Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Aspen Fall Colors 2014

For me, there is nothing more perfect than fall.  Cooler temperatures, pumpkin flavored everything, football, and of course lots of road trips to the State Fair, Oktoberfests, and Fall Color road trips.

Since moving to Colorado five years ago, we've made the trip up to Aspen every fall.  This came about by accident alllll the way back in 2010, when Chris signed up for the Fall Colors Run in Buena Vista.  Buena Vista itself is kind of a dull town, but in September they have a pretty great Marathon and Half Marathon.  They bus you up to the top of a mountain, and then you get to run down it.  One year, a pasture full of horses ran alongside the runners!

Buena Vista is a bit of a trek from Boulder/Denver and so while hanging out in the hotel during our first visit, we realized that it wasn't too far from Aspen at that point.  We hadn't explored Aspen yet, and thought, why not?  What followed was the most strikingly beautiful piece of Colorado we have seen - driving up (and back down) Independence Pass in late September.  Gorgeous!  After that trip, we've done it every year.

Aspen is roughly 4 hours from Boulder.  There are a few different ways to get there, but we prefer Independence Pass, which is a winding road that goes up to 12,000 feet.  Independence Pass is closed for much of the year due to snow (I guess the plows can't keep up at that elevation?), so in the winter you have to go mainly down 70.

Over the past four years we've discovered that the third to fourth weeks of September are ideal for seeing the colors.  One thing I have consistently noticed is that on the colors on the Eastern portion of the pass (between Twin Lakes and the summit) change before the colors in Aspen.  If you are driving through Twin Lakes, and the colors are vibrantly orange and yellow, they are likely to still be a bit green but beginning to change in Aspen itself.

This year we left on a Friday afternoon, hoping to catch the pass before sunset.  That didn't happen, much to our fortune.  At first it was intimidating to wind up a mountain pass in pure darkness, with no street lights or guardrails to protect us from slipping off the edge of the switchbacks.  We rolled down our windows and breathed in the cold scent of pine as cars collected behind us like pearls on a string.  We occasionally pulled over to let them pass us and then continued our slow ascent.

The top of the pass wasn't lit (no electricity up that high), but at 12,000 feet on a cold cloudless night, we could see more stars than we ever had before.  There was no artificial light up that high and the there was also no moon.  From where we stood on the top of this mountain, you could see the arms of the Milky Way spiraling out in what looked like clouds of stars.  It was beautiful.

Standing on top of a mountain in total darkness is a little unsettling at first.  Are there animals above the tree line?  How close am I to an edge?  Am I going to fall?  But once you let go of all those thoughts, there is little between you and the heavens.  I've never experienced anything like it, where I was so close to the stars I almost felt a part of them.

I wish I could have gotten a picture, but my camera just didn't work in such little light.  This isn't my picture, but it was much like this - only the sky was much darker.  I highly recommend trying this next time you're on a mountain pass at night.

We made our way back down the pass, which ends in Aspen.  The colors were so vibrant you could even see them at night.  I couldn't wait to see them in the morning!

I love Aspen, but we can only afford to visit once a year due to how expensive it is.  There aren't many "chain" restaurants and the food there is very steep.  We also haven't had a lot of luck in finding a good hotel there that isn't insanely high.  We've stayed at the Snowmass Mountain Chalet (in Snowmass), and this time in the Inn at Aspen.  The Inn at Aspen is dingy but being redone.  It still set us back $300 for two nights.  

Anyways, Saturday morning we woke up and had breakfast at my favorite place in Aspen, Main Street Bakery.  

As the name implies, the bakery is situated on one of the main streets of Aspen in a crumbling old building.  We arrived very early, about 7, and it was already packed.  We were lucky to snag a scrubbed pine table already set with jams and butter.  

The croissants here are fresh and handmade, which is what I love about this place.  They are flaky and all you can taste is the butter.  I ordered a ham and swiss croissant with some hot tea, which they presented to me in a tiny silver pot with a real tea cup.  Happiness.

