A Colorado Road Trip (Part 2) – In Search of Aspen Gold in Aspen, CO

Marron Bells mountain is reflected in Maroon Lake in early morning

Our fall trip “leaf peeping” trip this year took us to Colorado.  We did a nine day trip focusing on three different parts of the state. In Part 1 of this series I described our trip on the Peak to Peak Scenic Byway and visiting Rocky Mountain National Park. (You can read the post here ). In Part 2 we visit the areas around Aspen, CO, aptly named as we found out.

Day 3 – Driving Colorado’s scenic highways and byways

We started our morning in Fraser, CO with a quick tour of the Walk Through History Park which was located right behind the Holiday Inn Express where we were staying. This is a lovely, little sculpture park honoring the western legendary figures that helped establish the Fraser area. (Read my post about it here ).

From Fraser, the plan for the day was to take a few scenic, though somewhat circuitous routes and end the day in Aspen, CO. We backtracked north from Fraser for a bit to Granby, CO, and then continued west following the Headwaters of the Colorado Scenic Byway (Rt.40) to Kremmling. Once we left the Rockies behind us, it was amazing how quickly the scenery changed to dry rocky hillsides covered in sagebrush and juniper.

The arid part of Colorado west of the Rockies

The road roughly parallels the winding Colorado River, with occasional scenic glimpses of the not-so-mighty-here river. In Kremmling we took Rt. 9 and then just outside of town, continued west on Cty. Rd.1, which is a very well maintained dirt road. Even in this dry and arid environment, we had occasional views of golden aspens.

Views along the Headwaters of the Colorado Scenic Byway

The road diverges from the river, but then approaches it with a grand view as the Colorado flows out of Gore Canyon (with its class V rapids). As we looked down, kayaks and rafts were paddling down the river (the tiny specs in the water in the photos below). The Gore Canyon rapids are reported to be the most difficult and dangerous in the whole state.

Rt. 1 continued down into the Colorado River canyon, paralleling it as well as a set of railroad tracks, eventually reaching Rt. 131 where we turned south. This part of the river seemed very calm and quiet and appeared to be a good spot for fishing. And even though there were no aspens here, the grasses and shrubs were starting to change into a nice patchwork of colors.

An angler tries his luck casting in the Colorado River

We continued south on Rt. 131 until it reached I-70 and then took that east, through Eagle, CO, to the exit for Rt. 24 where we turned south toward Leadville, CO. This was the beginning of one branch of the Top of the Rockies National Scenic and Historic Byway. Just as quickly as we had left the Rockies behind us earlier in the day, we were back in the midst of the mountains once we approached Eagle, CO on I-70. My family has often come here in the winter to ski at Beaver Creek and Vail, but this was the first time we saw these mountains without snow, and the trees surrounding the ski runs with leaves on them. The scenery was just as lovely as it is in winter.

Driving south on Rt. 24, just before the Red Cliff bridge is an overlook with views of the now abandoned mining town of Gilman. The mine, which started operating in 1886, was abandoned in 1984 by order of the EPA. The town is now officially a Ghost Town. From far away, the colorful houses look picturesque surrounded by green pine trees and yellow aspens, but a closer inspection shows the damage time and vandals have taken.

The Ghost Mining Town of Gilman, CO
Camp Hale Historic Site recognizes the contribution women made at the camp during WWII

Continuing south on Rt. 24 we reached the Camp Hale National Historic Site. Camp Hale was a US Army training facility. Because of its location at an elevation of 9200 feet, it was used to train elite mountain troops to fight in WWII. Here they learned skiing, mountain climbing and cold weather survival skills. Today, all the buildings are gone, though some foundations can still be seen. This is now a recreational area managed by the US. Forest Service.

