Road Trip to the Rockies: A Weekend in Aspen

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Tanya and I spent a weekend in Aspen to enjoy the fall colors.  Interestingly, all the aspen at 10,000 feet and above were at their peak, while trees at a lower elevation had yet to change.  Since we hiked a bunch, we lucked out and stumbled across amazing color.  Had we been doing a lot of scenic driving, I think the best time for leaf peeping would be this up coming weekend.

Where to Stay

There are a variety of places to stay in Aspen whether it be Hotel Jerome, a historic place, or a VRBO or something in between.  We opted for a small, two bedroom condo at Silver Bell, located on the edge of town for a reasonable price.

Places to Eat


For our first night in Aspen, we picked J-Bar, a restaurant/bar which is part of the Hotel Jerome.  It is a great place for visitors to mix with locals.  The bartender was quite attentive and helpful.  He gave us tips on things to do and made great suggestions for the limited menu.  We ended up sharing a salad and burger, both delicious!

Slow Groovin’ BBQ

We took a very long hike the following day and enjoyed an excellent late lunch at Slow Groovin’ BBQ in Marble.  I’m not a huge BBQ fan, but admittedly, I really enjoyed this place (as did everyone else in the area).  Marble is tiny and its single restaurant was packed on Friday afternoon.  The fried okra rivals any in the south!  We ate so much that we just had a light dinner at home for the evening.

Clark’s Oyster Bar

We treated ourselves to a nice dinner at Clark’s the final evening.  It is a seafood restaurant and despite its excellent reviews, I was a little leery about having seafood in the mountains of a land locked state.  I, however, must give credit where credit is due.  The steamed clams and mussels were fantastic.  Tanya really liked her clam chowder and halibut.  The atmosphere was lovely as well.

Hikes for Fall Colors

Cathedral Lake Trail

We took three hikes in Aspen to see the golden leaves.  Our first hike was on Cathedral Lake Trail located off Castle Creek Road which offers gorgeous color on the drive.  The trail is short, only 5.3 miles, but is still rated as difficult as the path ascends over 2,000 feet in about 2.5 miles.  Along the way to the lake, we climbed through alluring aspen groves and stopped to admire the views of the golden hillsides.

As we slowly ascended the steep switchbacks, a couple from Louisiana commented, “You sure make that look easy!”

We replied, “It doesn’t feel like it.”

To which they responded, “We took three steps and stopped!”

Well, at least we were moving at a constant pace, but we had the advantage of being from the mile high city rather than sea level.  Not to mention, we had a pack with water and layers, while they had nothing.  Fortunately, there was no threatening weather, but it was certainly hot for the mountains this afternoon.  I don’t know how they hiked so far without water!

Normally, we don’t hike to alpine lakes in the afternoon, but it took us the morning to get to Aspen and the week’s forecast called for bluebird sky days…ahh, not a cloud above us.  Fall in the mountains is spectacular.

Our late start rewarded us with the lake to ourselves.  That doesn’t happen often!  We walked the shore to the other end, pulled on our windbreakers and sat down for a snack to admire this tranquil, turquoise lagoon.  What a peaceful afternoon.  Upon return to the trailhead, we had the path to ourselves and found the once packed parking lot with only our car.

Crystal Mill

The following day we hiked to Crystal Mill in Marble.  From the research and reviews, we couldn’t tell exactly where we would be able to park.  We knew there was limited parking “at the mailboxes”.  This area held about eight cars, and we took the last spot.

We started hiking up the “4×4 road” that I have put in quotes because any SUV could make it the mile or so to the sign which indicates Cyrstal (which also includes the mill) is four miles to the right.  There is a parking area to the right of this sign which holds four to six cars and after our several hour hike, we found only one car here.  It seems most everyone was confused about this part of the road as many parked in limited pullouts along the way.  Also, aside from about two rough patches, virtually any sedan could make it up the road to this sign.  In fact, a good off-road driver could probably maneuver a sedan up the road easily.

parking area

So we needlessly added a mile of walking up this steep road (and a mile down later).  Anyway, at the sign, we went to the right and descended down the rougher 4×4 road.  This section does require a SUV, truck, jeep, or ATV.  We read the road can get busy by 10am, so we began our hike to the mill very early.  We had the first fews hours on the road to ourselves AND A MOOSE!

We were just strolling along, chatting and admiring the mountainside peppered in a kaleidescope of colors, when a bull moose exited the bushes and turned onto the road toward us!  Tanya questioned, “What should we do…stop?”

As I looked around for a tree to step behind in case the situation got hairy, I quietly replied, “Yes.”

We stood by the willows silently and snapped photos as the bull lowered his head, walked toward us just slightly and then veered to the left to go down to the river.  OMG…it was so awesome!

The moose sighting made our hike, as the mill, though pretty and the second most photographed place in the state, was a little anti-climatic for a 10+ mile round trip hike (8 had we driven to the top parking area).  Aspens, whose leaves had yet to turn gold, surrounded the mill that was located on the other side of the river.  The shore was roped off with no trespassing signs, though we found out later we could pay $10 at the bookstore in Crystal to wander on the property.

