The best fall weekend escape!
Okay, I was convinced that the most expansive and spectacular display of fall foliage was the Guanella Pass above Georgetown; and it is amazing. However, since it seems that the trees are changing color earlier this year, we have been scrambling to prioritize all of our “leaf peeping” trips. I have wanted to see the Maroon Bells, the most photographed peaks in all of North America, since moving here last year. But, because they are located between Aspen and Snowmass, the length of the drive had put us off. When I heard there was to be a Snowmass Balloon Festival last weekend, we decided to take the plunge. We got an incredible off-season price on a huge condo overlooking the Snowmass ski runs, and intended to spend one night.
Since weather in Colorado can be unpredictable, we decided to get up early and start the 3+-hour drive to Snowmass on Saturday morning. Who would have thought there would be so much traffic during the off-season? It took us longer than expected; but observing the vast differences in the terrain as we progressed was fascinating and helped to pass the time. “Our” part of I-70 (between I-470 and Vail) was resplendent in neon yellow and orange aspens covering the mountainsides. They were literally brilliant—no dead trees here (except for the unfortunate pines lost to the beetles).
After Edwards and towards Glenwood Springs, the terrain seemed to abruptly change to treeless, jagged, rocky and jutting hills and mountains. Thereafter, there appeared a dramatically different type of landscape completely new to us—what appeared to be large sand deposits or dunes; but, I’m sure they were some sort of smooth rock. When we reached the Snowmass-Aspen area, the brilliant aspens were again bountiful, vivid against the green ski runs and snowy mountain peaks in the distance.
We arrived just after noon, and decided to go directly to the Maroon Bells to take advantage of the beautiful sunny day. I had read that during the summer cars were not allowed to drive up to the Bells, as there were not enough parking spaces, and visitors had been parking on and destroying cultivated natural areas. They instituted a mandatory bus service, for which there was a fee. Since it was now off-season, I wrongly presumed the mandatory bus transport was no longer in effect. However, Fridays through Sundays, probably into the winter, it is still in effect.
Consequently, we had to leave our car in the Aspen Highlands parking garage, and pare down our supplies, purchase bus tickets, then wait for the next small bus. In spite of signs warning that there was no standing allowed on the bus, and if that was all that was available you would have to wait for yet another bus, they did allow us to stand for the 20 minute tedious and somewhat uncomfortable bus ride up to the Bells.
The driver was very entertaining, and in spite of sprinkling his educational dialogue with humorously derogatory comments about his ex-wife, we did learn a great deal about the area. For instance, there are monumental avalanches that have carved their own hourglass-shaped valleys between the now brilliant groves of aspens which literally blanket the hillsides. We were told that when there is an avalanche, it barrels down the mountain, then uses the valley beside the road as a “ski jump”, and piles as much as 75 feet of snow onto the road before carving a new path through the aspens on the far side of the road. We saw that there were several places along the way in this White River National Forest for overnight camping; but were told that it was also quite common to see elk, bear and moose in the forest. As it turns out, moose are some of the most dangerous animals, and you are instructed to give them a very wide berth.
The bus will stop for hikers along the route and take them up or down, whichever way the bus is going. Our bus stopped to pick up a man who had been “roller skiing”, and he told of losing control and running smack into a mother bear and her cubs. Thankfully for him, she appeared to be more concerned about getting her cubs away from the crazy man on wheels wielding pointy ski poles, so he was able to beat a hasty retreat. The driver commented that a moose had been seen from a bus that morning; but no such luck for us.
There are 20,000 avalanches a year in snowy areas, and the Maroon Bells area gets a hefty portion. Something as inconsequential as a spoken word or a snapped twig can trigger a devastating avalanche. Once begun, it moves with the speed and power of a locomotive, tumbling huge boulders and trees like toys, clearing its path. But, they are nature’s gardeners. They clear open spaces and make way for new vegetation. Aspens, in particular, are successful at re-establishing after an avalanche. This is largely because they have interconnected root networks. When looking at a mountainside entirely covered by aspens, it is likely they all share the same roots—a deep and common root system that usually escapes the disturbances. They are hearty and difficult for fire, avalanche or drought to eradicate; some always survive and repopulate easily and quickly. That is why, when admiring the fiery and colorful displays of aspens, you will notice large clusters of them have the same color leaves in the fall.