The clouds obscure the mountains above us and cast a haze over the scenery

We continued south on Rt. 24, driving through Tennessee Pass and then Leadville. By this time the weather had turned cloudy and rainy, so we did not get to see Colorado’s two highest peaks (Elbert and Massive ) just south of Leadville. We drove on to Rt.82 toward Twin Lakes, catching occasional glimpses through the low clouds of what potentially soared above us. The clouds though could not hide the waves of golden aspen groves covering the lower portions of the mountains

Twin Lakes Recreation Area overlook. Our drive takes us through the valley in the distance

As we started the climb up Rt. 82 toward Independence Pass, it was now raining continuously. Driving from one hairpin turn to another, the rain turned more solid, until eventually at the higher elevations it was snowing. Under the best circumstances, driving portions of Rt. 82 to Aspen would be a teeth grinding, white knuckle, experience. (Rt. 82 is closed Oct to May). The road is barely two lanes wide, with many tight curves that you can’t see around, and steep drop offs with no guard rails in many places. At one point on the approach to Aspen, a section of the road is called “The Narrows” – for good reason – it’s blind curves and basically one lane wide.  Fortunately, it was late afternoon in bad weather, so there wasn’t a lot of traffic and I could take it slow. Needless to say, by the time we finally got into Aspen, my nerves were slightly frazzled. But despite the weather and the stress of the drive, the scenery was beautiful. Though the fog and snow hid the evergreens and views of the mountains around us as we drove through the actual pass, at the same time, it also made the colors of the golden aspens pop in the otherwise monochromatic scene.

The golden aspens brighten up an otherwise grey and snowy scenery

Day 4 – Hiking the Conundrum Trail near Aspen

As cold and nasty as the weather was the night before, the next day was sunny with clear blue skies. We had no specific plans for this day other than to explore the area around the town of Aspen. We had a few potential hikes in mind, but after talking to a local at one of our photo stops, we headed to the Conundrum Trailhead which was at the end of Conundrum Creek Rd. (off Castle Creek Rd). This is a 8.5 mile one way hike to the Conundrum Hot Springs and appears to be a popular hike with backpackers. Though the trail is rated as difficult, the first 5 to 6 miles or so which we hiked were fairly level as they followed the creek. 

The view at the beginning of the Conundrum Trail

This turned out to be one of my all time favorite hikes. The trail was fairly level or with gentle inclines so I could look around me and enjoy the scenery as I was walking. And the scenery was classic Colorado Rockies vistas. As my husband said-there was scenic eye candy around every bend in the trail. We hiked through meadows, large aspen groves at their peak color and pine forests. In the meadows, we could see the many snow capped peaks of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness that surrounded us.

Magnificent views along the Conundrum Trail

The sky was a deep clear blue and the temperature wasn’t too hot or too cold. And despite this being a popular trail, we only passed a handful of backpackers coming back from the Hot Springs.

The trail kept drawing us forward, wondering what the view was like around the next bend, taking in the scenery and enjoying the solitude.

Snow covered Cathedral Peak looms high above us

Before we knew it, our “before lunch hike” was 3.5 hours out and another 2.5 hours back. It was a wonderful way to spend the day.

Heading back the way we had come on the Conundrum Trail – the views are just as glorious

We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the sights on Castle Creek Rd. About 7 miles further down the road is the Ashcroft Ghost town historical site. The town started as a silver mining boom town and had as many as 3500 people, six hotels and 20 saloons in its heyday in 1885. Now there are nine preserved buildings left and the site is on the National Register of Historic Places.

A few more miles driving and Castle Creek road ended with majestic views of the Elk mountain range – a great place to sit and watch the sun set reflecting off the snow capped summits.

The views at the end of the day along Castle Creek Road

Day 5 – Exploring more scenery around Aspen, CO

Maroon Lake

This day started at 5 AM so that we could get to the Maroon Lake parking area by 6 AM. This is one of the most popular spots in the state, especially for sunrise photography. Private cars are allowed to drive to the site till 8 AM, after which only shuttle buses are allowed to access the area. Even though we arrived around 6:15, we were one of the last cars to get a parking spot (there is a $10 parking fee). The lake is a short walk from the parking area, and once we got there, we found that the shoreline was shoulder-to-shoulder and tripod-to-tripod photographers, and it wasn’t even a weekend.  

