displays and artifacts from the War of 1812, and since I was their only visitor, Jonathan Milner, a young man who serves as one of the museum’s historians, was thrilled to stop for a chat. I asked him if Canadians were as ignorant about the War of 1812 as Americans and he toed the line between honesty and diplomacy.

“For us, the War of 1812 is prominent in the school curriculum, and because it’s the bicentennial, the Canadian government has put out advertisements touting four Canadian heroes- General Isaac Brock, Laura Secord, Tecumseh, and Charles de Salaberry,” he said.

Given the fact that the war ended in an effective stalemate, I found it a bit surprising that Canadians are expending much effort to remember this conflict. But many consider the war to be a key moment in forging their national identity. Milner asserted that recollections of the conflict, whose conclusion marked the beginning of peaceful relations between the neighbors, are selective in Canada.

“People here often refer to it as a war of American aggression,” he said. “We talk about the American invasion of York but we don’t talk about the British invasion into Baltimore, the attack on the White House, things like that.”

The Canadian government has committed at least $28 million towards celebrating the bicentennial with more than 100 events, including several later this year, but there hasn’t been as much interest in marking the anniversary on this side of the border despite the fact that historians believe that the war helped consolidate the freedom we won in the revolution and helped unify the country.

I had a feeling that Milner would have been content to talk history all day but I had a mission to complete, so I continued north up to the site of the Battle of Chippawa, where on July 5, 1814, American forces routed an equal number of British troops for the first time.

The victory proved that American troops could hold their own against British and Canadian units, and just five months later, a peace treaty was signed in modern day Belgium. Word traveled slowly in those days, however, and the war’s most famous battle, a victory for the U.S. at the Battle of New Orleans, actually occurred two weeks after the treaty was signed. A fittingly bizarre conclusion to a war that is still difficult to understand.


Just minutes after leaving the battle site, I got my first glimpse of the mist rising from Niagara Falls off in the distance. Right after you catch a glimpse of the Skylon Tower in the distance, the path splits from the Niagara Parkway, and you begin to traverse a series of rickety wooden bridges. At this point, the roar of the Cascade rapids, where the water rushes through at up to 25 MPH, is louder than the nearby traffic and you get that giddy sense of excitement that comes from knowing that you’re approaching mighty Niagara, where some 6 million cubic feet of water go over the Falls every minute.


After crossing over a series of bridges and re-emerging on the path, protective fencing gives way to a lovely untrammeled view of the rapids and the midst rising above the Horseshoe Falls. The path is so close to the rapids that a suicidal or highly inexperienced rider could easily veer into the river, never to be heard from again.

Only four people have gone over Niagara Falls without any protective equipment and survived: the first was a 7 year old boy who fell in the river in 1960; the other incidents were apparent suicide attempts, most recently in May 2012 when an unidentified man suffered a collapsed lung and broken legs but survived. Numerous others have fallen into the river and died, including a 19-year-old Japanese student who was posing for a photo while straddling a railing with an umbrella in her hand in August 2011. She apparently lost her balance, fell into the river and went over the Horseshoe Falls. And just a few days ago, a 17-year-old boy died after saving his little sister, who fell into the Niagara River.

niagara falls

The trail runs right into the best view of the Horseshoe Falls and, though I’d seen them dozens of times before, approaching on a bike, riding along the rapids made the experience seem somehow novel. The beauty of the trail is that just an 1/8th of a mile away from the spot where a mass of humanity gathers right next to the Horseshoe Falls, there is complete tranquility and almost no tourists in sight. On the Niagara River Recreation Trail, you can almost have Niagara Falls all to yourself.

Click here to read part one of this story.

Cycling The Niagara River Recreation Trail: Ice Wine, War of 1812 History And A Back Door To Niagara Falls (Part 1)

niagara fallsI must have been absent from school the day we learned about the War of 1812. Growing up, history was my favorite subject, but as I sat in an office interviewing Paul Dyster, the mayor of Niagara Falls, New York, who mentioned upcoming events to commemorate the bicentennial of the conflict, I couldn’t for the life of me recall who won the war (it was a stalemate) or even why it was fought. (Unresolved trade issues, the impressment of U.S. sailors into the British Navy and British efforts to halt America’s westward expansion.)

