Tag Archives: Aspen

The Byways Revisited – Pockets of Color in the Colorado Rockies


Colorado’s fall color explosion begins in early September with high country aspen beginning their golden exhibition deep in the central and northern mountains.

While there are many places I would love to go to view the aspen in their colorful fall garb, this time, I stuck to the central mountains so that I could make it home in time for the evening Broncos kick-off. Still, my little ole car ended up with more than 250 miles in this round-trip jaunt.

So, where did I go? To the Top of the Rockies Scenic and Historic Byway, the 10th Mountain Division section of the byway that is.

First, let’s get to the color and yes, there were some aspen which were already breaking free of their summertime green exploding into gold with a little bit of orange and rust thrown in for good measure. All along the drive from Minturn to Leadville, aspen were changing in pockets of gold. The most dramatic views were along the Battle Mountain drive.

Pockets of gold along 10th Mountain Diviision Highway.
Pockets of gold along 10th Mountain Division Highway.

The road along this drive climbs high above the Eagle River and the aspen hug the steep hillside only stopping when the hill gives way to dramatic black, red and rust-colored cliffs.

I thoroughly enjoyed myself, stopping at almost every pullout, soaking up the scenery, breathing in the cool fresh mountain air and taking in the colorful scenery. Not even the dark clouds that drifted over the mountain range could keep me from feeling completely delighted. Luckily, the storm clouds during my drive came and went pretty quickly, leaving amazing blue and puffy white-cloud skies behind. With the green and gold covered hillsides and red colored cliffs in the background, I was in complete awe of the scenery.

Now, let’s move on to the history of this byway. There are two major historic distinctions along the byway between Minturn and Leadville. One is a rich mining history and the other is a military history. In between Minturn and Red Cliff is the abandoned mining town of Gilman. Now, while this town is an abandoned ghost town, the age of many of the buildings in this town are not as old as one might think, because the town was last inhabited in 1984. That’s right, I said ‘19’ – 84…only 30 years ago.

Gilman ghost town.
Gilman ghost town.

So, what happened? Well, the zinc extraction industry went belly up (with rock-bottom zinc prices) and the town was condemned by the EPA…that’s it in a nutshell. Check out the Substreet blog for more historical information and lots of photos of the town and surrounding area.

As for the military history…well, that comes in the Pando Valley area of the byway, now called Camp Hale for the military operations that took place there during WWII. Camp Hale is located between Red Cliff and Leadville. Many of its distinctions include ski training operations of the 10th Mountain Division as well as a secret CIA training camp from 1958 – 64 with the Tibetan freedom fighters. Check out the linked website for interesting information on all the activities that took place there.

When you visit the area now, you might see a few long forgotten cement walls, some sort of road system which has been almost completely covered by natural vegetation and hopefully you will never come across any, but munitions are still being recovered by the military in its cleanup of the area. Note: if you do a google search for Camp Hale on Goolge Maps and turn to the satellite view, you can still see the outline of the camp buildings and road system.

When I stopped at the roadside pullout which memorializes the secret CIA and Tibetan training operations, I got out of my car just long enough to watch the storm clouds which had been chasing me since Battle Mountain blow down into the valley, completely engulfing the mountainsides, leaving nothing in view except for a thick mist.

Camp Hale Tibetan freedom fighters memorial plaque.
Camp Hale Tibetan freedom fighters memorial plaque.

I took a few shots before the rain began and then hid in my car as it blew through and then quickly retreated through the other side of the valley and over another mountain range. The smells left behind were thick and rich with scents of pine and late summer. Soon, the clouds broke and gave way to a perfectly blue sky dotted with puffy white clouds. I was in heaven and lingered for a while longer before continuing on to Leadville.

One other historical note to mention and this piece of history unfortunately has no name, although it’s known as cabin in the valley according to a photo I found on a Google search. On previous jaunts in this area, I had always just cruised past this broken and falling down cabin, but this time, I stopped. When I approached the cabin, I noticed that it had two distinct rooms. This was different from other old relics I had come across in the Colorado Rockies, so I made sure to take as many photos as I could from different angles before leaving the area.

Oh and just so you know, the last leg of the byway from Leadville to Copper Mountain also has a ton of colorful aspen viewing right along the byway. It definitely is worth taking a whole day to linger along the drive if you go.

Looking southward from the road to Freemont Pass along hwy91.
Looking southward from the road to Freemont Pass along hwy91.

Maybe even take a train ride in Leadville during this time of year to capture the changing aspen with an historical train as backdrop against the high mountain peaks. Check out the Leadville Twin Lakes website for more information on the fall train tours.

