Wednesday 26 April 2017

Colorado: Rocky mountain high

Shane Fitzsimons on a magnificent road trip through 1,500 miles of the wonderful state of Colorado

Lighter than air at the Snowmass Balloon Festival in Colorado
Lighter than air at the Snowmass Balloon Festival in Colorado
Shane out hiking the Flatirons in the foothills of Boulder - the highly-educated and liberal town that Donald Trump would like to ban
Hotel Boulderado
The Maroon Bells
You can zip along in a Mustang convertible
Shane and Tanya stand around while Don gets the balloon ready
The balloons are attached to each other by a ribbon - and when it breaks, you're out
Erin Byrne of Boulder shows how easy it is to climb the jagged peaks
Shane was utterly petrified and his legs turned to jelly, but still he made the climb
The steam train runs from Silverton to Durango every day
This marks the meteorological spine of North America

Shane Fitzsimons

The past 12 months have been a funny old time for the United States. We’ve seen highs, we’ve seen lows, and lots of bits in the middle that could yet turn out either way.

But bear with me if I sound like a Fox News anchor for a moment, because I’m going to tell you of one thing which will endure about America, one inalienable truth, one thing that will never change in the good ol' US of A.

And that’s that the Rocky Mountains are the best idea America ever had.

Best viewed from the very wonderful state of Colorado, the Rockies are actually the backbone of America - running down the centre of the North American continent from Alberta to the Rio Grande in New Mexico.

Shane out hiking the Flatirons in the foothills of Boulder - the highly-educated and liberal town that Donald Trump would like to ban
Shane out hiking the Flatirons in the foothills of Boulder - the highly-educated and liberal town that Donald Trump would like to ban

So central are they that there’s a distinct line that geographers trace along the spine of the mountain range, and every drop of rain that falls to the east of that line will eventually run into the Atlantic or gush into the Gulf of Mexico – while every drop of snowmelt falling to the west will inexorably run into the Pacific. They call this line the Continental Divide and it splits access from sea to shining sea more accurately than any cartographer’s rule.

Oh, the truly awesome state of Colorado. And oh to be there in the warm Autumn days when the leaves are changing. It’s so beautiful that you find yourself whispering, so friendly and so utterly inspiring that it can leave you lost for whispers. At times like that a smile is all you need.

Of course when approaching a mountain range as massive as the Rockies, your first question is how to get up the damn things. We were taking the easy route - using a car. And not just any car, but a cherry red Ford Mustang with a soft top. Sure, it can mark you out as a tourist on a road trip in fantasyland - but when you’re driving the Million Dollar Highway from Durango to Silverton you’ve got to look the part.

The town of Durango is just like it sounds – a shining nugget from the old west. It’s a former mining town that somehow managed to keep its red-brick heritage intact during the 20th century, eventually transforming itself into a regional go-to. But the former saloons and honky-tonks haven’t lost any of their charm: there’s still a moustachioed piano player in the old school hotels, still waiters bustling around taking orders (and in fact the town has got more restaurants per capita than even the state capital).

Even today Durango calls to the pioneering spirit in us all – to the hikers, the mountain bikers, the cowboy culturists, and the fly fishermen who fish the Animas River all year round. It’s also one end of the famous Durango to Silverton narrow gauge steam train – and to top this all, in one of the town’s many microbrewery pubs we saw a truly amazing sight: Jameson whiskey on tap.

When we told people we were driving the million dollar highway to Silverton they advised caution. As well they might. The road was constructed in the 1880s, hewn out of the side of the mountain and crossing high passes at altitudes of over 3,200 metres. Yes, that’s two miles high. Luckily when driving north you’re on the inside of the road - but surely even Lewis Hamilton’s heart would skip a beat on the hairpin turns.