And, they produce the perfect sunscreen. If you are ever caught without sun protection, rub your hands over the white bark and a powdery substance comes off on your hands. When applied to your skin, it protects it from the harmful rays of the sun.
As to the animal past of this vast and beautiful forest and area, recent discoveries of prehistoric animal tracks and bones provide clues. Bones of the wooly mammoth were discovered in Snowmass a few years ago, opening up a huge new area of exploration. Reptile-like creatures are believed to have populated the area around the Maroon Bells 70 million years before the first dinosaurs. At that time, this area was located close to the equator, and had a hot, muggy climate similar to Africa. About 100 million years ago, the Rocky Mountains were formed, lifting the Maroon Formation thousands of feet above sea level and creating the Maroon Bells and the surrounding mountains. Grayish-red beds of sandstone, siltstone and mudstone were eroded away from the original Rockies and laid in the Aspen-Maroon area. Then, over 3 million years ago (recent history), the world turned dramatically colder and melted glaciers that were thousands of feet thick. One of these glaciers carved out the beautiful U-shaped Maroon Valley.
The driver also told us about another danger in and near the Maroon Bells, which are so named for their reddish color and three bell-shaped peaks clustered together. The composition of the red mountains is quite unstable and crumbly, contributing to many deaths from falls. In fact, he thought he would have to let us off at the lower lot, as the emergency vehicles were called for one such death or near-death accident that morning. As it turned out, the emergency vehicles were already gone, and we were let out at the top lot, which is only a very short distance from the bottom lot, where there are two sets of restrooms. If you avail yourself of these facilities, be sure to use the nicer ones in a single building at the far end of the lower parking lot, farthest from the Bells. The ones close to the trail to the Bells are somewhat crude. Since we were let off at the upper lot, we noticed the enclosed educational pavilion, giving the history of the Maroon Bells in the scheme of things.
We began the short walk through arching brilliant yellow aspen groves, which opened onto Maroon Lake, flanked on both sides by mountains covered by colorful aspens, and culminating with the three looming Maroon Bells. It really was an astonishing sight.
Unfortunately, no one mentioned that the sun begins going behind the Bells after the noon high. After that, the light was flat, and looking at the Bells was like looking into the sun. Not only did the famous Bells not appear maroon (they appeared a muddy blackish color), but the highly anticipated photo op was a complete waste. And it was only about 2:00 pm! In spite of all of that, we took the prerequisite photos, wondering why there was all the photographic notoriety associated with the scene. It was quite hot in the bright sun up there, and without a hat and sunglasses you would be burned to a crisp in no time. Having to leave your provisions in your car to ride the bus made it easy to forget important accessories such as a hat, extra battery, etc.
Also annoying was the bus schedule. It was 8 miles back to Aspen Highlands where you have to leave your car, and would be a long, cold and dangerous walk if you missed the last bus. That meant we could not explore any of the trails, nor consider hiking the short distance to Crater Lake, another nearby lake, which gives a different photographic perspective on the Bells. The lake here just looked shallow and muddy, and the Bells were unremarkable. At that point, we were warned that we should make our way back to the lot, as the last busses were leaving. The “no standing” rule notwithstanding, they crammed us in like sardines into the hot, non-air conditioned bus. I asked the bus driver when cars were allowed to drive to the top. She said we could drive up on Monday through Thursday. Since we weren’t planning to stay until Monday, but weren’t willing to redo the bus routine on Sunday, this was a problem. The problem was quickly solved when the condo office allowed us an extra night at the greatly reduced rate.
That night was the night hot air balloon illumination and barbecue in Snowmass, part of the Balloon Festival. We had a bit of trouble figuring out where it was. We missed the barbecue, but got there just in time to see the astonishing inflation of the huge decorated balloons. They first blew air into the huge deflated balloon, and then lit fire jets to continue the inflation. As it grew dark, the effect was electric. Giant blue flames shot into the air as much as into the balloons, and, if you stood nearby, it felt quite hot. Seeing the huge balloons gradually inflate and lift off the ground was amazing. They kept them tethered to the ground, so they did not fly at night. But, soon the band began to play, and the balloons would alternately illuminate in time with the music. Then, several times, the band would count down for all the balloons to illuminate at once. It was a truly awesome sight.