I grew up about 20 minutes away from Niagara Falls, and my father and grandfather lived and worked in the city for many years. Growing up, we visited the Falls often, usually when friends or relatives from out of town came to visit, but occasionally just to get out of the house.

But despite the fact that I’ve been to the Falls probably more than 100 times, I’ve never thought to ride a bike near this iconic natural wonder until I saw some cyclists on an organized bike tour in Niagara-on-the-Lake (NOTL) Ontario, a distinctive, historic town 18 miles north of the Falls, last summer.They were on a wine tasting tour that brought them to several area vineyards mostly via the Niagara River Recreation Trail (NRRT) a 35-mile trail that hugs the river, starting in Fort Erie, just across the border from Buffalo, to Fort George, a key battleground in the War of 1812 located on the edge of NOTL’s historic district. I read up on the NRRT and decided that I could learn a thing or two about the war, have a bit of wine and get some exercise, all on one bike ride.

My wife and I set out from the Canadian side of Niagara Falls on our ad-hoc NRRT tour on a warm, almost perfect Tuesday morning in July. We ditched our car at the parking lot in front of the visitor’s information office, where you can leave your car all day for just $5, and went inside to ask for a NRRT trail map.

A young man manning the information desk had no map and was surprisingly unfamiliar with the trail.

“Where does it start?” he asked, handing us a free map of Niagara Falls.

“We were hoping you would know,” I said.

He conferred with some similarly uninformed colleagues and they concluded that we should probably just ride down to the Falls and turn left to head towards NOTL. But as we flew down Clifton Hill, the Canadian side’s tacky street of video game parlors, tourist traps and motels, and saw the mist rising from the Falls, we decided to head right towards the Horseshoe Falls.

It was about 10.30 a.m. and there were plenty of tourists ambling about, snapping photos and queuing up for the Maid of the Mist boat trip, but it wasn’t crowded yet, so we were able to ride right past the tourists gaping at the American and Bridal Veil Falls, all the way down the Horseshoe Falls, where we got a delightful little cool down from the mist.

I’ve always loved Niagara Falls, but being able to glide by all the tourists and see the Falls at about 10 mph was a new thrill. Why had I never done this before?

As we headed north, away from the Falls, we passed the impressive seven-story Cham Sam Buddhist Temple, which sits incongruously amidst a string of cheap motels and shops catering to tourists, before the trail became a distinct bike path just beyond a Super 8 motel. On a gradual uphill section of the trail just outside the Falls, my wife tried to shift gears too abruptly and jolted her chain right off the bike.

I feared that our outing would be a bust, but she had it back on in ten minutes. With a lane of our own to work with, we picked up speed, cruising by the Whirlpool Aero cable cars, a pretty golf course, and the strangely appealing Sir Adam Beck II Hydroelectric Generating Station, which offers 40-minute tours for $9.95.

niagara river recreation trail

The U.S. and Canada share the longest peaceful border in the world, but two hundred years ago, many of the major battles of the War of 1812 played out in the Niagara Region. Shortly after cruising by the generating station, we stopped for a climb up Brock’s Monument, in lovely Queenston Heights Park, which offers a terrific view of the surrounding region, including the Falls.

Sir Isaac Brock was a British army officer who became a Canadian hero after being shot in the chest while leading British and Canadian forces into battle at the Battle of Queenston Heights on October 13, 1812. Only three decades removed from the Revolutionary War, Ontario had a large population of Loyalists who left the U.S. after siding with the British during the war, and Brock came to symbolize Canadian independence.

The first monument was bombed by an anti-British activist in 1840 but was quickly rebuilt. On October 12, last year, hundreds of reenactors marched on Fort George and recreated the momentous battle where Brock was killed.

Rejoining the trail, we hit its most exhilarating downhill slide right after the Brock Monument, and as I went flying down the shady path, I had a strange sense of déjà vu. I realized I’d cycled down this section of the path before, as a child, but I couldn’t conjure the exact circumstance.

