While notorious for the celebrities that own properties in town and flock to the ski slopes in winter, Aspen is also a great getaway during the summer months. There are plenty of outdoor activities, including the required ride on the gondola to the top of the mountain. Then, of course, there’s the shopping that resembles Rodeo Drive, with designer stores like Burberry, Valentino, Gucci, and the like.
I have been curious about Aspen for a while, but have not made the trek out there because it’s more convenient to just ski in Summit County and not drive the extra two hours. Without snowy driving conditions as a concern, though, there is no reason not to get out to Aspen for a change of Colorado scenery. The drive there is an adventure in and of itself, going over Independence Pass with its steep drop offs and hairpin turns that guide you to the lush forests of aspens just outside the town.
Only in Aspen for a very brief period of time, I made the most out of every minute and had plenty of time to see my first wild bear (just across the street from my hotel as I walked my dog at night), to stumble upon the first stage of the USA Pro Challenge cycling event, to eat some good food, and to watch the sun rise on the gorgeous Maroon Bells.
Getting up before sunrise on a clear day, you will not regret the lack of sleep when the sun starts to creep down from the peaks of the Maroon Bells. Located just outside of town, take Maroon Creek Road to the end, and Maroon Lake is about 100 yards from the parking lot. In the summertime, mid-June through Labor Day, from 9am to 5pm one can only access Maroon Lake by public bus (ticket purchase required). But, since I know you’re going to do exactly what I tell you to do, you should have no problem driving your car and finding parking at 6am in order to set up for sunrise. At that early hour, I also was not subject to the $10 access fee because the gatehouse was closed. While beautiful any time of year, I have seen fantastic photos of the Maroon Bells when they are at their most glorious – in autumn, highlighted by the bright golden yellow colors of the turning aspen tree leaves. Just something to consider, timing-wise!
Speaking of aspens, along the route to the Maroon Bells are some beautiful groves of aspens. Make sure to stop and play around with various compositions and angles for your photographs. After all, taking a photo of a group of aspen trees is a requirement when you visit Aspen!
When driving into Aspen, I was greeted with an electronic sign warning of road closures for a bike race. I had no idea this was going on while I was in town, but it certainly explains why the hotel rate was high for off-season! The event was actually the first of seven stages of a professional cycling race – the annual USA Pro Challenge. While this race attracts some great riders, I learned that many of the elite cyclists opt to compete in the tour occurring concurrently in Spain, though I know of at least one Tour de France competitor in the Colorado field – not too shabby!
Being more of a car racing fan myself, it was interesting to experience the similarities between car and bike racing from a spectator’s perspective. Right away, you’re reminded why it is so much better to watch something on television and not in person. Stage 1 was a three lap loop between Aspen and Snowmass, so we basically only saw the riders at the start, the end of laps 1 and 2, and then for the finish. What I found interesting was the number of support vehicles outnumbered the actual competitors by a 2:1 ratio! Those vehicles included tv cameras and photographers on motorcycles, race official vehicles, emergency support vehicles, and team equipment and repair vehicles. I wasn’t sure if I was at a cycling race or a car parade!
I was fortunate to be along the course next to other spectators who knew what they were watching, so they taught me some of the basics. For the first two laps, there is a small breakaway group that is pushing really hard to generate a gap between that group and the larger “peloton” behind. The disadvantage of being in the breakaway group is that riders are often without other teammates to support them, and with less opportunities to draft and conserve energy, they are more tired on the third leg when sprinting is most important. One spectator nearby suggested that the breakaway group is basically a two-lap advertising billboard for the sponsors because they get a lot of the television coverage at the cost of pretty much being guaranteed of getting swallowed by the peloton near the end of the race.
Behind the breakaway group is the peloton, where you can see the teams working together to progress through the course while using aerodynamic strategies to manage energy levels. In the third lap, this peloton picks up the pace to reduce the gap to the breakaway, then it’s a sprint to the finish, especially after the last climbing section of the course. I’m sure there’s a very complex strategy to this sport, and maybe even agreements within the team on who does what or who gets to win (insert “shake and bake” reference from “Talladega Nights” movie), but it’s definitely outside my circle of competence. And I’m ok with that! At the very least, I got some good photos of the race, and from the event expo I got some free packs of Jelly Bellys, a free t-shirt for winning cornhole, a free cowbell, and a free Marmot waterbottle. All in all a great time in my book!
As for food in town, I have a few recommendations:
Ajax Tavern: Located at the base of the Silver Queen Gondola, this restaurant has a great (pet-friendly) patio and scenic views of the mountain.
La Creperie du Village: Delicious and simple french cuisine with a dessert menu full of everyone’s favorite crepes! Also – a dog friendly patio, albeit a very small one.
Grateful Deli: This small sandwich shop on Main Street is a great place to grab a quick bite.