Road Trip Through the Colorado Rockies
Set beyond the Rocky Mountains’ eastern edge, the small towns of central Colorado are a glimpse of the American frontier—a hundred years ago.
Gunnison to Carbondale
The best part of a Colorado road trip is often the in-between. From Gunnison to Carbondale, routes 50 and 92 wind along the rim of the 2,000-foot-deep Black Canyon, through peaceful farm country, over an alpine pass, and deep into a red-rock gorge.
Carbondale was once a sooty coal-mining town, but recently it has evolved into an artsy refuge for young professionals from nearby Aspen. I arrived on a Friday night, when the galleries host a monthly art-walk. Young residents drank wine in shops while others streamed into a local bar for a disco cover-band. In Phat Thai, a hip Asian Bistro (343 Main St., phatthai.com, entrees from $14), couples sat elbow to elbow at the community bar and sipped ginger Cosmos—Carbondale's pioneers must be rolling over in their graves.
Carbondale to Aspen
Aspen has long been a darling of celebrities—and has the Prada and Gucci boutiques to prove it—but its vibe is less stuffy than that of newer resorts such as Vail. Case in point: the Mountain Chalet Aspen, a downtown Swiss-style lodge that's been run by the same family since 1954 (333 E. Durant Ave., mountainchaletaspen.com, doubles from $165). It's the kind of low-key place where the clerk offers complimentary cookies and lemonade as soon as you walk in.
It may be tony now, but Aspen has a decidedly rambunctious pedigree. Dean Weiler, a 30-something ski bum turned historic guide for Aspen Walking Tours, knows more about it than anyone (aspenwalkingtours.com, one-hour tours $20 per person). Weiler wears the kind of three-piece suits favored by Mark Twain, and like Twain he loves spinning tales as he leads tourists to haunted saloons and the county jail that once housed Ted Bundy.
The tour's last stop was the swank Hotel Jerome, where guests have been known to report seeing ghosts—possibly after one too many Aspen Cruds, a potent bourbon-spiked milkshake first whipped up during Prohibition as a decoy. Still, the hotel's century-old J-Bar is gorgeous (330 E. Main St., 970/920-1000, draft beers from $3.75). It manages to feel rustic and opulent at the same time.
No place captures the wild past of Colorado quite as well as Woody Creek Tavern, a back-road haunt once frequented by resident crazy genius Hunter S. Thompson (2858 Upper River Rd., woodycreektavern.com, entrees from $20). A stuffed wild boar stands over the entrance of the wooden lodge, and fat, old-fashioned Christmas bulbs are strung all over the interior. These days, you're more likely to see sunburned parents and kids packing the booths, rather than rowdy regulars like Thompson. But that doesn't mean the bar's untamed spirit is diminished. Not, at least, if the slogan on my waitress's shirt was true: "What happens at the Woody Creek Tavern, NEVER stays at the Woody Creek Tavern."
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