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.

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]

Aspen’s ‘Revolutionary’ New Restaurant: Is This The Future Of Fine Dining?

maroon bellsAspen is well known for many things, some more savory (its restaurants) than others (Charlie Sheen arrests). There’s also the world-class skiing, but a person’s gotta eat, and Aspen definitely boasts some of Colorado’s finest restaurants. In a ski town, that’s saying a lot.

In June, Aspen’s restaurant scene just grew a little bigger, better and more groundbreaking, with the opening of Chefs Club by Food & Wine, at the tony St. Regis resort. The innovative restaurant, which opened to great fanfare during the 30th annual Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, marked the completion of a $40 million redesign of the resort.

The first restaurant of its kind worldwide, Chefs Club’s concept is simple, almost like a long-term pop-up. A select group of four Food & Wine Best New Chefs curate a bi-annually-changing menu of “seasonally-inspired cuisine.” The chefs will rotate on the same schedule, as well: the Fall/Winter talent will be announced November 15, via the restaurant’s website and Facebook. Following their initial, one-week tenure the chefs will make appearances throughout their “term” to offer menu specials, and showcase the Chefs Club concept to guests and the local community.

Notice that I said the concept is simple. Having four guest chefs, who are most likely total strangers, design a compatible collaborative menu, and having it consistently executed to high standards by a kitchen staff of complete strangers with varying degrees of training is a monumental task. I freely admit I was more than a little dubious when I first heard about Chefs Club. I’m writing this piece now, nearly six months after its opening, because I wanted to follow-up with staff and guest chefs, and find out how things are going.

Chosen to inaugurate the restaurant and menu were former Best New Chefs: George Mendes (2011) of Aldea, located in Manhattan; James Lewis (2011) of Birmingham’s Bettola; Alex Seidel (2010) of Fruition, in Denver; and Sue Zemanick (2008) of Gautreau’s, in New Orleans.

I was able to wrangle an invite to the grand opening reception at Chefs Club last June, as well as dine there the following night. It’s rare that I attend restaurant openings, because they’re usually a bit of a clusterf–k, as the kitchen hasn’t had time to work out the kinks or refine the menu. In this instance, however, I was curious to see how such a challenging concept would be carried out, especially given immense pressure for things to run smoothly.

%Gallery-165852%chefs clubSome of the culinary industry’s biggest players attended the grand opening and/or the Classic, including the Food & Wine editors and publisher, and some of the nation’s most prestigious chefs, among them Jacques Pepin, José Andrés and Thomas Keller.

If you’ve never been to a restaurant opening, just know it’s an ulcer-inducing event for any chef, no matter how experienced. The decor, service and every single dish is scrutinized by both diners and press, and in the weeks that follow, it’s critical that any flaws be ironed out. Yes, it’s just food, but it’s also the livelihood of dozens of people, from dishwashers to investors. Chefs/restaurateurs face a lot of pressure with the opening of a new place.

The biggest challenge, as I saw it, was finding chefs willing to relinquish control (or their egos), because unlike a normal restaurant, Chefs Club means entrusting an unfamiliar staff to carry out their vision. That means it’s up to the Chefs Club powers that be to find participating chefs who fully understand the concept of collaboration, and are capable of letting go to a certain degree.

Fortunately, St. Regis Aspen/Chefs Club Executive Chef Thomas Riordan is equally adept at ensuring his kitchen does right by guest chefs. Says General Manager Paul Duce, “I think this is a revolutionary concept, and it’s amazing to see it all come together so beautifully. [Riordan] has a very difficult job, and our team works so well together.”

Based on my experience, which included dining at Chefs Club on its third night of operation, the team kicks ass. In fact, I was astounded by how smooth the service was (the wait staff and sommelier were also genuinely friendly and enthusiastic; no pretense whatsoever). I sat in one of the seats located right in front of the open kitchen, and was amazed by how calm everyone seemed to be, guest chefs included. In fact, there was a lot of camaraderie and joking around.

As for my dinner, it wasn’t flawless (no meal is), but it was very, very good. I enpastajoyed a luscious Duck Confit Crostini from Chef Zemanick; Charred Mediterranean Octopus with cannellini beans, local lovage and pancetta by Chef Lewis; Colorado Lamb Saddle with Fruition Farms (Seidel’s sheep dairy) ricotta gnocchi, baby artichokes, and pine nut gremolata (Chef Seidel), and for dessert, an outrageous Malt Chocolate Semi-freddo with peanut butter fudge, toasted marshmallow, and graham cracker crumbs (Chef Zemanick). The sommelier graciously paired wines for all of my courses.

I left not only full, but very satiated, and convinced that Chefs Club might be onto something. Couldn’t this concept provide a feasible way for talented young chefs to avoid the pitfall of opening their own restaurants before they’re ready (emotionally or financially)? A way for older, more settled chefs to eliminate the stress, long hours, and administrative b.s. involved with owning a restaurant, but still allow them to do the thing they’re passionate about, which is cooking? An opportunity for experienced, savvy restaurateurs to keep their places relevant and exciting, long after the opening rush has passed? What about hosting guest chefs from around the world, as a sort of educational exchange for professional cooks and armchair travel experience for diners?

A month later, I asked Chef Seidel his thoughts when first approached by Chefs Club. “It’s a great concept, if challenging,” he said. “Being the first group of chefs meant there were a lot of unknowns, and participating chefs need to understand the level of commitment needed for this.”