Just when your grip on the steering wheel starts to get sweaty, the view opens out over the living, breathing wild west town of Silverton. We crested the pass and stopped to gaze for a moment, just as the steam train was pulling in - and were treated to a vista from the 1800s: the dusty main street springing to life at the sound of the approaching train, the choo-chooing engine belching steam and people scurrying from wooden clapper-board storefronts to meet the train pulling into town.

A quick coffee and a slice of cherry pie (“You want ice-cream with that, honey?” Well... it’d be bad form to refuse.) and we were off to Ouray. No, I’d never heard of it before either, but around these parts it’s known as the Switzerland of Colorado – and the jagged granite peaks that surround the picturesque and flower-filled town would support that claim. Unlike Switzerland however, this is friendly territory. You find yourself stopping and chatting to strangers on the street. About their dogs mainly, or the weather, and where to find the best steak in town. Good people.

From Ouray we continued north along Route 550, sometimes blinking our eyes in the Colorado sunshine and thereby missing small towns with vague dreams of grandeur - towns called Dallas or Portland or Vernal – places with nothing more than a roadhouse, a gas (aka petrol) station, or someplace to get a coffee and something nice for the special horse in your life.

Yes, they were one horse towns – but there’s a strange small town magic in these small roadside attractions. The smaller the place, the more you want to stop; the more you stop, the longer the road gets. Follow that thought to its natural conclusion and you’ll dawdle and dawdle - until one day something in you digs in its heels, and you find yourself settled down in East Jesus.

Not ready for a little house on the prairie, we put the soft top down, sped up and passed on.

As the sun was falling we rolled up to the outskirts of Montrose, the gridded parks of chain stores radiating outwards from the old town centre like ripples from a pebble dropped in water. We counted down the motorway exits and just like that found our way to our motel - the Red Arrow Inn (www.redarrowinn.com). We’d just enough time to throw our bags in the room, grab a burger at Camp Robber, and then back out into the night to stare at the star-filled sky.

You see, there are basically two reasons for visiting Montrose - and they’re both cloaked in darkness.

In daylight hours there’s the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park – so-called as its gneiss and schist walls are so steep that the deepest gullies of the chasm cut by the fast-flowing Gunnison River receive only 33 minutes of sunlight a day. But there are lovely treks down into the canyon, where you’re shaded from the sun by head-high gambel oaks and juniper trees.

The other reason for visiting is the Dark Sky Park. The Black Canyon preserves a primordial dark sky, largely unaltered by modernity and with very, very little light pollution. Astronomers reckon that looking with the naked eye from a built-up area you can see 500 stars - at most. But in the Black Canyon you can see 15,000 and your eyes drink them in. There are only 40 or so dark sky parks in the world (two in Ireland) and you should put some on your bucket list.

After such a star-crossed evening, a leisurely late breakfast is your only man – and nobody really does breakfasts like Americans do breakfast. Pancakes! Heap em high. With maple syrup please. And why not add strawberries, blueberries, whipped cream and nuts? Or for those who prefer a more savoury start to the day, try the bacon, hash browns, eggs over easy with lots of toast. Rye bread please. Or maybe sourdough. Why not both?

And then back behind the wheel, and back to the road, letting the magic of a Colorado road trip unfold. By now we were long off the multi-lane interstates and the four-lane freeways, burning up the miles on a two lane highway - a road so small you could easily get lost. So we did.

That was how we found our way into Paonia: a small town of tree-lined streets and wooden houses in a green valley. Their official population of 1,500 or so seemed on the small side when you consider the amount of brewpubs, coffeeshops and restaurants in the place. Maybe the ranchers, coal miners, hippies and young urbanites just eat a lot? You couldn’t blame them: Paonia is the centre of Colorado’s agri-belt and they grow everything for the state. If you’d a spare few hours in Autumn (and we had) you’d be crazy to miss their honesty orchards, where no one weighs how may apples or grapes you pick – and you leave what you reckon you owe in a bucket by the exit. Just remember to close the gate, y’all.

And back in the car, now pointed towards the town of Snowmass. Hard down on the accelerator and the magic of Colorado started unfolding again. Fighting back the urge to dawdle on the road, we rolled up mountains and down valleys, over bridges and alongside rivers.

Snowmass is a small winter resort town, only 10 miles from Aspen and just up the hill from Woody Creek – former home of the late gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson. A pilgrimage to his local bar, the Woody Creek Tavern, was high on our to-do list – but we’d arrived right in the middle of the Snowmass Balloon Festival (www.gosnowmass.com/event/snowmass-balloon-festival/) and had dreams of floating high above the mountains.

We were told to be down at the softball field at 5am sharp the next morning if we wanted a chance of a space in a balloon basket. And we wanted that, so we checked into the luxurious Timberline Condominiums for an early night (www.thetimberline.com). But do such things really exist? After a quick hot chocolate, we played with the controls of the leather La-Z boy chair, flicked through the five thousand or so US TV stations, walked out on the balcony to be stunned by the brilliance of the night sky, ran back inside to warm up at the stove... in short, early night? Dream on.

But we made it to the softball field, and followed a posse of likely looking characters into a clubhouse which we found to be filled with balloon pilots of all shapes, colours and creeds – and a better bunch of people you wouldn’t meet. When it was announced that an Irish couple were looking to hitch a ride in a balloon, there was a race to claim us for their basket - they're a welcoming crowd.

It was decided that we were best off flying with Don Edwards - an Alaska resident who ventures to the warm Colorado skies every once in a while - and he gave us a quick safety check. After that, it was a hazy early morning rush, a lot of deep breaths (it takes a lot of puff to blow up a basket), and the next thing you know we were floating a mile high into the Colorado skies.

We were flying in a balloon dance competition - which sounds fairly simple. Basically, the balloons pair off and, linked by a hand-held ribbon, they circle around each other - until, eventually, they drift apart, the ribbon breaks, and we all float back to ground. Like I said, it sounds simple.

But (always with the but) in a hot-air balloon you can control height, but that’s about it. So to go in a certain direction you go up or down to try to catch favourable gusts of wind, and we soared and dipped and the ribbon broke, so we soared and dipped again, but this time up around mountain tops and over ridiculously palatial homes, eventually looking for a fair wind to bring us home. We even considered landing in the grounds of one particularly big mansion - only for local air traffic control to call us up and warn us off. Down below, in the gated mansion, we saw burly security men scurrying about, talking quite meaningfully into their shirt-cuffs - and though we wondered who lived there, no-one seemed able to tell us.

We landed instead in a non-threatening car park, where the security detail were just a few bemused householders and kids dressed in superhero costumes, delighted at what the sky had dropped into their backyard. We were too. Hot-air ballooning is fun.

As we were in the skies in the morning, we had to aim for the water in the afternoon – whitewater rafting on the Colorado River with local guides from Blazing Adventures (www.blazingadventures.com). First the safety drill: helmets on, lifejackets too, then onto the water and paddle like crazy into the Shoshone Rapids - and wait for the splashdown. I’ve always loved messing about on boats, but this reminded me of what it felt like as a kid going on the merries. Again! Again!

After the rapids, it was an easy float back through the canyons – getting us back to Snowmass just in time to get dolled up for dinner at the Eight K restaurant in the Viceroy Hotel (www.viceroyhotelsandresorts.com/en/snowmass/dining_and_nightlife/eightk). And oh my god... words would almost fail me. While it’s called Eight K because it’s 8,000 feet above sea level, this very stylish restaurant is ground zero for high mountain cuisine – so locally sourcing the best organic food goes without saying. And the happy memories are free.

Particularly memorable was the heritage pork chop, which was the size of a small car. A small American car. And it was Homer Simpson delicious, glazed in cane syrup and served with spaghetti squash - all sitting on a bed of cipollini onions braised in sherry. It also came with a salad with rocket and other Colorado greens - but with pork chops this size, it’s often better not to mention the greens.