The balloons were to fly the following morning, and we are told that they lift off every week. We were able to see them in the air from the deck of our rental condo, and it completed the picture.
Since we definitely did not want to repeat the bus trip to the Maroon Bells on Sunday morning, we decided to browse Snowmass Mall, had lunch there, and then took off for an afternoon in Aspen. It was unbelievably hot in Aspen, but there was much entertainment, with rugby matches in the park and gondola rides up the mountain. We had an early dinner there, then went back to the condo to pack and be ready to check out early in the morning to get an early start on our bid to see the Maroon Bells in the right light.
When we woke up the next morning, we were devastated to see it was raining! We determined to forge on to the Bells in any event, and were admitted for free because we have a National Parks Annual Pass (a great investment that quickly pays for itself).
Even though it was raining, it was much nicer driving up than riding on the hot, crowded bus. There are several pull-offs with great views of the aspen-clad mountains gleaming with rain, as well as snow on top. By the time we got up to the Maroon Bells parking lot, the rain had stopped. We walked the short distance to Maroon Lake, and were astonished at the sight—the Bells were truly a deep maroon and dusted with snow, the lake was crystal clear, and the sun had just come out—in short, they were the PERFECT conditions to take great photos of the Maroon Bells! The mid-morning sun highlighted them, the lake, and the already glowing aspens perfectly—it was impossible to take a bad photo.
Because we had driven up, we had the freedom to explore at will, and walked around the lake and through the aspen-arched trails. There is one large beaver dam at the end of the lake closest to the Bells, and we saw a small beaver pop in and out. There were chipmunks skittering around through the rocks, and painters had materialized with their easels to capture truly one of the most glorious sights imaginable. Professional photographers were shooting ceaselessly, and I exhausted two camera batteries and most of the capacity on my iPhone.
I, who can never miss a meal without becoming faint and nauseous, realized to my great surprise, that it was already mid-afternoon—we had spent about 5 hours there! Even though the light had again changed, as it went behind the peaks, it was almost impossible to tear away from the beauty that was everywhere we looked. Some people had brought folding chairs and just sat for hours gazing upon the impossibly picturesque scene.
For sure, THIS is the very best time of year to view the Maroon Bells—you have the best of all seasons, the snow and the fiery colors of the aspens! It is a feast for the senses—almost an overload. Of all the famous photos I have seen of the iconic scene, the most colorful and spectacular at this time of year. So, I highly recommend that you plan a spectacular weekend escape this fall to view and photograph the Maroon Bells.
There was no place open in Aspen Highlands to catch the missed lunch, and we were not interested in any more of the Snowmass or Aspen fare. We started off on Route 82 towards home, then, on a whim, decided to stop at a small town quite close by, called Basalt. What a treasure! We were sure we had been caught in a time warp, and were certainly in Mayberry! After the glitz and so-so food of Aspen and the limited choices in Snowmass, we were delighted. This charming little town lies between two rivers, and still has an old Philips 66 station, which they have cleverly repurposed. We arbitrarily parked on the very short main street where there were adorable shops and quaint restaurants. We happened upon Heather’s, a delightful concoction of colorful umbrella tables on a breezy deck, customized bird houses clinging to a shade tree, and a heavenly eclectic menu of everything from crepes to tapas. It didn’t appear to be open (after all, we were showing up for lunch at about 3:30 pm in the off-season), but were putting tables together for a private party. The manager immediately stopped what he was doing, and politely explained their menu choices, assuring us that he could get us whatever we chose, whether or not it was on the appropriate menu for that time of day. We saw a large old-fashioned glass display case full of the most beautiful mouth-watering pies and cakes I can remember seeing. The place had a particular calm, special feel to it. Even though we thought we were probably in the wrong place to grab a burger and go (what we intended), we were drawn to the menu items and the smiling, patient, and polite man who was giving us his full and friendly attention.