After breakfast, most of the shops in town hadn't opened yet, so we decided to drive outside of Aspen for a hike.  We have hiked Maroon Bells in the past, but this year wanted something a little more off the beaten path.  

It was a beautiful morning, bright and clear and cool.  The sky was bright blue and the trees along the road were starkly yellow.  

We came to a trail head called Collegiate Peaks.  We picked it because of a pretty bridge arched over a roaring river (the White River I think?), and then saw a trail that lead to a lake.  The trail was damp and quiet and deeply forested.  We never ran across other hikers, and were alone in the quiet of the woods.  I kept expecting to see a bear or a moose, but did get to see some cute chipmunks.  

It seemed like a pretty easy hike, maybe two miles out and back.  There was some elevation gain, but not much.

Yellow and orange leaves fell on the dark ground, Aspen trees soared high above us to meet the sunlight.  The sun fell in tiny dappled pools, shimmering with the quaky leaves.  It was so stunning.  You could smell autumn in the air from the pine needles and leaves on the ground.  I personally loved the quiet and isolation.  All I could hear was the wild river below us and the calls of birds from above.  Lovely.

Eventually we came to the lake.  The lake was perfectly clear and I could see the rocks on the bottom.  There was little breeze, so the surface was glassy smooth.  

The peaks behind the lake (Collegiate Peaks I assume) were filled with blazing trees which reflected in the water.  You couldn't quite make it onto the shore due to the rocks, and from where this picture was taken, a huge pile of logs that looked like it may have come from a flood or higher water from snow melt.  

This was a good place to stop and rest for awhile.  There was no hurry.  There was no cellphone signal, or high traffic with other hikers, or anything but the all-absorbing quiet beauty of nature.  

After the hike our kids were both hungry and tired, so we headed back to the hotel for a bit to let feed them snacks and let them swim before lunch.  After breakfast and the hike it was just barely 10, so we needed to fill some time.

Our hotel was nestled at the base of Buttermilk, and the pool was practically within touching distance of the ski lifts.  The kids thought it was pretty cool to watch the lifts while swimming in the heated water.

After the swim, we went to Chris's favorite place in Aspen, Hickory House Ribs.  We came here the first time because we read that the pork was from Holland and was tulip-fed.  I guess that's kind of cool in theory.  Plus, Oprah ate here once or something.  And last year I swear I saw Jessica Simpson's husband carrying around their new little baby while walking down the street.  (Chris still disputes this.  But I totally did.)

I think the food here is just OK, but I like coming here to sit on the patio and look at the pretty little Victorian houses nestled in front of the Aspen slopes.  It's a great view.  

We parked on the street and while walking through the neighborhood, I couldn't help but be stunned by the beauty of everything in this town.  The little cottages in the neighborhood are full of gardens and flowers, so pretty and vibrant they almost don't look real.  In front of this little house was even a brook from the mountain - you can see the edge of it just below my daughter's feet.  It was no wider than a 12 inches, and just ran through the yards on the street.  Perfectly clear and clean. 

Everything in this town is just impossibly serene and lovely.  It looks like it's out of a storybook, really.  Can I move here?

After lunch I got kind of curious about where the celebrities live, so we looked it up and discovered that the wealthiest of the wealthy live on Red Mountain.  It's also called Billionaire Mountain, according to Forbes.  We drove up it, but of course most of the roads are private so we couldn't go down them.  However from the top, you sure do get a good view of town.

That evening we explored downtown.

I enjoy downtown Aspen even though it has a reputation for being rather high end.  The reputation is accurate - it's full of Prada and Burberry and Fendi.  There are also some more *ahem* "affordable" stores like North Face and Patagonia, and also a pretty fun playground with fountains for the kids.  It's actually a lot like Boulder's Pearl Street Mall, only with more exclusive shops.  And also some overpriced cowboy boots.  

There was a western type store open late, called Kemo Sabe, which we went in to.  There were all sorts of glitzy boots and hats.  Leather boots with Swarovski crystals, low slung ottomans covered in only the finest of cow hides, and a sales girl wearing the tightest, most expensive tank top I had ever seen.  

