Aspen: What came first, the town or the tree?

Fiona Galloway: Candidtraveller Editor

Travelling in Colorado means finding the time to visit Aspen, a sublime little city in Pitkin County that’s been famous as a ski resort for decades.  It’s a favourite haunt of celebrities, the apres-ski scene is hot and the views are stunning, and that’s all fine, but what happens if you don’t ski?

Outstanding View

My first and only visit (so far) to Colorado was in late September and it saw me stop over in Aspen on a road trip from Denver to Las Vegas.  Choosing to stay here, although slightly off our route, was one of the best decisions my husband and I made on that trip.  It was beautiful.

Arriving in late evening meant driving through Independence Pass while it was dark.  Even though the view was non-existent, you could tell by the sharp drop of the cliff edge that if we’d just planned our trip a little better we would have been staring into a dramatic canyon.  I’ve since seen images of that mountainous range, and they have only served to make me wish I’d been more thorough with my road trip research.  My new mission in life is to go back and drive that rocky, winding pass in daylight.

Aspen is a fabulous little place.  We were visiting out of season, and on a Monday too, when most shops were shut.  Another note to self about planning better in future.  But even though we could walk for blocks and barely see a soul, it was a fantastic experience.  The buildings remind you a little of the wild west, although they’re not made of timber or built on a prairie.  It was more of a colonial feel you got from some of the shops and streets.  And talk about friendly.  The few people we did see were smiling and happy, stopping to pass the time of day, which for me and my usually frenzied life was a fabulous change.

As we walked along one of the shopping streets, which I can imagine would be the focus of retail therapy in the winter season, we were stopped by a man sitting on a deck chair outside his tourist souvenir shop, about the only place open at all, reading a paper.  He chatted pleasantly, didn’t try to entice us inside, and suggested that if we really wanted to make the most of our incredibly short visit to Aspen, we should head up to the Maroon Bells for an hour or two.

The Maroon Bells, as it turns out, is a mountain range located to the west of Aspen, and possibly one of the most photographed set of peaks in the USA.  We drove into the visitor car park and stopped in front of what was possibly the most commanding view we’d seen for a while and one that (almost) made up for that blunder at the Pass.

Rising high about Maroon Lake, the Bells juts through the centre in a rocky, imposing land mass.  Covered in snow, even in the height of summer, it’s an impressive sight.  And covering it’s slopes were thousands, upon thousands of Aspen trees in their vivid yellow autumn colours.  We wandered the trails for a while enjoying the solitude the further away from the visitor car park we got.  It was a feeling of being in a true wilderness.

When we left, finally, after managing to tear ourselves away from the Colorado wilderness, we drove back down Maroon Creek Road and back to town.  We were about halfway down when we saw something moving in the undergrowth.  We stopped our car and watched as a young grey wolf stepped out from the side of the road and trotted in front of us.  It stopped on the verge and looked up, only a couple of feet from our car, but even though I was fumbling for my camera, I missed getting a shot.  Typical.

It seems that the wolves have not been reintroduced to this area for very long, and now that there is a natural predator back in the area, the young Aspen trees, which were previously suffering at the teeth of hungry herbivores, are thriving again, so we feel privileged to have gotten a glimpse of one, and so close as well.

I love Aspen, and it’s become a firm favourite in my list of ‘places I love’.  I’m not determined to go back again, spring or winter, but stay a little longer.  And because I’m a real foodie, I’d love to travel to the city when the Food and Wine Classic comes to town.

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