Aspen's breathtaking alpine backdrop is known to intoxicate, tempting visitors into staying in the Roaring Fork Valley much longer than originally anticipated. Many well-seasoned Aspenites call this geographical magnetism the "Curse of the Ute" and one of the reasons so many visitors-turned-residents have a difficult time returning to the rat race of their previous lives outside Colorado.
Nonetheless, some Aspen vacationers can grow restless with Aspen's ritzy image as a mountain retreat for the rich and famous. Sometimes a stay over in Aspen’s rustic opulence is part of a larger journey, not necessarily the final destination. If you're craving the need to breath thicker (or, in Leadville's case - thinner) air outside the Highway 82 roundabout, a change of scenery and elevation is just a quick road trip away. For residents, visitors, and vacationers dealing with a bout of freeway wanderlust, the best way to soothe itchy feet is to fuel up a land shark, turn on some driving music, and hit the road to discover the quaint frontier charm of other nearby Western Colorado towns. Perhaps the late comedian John Belushi - who married his high school sweetheart in Aspen in 1976 - hit the nail on the proverbial head with two simple words to inspire this kind of spontaneous, off-the-cuff adventure: road trip.
Geographically, Aspen is an excellent home base for road tripping to other Western Colorado towns. Distinct rural communities like Paonia, Leadville, and Carbondale may not have ski areas nor Aspen's chichi demeanor, yet they boast plenty of Wild West character and are easily accessible when driving from Aspen. Day trippers will discover stunning natural scenery along the way, whether it involves the dramatic switchback over Independence Pass or rambling through the craggy canyons and promontories of the Crystal River Valley on Highway 133. Also, travelers setting off from Aspen in the morning can easily plan a day trip to a nearby town without having to miss an evening dinner date at Matsuhisa to recall the day's adventure over Nobu or the welcoming comfort of high thread count linens at the Hotel Jerome.
No matter the season, the time for an Aspen road trip is always in full swing. We've corralled a Top 10 list of destinations worth road tripping from Aspen and wrangled down what to see, what to do, why its special, where to have lunch, and how to get there from Aspen.
Geographically, Crested Butte is only 18 miles away from downtown Aspen, making the town and ski area physically closer than Carbondale. Yet the towering peaks of the Elk Range inhibited the construction of a passable road or railway between the two communities. Aspen and Crested Butte boast many similarities, including a mutual history as former silver mining towns that now rely on skiing and tourism as a principle revenue source. In the winter, Crested Butte is a popular destination for snowmobile trips departing from Aspen and hikers and ATV riders make the day trek from Aspen through spectacular fields of alpine wildflowers. Though Crested Butte is much smaller than downtown Aspen, the town is set to a panoramic backdrop of the snow-capped Mount Crested Butte. Downtown Crested Butte boasts a section of historic false-fronted buildings boasting cafes, shops, boutiques, restaurants, saloons, and ski outfitters. In typical ski town fashion, Crested Butte boasts a wide selection of gourmet eateries, making it a great destination for foodies. Try Django's Restaurant & Wine Bar for the European cuisine. Brick Over Pizzeria is a perennial favorite to ski bums across Colorado for its comprehensive selection of micro brews and unusual toppings. Because of the narrow country roads through the Gunnison National Forest, the trip from Aspen takes almost four hours.
For more information: www.skicb.com
Glenwood Springs, Colorado
For a Colorado mountain town, Glenwood Springs is about as Main Street USA as it gets. Besides being a cheap place to fill up on gas, get an oil change, jump on I-70, and stock up on groceries, this town of 6,000 located at the confluence of the Roaring Fork and Colorado Rivers includes a plethora of family friendly summer activities, including white water rafting on the Colorado River, exploring caverns, teeing up at a golf course, and splashing around in the incredibly popular Hot Springs Pool - a two block long swimming pool and water slide filled with water from a natural geothermal hot spring. West West history buffs can hike to Doc Holliday's final resting place in the hills a half-mile above the town. The notorious gunfighter and frontier dentist spent his final days soaking in nearby hot springs to alleviate the symptoms of his tuberculosis. Be sure to hike to Hanging Lake, a serene azure pool filled by crystal clear waterfalls within the Glenwood Canyon. For lunch, try BB's Wings and Q for the mouthwatering beef brisket simmered in a tangy homemade BBQ sauce or Juicy Lucy's Steakhouse for a prime cut of pure Colorado cattle. The Nepal Restaurant along Highway 82 (between Carbondale and Glenwood Springs) is an excellent stop for something different. From Aspen, Glenwood Springs is a simple straight shot west down Highway 82 and takes about 45 minutes to reach.