Shoulder-to-shoulder photographers all capturing the same photos of sunrise over Maroon Lake

Despite being so crowded and also very cold (29 degrees F), it was beautiful to watch the sky light up and make the reflection of the snow capped peaks and forested slopes visible in the mirror like lake. As the sun came up, the tops of the mountains turned a golden orange. There is a reason why this is such a popular photographic spot, and we were experiencing it. 

The beautiful reason why sunrise over Maroon Lake is a popular photo spot

Eventually, the orange sunrise glow disappeared, as did a large portion of the crowd. But there were still many die hard photographers left, intent on capturing each mood of the lake reflection as the sun rose higher during the morning. It was interesting watching the lighting change on the slopes and the various fingers of shadows retreat as the sun rose higher and higher.

The rising sun creates interesting shadows and reflections on Maroon Lake

By about 10:30 most of the early bird photographers had left and the day tripping crowd started showing up. From Maroon Lake there are a number of hiking options, but by this time, we were ready to get a little warmer with some hot food and drink. We asked one of the volunteer rangers for other hiking recommendations in the area, and that’s where we spent the rest of the day.

The Maroon Bells Peak and Maroon Lake as seen from the parking area

Grottos Trail

We drove back east on Rt.82 toward Independence pass (about 9.5 miles from central Aspen) to the Grottos Trail head (also called the Ice Caves).  This is an easy 1.5 mile loop that goes to a cave that forms interesting ice formations in winter, and also a cascade.  We chose not to scramble down to the cave since there was no ice, but enjoyed exploring the area around the cascades.

The cascade on the Grottos Trail

Weller Lake Trail

Driving back west toward Aspen about 1.3 miles on Rt. 82 took us to the Weller Lake trail head. This was also an easy hike (0.6 miles one way, 230 feet elevation gain)) to an overlook of Weller Lake – another pretty lake with snow capped peaks surrounding it. We spent about an hour bushwhacking around the lake on what looked like a possible trail, but eventually gave up when we reached a rock slide that would have been too difficult to cross. By this time it was late afternoon and it was time to call it a day, and end the portion of our trip in the Aspen area.

Weller Lake

Accommodations

We actually chose to stay in Snowmass Village, outside of the hustle and bustle of Aspen town center.  Staying in Snowmass also made it easier to drive to the various sights we had planned, without having to deal with Aspen traffic. There are a lot of hotel-condominium options in the area, and I chose Crestwood Condominiums which I booked through Hotels.com. We had a very nice and comfortable one bedroom apartment with a full kitchen and fireplace.

Meals

Edwards, CO – as we drove through Edwards, we stopped for lunch at my husband’s favorite restaurant in the area, The Gashouse Restaurant. This is an atmospheric log cabin diner that caters to carnivore lovers and specializes in unique meat options like elk, buffalo and venison. I love their truffle fries.

Aspen, CO – Since our condo had a full kitchen, we ended up eating in a lot, more by choice rather than necessity. On the recommendation of one of the volunteer rangers, we had a very nice lunch in Aspen at the Pyramid Bistro which is located upstairs in the Explore Booksellers building. Another local recommended Pine Creek Cookhouse which is located toward the end of Castle Creek Rd. We stopped in for dinner, but we did not have reservations and did not want to wait an hour for a table, but the restaurant and menu looked very nice – next time.

What I would have done different

  • The early morning temperatures at Maroon Lake were a lot colder than we expected. We packed gloves and wool socks, but long underwear would also have been helpful. Since the temperature was in the 80’s back east when we packed for this trip, it was hard thinking about packing clothes for below freezing temperatures.
  • Packed some coffee.  The condo gave us a welcome basket which had some coffee packets in it, but not enough and we did not want to buy a whole bag for just a few days.

Part three in this series will be about the three days we spent exploring around Ridgway, CO, in the San Juan Mountain area.

Do you have thoughts or comments about this post? I would love to hear from you on my facebook  page.

Thanks for visiting.

Rose