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Roadside America: Colorado's Roaring Fork Valley



If you were to ask most Americans if they'd heard of the Roaring Fork Valley, you'd get a blank stare. Mention Aspen, however, and the light goes on, regardless of their social or economic standing (blame reality TV, our cultural obsession with celebrity, and 1970s/Reagan-era excess).

Aspen may be the St. Moritz of the U.S., but its location at the upper (southeast) end of the western Colorado's stunning Roaring Fork Valley is what makes it special. The 50-mile valley runs along the river of the same name (the Frying Pan and Crystal Rivers down-valley are tributaries that provide top-notch fly-fishing and paddling).

It's a region of meadows, aspen groves and the soaring alpine peaks of the Elk Mountains, as well as stark red cliffs and pine forest. The Ute Indians inhabited the area before the mining boom of the late 19th century. Following the silver crash of 1803, coal mining drove the local economy, through the early 20th century. Today, the valley towns are largely comprised of refurbished original storefronts housing galleries, boutiques, cafes, bakeries, coffee houses and restaurants, but the remnants of ghost towns can be found throughout the valley.

While Aspen is an international destination, the down-valley former mining/ranching towns of Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs are more affordable, low-key options for lovers of outdoor adventure, solitude and a thriving local food scene. And just minutes from Aspen is the lovely, rural hamlet of Woody Creek, home of Hunter S. Thompson in his final years, and a favorite spot for Aspenites to engage in outdoor recreation due to its extensive trail system.
While it's true down-valley is blowing up, real estate-wise, and housing developments are popping up like toadstools in outer Carbondale and neighboring El Jebel (where the August opening of a Whole Foods had the valley in a divisive uproar), the region is still pristine with regard to commercial tourism and most of the ills of urban living. Ranching and farming are still the backbone of the valley economy, and Carbondale has become an epicenter of grassroot organizations dedicated to alternative energy, green living and the local food shed. Indeed, the entire region is very invested in sustainable, low-impact living, and that carries over to tourism.

Come for a visit if you'd like to avoid the exorbitant prices and scene that can make Aspen (a place I love, it bears mentioning) a bit of a bummer during high season. Let me be clear that down-valley accommodations aren't cheap, but they're affordable compared to the ski resorts, and provide a different kind of holiday, whether it's self-catered, or designed for lots of snuggling on the couch in front of the fireplace.

This time of year, the aspens and meadows shimmer like gold, and the mountain peaks are dusted with snow. Starting next month, big-spending skiers will head up to Aspen, but valley locals are more likely to strap on their snowshoes or Nordic skis and avail themselves of the trails and famed 10th Mountain Division Hut system. Follow their lead, then end the day by unwinding in a nearby hot spring or preparing dinner, reading, and enjoying a regional craft beer or wine (the nearby Western Slope, just over the McClure Pass outside of Carbondale, leads to a number of wineries and tasting rooms, open in summer) before a cozy fire.

There's no shortage B & B's, inns, cabins, farm stays, and guest ranches in the region, and in summer, camping is also a popular pastime, as is kayaking, rafting, horseback riding, fishing, climbing, hiking, road cycling, and mountain biking. The seasonal farmers markets in Aspen, Basalt, and Carbondale are full of handcrafted foods and beautiful produce from nearby farms. In winter, you'll still find many menus in the area dominated by locally-grown and -made foods; check out Edible Aspen magazine's website for more in the way of great local eats and brews.

Getting there
Aspen/Pitkin County Airport has daily non-stop flights from Los Angeles, Dallas, Denver and Chicago. From Denver International Airport, it's approximately a 3.5-hour drive to Glenwood Springs on I-70. It's best to have a car for exploration if you're staying in the valley, although there is a bus system.

[Flickr image via JimLeach89]

Filed under: Biking, Climbing, Arts and Culture, Hiking, History, Paddling, Skiing, Food and Drink, North America, United States, Hotels and Accommodations, Camping, Luxury Travel

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