For more information: www.glenwoodchamber.com
Salida has recently earned a reputation as a mountaineers getaway, mostly because of the town's immediate proximity to 12 of Colorado's famous "fourteeners" or snow-capped mountains measuring an elevation of 14,000 feet or more. Other summer recreation activities include fly fishing and white water rafting on the Arkansas River. The region is home to a number of natural artesian hot springs, including a large indoor hot springs pool. Downtown Salida is ideal for strolling past cafes and art galleries in redbrick buildings. Stop by the First Street Cafe in downtown Salida for a quick bit to eat. The lunch menu includes sandwiches, burgers, jerk chicken, fish and chips, and Mexican mainstays like burritos and enchiladas. Before heading back to Aspen, visit the St. Elmo ghost town, one of Colorado's best preserved ghost towns. The road trip from Aspen takes drivers over Independence Pass and through Buena Vista. The drive takes about two and a half hours.
For more information: www.www.salidachamber.org
This funky and gentrified Shangri-la for cattlemen, wranglers, and affluent retirees is geographically situated at the conflux of the Crystal River and the Roaring Fork River in the shadows of 12,965-foot summit of Mount Sopris. Once an active ranching community, modern Carbondale is still one part cowboy, one part high country beatnik. One can easily spend an hour strolling past the art galleries, bistros, and boutiques that line Main Street. Kids will love the Thursday night rodeo throughout the summer, especially the mutton-busting event when future bronco busters between ages three to six hang on to a sheep as it bolts out a gate. Stop by Skip's Pour House on Main Street for a cheap Coors Light and a tasty Colorado ranch hand delicacy: fried Rocky Mountain Oysters with your choice of BBQ, ranch or horseradish sauce. Also on Main Street, Phat Thai is one of th best Thai restaurant's in the Roaring Fork Valley and hosts spirited late night dance parties on "Phat Phridays." From Aspen, Carbondale is easily reached by going west on Highway 82 and takes about 30 minutes.
For more information: www.carbondale.com
Buena Vista, Colorado
Located near the famous Arkansas River headwaters, Buena Vista is centrally located in a region that touts itself as "The White Water Capital of the World." There are a number of local guide services, to guide vacationers on a white water rafting adventure. Spa and hot springs enthusiasts will enjoy a relaxing afternoon at Mt. Princeton Hot Springs Resort or Cottonwood Hot Springs. Buena Vistas is situated south of a vast section of wilderness known as the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness. The region contains fourteen-thousand foot peaks named after renown universities, including Mt. Harvard, Mt. Oxford, Mt. Yale, Mt. Princeton, and Mt. Columbia. After a morning of riding rapids, check out Bongo Billy's High Country Coffee and Cafe for a caffeine fix and a organic sandwich.
For more information: www.buenavistacolorado.org
The tiny town of Crawford is set in a picturesque valley with a backdrop of Needle Rock, a 800-foot volcanic butte jettisoning into the sky from the the Smith Fork of the Gunnison River. Situated south of Paonia in a fertile region known for farming and ranching, Crawford boasts a population of about 400 and the home of bluesy Brit-pop/rock star Joe Cocker, who achieved notoriety for crooning the theme song to the TV show "The Wonder Years" and other hits like "You Are So Beautiful." According to an article in The Denver Post, Cocker now spends his days on Mad Dog Ranch, where he grows tomatoes in the summer and fly fishes on the Gunnison River. The rockstar's local business endeavor, The Mad Dog Ranch Fountain Cafe, is an excellent stop for lunch and an ice cream cone. The Crawford State Park includes a 397-acre reservoir with boating and waterfront picnic facilities. Crawford is just a hop, skip, and jump away from the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.
For more information: www.crawfordcountry.org
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Forged by the Gunnison River running through soft volcanic deposits in Precambrian rocks, the Black Canyon is an awesome natural gorge with dramatic promontories in the midst of scrub, sage, and chaparral-covered foothills. In certain places the sheer dark-walled cliffs of the canyon are speckled with veins of white gneiss. Other sections include sharp, craggy pinnacles and dark, rocky outcroppings.The scenic drive along the park's south rim is a great overview of the canyon's topography and includes many overlooks for admiring the sweeping vistas and dizzying heights. Though it isn't advised, technical rock climbers sometimes scale the cliffs. The base of the canyon can be accessed from a steep four-hour hike, so weary trekkers may be interested in pitching a tent in the park's only campground. For a day trip to the Black Canyon, it's best to pack a picnic lunch or grab a quick bite in nearby Montrose or Delta. Getting to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park from Aspen takes about 4 hours, making it one of the longest road trips on our list.