After leaving the park area, the trail jogs past the Mackenzie Printery and Newspaper Museum in Queenston, a well-preserved village that was founded in the 1780s and retains the loyalist leanings of its early inhabitants. Queenston Street is filled with historic homes, and many were flying flags to commemorate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Pretentious to be sure, but perhaps not surprising since the town was badly damaged by American troops in the War of 1812.

We made a brief stop to check out the home of Laura Secord, who is Canada’s Paul Revere. In June 1813, Secord became aware of American plans to stage a sneak attack on British/Canadian forces, and walked 20 miles to inform the British, leading to their victory in the Battle of Beaver Dams.

Just outside Queenston, we started to pass enticing fruit stands, selling fresh cherries, peaches, apricots, blueberries and plums. And further up the path, a string of wineries dotted the Niagara Parkway – we passed Ice House, Riverview, and Inniskillin before stopping at the Reif Estate Winery, one of my favorite family owned wineries in NOTL.

When I was growing up on the other side of the border in the ’70s and ’80s, there were just a smattering of wineries on the Niagara Frontier but our regular visits to the Canadian side of the border always felt like excursions to another world. The wineries, the tidy, green parks, the Victorian mansions along the Niagara Parkway and the cutesy town of NOTL presented a classy juxtaposition from the dull suburb of Buffalo I grew up in.

Today, there are more than 70 wineries in the region, many of them specializing in decadently sweet ice wine, and NOTL is a major tourist attraction. Major corporations, like Vincor International, own some of the most popular wineries but I’ve always preferred the family run places like Reif, Pillitteri Estates and Konzelmann.

We tried three ice wines at Reif for $5, one more sinfully sugary than the next. Our bartender told me that my favorite – the Vidal ice wine was a 22 on the sugar scale.

“It’s got hints of pineapple, honey, pear and apricot,” he said.

My palate is never sophisticated enough to catch all the flavors it’s supposed to and I half think the barkeep was just making things up as he went along, but I had to admit – it was damn good.

Our appetites whetted, we made a detour from the trail, heading west on a road lined with vineyards simply called Line 1 to have lunch at the Pie Plate, a bakery and restaurant on Niagara Stone Road. Downtown NOTL is filled with cute little restaurants, but many of them are tourist traps. The Pie Plate is where the locals go for good local beer, wine, baked goods, pizza and sandwiches.

On this afternoon, two cute blondes, Josceyln and Alicia, were waiting tables and my wife got them confused.

“Everyone gets us confused,” Alicia said. “We used to live together and we even dated the same guy.”

I wondered who the lucky guy was but contented myself with a Steam Whistle Pale Ale and a wood fire pizza that I made short work of before heading east on Niagara Stone Road towards NOTL with a stop at Pillitteri Estates for more ice wine.

I’ve never been a fan of Queen Street, NOTL’s main drag. It’s filled with overpriced shops and restaurants hawking useless trinkets and mediocre food, and there are usually way too many tourists clogging the sidewalks, especially on weekends. But riding up and down NOTL’s quiet side streets is a joy.

We parked our bikes at Queens Royal Park, a beautiful little green space with views of Toronto in the distance, located where the Niagara River empties into Lake Ontario, and spent a few minutes digesting a plaque that lists all the people who have swum across the lake.

Sixteen-year-old Marilyn Bell became a Canadian national hero in 1954 when she became the first person to make the crossing, completing the 51-kilometer swim in just under 21 hours. Two years later, a 36 year-old-man accomplished the feat but took 18 minutes longer than Bell. Over the years, strong swimmers from all over the world have shaved time off of Bell’s mark and the plaque still has space for those who are fit and crazy enough to attempt the crossing.

The trail ends at Fort George, a key fort controlled by the British during the War of 1812, and rather than retrace our route back to Niagara Falls, we paid $10 to take a shuttle back to our car. In taking a cab back to Niagara Falls, I felt like we cheated a bit and resolved to return to the area to cycle the first half of the trail, from Fort Erie to Niagara Falls.

Nick, our driver, had no interest in ice wines or the War of 1812 but was plenty annoyed that our bikes were taking up space in his minivan.

“You really should pay double price,” he said, as we pretended not to hear him.

Click here for part two of this story, the ride from Fort Erie to Niagara Falls.