I could go on about the BBQ-ed shrimp and grits or the duck and sausage gumbo (the head chef is called Nolan, but he’s from New Orleans, so there’s a Creole thing going on too), but you’d better take me on trust: when you’re in this part of the world, you need to eat in the Eight K.

Early next morning we moved on towards Aspen (all of 10 miles away), and en route stopped off at the Woody Creek Tavern for a bowl of breakfast chilli. While my preconceived notions of what Hunter Thompson’s local bar would be like positioned it as a place of strong whiskey, wild tobacco and heated political dispute, it turned out to be a very different fish. Organised groups of 60-something cyclists in lycra onesies were drinking sugar-free lemonade under umbrellas. Hmm. Not a trace of cynicism to be seen. Hmm. No wild tobacco either.

Inside looked a little more as I’d imagined it – dark bar, lots of wood, lots of newspaper cuttings and pictures of Hunter on the walls. All of a sudden I was flushed with a momentary twinge of embarrassment. Silly me. What had I been expecting? Nothing lasts, everything changes - and if I hadn’t known it was my hero’s local bar I’d probably have loved it. So we got some sugar-free lemonade, bought the t-shirt, and headed for Aspen.

As we drew closer to the town, the number of lycra-ed up cyclists grew. You see, Aspen is not just a winter resort, but a year-round destination for anyone interested in the outdoor life. Whether that means gentle hikes through rugged botany, hill climbs on racing bikes, rugby (yes, in the USA) or just frisbee in the park, they like the outdoors.

In fact the hotel we were staying at – the Limelight (www.limelighthotels.com) – likes the outdoors so much that they have their own dedicated summer adventure concierge (a dislocated Clareman, no less) who can organise treks, tours and hikes for you before you arrive at the hotel – so you’ve not a minute of your holiday wasted. They offer the same service if you’re staying during ski season too.

That evening we were walking through the foyer of the Limelight Hotel, when a lift door opened - and out walked a golden retriever. And here I must stop for a moment to explain the cultural jaw-drop concept of dog-friendly hotels: they’re hotels, and you can bring your dog too. It sounds simple, and it is, but the difference it makes in creating a friendly atmosphere is huge. It brings guests together, you find yourself chatting to people in lifts, smiling at strangers and petting their mutts. (No Donald Trump jokes here please.)

The summer adventure concierge said we should visit the Aspen Centre for Environmental Studies (www.aspennature.org/) and join a guided hike up the mountains – a wonderful suggestion, as it means you get the local advice on the most suitable trails and don’t end up wandering off into the wilderness.

We hiked high above the town, and developed a fine appetite for a visit to Meat & Cheese (www.meatandcheeseaspen.com) – a farm shop and restaurant where we were spoiled forever by the short ribs rubbed in coffee and chocolate served with a warming espresso polenta and sweet potato crisps. As a concession towards healthy eating we added some southern style collard greens with ham hock, onion, and crispy pancetta to the table – and when the waitress heard we were Irish she brought out some Gubbeen cheese. All the way from West Cork!

Before we were off again we had to make a big decision – which road to take to cross the Rockies? As it was September and the leaves were changing colour, we elected to drive Independence Pass - the highest paved mountain pass in Colorado. A good call.

We switchbacked up the pass through a dense forest of Aspen trees, where the colours ranged from dappled green to chrome yellow to deep orange.  It was an utterly glorious drive, climbing ever up the western side of the mountain range - until we broke through the treeline and found ourselves in the open grassy expanse of the alpine tundra. Ahead we saw the sign for the Continental Divide, so we pulled over and could trace along the ridge of the mountains the spine of the North American continent. Your heart would skip a beat.

