ASPEN -In the 1879, the U.S. Army chased the native Ute Indians away from their ancient hunting grounds in the Roaring Fork and Crystal River Valleys to make way for settlement and mining. However, before exiting Colorado for the rugged deserts of Utah, the Ute are rumored to have placed a curse on the Western Slope, mystically bewitching the land while handing it over to the white man and decrying the region would never make him truly happy. This old tidbit of Wild West folklore is occasionally applied to ski bums who take a semester off from college or med school for a winter with the intentions of going back but end up staying in the Roaring Fork Valley for 50 years trying to slap together a career as a bartender, barista, or lift operator. I’ve even heard the term referenced to overzealous developers and real estate agents pimping magnificent multimillion-dollar estates on once-sacred land who abandon their principles in the covetous process of building, buying, land acquisition, and ego conquest.
Chalk it up to hindsight and hubris, but I’m not quite sure what the Ute were thinking when they gave up the region without a fight. This reflection dominates my often-scattered thought process while huffing and puffing up the Ute Trail, a steep and narrow path leading straight up Ajax from the eastern section of downtown Aspen. Perhaps the Ute realized the breathtaking beauty of the Colorado mountains had a potentially vacuous gravitational pull; an unspoken mystical aura that acts like a geographical Venus-fly trap, capturing intrepid adventurers unknowingly in an oh-so-gnarly life of pleasure pursuits: skiing, biking, wining, dining – the whole Aspen gamut.
I find something nostalgic and humbling about humans meandering up the steep slopes of Ajax centuries before the righteous pursuit of skiing or physical fitness. Whatever the reason, the Ute’s once-ubiquitous presence in the modern Roaring Fork Valley is now barely noticeable, sans a few namesake shops, Ute Avenue, or the Ute Trail. A climb up the said trail is an idyllic excursion to meditate on weighty notions like the timelessness of the mountains or the quirky ways of this little hamlet just across the Continental Divide we call “Aspen.”
Be warned: The Ute Trail is a grueling uphill hike and a knee-splintering downhill descent. The extremely steep trail switchbacks through knotty pines, mountain chutes, and loose rocks that may crumble without cautious footing. The path ends at rocky cliffs that jettison like a precipitous pier into sky, tickling the heavens with a surreal craggy outcrop. From this vantage point, one can feel infinite and microscopic at the same time, swallowed in the cyclical wormhole of the natural world. The rock promontory is like an eagles nest offering sweeping panoramas of downtown Aspen, the Roaring Fork River, and the gently rolling countryside further down valley. On a crystal clear day it is possible to make out Glenwood Springs, 40-some miles down valley, where the Roaring Fork merges with the Colorado on its downhill trajectory to the Pacific Ocean. To the east, the snowcapped peaks marking the Continental Divide and Independence Pass are easily observable, along with the swampy meadowlands of the Roaring Fork basin near its headwaters.
From the trailhead along Ute Avenue near the Aspen Club and Spa, the rambling hike takes roughly a little over two hours roundtrip, depending on fitness level and how long you want to soak in the mesmerizing vista of Aspen and beyond. Take a bottle of water and don’t be surprised to find yourself sharing the trail with other pilgrims ascending the mountain, particularly on a warm day. After you get past the rocks, you can continue hiking to the top of Ajax if you wish. In the summer, you can even take the Gondola down. Locals may balk at this as cheating, but hey - hike your own hike. You can always blame it on primordial fear of the “Curse of the Ute.”