Road Trip: The Rockies offer tantalizing scenic drives for the adventurous
Vail CO, Colorado
Cruising through these twisty, turny hills is a rite of passage for anybody. In almost every direction lies some sort of high-altitude adventure: bucolic pastures playing host to horses (Hwy. 131), forests full of dusky sunlight (Piney Road), rocky red cliffs smattered with green trees (I-70 west). But the mother of all scenic drives loops up Battle Mountain, through Leadville, over Independence Pass, through Aspen and up along Glenwood Canyon. It’s a full 200 miles of stimulation, and you don’t even have to leave your car.
Fill up the tank and head south on Hwy. 24 into Minturn. On Saturdays the town fills up, first with farmers and crafts people, then with shoppers at the Minturn Market. During the rest of the week, Minturn is a sleepy, funky spot. The colorful, mismatched buildings on Main Street host galleries, shops and eateries. Folks can uncover antiques, secondhand threads or state-of-the-art bicycles, all within a few steps. Eagle River runs through town, and a couple of parks along the banks make for easy picnicking.
Further down the highway and off to the right is Tigowan Road, a popular spot to four-wheel in the summer or snowmobile in the winter. But Battle Mountain proves you can find adventure on the pavement. As soon as you hit the first hairpin turn, you’re officially in it. The climb intensifies, and the forest starts to crowd in. The road has a rambunctious streak, offering glimpses of Mount of the Holy Cross in bits and pieces across the ravine. Stare too long and you’ll be at the bottom of the canyon.
Around another big curve is part of the abandoned mining town of Gilman. Further in is a whole neighborhood, including a deserted bowling alley, medical facility and plenty of houses. But on the outskirts of Gilman, visible from Hwy. 24, are three rows of houses. They sit next to a pile of tailings and are almost identical in design, though they’re painted wildly different colors. Something about the sagging porches (which surely used to support rocking chairs) and the varying hues on the cookie-cutter walls make it seem like some ghostly phonograph should be playing with the wind ” even though the town’s Eagle Mine didn’t shut down completely until 1980.
A little further down the road is the Red Cliff Bridge. Time willing, detour into the town immediately before the bridge by turning left on the one-and-a-half-lane road and take the high road into town. Red Cliff is famous for artists, dogs and fish tacos, though not necessarily in that order. If you feel like meandering, ask a resident to point out the rock that housed the entire Red Cliff population when rumors of marauding Indians reached their ears. (The Indians never appeared, and the residents eventually descended and went about their business.) When leaving, this writer recommends retracing your steps, enabling you to cross the bridge, instead of taking the other road out of town, which deposits you below it.
Though you might feel like you’ve seen it all at this point, there’s no rest for the weary. Keep heading down the road until you reach Hwy. 82 (at the Win Mar Motel) and hang a right. Twin Lakes is just down the way, taking its name from the not one but two pristine lakes cradled in the mountainside at the base of Colorado’s highest fourteener, Mount Elbert. There’s plenty of hiking trails for all levels of hikers, most of which offer a view of the lakes. The Nordic Lodge has a full restaurant, and is a fine place to stop for a mid-day drink. Formerly a brothel, many of the rooms upstairs are named for the women who used to work them.
And then on to Independence Pass. Closed seasonally due to snow, the pass is 32 miles of pure mountain adventure. The summit peaks out at 12,095 feet, and crosses the Continental Divide yet again, over the Sawatch Range. There’s a parking area at the summit, and low-impact hiking for a ways before it becomes strenuous.
Driving Independence Pass is like mountain biking in your car. Even at low speeds, there’s a careening sensation around the curves, probably due to the narrow lanes and minimal guardrails. Nineteen miles past the summit is Aspen, a ski town with a certain amount of cache amongst the celebrity set.
The town is walkable ” many town dwellers park their cars and forget about them. The shopping is excellent, as is the food; Aspen Mountain looms over the whole shebang. Lunch at the Hotel Jerome is popular, though it’s only one of many places to offer sustenance. For the kick-back set, keep heading through town, past the Aspen Highlands turn-off, to Woody Creek. Hang a right, and head north to the end of the road where you’ll find Woody Creek Tavern, a “biker bar.” In this case, the bike in biker is usually a bicycle. A popular destination for those cruising in the open air, the restaurant is a cacophony of colors and flavors. Former hangout for gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, the margaritas are good and the portions are large.
From here, retrace your steps to Hwy. 82 and continue on to I-70 and Glenwood Springs. If the kids are cranky, unload them into the Glenwood Springs pool, which is filled with water from a natural hot spring. Or just stay in the car and dart through the canyon, along Eagle River and the railroad tracks. The interstate is a wonder of engineering in the canyon, dividing into two lanky roads, an upper and a lower, in order to fit both through the tight space. Keep an eye out for river rafters and kayakers, and climbers here and there on the rocks.
Keep going east toward Eagle, through Red Canyon (you decide why it’s called that) and you’ll eventually find your starting point ” and hopefully a comfy bed. s
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