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.

Colorado Ski Resorts Offer Spring Break Deals, Special Events, Statewide

skierStill mulling over where to spend spring break, be it solo, or with friends or family? Colorado Ski Country USA resorts make it easy, with a handy online guide promoting special deals and events statewide throughout March and part of April.

In addition to loads of concerts and fun and endurance ski races at most resorts, there’s also the famed Elk Mountain Grand Traverse backcountry race from Aspen to Crested Butte, and Battle in the Bowls in Aspen Highlands. Crested Butte is also celebrating Colorado Passholder Appreciation Month through March 6; anyone holding a season pass, regardless of resort, can ski CB for $59.

Copper Mountain hosts the Copper Uncorked “working man’s wine festival” on March 10; think affordable vintages, and nontraditional pairings a la pizza, wings, and breakfast burritos. Aspen and Telluride are offering variations on “kids ski and stay free” programs, and Wolf Creek has Local Appreciation Days March 6 and 13, and April 3 and 7. Lift tickets are just $35/adult or student, $29/child/seniors. Get those plane tickets booked now!

[Photo credit: Flickr user Ben Moscona l Photography]

Adventure Guide 2013: Aspen

If you’ve ever yearned to visit Aspen, this is the time. Aspen is hot right now, fresh off the X Games, because it’s just opened its first sidecountry terrain (see below). The revamped Limelight Hotel is also making headlines for having the coolest après ski spot in town. If you crave adventure and think Aspen is out of your budget, time to reconsider: the hardcore outdoor opps are boundless, regardless of season.

Aspen’s got some of the best downhill skiing, lift-accessed extreme terrain, and parks-and-pipes in the country, even if lift prices are stiff. The key is to cash in on the incredible hotel/ski packages on offer at places like the Limelight or The Little Nell, or bunk at some of the surprising budget options in the area.

New this year is sidecountry terrain at Snowmass. The Burnt Mountain Expansion has added on 230 acres, bringing total skiable acreage to 3,362 – making it the second largest ski area in the state. The Roaring Fork Valley, which includes all four mountains of Aspen/Snowmass (Aspen, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk, and Snowmass – the latter has a whopping 21 lifts), has some of Colorado’s best scenery, as well as a free, 60-mile Nordic trail system. You can also cross-country ski 18 miles down-valley, from Aspen to Basalt on the Rio Grande Trail (take the bus back if you’re tired).

If adventure is your thing, however, you’re going to want to head into the backcountry. Get your adrenaline pumping by mountaineering, ice-climbing (beginners can try this sport out at a waterfall just 10 minutes from downtown Aspen), or skiing/riding in the Maroon Bells Wilderness. For an overnight trip, cross-country ski to one of the historic 10th Mountain Division Huts (some are even accessible via chairlift, although they’re still in what’s considered backcountry).

If you’re in need of a not-too-tame recovery day, try taking a Snowcat Dinner Ride, or take a horse-drawn sleigh out to Pine Creek Cookhouse.

Hotels

Limelight Hotel: Formerly known as Limelight Lodge, Aspen’s sweetest, sleekest remodel, completed in 2010, this boutique property is just yards from the slopes. Sunny, spacious rooms are tasteful and subdued to better let the mountain take center stage.
The lobby, however, is the newest hot spot in town. Guests can avail themselves of the all-inclusive breakfast (think smoked salmon, waffles, and housemade granola), but après-ski locals, guests, and tourists alike descend for Aspen’s longest happy hour (3-7 p.m.), which includes free cookies and other snacks, $10 pizzas, drink specials and live music. Pet-friendly, wheelchair accessible, and kitchenette rooms available. From $285.
limelighthotel.com 335 S. Monarch Street

St. Moritz Lodge: Even if you’re not on a budget (but, let’s face it, all those toys cost a fortune, and you’re not planning to spend much time in your room, now are you?), this classic ski chalet is a cheerful slice of ’70s kitsch. With clean, bright rooms ranging from dorms to private rooms with or without shared bath or kitchenettes, the St. Moritz is the best deal in the Valley, and beloved for its friendly, homey atmosphere and plentiful free Continental breakfasts. And while you’ll definitely find the expected international backpackers and their ilk, the majority of the clientele is more aging ski bum and bohemian ski bunny. This is Aspen, after all. From $44.
stmoritzlodge.com 334 W. Hyman Avenue

Aspenalt Lodge, Basalt: If you have a car or don’t mind taking the shuttle, one of the Roaring Fork Valley’s best-kept secrets is this no-frills hotel located right on the Frying Pan River (there’s an outdoor hot tub, too). Basalt is a sweet little town, and one of the Valley’s most desirable (and tourist-free) places to live, thanks to the multitude of outdoorsy activities out the back door. The lodge is 20 minutes down-valley from Aspen; the RFTA transit stop is one block away and costs four dollars, one-way. From $99.
aspenalt.com 157 Basalt Center Circle, Basalt

Eat and Drink

Louis’ Swiss Bakery: Aspenites all know and love this old-school-style bakery, tucked within the ABC (Aspen Business Center) across from the airport. Swiss immigrant/skilled baker/rancher Felix Tornare turns out buttery pastry and the best meat pies (made with his grass-finished beef) on this side of the UK. The breakfast burritos are also the bomb, and provide all the fuel you need for a day on the slopes.
No website, closed Sundays; 400 Aspen Airport Business Center