For info on what to do and see, where to stay and what to eat along the Top of the Rockies Byway, here’s the linked websites in recap:

If you plan on touring the full byway, make sure you do it in summer, since the top of Independence Pass is closed in winter. The furthest end of the byway takes you to Aspen, so be sure to bring a fully packed wallet as well.

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A Fall Color Explosion


…coming soon to a Colorado Rockies road near you!

Featuring:

  • Flattops Trail
  • Muddy Pass
  • Castle Creek Road
  • Owl Creek Pass
  • …and Last Dollar Road

The first day of autumn is Sunday, September 22.

Are you one of those Colorado drive-by fall color shooters? Have you been dreaming of lying in a bed of freshly fallen golden aspen leaves amongst tall white bark covered old-growth aspen while gazing into the deep Colorado blue sky and shooting photos of colorful quaking aspen leaves? Well stick around, because these roads are just waiting to take you into that full aspen changing immersion experience.

The amount of old growth aspen is what will take your breath away along these routes. Large, straight and sturdy white trunks reach up endlessly into the Colorado blue sky with outstretched branches full of green leaves in the summer just waiting to burst forth with color in the fall. Stop anywhere along the road and within a few steps, you will be completely surrounded by these beautiful stately and colorful giants in the fall.

This year’s Technicolor cast includes:

  1. Owl Creek Pass
  2. Flattops Trail
  3. Last Dollar Road
  4. Castle Creek Road
  5. Buzzard-Muddy Divide

Owl Creek Pass

owl_creek_pass_071913-72

Location: Southwestern Colorado; between Ouray and Blue Mesa Reservoir

Nearby Byways: Alpine Loop, San Juan Skyway, West Elk Loop

Directions:

From Denver

  • Hwy285 south to the Hwy50 junction
  • Hwy50 west to the Cimarron Road turnoff going south; aka Road P77
  • The road numbers change from P77, to 858, 860 and then Road 8 which takes you over Owl Creek Pass and connects to Ridgway State Park.

From Grand Junction

  • Hwy50 south to the Hwy550 junction in Montrose
  • Hwy550 south to the Owl Creek Pass (Road 8) turnoff on the opposite side of Ridgway State Park
  • Follow the above directions (from Denver) in reverse

Road Conditions: this is a dirt road passable by 2-wheel drive car. The last leg of this road, closer to Ridgway, gets a bit tight and bumpy, but not impassable by 2-wheel drive. Along this road are tall old growth aspen with a good smattering of pine mixed in. Stop along the higher elevations for a glimpse of the red sandstone cliffs which are prevalent in this part of Colorado for a beautiful backdrop to a golden aspen colored photo.

Lodging:

On the cheap –

On a budget with a bed –

Full luxury experience –

For a bit of history

Map: Owl Creek Pass

 

Flattops Trail

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Location: Northwestern Colorado; between Steamboat Springs and Meeker

Nearby Byways: the Flattops Trail is a Colorado Scenic and Historic Byway

Directions:

From Denver

  • I-70 west to Hwy131
  • Hwy131 north to the town of Yampa
  • West on Rcr 17 on the north side of Yampa to the Rcr 132 junction
  • West on Rcr 132 also known as the Flattops Trail Scenic Byway which becomes Road 8 all the way to Meeker

From Grand Junction

  • I-70 east to the Rifle turnoff and Road 13 going north
  • North on Road 13 to Meeker
  • Follow the above directions (from Denver) in reverse

Road Conditions: the Flattops Trail is a dirt road with loose gravel in some spots and hard packed dirt in others. This road is 2-wheel drive passable. None of the road is tight and all of it is completely scenic with places along the route to take a side road to a lake, or stop and gaze along one of the passes – Dunckley and Ripple Creek.

Lodging:

Because the Flattops Trail runs along the Flattops Wilderness area, there are no campsites along the route. Wilderness camping permits are needed for rough-in camping.