"How much are these?" I asked her, referring to a pair of glossy high heeled crocodile boots.  "They are five thousand dollars," she replied coolly.  "The crocodile used for them was from the Nile."
Well, then.  
We went back to our room, ordered pizza, and watched The Secret Life of Walter Mitty on cable. 

It was pouring down rain at this point, so the evening felt pretty perfect and cozy.

The next morning was cold and overcast, and we also had to be back in Denver by 6.  As all locals know, traffic from the mountains is a nightmare on the weekends, so we left early to get a move on.

But we stopped by the bakery first, and Starbucks second.  This time I ordered a Raspberry filled croissant, while everyone else ordered chocolate croissants.  So decadent and delicious.  

On our way out of town, we noticed the gondolas running.  These are little enclosed bubbles that take you to the top of a slope.  We love riding these in Breckenridge because they take you to another area with all sorts of fun activities like an alpine slide, and also, they're free!

Our kids of course were chomping at the bit to ride the Aspen ones, so Chris got out to find out how much they cost.  It was $17 per person.
"So what do I get out of it?  What's at the top?"  Chris asked.
"You get to see the pretty colors," the guy said. 
Yeah, thanks but no thanks buddy.  $100 for all of us to ride up a hill is pretty crazy.  Especially since it isn's ski season.  And especially since we got to see more colors later in the day.

So back up the pass we went.  The colors had changed even more overnight, and the overcast sky made the trees look brighter.  This is the road right outside of Aspen on our way out.  Too pretty.

Really, there isn't a lot more I can say about how beautiful this drive is, or why this is by far my number one favorite trip of the entire year.  So here are some more photos.

This was the White River from a random pull off point on the road.  I couldn't resist getting out to walk around in the woods.  No trails here, though.

This is the top of Independence Pass, at 12,000 feet and above the treeline.  Almost looks like another planet. 

Towards the bottom of the pass, as you are spiraling down.  I can't resist a pretty river - this was taken from a bridge on a hiking trail.  But I don't remember the name.

This is a lookout point at Twin Lakes.  This is a teeny tiny little town that is at one end of the pass.  The mountains look like they are on fire as you drive up to them.

And then this is in Vail, on our way back home.

Sigh.  I kind of hate that I have to wait a year to go back and see the colors again.  Nothing in the world is better than fall.  

Colorado State Fair

In late August and early September, we like to stop by the Colorado State Fair.  It's held in Pueblo which seems a bit off the beaten path for most people in Colorado.  But coming from Texas, where the State Fair is held in a dangerous part of Dallas, I'll take it!  It generally has a laid back, local, country feel to it and is so much fun.

Pueblo is much hotter than the Denver and Boulder areas, so we always wait until nighttime to arrive.  Plus, fairs are way more fun in the dark anyway, with all the bright flashing lights lighting up the sky.

Rides at the fair can really add up, and if you have kids like we do, it's a pretty good idea to buy the wristbands for unlimited rides.  It also sometimes includes food, which we did this year.  We got four wristbands plus four meals and drinks for $125.

Chris's favorite part is a beer festival and competition, which he enters every year.  The kids' favorite part are the rides.  And the fried Oreos.  And the Funnel Cake.  And Corn Dogs. 

Sometimes the rides can be a little intimidating, though, so they become best friends.

Normally what we do is when we arrive, we let the kids go on rides for a bit, and then head over for food and then to look at the animals.  Looking at the animals is fun, because they let you pet a lot of them.  The goats, which are there for competitions, are friendly and love to be petted.  There are also petting zoos.  Beware of the piglets, though - they bite!

We generally only need 4-5 hours to do and see everything we want to do.  There is much more that we don't get to, since we have little ones.  This year the Broncos Cheerleaders were there, along with  some shows, like rodeos and barrel racing.  We also got to test drive some trucks on a mini off roading course.  Fun!

It's just a good, fun, family friendly way to spend a weekend.