The Meatball Shack: Since opening last June, this casual eatery and bar has been drawing crowds because it’s a hell of a bargain. Two heaping plates of delicious pasta (with meatballs, of course) and drinks will set you back just $50, and in Aspen, that’s not too shabby for a meal at a place with cloth napkins. Service is warm, the drinks are strong, and daily specials run the gamut from ribeye steak to sandwiches.
themeatballshack.com 312 S. Mill Street

Ajax Tavern: Located on the upper deck of The Little Nell Hotel, and steps from the Gondola, this is the spot to scope celebs if you care about that kind of thing. More important, it’s got a killer view, and the best après ski deal in town: a juicy burger served with Ajax’s famously addictive fries and a beer for just $15.
ajaxtavernaspen.com 685 E. Durant Avenue

Chefs Club: Aspen’s packed with great restaurants, but if you want to go big, this innovative, 8-month-old restaurant in the St. Regis Hotel is the place to do it. The menu changes seasonally, and is designed by a rotating cast of former Food & Wine Best New Chefs (Aspen is home to the famous FOOD & WINE Classic, held every June). Whether you order a la carte or spring for the tasting menu, be prepared to dine very well. If nothing else, have a drink; top mixologist Jim Meehan of New York’s PDT designs the seasonal cocktail menu, and you won’t be disappointed.
chefsclubaspen.com 315 E. Dean Street

Like most Colorado ski towns, you don’t need a car in Aspen. Most accommodations are walking distance to the slopes, or provide free shuttle service; the town transportation center at the base of the mountain makes getting out of Aspen-proper easy. RFTA transit runs the length of the entire Roaring Fork Valley, from Aspen to Glenwood Springs.
Aspen/Pitkin County Airport has daily non-stop flights from Los Angeles, Dallas, Denver and Chicago. From Denver International Airport, it’s approximately a 3.5-hour drive to Glenwood Springs on I-70; Colorado Mountain Express also provides round-trip transportation from DIA.

Adventure Tip

Best get up before the sun if you want to be the first to carve tracks in the backcountry; you’re going to have competition in this neck of the woods. Remember, safety first: never head out without telling someone where you’re headed (ideally, take a buddy with you), and carry an avalanche beacon, probe and shovel.


[Photo credit: Flickr user a4gpa]

FOOD & WINE Classic In Aspen Tickets On Sale Now, Discount Before March 15

aspenSeems like just yesterday Gadling was announcing the 30th anniversary of the prestigious FOOD & WINE Classic at Aspen, and already the next is almost upon us. Have you scheduled your annual cholesterol screening yet?

This year, from June 14-16, Food & Wine magazine will celebrate 31 years of incredible food and drink in one of the most glorious locations in the Rockies. Join the nation’s top chefs including José Andrés, Jacques Pépin and Marcus Samuelsson, as well as internationally renowned winemakers, master sommeliers, brewmasters, mixologists and food crafters at the most legendary culinary event in the nation.

The three-day weekend also features over 80 cooking demos, wine and interactive seminars, panel discussions, tasting events and classes on food and wine pairing, as well as twice-daily Grand Tastings featuring over 300 winemakers, craft brewers, distillers and specialty food vendors.

New this year are “DIY Sausage” from offal king Chris Cosentino; a “‘Top Chef’ Leftover Challenge” with Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons; “Next Superstar Value Wine” by wine expert Mark Oldman; “Great Cocktail Party Drinks” with über-mixologist Jim Meehan and F & W editor Kate Krader, and “Dim Sum at Home,” with Andrew Zimmern.

Tickets for the FOOD & WINE Classic in Aspen are $1,150 before March 15, and $1,250 thereafter. There will be also be a la carte ticketed events, including the Last Bite Late Night Dessert Party; additional details will be released in March. To get your tickets (hurry, hurry; it’s always a sell-out), click here.

[Photo credit: Food & Wine magazine]

Allegiant Air Offers Two-For-One Deal To Telluride Ski Resort

penniesBay Area- and Arizona-based snow lovers, rejoice! Allegiant Air, in collaboration with the Telluride Montrose Regional Air Organization, Telluride Ski Resort and Crested Butte Mountain Resort, is offering non-stop, two-for-one airline tickets. Travelers can fly to Montrose Regional Airport (70 miles from Telluride; Colorado Mountain Express is the local shuttle), via either Oakland International or Phoenix-Mesa airports.

Deals of this type are unheard of when it comes to premier ski destinations; as a former Telluride resident, I can attest to that. Even better, Allegiant is offering one-way fare from Phoenix starting as low as $46.99 one way ($93.98 round trip; flight times vary). Flights from Oakland start at $49.99 one way ($99.98 round trip, ditto), all winter long.

The Montrose flights began December 15, and conclude April 3, and are based upon availability. Tickets must be purchased by February 28, 2013, for the two-for-one offer, for use by April 3, 2013. For a complete flight schedule, click here.

But wait: there’s more! Telluride Ski Resort and Crested Butte Mountain Resort have launched an Ultimate 6 Pass, a 6-day pass good for three days of skiing and riding at each resort. That means you can use the centrally located Montrose airport for travel arrangements, and hit two of the Rockies’ most epic mountains in one vacation.

[Photo credit: Flickr user r-z]