Crystal is a small town with a few homes and a “bookstore” (more like a gift shop) just 1,000 feet from the mill.  It’s worth a visit.


After picnicking in Crystal, we retraced our steps to the trailhead after stopping along the way to enjoy the magnificent views, the lake and colorful foliage.  Both avid hikers, we agreed that the next time, we’d take an ATV!  We were thankful to have seen the moose!

Thomas Lakes Trail

For our third hike, we picked Thomas Lakes Trail near Basalt.  The parking area at this trailhead was filled with cars and mountain bikers.  Our first thought as we started climbing the wide farm road was this hike might not be the best.  The road was rocky, mountain bikers passed by, and the fall colors were limited.

As we left the road and ascended the steep single track trail, we left the mountain bikers behind and entered some nice aspen groves that improved as we kept going.  Soon we reached the first lake where colorful aspens reflected in its placid surface.  The small lake was tucked in the forest and looked more like a large pond.

The path continued to another lake where we stopped and met a young man who was doing his thesis on rock glaciers.  He pointed to the scree covered mountainside across the lake and told us that was a rock glacier he was just climbing and almost died as the surface moved so much.  Fortunately he was OK and looking forward to his beer in the car.  In the meantime, I was truly dismayed.  I had no idea there were rock glaciers.  I thought they were only made of ice and snow.

Who knew I was climbing to a lake and looking at a rock glacier.  I was so intrigued, I googled it later.  This is what I found: “A rock glacier is a mass of rock, ice, snow, mud, and water that moves slowly down a mountain under the influence of gravity. The rock glacier might consist of a mass of ice covered by rock debris, or it might consist of a mass of rock with interstitial ice.”

After a short snack at this lake, we walked to the next lake.  Along the way, the aspen were so breathtaking that we almost missed the third lake. Fortunately we didn’t, as the scenery got better and better with each body of water.  The lake’s west shore was lined with multi-color aspen and Mount Sopris towered above.  The contrast was striking.

We saved the rest of our snacks for this lake.  As we sat by the shore, I suddenly heard a splash and spotted the tail of a fish or something.  Tanya kept looking and pointed out an amphibian.  It turned out to be a western tiger salamander which we later learned from Google is Colorado’s State Amphibian!  I didn’t even think a salamander could live in a place so cold.  As we kept looking, eventually we counted ten in this subalpine lake.  One of them was twice the size of the others.  We suspected he was eating the young.  Seeing these salamanders were so cool!!  This capped off a wonderful hike.

Side Trips

Drive Independence Pass and Visit Independence Mine

The pass is lovely and the top offers a hike to the Continental Divide.  In between the pass and Aspen is Independence Mine.  The mine included several old buildings and it is worth taking a few minutes to wander through the old townsite.

Visit Redstone

Redstone is a small town located between Aspen and Marble.  It is very artsy and home to a handful of antique shops and art galleries.  We took about an hour to stroll the short main street and look at the knick knacks.

Drive McClure Pass

McClure Pass is loaded with aspen which are probably changing colors as I write this during the third week of September.  We were a bit early, so we didn’t stay long, but I can imagine how spectacular it would be at peak season.

Hike on the Way Home

Lionshead Rock Trail

We ended our weekend trip to Aspen with a short hike in Minturn.  As we turned off the highway surrounded by scrub covered hills, we had low expectations for Lionshead Rock Trail, but we were pleasantly surprised once we figured out where we were going.  There was only one trailhead, but it wasn’t called Lionshead Rock Trail, instead it was called Game Creek Trail.

The map on All Trails indicated we were in the correct location so we began climbing up the path which led us into spectacular fall foliage.  Golden aspens shaded red shrubbery.  It was simply picturesque.  At the creek was another junction, this time we went to the right to follow Cougar Ridge.  We were glad the All Trails Map worked as none of this was mentioned in the trail description! We followed the perfectly graded switchbacks through an aspen grove and into a lodge pole pine forest.  The transition was very distinct.

We climbed out of the forest on a steep, rocky road.  This was also a drastic change from the smooth, dirt trail.  We passed through intermittent aspen groves until we reached Lionshead Rock, an amazing overview to the right of the trail.  The mountainside displayed a multitude of fall colors.  It couldn’t have been a better place for our last snack of the weekend, and the first clouds we saw in three days! ETB

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Other Fall Hikes in Colorado You May Like


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Beth Bankhead

Former public finance professional turned award winning travel blogger and photographer sharing the earth's beauty one word and image at a time.

6 thoughts on “Road Trip to the Rockies: A Weekend in Aspen

  1. Beautiful photos and amazing adventure!…Hi Beth, We’re thinking of going to Crystal Mill, do you think we can park near or next to Lizard Lake? Thank you.

    1. Hope I’m not too late in answering you. I was in the mountains. If that is the name of the lake along the way to the mill then yes, there is a pullout where some atvs were parked. Probably only an option for 2 spots

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