Aspen Colorado is a place we continually return to. We love the small town and, especially the hiking in the area. We were last there in 2014 and decided that it was time to return.
Aspen was originally a mining town. The Federal government repealed a law in 1893 that had required the government to purchase silver. As Aspen’s prosperity depended on silver, the resultant crash in the price of silver put the city into a steep decline. In the 1930s, Aspen started to revive when it replaced the silver boom with tourist gold–especially from ski tourists.
Today, the city has a trove of lovely renovated Victorian buildings, such as the Hotel Jerome, Wheeler Opera House, and the Elk and Aspen Buildings. It complemented these with new buildings that housed upscale hotels, restaurants, galleries, stores, and several parks as well as annual events. It has become home to a major national Food and Wine Festival, the famed Aspen Institute, a large playground where it often holds events, and third or fourth vacation home sites for hundreds of wealthy businesspeople and celebrities.
Although we certainly enjoy exploring the restaurants, browsing the galleries, and hiking the trails (especially around the awesome Maroon Belles area), we can’t say we are especially drawn to any particular amenities or features. Still, the overall gestalt keeps drawing us back.
To us, Aspen is for hiking. We began with two short hikes on Independence Pass.
- The Grottos. This short (0.6 mile) popular loop trail has virtually no elevation gain but does have a few difficult patches. It showcases a pretty waterfall. But the star of the walk is a number of lovely, water-sculpted grottos in a twisting slotted canyon that, even in mid-June, were lined with ice. The ice caves are a bit daring. We watched s a number of people carefully slide themselves down into grottos and slipped and slid their ways through the ice-lined channel. It is a lovely trail, even if you don’t venture into the canyon.
- Weller Lake Trail. This 1.2-mile round trip goes to a boulder-lined mountain lake. While the limited and gradual elevation gain makes it a relatively easy trail, it requires continual navigation through an obstacle trail of rocks, boulders, trees, and half-buried roots. Getting down to the lake itself requires navigating a treacherous rock field littered with dead trees and branches that were washed to the shore. While it is an okay trail, it pales relative to the Grottos.
Then onto what is probably our fourth trip to the beautiful Maroon Bells. Unfortunately, as we get older, our hikes have been getting shorter and less rigorous. But we still love it and do anything to return to the amazing area.
Maroon Bells has a beautiful reflective lake from the “bells”: The Maroon Peak and North Maroon Peak.
A few things you need to know before you go:
- Driving to the Bells is limited during the popular summer months. You could drive in before 8 AM but after that, one has to buy a modestly-priced ticket on a shuttle bus (hint: as soon as you know your schedule, buy a ticket as your time may have been sold out. However, you can often get a last-minute seat on an earlier bus if there is room). The shuttle bus used to start from the transportation center in Aspen but it has since moved outside of Aspen closer to the Bells. Aspen does provide free transportation to the shuttle bus stop from the transportation center (meaning you take a bus to the shuttle bus stop).
- Bring any food and water that you might need as you can’t buy either once you get there.
- Double-check the requirements before you go as they may have changed.
On this trip, we repeated three short hikes that we have done before in the Bells:
- Crater Lake is a popular, moderately steep, very rocky, 3.6 mile round trip trail that we have hiked several times previously and it never gets old. The hike entails an uphill climb through a huge Aspen forest and clambering over a scree field left by an ancient rockslide that created the lake. While most of the trail offers only occasional views of the Bells and other steep, surrounding mountains, the views open up as you reach the scree and are increasingly beautiful as you view the Bells and other nearby mountains from over the lake.
- Maroon Lake Trail is a short, very scenic, very easy 1-mile trail that traces the shore of the shallow, incredibly clear glacial lake. You go past the logjam at the base of the lake, past a beaver dam and up to a fork where you can go to Crater Lake, or up the very steep, very difficult trail to the pass (which we did on our first hike but not this time) that ultimately leads to Crested Butte. A third option is the Falls Loop Trail which we had previously done.
- Falls Loop Trail is a very scenic 1.5-mile loop that traces the banks of a rushing stream, past waterfalls and beaver dams with practically continuous views of the Bells and several almost as beautiful other 14,000+-foot mountains that surround Maroon Lake.
As we were in Aspen for several nights, we got to several restaurants. As things were just opening up after Covid restrictions, not all restaurants were operating which limited some of our choices.
- Wild Fig. A nice central city restaurant where we had two dishes: the hit was an appetizer of pan-seared scallops with corn puree, paprika, and chili oil. A tougher than expected veal loin scaloppini with potato puree, garlic spinach, and a heavy, caper butter jus that overwhelmed the meat was less exciting. We had a 2019 Rivers Marie Pinot Noir from the Sonoma Coast.
- French Alpine Bistro. Normally we think about getting cheese fondue when it is cold. In spite of 80-degree weather in Aspen, we had a craving for it and the French Alpine Bistro had one. The fondue was a very tasty combination of gruyere, Vacherin, Beaufort and Comte cheeses with white wine and kirschwasser. Unfortunately, the wind that was blowing through the outside tent in which we ate was cooling off the heating unit used beneath the pot. It did not put off enough heat to keep the fondue warm. It kept congealing and we had to send the pot back to the kitchen for reheating 3 times. Still, it was very tasty.
- Betula Aspen. At this French-American restaurant, we began with an Asian-themed elk carpaccio. Unfortunately, the yuzu soy sauce overwhelmed the small pieces of elk. We also had a very good grilled Scottish Salmon with pistou sauce and a range of vegetables and a huge roasted veal chop with braised acorn squash, oyster mushrooms, and carrots. The very helpful somm helped guide us through the nice but very expensive wine list to a rewarding choice of 2017 Domaine Thenard Clos St. Pierre Givry 1er Cru. The meal came with a very nice octopus salad on crispy potato amuse and a final taste of lemon tart. A very nice, but very expensive meal.
We stayed at the Aspen Square Condominium Hotel which was right across from the City Market in Aspen. A very nice location that also provided free underground parking. Like many ski places, the room had a little too much large furniture. But that seems to be a theme in ski areas. After moving the large chair out of the way, it was much better. Our unit # 406 was large with a kitchenette area, balcony, and plenty of seating and fireplace. It was very nicely done and had all that we needed. We will definitely return here the next time.
For more on Aspen, read our 2014 blog: