Dan Leeth, Special to The Denver Post An overnight visitor enjoys the gilded grandeur and rustic solitude of an autumn stay in the ghost town of Crystal City.
ASPEN – As usual, my wife insists that it’s all my fault.
Some 20-odd autumns ago, Aspen’s three ritziest hotels, the Little Nell, Hotel Jerome and what was then the Ritz-Carlton (now the St. Regis), offered fall rooms at plummeting prices.
The discounts began right after Labor Day and ran until Thanksgiving. At the height of autumn grandeur, we booked one night at each, and for one long weekend, my wife and I lodged in golden-leafed luxury.
Finding bargains in Aspen during Colorful Colorado’s most colorful season was something I felt I should share with the world, so I wrote a newspaper travel article revealing the bargain. The story ran across the country, and all three hotels found themselves besieged with a sudden rush of guests.
That apparently doomed the discount. During subsequent autumns, room rates didn’t crash until the last leaf hit the ground.
The discounts may have dimmed, but autumn is still a fine time for us leaf peepers to visit the town named for the hill-gilding tree. Arriving via Independence Pass, we’re treated to savory views of mountainous hillsides that look like they’d been slathered with relish and splattered with mustard. In town, golden glades seemingly avalanche down the ski slopes and swamp the Roaring Fork and Frying Pan Rivers with a flood of vibrant color.
For many, wearing waders and flinging flies is one popular way to mine the riverside gold. We prefer to pedal beside it on bicycles. The 42-mile long Rio Grande Trail parallels the river from Aspen to Glenwood Springs. It’s all downhill, and with the Woody Creek Tavern and Capitol Creek Brewery providing burger and brew stops en route, we find it to be a truly delicious ride.
Pavement abounds for those who prefer pistons over pedals. The road to the Maroon Bells, accessible by shuttle bus, traverses territory as glitzy as the town’s reputation. Midas-touched leaves line the valley, and when glazed with fresh snow, the gold-fronted peaks can shimmer like a pair of diamonds set in a 24-karat mounting.
The road up neighboring Castle Creek offers a vivid drive through a cornucopia of color. At pavement’s end lies the ghost town of Ashcroft, whose timeworn structures present a photogenic contrast of dark, weathered wood against a gold-leaf background.
A turnoff before Ashcroft leads the Conundrum Hot Springs trailhead. I’ve made the 9-mile slog up the canyon more than a dozen times over the years, with autumn my favorite time for the hike. Last time I backpacked there on a guy-trip with two hiking buddies, one of whom was assigned wine duty. He arrived at the springs with a five-liter box of pink zinfandel. We chastised him for his choice, but by trip’s end, there was nary a drop left.
Our favorite fall drive from Aspen heads up Colorado 133 from Carbondale to McClure Pass. Near the base of the pass, a paved side road leads to the village of Marble, where stone for the Lincoln Memorial was quarried. From there, 5½ miles of four-wheel drive roadway leads to the aspen-draped Crystal Mill, probably the most-photographed icon of Colorado’s mineral past.
Beyond lie the ghostly remains of Crystal City, a silver-mining ghost town awash in golden aspen. Privately owned, many of the town’s remaining buildings sport new roofs and curtained windows. On one autumn visit, I met a man who had rented one of the historic cabins and planned to spend a few delightful days ensconced in rustic solitude.
“They’re pretty basic,” he said. “Running water and a wood burning stove is about all they offer. And, oh yes, there’s an outhouse.”
Far from the four- and five-star luxury found in downtown Aspen, I assured my wife that no words of mine will cause this autumn eye-candy retreat to be besieged by a sudden influx of guests.
“If it is,” she declared, “it will all be your fault.