The drive from California to Colorado is not just a long one or a quiet one, but a profound transition in climate and terrain across the continental divide. At the reaches of eastern Nevada, the road is paved along snow-covered hills and high deserts. Wide valleys divide ranges crossed by way of shallow mountain cleavages, and on the other side, even higher summits seem to stand at the edge of the next plain.
By Utah, the rocks turn red and the distant peaks stand higher still. As soon as we crossed into Grand Junction, Colorado, we thus entered the sawtoothed skyline of the Rocky Mountains. The great plains faded to our west and would await us again on the other side of Denver.
While our visit early was in early December, the aspen and evergreen tree-covered mountains were already in a winter white blanket, with sharp horizontal lines of red revealing the hardest to reach parts of Earth.
Once a silver-mining frontier town, Aspen still bears many of the old commercial style buildings — tall ceilings and brick lay — a deeply characteristic look of Colorado towns nestled in the narrow valleys of Rockies.
The silver boom of the 1890s expanded the local population immensely and left us with landmarks like the 1889 Wheeler Opera House and the luxurious Hotel Jerome built in 1901 — both commissioned by a part owner of Macy’s Department Store, Jerome B. Wheeler. Wheeler also built a 19th-century, Queen Anne–style home turned museum: the Wheeler-Stallard House.
It wasn’t until the 1940s that Aspen was reborn as a ski destination. Although, locals can confirm that people come for the winter and stay for the summer.
come for the winter and stay for the summerThe white mountains and ski trails turn green and while snow polo may be fun, but imagining riding along a backdrop of yellow aspen leaves in the spring was almost enough to keep us from packing our things and ever leaving. The Maroon Bells are considered one of the most colorful, photographic spots on the planet; photos will leave you looking for summer rental options.
Aspen is nothing short of amazing. It has a vibrant après ski culture — there is actually a place called Meat & Cheese, serving up exactly that, and expertly. On warmer days people sit at Little Nell and watch the skiers ride in from the top of Aspen Mountain. On cold evenings, they sit cozily by the fire in the dimly lit, sultry grandeur of the Hotel Jerome lobby bar. Many of the old frontier constructions are high-fashion shops, such as the local Tyrolean-inspired Gorsuch.
On our second day, we were hit by a blizzard and in a mad dash to enjoy the fresh powder I was able to purchase a full Obermeyer (another local Aspen brand) ski outfit for under $200 at Amber’s Uptown Consignment in town.
In the winter as tourists and locals alike shift from the slopes at Snowmass, Buttermilk, and Aspen Highlands, there is an incredible amount of traffic. Of course, it’s a great opportunity to peek at the gorgeous ranches and architectural wonders dotting the hillsides and the brightly painted Victorian style homes which dot the Main Street as you reach the town center. Pitkin County’s own transportation is not without humor, for you can take the VelociRFTA.
To arrive in Telluride is to defeat nature. The area is blocked by mountains on three sides. Even when you reach the small isolated village, tall forested cliffs stand on either side and most conspicuously, a monstrous boulder of a mountain looks alive and like at any moment, it could roll across the town with great velocity. From appearances, it might be the most unexpected town in Colorado; its origins are in silver and gold mining.
Remote as it may be, Telluride is plentiful of wine bars and coffee shops — or both at The Butcher & Baker Café. There is a robust fondue and raclette menu at the Alpinist and the Goat. Main Street is extremely picturesque — a long stretch of brick buildings. Great home shops abound like Hook on a Wall, and numerous cool outfitters for the outdoors, and slightly less extravagant than in Aspen.
The surrounding village, like Aspen, is filled brightly painted Victorian-style homes. There were also a ton of buildings under construction which might attest to why there were some four or so Sotheby’s Realty offices on Telluride’s Main Street.
Ouray considers itself the “Switzerland” of America. It’s a quaint town with much of its turn-of-the-century character in tact— Victorian architecture lines its wide main boulevard. It’s a sleepy town with two breweries and a handful of restaurants that never seemed to be open by the time we were ready to dine. One of these breweries is Ourayle House Brewery (also known as Mr. Grumpy Pants). The owner is not without a sense of humor with walls covered in clever snarky isms and adages. The beer is tasty and always changing. The menu tells the name of the beer, the type, the tap and the local inside joke for its nomenclature. It can be ordered in a small his or a large hers mug.
At one end of Ouray’s main street is a bathhouse with access to four natural sulfur-free hot springs. In the evening, we joined the locals and other passers-through admiring the big open skies in a 104ºF degree pool while icicles formed in our hair.
The opposite end of town is a frozen waterfall. In fact, ice climbing is one the largest draws for winter tourism in Ouray.
Ouray also marks the beginning of Highway 550, better known as America’s Million Dollar Highway. It’s a north-to-south shortcut through mountains summiting at 13,000 feet to reach New Mexico and it would be our route to Santa Fe. It’s most famous for its death-defying 12 mile stretch of a two-lane road dug into the side of a mountain; no shoulder, no guard rails. There are several hairpin curves as you climb up and down the mountains out of Ouray but the most spine-chilling stretches are the long straight ones along the edge of the Earth.