If being a part of Chefs Club means time away from his own kitchen, farm and family, and entrusting that his staff will run Fruition as if it were their own, Seidel feels the benefits outweigh the potential risks.

“The opportunity to cook for so many different people, and work with great chefs from across the country is amazing. At my restaurant, we don’t cook with any attitude or ego, and this shouldn’t be any different. The four of us got a chance to hang out, learn from one another, and work together, and I gained three new friends out of the experience.”
chefs club
Other things to know about Chefs Club
The editors of Food & Wine have a hand in putting together custom wine and cocktail lists to coincide with the menus, while Jim Meehan, one of the nation’s top mixologists (PDT, New York), creates an original selection of seasonal cocktails (I’ll vouch for their excellence).

Don’t have any preconceptions about the menu, and be open to a diverse, but harmonious, melding of cuisines (there’s a three-course tasting menu with wine pairings for $85).

If you want to dine when a specific guest chef is in the house, check Chefs Club’s website and Facebook page for special events.

The elegant, white-walled dining room – done up in a mod ski chalet aesthetic, replete with giant snowflake cut-outs on the ceiling – features a long, low bar and row of seats in front of the open kitchen. If you enjoy watching the inner workings of a restaurant, reserve a seat here. There’s also a 24-seat patio, and 99 seats inside, including a communal table.

Make a reservation, regardless.

Enjoy yourself. This isn’t a pretentious, hushed temple of gastronomy. It offers a convivial atmosphere, and the concept and vibe are all about having fun, and a spirit of adventure. Cheers to that.

The bar is open to the public, not just diners. Says Duce, “A lot of the time, people will poke their heads in and say they’re just looking, and I’ll invite them in to check out our kitchen, or pour them a bit of Prosecco. We’re here to serve the community, and everyone should feel free to come have a drink at our bar.”

For information and tickets to the 31st annual Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, June 14-16, 2013, click here.

[Photo credit: Maroon Bells, Flickr user mland329]

Aspen’s Little Nell Hotel Offers Free Fly-Fishing And Biking Now Through October 15

fly fishingColorado is a big state, and most of it remained unscathed during June’s wildfires. The Aspen region in particular is known for its knockout scenery, which includes the twin peaks of the Maroon Bells, wildflower-festooned meadows, shimmering aspen groves and crystalline rivers.

With fall foliage (if you’ve never witnessed the turning of aspens, it’s worth seeing) just around the corner, The Little Nell is offering complimentary fly-fishing or road/mountain biking, available exclusively for those who stay three nights or longer through October 15, 2012. Both activities are valued at $400.

Aspen’s beloved “Nell” is justifiably famous for its luxe standards and excellent food and wine, as well as its thoroughly unpretentious staff and atmosphere. You can even bring your furry friend on vacation with you (that means your dog, not your hirsute significant other)

The Fly-Fishing Package includes a three-hour guided trip, drinks and snacks from the Nell’s pastry chef, transportation to and from a custom-selected fishing destination, gear and gratuity. Custom add-ons include a streamside picnic lunch with wine, or (ahem) helicopter excursions to secluded fishing grounds. Guests are permitted to keep their catch, and have it prepared by the Nell’s chef.

The “Bike to Nirvana Package” includes two Orbea bike rentals (with Garmin GPS) for one day. Add-ons include guided tours, custom fitting, training and instruction from Aspen’s top athletes – featuring championship cyclist Scott Kasin – and custom lunches served off-road or trail.

Aspen doesn’t shut down in “shoulder season” like many Rocky Mountain resort towns, either. There’s AspenFILM and the farmers market, which runs through mid-October, and excellent dining (and imbibing) options abound. Bonus: Fall guests who stay at the Nell for two nights receive a third night free, based upon availability.

Aspen/Pitkin County Airport has daily non-stop flights from Los Angeles, Dallas, Denver and Chicago.

Food & Wine Classic in Aspen celebrates 29th year; get discount tickets until March 15th

food and wine AspenBetter put your cardiologist on speed-dial; it’s almost time for the 29th annual Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. The nation’s most-lauded culinary festival will be held June 17-19, featuring food, wine, and cocktail seminars, cooking demos and competitions, grand tastings, and book signings by celebrity chefs like Tom Colicchio, José Andrés, and Michael Symon. Get your tickets before March 15th, and you’ll save $100 off the $1,185 ticket price. Hey, no one said gastronomic blowouts in Colorado’s ski town Shangri-la come cheap.

The price includes attendance at five Grand Tastings, where you can sample the goods from over 300 vineyards, breweries, and distilleries, as well as charcuterie, cheese, olive oil, and chocolate.

Think it sounds a little too high-falutin’? Take note of a few of this year’s witty new seminars: “Sauce on the Side: Wine, Wieners & the Works,” with restaurateur Danny Meyer; “Global Street Food” with chef/one of half of Two Hot Tamales’ Susan Feniger, and “One Pot Meals” with Ming Tsai. Also sure to be popular: “Sophisticated Sipping Rums,” “Top Chef: Salty and Sweet,” with Gail Simmons and Tom Colicchio, and “Cheeses and Wine from Spain.”

FOOD & WINE donates two percent of the net proceeds from all Classic tickets sold to Grow for Good, benefiting Wholesome Wave Foundation. Grow for Good is FOOD & WINE’s national initiative dedicated to supporting local farms and encouraging sustainable agriculture. To purchase, call 877-900-WINE or click here.