On the cheap –

On a budget with a bed –

Full luxury experience –

For a bit of history –

Map: Flattops Trail

 

Last Dollar Road

last_dollar_ranch_sneffels_062312

Location: Southwest Colorado; between Ridgway and Telluride

Nearby Byways: San Juan Skyway

Directions:

From Denver

  • Hwy285 south to the Hwy50 junction
  • Hwy50 west to Montrose and the Hwy550 junction
  • Hwy550 south to Ridgway and the Hwy62 junction
  • Hwy62 west to the Last Dollar Road turnoff (aka 58P Road)
  • South on Last Dollar Road to the Hwy145 junction and the town of Sawpit

From Grand Junction

  • Hwy50 south to Montrose and the Hwy550 junction
  • Hwy550 south to Ridgway and the Hwy62 junction
  • Hwy62 west to the Last Dollar Road turnoff (aka 58P Road)
  • South on Last Dollar Road to the Hwy145 junction and the town of Sawpit

Road Conditions: Last Dollar Road is a dirt road which is passable by 2-wheel drive car. The road is closed in the winter months from January to May. If the road is wet, it may not be passable by 2-wheel drive, though. Views of Dallas Divide and the San Juans are breathtaking and well worth the trip.

Lodging:

On the cheap –

On a budget with a bed –

Full luxury experience –

For a bit of history –

Map: Last Dollar Road

 

Castle Creek Road

montezuma-1_070713-72

Location: South Central Colorado; on the western edge of Aspen

Nearby Byways: Top of the Rockies

Directions:

From Denver

  • I-70 west to Glenwood Springs
  • Hwy82 south to the Castle Creek Road turn-off in the west Aspen round-about
  • Head south on Castle Creek Road until you come to the historic site of Ashcroft – your first stop
  • Two miles from Ashcroft, the road dead ends at a huge meadow which is surrounded by aspen and pine-covered hills

From Grand Junction

  • I-70 east to Glenwood Springs
  • The same directions as above from Glenwood

Road Conditions: Castle Creek Road is paved to the end. From the end of the road, you can opt to take a 4-wheel drive road to Montezuma Basin.

Lodging:

On the cheap –

On a budget with a bed –

Full luxury experience –

For a bit of history –

Map: Castle Creek Road

 

Muddy-Buzzard Divide

escalante_expedition-sign_090212

Location: South Central and Western Colorado; in between Carbondale and Grand Junction

Nearby Byways: West Elk Loop and Grand Mesa byways

Directions:

From Denver

  • I-70 west to Glenwood Springs
  • Hwy82 south to the Hwy133 junction at Carbondale
  • Hwy133 west to a few miles past McClure Pass
  • Right, or west onto FR 265
  • Stay on FR 265 past the Dominguez & Escalante West Muddy Campsite
  • FR 265 is marked as 71 and 4/10 on the west end which connects with Hwy330
  • At the Hwy330 junction, you can take a left and head west toward Colbran and eventually Grand Junction, or take a right and head east toward I-70 and Silt.

From Grand Junction

  • I-70 east to the Hwy65 junction
  • Hwy65 east to the Hwy330 junction heading east to Colbran
  • Hwy330 east through Colbran – pay attention to road signs along the way and turn off at the 71 and 4/10 road. You should also see a national forest sign along this road marking it as the Grand Mesa National Forest.
  • Follow the above directions in reverse to arrive at Hwy133

Road Conditions: This road is a forest service road and is therefore a dirt road, but is completely passable by 2-wheel drive car.

Lodging:

On the cheap –

On a budget with a bed –

Luxury cabin rentals on a budget –

Full luxury experience –

For a bit of history –

  • Redstone Inn in Redstone between Carbondale and McClure Pass

Map: Muddy-Buzzard Divide

 

 

Byway #20 – Colorado Scenic and Historic Byway Tour by Sport Bike, Auto and 4 x 4 – Top of the Rockies


TotR_sign_070613-72

Road: Paved; Twisty in quite a few spots
Round-trip from Denver: 560 miles
Length of Byway: 115 miles
Vehicle types: car, motorcycle, 4×4 and OHV trails in designated areas
Elevation change: 7861 to 12,096 feet above sea level
Location: South Central Colorado

Time to break out the Zed!

My 750cc, naked standard 2006 Kawasaki Z750 street-fighting machine…grunt!

Ok, ok…so I’m not Tim the Toolman Taylor, but this particular byway deserved to be ridden in the right kind of style…motorcycle style, that is.

And this particular byway deserved to be enjoyed over the span of two days, as well. Why? Well, because I was on a two-pronged mission: the first part was to complete the byway without rushing through and the second part was to capture the summer version of a scene in which I already had three other season shots. Yeah, that’s kind of cryptic, but this area is just outside of Aspen and is not the Maroon Bells, but just as beautiful. It is at the western end of the Top of the Rockies Byway and is at the end of Castle Creek Road.

montezuma-1_070713-72Mountain riding

I met my riding buddy and friend, Jen, early on Saturday, July 6th. I wanted to get to the start of the byway at Copper Mountain as quickly as possible, but not along the main highway (I-70), so we took a different route that took us over Kenosha and Hoosier Passes. I was happy to be riding with Jen, since I hadn’t seen her for several years. Turns out, she had traded in her Honda 600 for a Kawasaki Z1000 (my bike’s big brother).

