We recently had an opportunity to get back to Aspen, Colorado. After a quick walk through the town to reacquaint ourselves with the town and its many galleries, we stopped to see the wonderfully renovated Hotel Jerome and the greatly expanded Aspen Art Museum. The renovation of the Jerome lived up to its billing and the museum is a lovely and functional structure, complete with a rooftop cafe. The museum, however, is totally dependent on temporary exhibits and those that are currently on display were of mixed interest, at least to us. Most interesting was the display of temporary cardboard and paper structures that can be quickly and inexpensively transported to and erected in a disaster site.
Although sightseeing is fun, our primary interest was in taking advantage of the area’s natural beauty. We took a 4-mile walk through Aspen Meadows along the Meadows and Rio Grande Trails, and then a roughly 4-mile hike along the lower Hunter Creek Trail and a venture into the Maroon River wilderness and Maroon Bells State Park.
Aspen Area Trails
- Hunter Creek Trail. Although the trail along the creek connects to many other trails, we confined ourselves to the 1.5 mile (each way) trail, plus two extensions: the lovely Verena Mallory loop, and the much steeper (less scenic) Hunter Creek Extension. The Creek Trail is beautiful, with multiple crossings of the pretty, rapidly flowing brook, waterfalls, and, especially on Verena Mallory, views of the town and provocative hints of a few of the incredible Red Mountain Road mansions. Overall, it is a wonderful, short trail.
- Maroon Bells Crater Lake Trail. After a half-hour drive through the incredible, avalanche-scarred Maroon River wilderness, you reach Maroon Bells. This is one of the most awesome natural settings we have ever seen. Although we have hiked many of the trails through this park, including the long, difficult, but very rewarding 9.2-mile round trip (with a 3,000-foot elevation gain) hike up to Buckskin Pass, we only had two hours and hiked a short, gradual climb part way to Crater Lake. The majesty and beauty were all that we remembered and we even caught partial sightings of two moose.
- Glenwood Canyon and Hanging Lake Trail. Then on to a short, but somewhat more ambitious hike. After a roughly one-hour drive to Glenwood Springs and the beautiful Glenwood Canyon, we stopped at Hanging Lakes State Park for a 1.2 mile, 1,000-foot elevation gain trail (plus a roughly three-quarter-mile paved walk to the trailhead) to the lake. It was very steep, with many steps and not many views along the way. But about two-thirds of the way up the cliff face, you are more than amply rewarded by views of the crystal clear lake and its dissolved carbonate shoreline. Even more impressive is the beautiful waterfall that feeds the lake. And don’t stop with the postcard view of the lake and falls from the wooden path. Be sure to take the short trail, which ends just behind the waterfall, and to glance up at the hanging moss gardens, from which the water is falling.
Although it has been about three years since we last visited Aspen, the restaurant scene appears to have changed little. We found most of the same restaurants as in our previous visits. The top restaurants in the city continue to be: Pinion, Matsuhisa, Pine Creek Cookhouse, Element 47 (which replaced Montagna at the Little Nell Hotel) and the Steak House. And one new addition, the casual Ajax Tavern (also at the Little Nell). We had chances to try three of these restaurants.
- Pinion. (UPDATE: Pinions is no longer opened). After beginning with a nondescript appetizer of buffalo meatballs with prosciutto, Parmesan, and romesco sauce, we proceeded to the main courses. Although the sesame-crusted sea bass with bok choy, coconut rice, and basil lemongrass sauce was nice, the standout was the incredibly tender and tasty espresso-seared buffalo tenderloin with Boursin potatoes and huckleberry sauce. We also enjoyed dessert–a mixed berry cobbler with vanilla ice cream. Expensive, but good.
- Element 47. Although we only had lunch at this restaurant in The Little Nell, we enjoyed both dishes. The crispy cod sandwich with slaw and old bay mayonnaise contained a large, juicy piece of fish. Even better was the chicken confit tagliatelle with Fava beans, maitake mushrooms, and pecorino.
- Ajax Tavern. Another, less formal Little Nell restaurant is right at the base of a ski lift with a view up Aspen Mountain. We had three starters which proved far more than the two of us could eat. The garlic frog legs were herbed, very lightly fried, served with aioli, tender, delicate and delicious. The smoked, barbecued lamb ribs with a jerk and ginger beer rub were also good, but certainly more assertive. Mac and cheese with bread crumbs was also good, and the serving was huge, overflowing the metal pan in which they were served. Again, another nice dish.
We have often walked through Aspen Meadows and attended a few concerts at the Aspen Music Festival. But we have never stayed at the Aspen Meadows Resort at which the Music Festival and the Aspen Institute are located. Although we have not yet made it to an Aspen Institute event, we did finally get to stay in the Bauhaus-style resort. The buildings are architecturally interesting and the rooms, in accordance with Bauhaus principles, were functional, unadorned, and comfortable. While they certainly were not luxurious, they were nice. Besides, resort guests are not expected to lounge in their rooms. They typically spend their time at concerts or lectures, in conversation spurred by the exchange of ideas at the Institute, or experiencing nature along the area’s many trails.
Although our time in Aspen was short, what trip would be complete without a few minutes to admire a few of the homes in a town where the average home is worth more than $5 million. Some, such as in the city’s fashionable West End neighborhood, are nicely restored or rebuild Victorians. The larger, more adventurous buildings are typically in the surrounding mountains, such as along the ultra-ritzy Red Mountain Road.