I began to read the menu, and immediately fixed on the section aptly called “Group Therapy”. The descriptions of the Chicken Lollipops, Potato Latkes, Baked Brie with Mushrooms, Pate de Foie Gras, Cowboy Caviar, Smoked Salmon and Dill Crepe, and Homemade Humus with Pita and Carrot Crudité mesmerized us. Of course, we were starved, and I was beyond lightheaded; so we selected a bright umbrella table on the deck, and stayed. Blame it on the lightheadedness or the mouthwatering descriptions, but we normally light eaters ordered one of each of the “tapas” to share. I figured that at least one would have to be good enough. We started with the berry tea, which is locally grown and made. It was unbelievably tasty, with just the right amount of tang. Then came the cavalcade of tapas—each morsel of each complicated dish was better than the last—but every bite of everything was unique and absolutely delicious!
The personable server was happy to fill us in on the back-story of this unique treasure of a restaurant. It seems that Heather, the owner and chief baker, chef and menu creator, began in the old Philips 66 station making pies. They were so incredibly good, that she couldn’t keep up with the demand. She had called her place the “Mayberry Café” as a tribute to a friend and customer who, during her convalescence before passing away, loved to watch Mayberry on television, because it was such a happy and friendly place. Heather named her dishes after the Mayberry characters, and easily made everyone feel happy and at home. She went beyond “service with a smile”; she kept a bucket at the counter instead of a cash register, and told everyone just to put in what they could for their meal, that she trusted them and didn’t have the desire or time to be a money counter. Naturally, her trust was rewarded in spades, and soon the entire town became her “family”.
When the Philips 66 station became too small to hold her extensive “family”, she gave into the prodding and opened the current “Heather’s Savory Pies and Tapas Bar” on the main drag in Basalt, Midland Avenue. The eclectic hominess transferred to the new digs, and she was able to expand the eye-popping menu, as well as keep up with the retinue of savory pies and deserts. We were so taken with this gem of a place that we began researching it on the web from our phones. The server noticed, told us much of what we had read, then enthusiastically brought Heather over to meet us. She was just as I would have expected—genuinely friendly, warm and engaging—except that I expected her to be overweight, due to the movable feast that she created daily. But she wasn’t. She was delightful, and sincerely was interested in our impressions of all her dishes.
Even though we ate every morsel of all the dishes and thought we couldn’t possibly eat another bite, we just couldn’t resist one of her famous deserts. Each are made fresh daily at her whim, so there is no menu for them. They all sounded incredible when described, but we settled on a cake soaked in condensed cream, then filled and topped with strawberries and cream. I almost licked the plate—I have never tasted cake so moist and the combination so perfect. Then, just to challenge my ability to ambulate after this meal, she brought out some ordinary-enough “looking” cookies. I figured that this was finally something I could pass up. One was a cookie with a jam dollop in the center, the other with a stylized swirl on top–the kind of crunchers you get at the super market, I figured. They were far from ordinary, as I found out when I made the mistake of nibbling on one. It quite literally melted in my mouth—including the fruit topping, which is usually chewy in “ordinary” cookies! The nibbles turned into large bites, and both cookies were of a perfect savory shortbread that melted when it hit my tongue. I am not a “foodie” or a restaurant connoisseur; I actually am a bit of a restaurant skeptic, preferring to spend the money on practical things, rather than overpriced “trendy” food. So, being positively captivated by absolutely everything in this place was a new experience to me. Our total bill was less than we had spent for so-so hamburgers in Snowmass or the forgettable lunch in Aspen! But more than the experience of the food, it was the hometown feel and genuine warmth. Basalt is such a short distance from both Aspen and Snowmass, that it and Heather should be on the short list of every visitor. Don’t pass up this experience!
We reluctantly left Heather’s and waddled back to our car. Actually, we waddled to a car similar to ours, opened the doors, and began climbing in before we realized it wasn’t our car. Evidently, there in Mayberry, people don’t feel the need to lock their cars, either. Amazing place.
The ride home was a lot shorter than the ride to Snowmass two days earlier. It was Monday night, and the traffic was light. We had experienced the perfect ending to a perfect fall weekend getaway. Try it—you’ll love it, and THIS is the time to do it!