For more information: www.nps.gov/blca
Redstone is the unspoiled crown jewel of the Crystal River Valley. This quaint little mining village has a small selection of antique shops, art galleries, an old fashion general store, and handcrafted jewelery boutiques. Touring the 42-room Redstone Castle is a must. Once the home of eccentric millionaire coal baron John Cleveholm Osgood, the walking the empty halls of the Tudor-style estate feels like wandering through the hotel in Stanley Kubrick's classic movie The Shining. Osgood was one of the richest men in the United States when the mansion was constructed. The Crystal River Club Cafe is a great stop for an al fresco lunch on a summer afternoon. On the way back to Aspen, stop by Penny Hot Springs along Highway 133 near Avalanche Ranch for an au naturale dip in a steamy natural hot spring. The trip from Aspen to Redstone takes about an hour and a half.
For more information: www.redstonecolorado.com
To the wine drinking public, the quaint Western Slope hamlet of Paonia, Colorado hardly carries the same allure as the varietals of Napa Valley or Sonoma. Approximately halfway between Aspen and Telluride, vintners and connoisseurs across the country are beginning to discover a burgeoning viticulture in the verdant valley due west of the McClure Pass along Highway 133. A temperate year round climate and rich alluvial soil make for idyllic conditions for organic vineyards and orchards to thrive. Sample and sip the selection of vintages at Leroux Creek Vineyards, Stone Cottage Cellars, or the Alfred Eames Cellars. Beer drinkers will rave about the lovingly crafted and thoughtfully sustainable home brews of Revolution Brewing. Visitors can sample their tasty selection of stouts, ales, and IPAs in the brewery's tasting room and backyard beer garden, located in a quaint former church on Grand Street. VWhile in Paonia, stroll down Grand Street and spend a leisurely afternoon in the town's centrally-located park. Try Fiesta Vallarta for an authentic Mexican lunch or the Flying Fork Cafe for an Italian meal next to the Gunnison River.
For more information: www.paoniachamber.com
If there is one things visitors need to know about Leadville before embarking on an afternoon sojourn from Aspen over Independence Pass, its that the elevation in this former mining mecca is extremely high. Nestled at 10,152 feet with a picturesque backdrop of Mount Massive, Leadville is the highest incorporated city in the United States, earning the nickname "Sky City U.S.A." Following the discovery of rich deposits of silver in the 1870s, the population of Leadville ballooned to become the second most populated city in Colorado after Denver. Today its population has dwindled to about 2500. During Leadville's heyday, prospectors, harlots, and outlaws like Doc Holliday drifted through town, as did other luminaries such as businessman Horace Tabor, Meyer Guggenheim (who started the Guggenheim family's fortune in nearby mines), and British humorist Oscar Wilde. The Tabor Opera House, where Wilde once performed, still stands today and was once known as one of the grandest performance spaces west of the Mississippi River. Most day trippers explore Harrison Avenue, the town's main drag, where a well-preserved historic district of flat-fronted buildings now housing sporting good stores, the occasional coffee house, gift shops, and many antique boutiques with authentic Wild West trinkets and old-fashioned souvenirs (old revolvers, saloon tokens, or black and white brothel pin-ups, anyone?). For more information about Leadville's mining past, check out the National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum. The Golden Burro serves up cheap and delicious Tex-Mex lunches. The Silver Dollar Saloon - an authentic false-fronted saloon dating back to 1879 - is a must stop for a cold beer and the historic Wild West ambiance. As far as road trips go, the drive to from Aspen to Leadville over the Continental Divide at Independence Pass is one of the most spectacular scenic routes in the United States. From Aspen, a very narrow Highway 82 snakes through wilderness and above the treeline towards the heavens until reaching an elevation of 12,095 feet. The roadway descends toward two lakes at the base of the 14,443 foot Mount Elbert, Colorado's highest mountain. The pass is only open over the summer from the end of May until the end of October. The drive from Aspen to Leadville takes about an hour.
For more information: www.leadville.com