After getting over both Kenosha and Hoosier Passes, we realized that the mountain pass temperatures were a bit cooler than we had expected, so instead of heading over the next few passes with my teeth chattering, I made a b-line for the closest/cheapest store in Frisco (Walmart). I found a long-sleeved shirt that would fit nicely over my t-shirt and we were off again, heading west toward Copper Mountain.

Byway start

The northeastern start of the Top of the Rockies Scenic Byway is at Copper Mountain and yes, this is a ski resort, but there are still tons of things to do here in the summer. Jen happened to mention one of the summer activities when she noticed a golf course where she normally sees what she calls a ‘snow meadow’ in the winter.

copper-mtn_070613-72One thing I like about this leg of the journey as far as being on a motorcycle is concerned is the fact that when you come to a tough hill climb after passing Copper Mountain, the road widens out with a passing lane. This is especially good for people who ride a motorcycle with a tad bit more get-up-n-go than the typical 4-wheeled vehicle.

At one point along this byway, you come across an area that had at one time been flooded but is now a huge open meadow area. This area used to be a valley, but the Climax mining operations had sent its tailings into the area closing up the valley floor. Now, with EPA enforcements, the area is slowly being turned into a wide open meadow area and you can see plants returning.

buried_towns_070613-72

Zed_and_Zed_Climax_070613-72After topping off at Fremont Pass, you head down into a high mountain valley before going uphill again and enter into Leadville. Here is where Jen and I dismounted our trusty steeds and took a short walk up and down this high country small town’s main street looking for a nice place to feed our growling tummies. After being turned around at Leadville’s Legendary Saloon, we found a nice little place across the street to have a bite to eat. Oh and yes, that Great Dane in the saloon picture really is sitting in his owner’s lap.

saloon_Leadville_070613-72Next stop, 10th Mtn Division Memorial and Camp Hale

It still amazes me how much history Colorado holds even though this state was established in 1876, well after the pilgrims began to journey here from across the pond. Our next stop was along the 10th Mountain Division Memorial Highway at the memorial wall. There, you can find out how soldiers trained to do battle in the mountainous regions of Europe. There’s also a huge granite memorial wall listing the lives that were lost during World War II.

10th Mtn Division Memorial.
10th Mtn Division Memorial.

Further down the road is the base camp for this division, Camp Hale, which was located in the Pando Valley. All that remains though, are barely visible lines cutting length and width wise along the valley floor. There are only a few concrete structures left standing now and most of this valley is used for recreation and ATV trails.

I would be remiss to not mention Redcliffe, or actually the bridge at Redcliffe which is one of my favorite spots in Colorado. During any time of the year, when the lighting is just right, you can capture some amazing images and not just from down below the bridge which is where I tend to end up with the Zed and my camera more often than not.

Pando Valley, Camp Hale.
Pando Valley, Camp Hale.
Redcliffe bridge.
Redcliffe bridge.

Time to move along

After Redcliffe, you wind your way up the side of the mountain and then down again and into the town of Minturn. This town is the last stop along the northern edge of the byway, which takes you out to the main highway, I-70. At this point, we were about 40 some odd miles and one canyon away from our destination. For you 2-wheeled enthusiasts, this canyon is definitely interesting as you can glide through the canyon without having to touch your breaks, as many auto and truck drivers are cautioned to do at many of the tight curves. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then take a look at The Pace. It’s a really good read and explains how any motorcyclist can enjoy all types of curves from wide sweeping, to very tight without the need to rush along the straight only to hit your breaks hard before a corner.

In for the night

When Jen and I made it to our destination, Brettelberg Condos, I was quite pleased with the look of our studio-sized two-bed place. It not only had a full kitchen, but it had two doors, one leading out to the main hallway and the other leading out to a roof-top deck which had a very nice view of the Sunlight ski area and valley. And…we got off-season rates, so the price was below $100; split between the two of us was perfect for my pocket-book. The only thing missing was a restaurant close by. And while it looked like there was a restaurant in the ski area, we chose to head back into town about 11 miles and stopped at a Safeway to conjure up a good dinner at the deli. Back at the condo, we put our meals together and sat out on the roof-top deck to take in the peace and quiet and the fresh air.