How we managed the next 100 miles without stopping at every chance to marvel at the magnificence of these mountains I will never know. But we did, stopping – by chance - in the small town of Leadville, only to discover the Victorian opera house where Oscar Wilde performed to the silver miners on his 1882 tour of the USA. I was brought onto the stage where Sousa performed, examined the trap door down which Houdini disappeared, and was shown the ropes of the boxing ring in which Jack Dempsey fought. So much history, and so little time (www.taboroperahouse.net/).

With all these roadside attractions, it’s a wonder we reached Estes Park by nightfall, pulling in to Murphy’s River Lodge (www.murphysriverlodge.com) where we turned off the car’s engine to be greeted by the gurgling of the Fall River running nearby. We were tired after a long drive – but never has mountain air tasted sweeter, or a bed felt softer.

Estes Park is a small lakeside town right on the edge of the Rocky Mountain National Park (www.nps.gov/romo/index.htm). It’s a great place to stay if you’re visiting the park, which you’re going to want to do – but not all in one day, mind.

At 450 square miles, Rocky Mountain National Park is the mammy and daddy of all parks. It’s filled with elk, bears, moose, coyote, bighorn sheep, mountain lion and bobcat. It’s got lakes where you can fish, swimming holes where you can splash about, and a million trails where you can hike and discover the true meaning of the word awesome. A visit to the park ranger centres will get you oriented, and help you choose what you want to get from the park. Believe me, you’ll need their guidance – and a jeep trek through the park is highly recommended. Gazing at wildlife is hungry work - and if you're looking for a bison steak, or just a regular steak steak, can I reccommend Twin Owls?

Back in Estes, we made time for breakfast at the historic Stanley Hotel (www.stanleyhotel.com/), which overlooks the town. The fame of the Stanley Hotel is not just down to their wonderful breakfasts. In 1974 writer Stephen King came to stay a couple of nights and so smitten was he by the gothic atmosphere that it inspired him to write The Shining. His room was 217, and if you want to experience those literary ghosts, you should book well in advance.

Our time in Colorado was coming to an end, but we’d one more town to visit – and we’d saved the best for last. Welcome to the town of Boulder! The town that Trump would like to ban! It’s a liberal place where people cycle everywhere, a hi-tech town, a university town, and is much beloved of serious athletes who love to train in these high altitudes. And oh god, does that show.

Everywhere we went we’d never seen people looking so fit. We went for a small trek in Chautauqua Park (www.chautauqua.com) at the foot of the Flatirons, a series of slanted sandstone formations that slope up out of Boulder's foothills. And as we were huffing and puffing our way up a steep three-mile trail, a woman - possibly a 60-year-old grandma - came jogging past us... smiling. The fitness I could stand – but to be smiling too?

The fitness bug is contagious though, and the granite peaks of Colorado had been calling to me - so there was nothing for it but to give rockclimbing a try. I set out with Josh Baruch from Colorado Wilderness Rides and Guides (www.coloradowildernessridesandguides.com) which turned out to be a good decision.

Josh has guided Special Forces up Boulder's mountains, but I reckon he'd never met an immoveable force like me before. I found I could climb the first 10 metres without a problem - but then everything turned to jelly. What to do? Josh had seen this problem before - and we just sat on a rock and talked about the nature of fear, and panic, and climbing. Before I knew it, he'd talked the fear out of my limbs - I turned to face the 25 metre wall and climbed straight to the top. I'd heard about horse whisperers before, but this guy was a mountain whisperer.

After descending, my legs quickly came back to life. I swore I'd never leave terra firma again, so we hired bikes and set out to explore the cute tree-lined streets (and bike lanes) of Boulder. You’re can’t fail but notice the amount of microbreweries about town and if I had to mention one, I’d say a visit to the Upslope Craft Brewery is both educational and, well you know...

The town centres on the pedestrianised Pearl Street - a great place for shopping, strolling and just hanging out. Best of all though was the discovery of a Ben and Jerry’s ice-cream parlour – and if you think it tastes good from a tub, wait until you get a sundae here.