Morning, Castle Creek, Aspen, Independence Pass and Twin Lakes

I have to share because this was awesome to wake up to…

Morning in Sunlight.
Morning in Sunlight.

After eating breakfast which consisted of coffee, fresh fruit and a granola bar, Jen and I hit the trail again and headed toward Aspen and the other prong of the Top of the Rockies byway. Before getting into Aspen itself though, I wanted to take my summer shot of the basin that rises above the meadow at the end of Castle Creek Road. I have to say this, but before even getting to that meadow, Jen and I had our breath taken away about two miles down the road. The road itself passes by Ashcroft, which is a ghost town maintained by the Aspen Historical Society. This town is on the edge of a small aspen forest and past that forest, the road rises slightly and crests over a wide-open hill. At this point, where the landscape opens up, the hills were covered in not only sage, but a ton of high country wildflowers. Everything from mountain sunflowers, to Indian Paintbrush were covering the hillside. Both Jen and I had the same idea…we had to stop here before riding in to Aspen. I think though, that my summer shot (in my mind) pales in comparison to that flower-covered treasure we had found.

Along Castle Creek Road
Along Castle Creek Road

Aspen is always a treat for many reasons. Today, Jen treated me to lunch at Mezzaluna and I treated her to desert at Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory. I also picked up some Tiger Butter for my girls since this has always been their favorite treat from this delightful chocolate shop.

Walking around the downtown area of Aspen, Jen had a hard time keeping herself from wanting to peruse the various shops. The fun part about walking in this area is that it’s an outdoor mall with cobblestone sidewalks, a fountain, a park, an outdoor bar and the ski slopes only two blocks away. The people-watching and Victorian architecture in such a varied outdoor setting is enjoyment enough.

After our downtown Aspen jaunt, we were on our way again. At this point, the byway leads you up the road over Independence Pass. The amazing thing to me about this part of our ride was that it seemed that the whole world had come out to play. All along the road just east of Aspen, people had parked and were playing along the river with their rafts, canoes and playing in the water. There was almost no room to ride by with all the cars and trucks parked alongside the road. I know it had something to do with the fact that this was the end of the 4th of July week and tons of people were on vacation.

When we arrived at the top of Independence Pass, I noticed a huge group of motorcyclists and this group seemed to be from all around the world. Must’ve been a tour group, which is pretty cool. Jen and I posed at the sign while one of the tour members took our photo. We gazed at the scenery for a while and then headed down the other side of the pass.

Our last stop was the historic area of Twin Lakes. Back in the 1800s, people had populated the area upon rumors of gold and silver. Back then, the town was called Dayton. In 1885, it was considered a nice resort town and was mentioned in Crofutt’s Grip-sack Guide of Colorado as “…the most charming summer Resort in Colorado.” Interpretive signs around the historical Twin Lakes area tell the tales of over one hundred years ago. I still need to get across the lakes to see the famed Interlaken; the resort hotel built in 1890 which still graces the southern shore.

twin_lakes_070713-72Riding home

After leaving Twin Lakes, the byway heads eastward toward the Hwy82 and Hwy24 junction while skirting along the northern shores of the Twin Lakes area. It was good to see the lakes full of water considering how bad the drought has been in Colorado. I knew that the water would be drained quickly to meet the demands of thirsty towns, but it still felt good to see the lakes so full.

When we arrived at the junction, Jen and I decided to head southward to Buena Vista which is away from the connecting piece of the byway that goes northward along the Arkansas River headwaters and recreation area before coming to the southern edge of Leadville. Since we did not want to ride along the big highway (I-70) on the north side of Leadville (and struggle in heavy Sunday afternoon traffic), we stayed in the mountains a little longer, by taking a two-lane highway back in to the city (Hwy285). I wanted to note this because this part of the ride was the most harrowing portion of our ride with the late afternoon mountain storms that frequent the Colorado Mountains in summertime. We not only rode through one rain shower, but two rain showers, and one of them had a little bit of hail in it. I was so determined to get home that evening though, I forged ahead, leaning up against my bike’s gas tank and drifting about 100 feet behind the vehicle in front of me (keeping its tail lights in view). I pretty much placed my body on cruise control and endured the pelting. I knew Jen was probably feeling the pain, but both of us were prepared with our rain gear, so we stayed dry for the most part.

The best part of riding this byway without a doubt was sharing in the wonder of another rocky mountain newbie. While Jen has been skiing in several of the places we passed through, she had not driven along the roads that we took over all of the mountains passes on our byway ride.