But sundaes are the least of Boulder’s foodie charms. Right around the corner from the Hotel Boulderado (www.boulderado.com) where we were staying was the Bramble and Hare restaurant (www.brambleandhare.com) – and this is where the magic happens. It was to be our last night in Colorado, so we set out to do justice to a pepita and sunflower seed risotto with black garlic and pistachio nuts, some crispy squash blossoms with goat’s cheese and fava beans, followed by roasted leg of lamb stuffed with pork sausage and pistou – all prepared with locally sourced food.

And so it was goodnight to Boulder, and so long to Colorado – best state ever.

Getting there

Places: For info on Colorado, your first point of call is www.colorado.com. In Aspen look to www.aspenchamber.org while in Boulder visit www.bouldercoloradousa.com; Estes Park info is to be found at www.visitestespark.com while Gunnison tips are at www.visitmontrose.com; Find Snowmass at www.gosnowmass.com

Activities:  Number one on this list has to be the Rocky Mountain National Park (www.nps.gov/romo). They are the biz. For jeep tours in the park try www.ywguiding.com. For Snowmass ballooning try (www.gosnowmass.com/event/snowmass-balloon-festival) and for rafting see Blazing Adventures (www.blazingadventures.com) and if you fancy a Bitter Librarian afterwards, try Rock Cut Brewing Company (www.rockcutbrewing.com) or the Lumpy Ridge brewhouse (www.lumpyridgebrewing.com/#lumpy-ridge-brewery) . If you fancy some of the stronger local ‘white lightning’, you’ll be wanting Elkins Distillery (www.elkinsdistilling.com/home).

Food: This one’s a tough call, but the best three restaurants we ate in in Colorado were the Eight K at the Viceroy Hotel in Snowmass (www.viceroyhotelsandresorts.com/en/snowmass); Meat & Cheese in Aspen (www.meatandcheeseaspen.com) and Bramble & Hare in Boulder (www.brambleandhare.com). That said, the best steak I had I the US was in Twin Owls in Estes Park (www.twinowls.net) while the best burrito was at the Rayback Collective’s very cool fire pit in warm and friendly Boulder (www.therayback.com). And in the special category, the Boulder County Farmers Market (www.bcfm.org) was a real farmer’s market  – in that the farmers who grew the crops were the ones selling them. And chef Eric Skokan of Black Cat Farm and Bramble and Hare signed our cookbook! So there!

And lodgings: God keep The Timberline (www.thetimberline.com) safe from harm. Bring your dogs to Aspen’s Limelight Hotel (www.limelighthotels.com) and in Estes Park chill out at Murphy’s River Lodge (www.murphysriverlodge.com). In Montrose you’ll need a place like the Red Arrow Inn (www.redarrowinn.com/) and finally – finally, say hello from me to everyone at Hotel Boulderado (www.boulderado.com), a historic  hotel for all the right reasons.

TAKE THREE: Top attractions

The Limelight, Aspen

maroon bells.jpg  

The Limelight is the friendliest hotel I’ve ever stayed in and that includes staff and guests — human and canine. They also serve the best scrambled eggs I’ve ever eaten. Their informal breakfast buffet is just what you need after an early morning drive to see Maroon Bells (above). www.limelighthotels.com

Timberline, Snowmass

mustang.jpg  

The Timberline in Snowmass is where the rustic charms of old school log cabin America get the 21st century treatment. The condos are perfect for relaxing after a hard day on the mountains, an easy day ballooning over the hills — or zipping up the roads in a red Mustang convertible!  www.thetimberline.com

Hotel Boulderado

Hotel Boulderado.jpg  

Hotel Boulderado is one of those rare hotels where you feel like you’re walking on to a film set, recreating the elegance of the silver boom that brought settlers to Colorado. Whether it’s cocktails at the bar, or an espresso in the foyer under the Tiffany roof, this place is exquisite. www.boulderado.com

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