About an hour into a stunning backcountry mountain bike ride off Aspen’s Smuggler Mountain Road in Colorado, my friend and I stopped in a broad valley to savor, well, everything: the rugged climb up an old dirt mining road, the meandering single track that led through verdant aspen stands whose leaves would soon crisp to golden, and the rip-roaring, steep descent into the broad valley where we now stood under a cool September sun and a clear blue sky. Endorphins surging, I raved about the quality of the mountain biking. The trails seemed to go on forever, the dirt was tacky and fast. There were no crowds. The scenery was sublime. And, best of all, we had a range of options that would allow us to lengthen or shorten our ride as we saw fit.
While I waxed on, my friend, who was born and raised in Aspen and is now raising his own kids there, smiled patiently. I wasn’t telling him anything he didn’t already know. What was, for me, easily the best ride of my summer was, for him, a jaunt in his backyard.
And when I say jaunt, I mean it. While I huffed and sweated up the climb, he kept up a steady conversation without any extra effort, reminding me that, in the hierarchy of fitness, there is “out of shape,” “somewhat fit,” “pretty solid” and “Aspen fit.” I fell somewhere between “somewhat” and “pretty,” and the effort was difficult for me. We planned to ride 21 miles, and I was worried about actually finishing. I was also determined to make it, in part because I was gobsmacked by the wonderful riding.
Although we were only a few miles from town as the crow flies, it felt as if we were in the remote wild. How had I not known about this mountain biking treasure trove until now?
He shrugged good-naturedly and was too polite to point out the obvious: that I must have had my head in the sand. We ate a snack and began another long climb, which gave me plenty of time to noodle it over and conclude that, of course, Aspen would be a great cycling destination.
It’s a mountain town, which means the peaks spread for miles in every direction from the narrow valley where Aspen sits. For decades, skiers, trail runners and hikers have crisscrossed the peaks — which include a handful of Colorado’s storied 14ers, which means their summits exceed 14,000 feet in elevation — on trail networks that would, naturally, also be open to bikes. Add in the fact that Aspen is only a mountain pass away from Crested Butte, until 2014 home to the Mountain Biking Hall of Fame, and logic would have it that the terrain between the two mountain towns is similar.
And yet, when it comes to Colorado cycling destinations, places such as Fruita, Crested Butte and Steamboat Springs come to mind, perhaps because those destinations have actively marketed themselves to the cycling set.
Maybe Aspen doesn’t promote its cycling as heavily as other destinations because it’s already rich in things to do. Outdoorsy things, obviously, but also intellectual ones. There’s the renowned Aspen Art Museum and the Aspen Institute, a global think tank with offices in D.C. and programs that include the famous Ideas Festival; incubators for young, aspiring politicians; and a respected writing program.
That’s as far as I got on my brainstorming. We reached the top of our final climb and prepared to descend the Sunnyside Trail, a red-rock romp with technical drops and what my kids call “tater patches,” or rocky sections that demand concentration and a healthy amount of speed.
Only later, when I was enjoying vegan enchiladas and a smoothie purchased at a thrumming downtown restaurant, did I turn back to my fascination with Aspen and its extensive cycling. Still skeptical? Here’s a list of great biking options — mountain and road — that will appeal to riders of all abilities.
Why not start your cycling tour of Aspen with a trip to some of the most iconic mountains in Colorado? The straightforward Maroon Bells route climbs the road from the Aspen Highlands ski resort for about eight miles to a dead end at the Maroon Lake Trailhead. You’re at altitude — the elevation of Maroon Lake is 9,585 feet — so expect the air to feel thin. (And wear sunscreen, because there’s less atmosphere to shield the sun’s UV rays.) As you pedal, admire the straight-out-of-a-Western scenery: aspen groves and split-rail fences, extensive meadows and rising peaks. The road’s final bend puts you face-to-face with Pyramid Peak, 14,026 feet. Expect minimal traffic, thanks to vehicle restrictions and regular shuttles designed to manage crowds. But still be educated on road etiquette, such as riding single file when cars are present and not cutting off others. Not up for a strenuous workout? Electric bikes offer an easy solution. These easy-to-ride bikes have a motor assist that makes traveling long distances easier. Bike shops in Aspen offer a range of e-bike rentals.
Riding a bike to the top of Independence Pass is a slog. The climb begins at about 8,000 feet in elevation on a steep, narrow road that offers very little rest over 18 miles. It tops out at 12,095 feet, for approximately 4,000 feet of climbing. And yet, riding this unforgiving climb is a life list accomplishment for many. That’s because there are few roads that pass by such rugged and gorgeous scenery while pushing you to new athletic heights. Riders pass mining ghost towns and climb above a valley that was once populated by wild game and summering Native American tribes. However, riding Independence Pass is not all beauty, nostalgia and athletic challenges. There is often traffic from both directions, the road often lacks a shoulder, it narrows in sections down to a single lane and has variable conditions and steep drop-offs. Add in Colorado’s unpredictable weather — it could snow in July at the top of the pass — and it’s essential that riders prepare for every eventuality. Bring plenty of layers, food and water, and be prepared to turn around if storms roll in. The road from Aspen to Independence Pass is open for cyclists from Memorial Day weekend to around Nov. 1, depending on the weather.
Aspen’s mountain biking trails include flowing, buff dirt and technical climbs and descents. They snake through rugged scenery and offer plenty of options in terms of length and difficulty. The 6.5-mile Government Trail is a classic that links Snowmass and Buttermilk ski resorts. After a serious climb, the trail plunges through thick aspen stands, rolls through lush meadows and descends a notorious rock garden toward the end. Most mountain bikers include this trail as part of a larger loop, but it can also be ridden as a point-to-point with a vehicle shuttle. My favorite trails are on the east side of the valley and include the Smuggler Mountain and Hunter Creek valley networks.
Coal Basin Ranch
Kid-friendly Coal Basin Ranch near Redstone, located in the Roaring Fork Valley about an hour’s drive from Aspen, is a former coal mine turned trail network. The privately owned, long, narrow parcel has a roughly five-mile single-track that climbs about 800 feet as it follows a mountain creek. The ascent is friendly enough for beginners and still features some challenges that will invigorate those looking to hone their technical skills. The trail climbs over reclaimed mine tailings, now grass-covered hills, and past an old mine building. The ranch is surrounded by Forest Service land and giant peaks, which means those looking for more adventure could start and end at Coal Basin and add in backcountry miles. I stayed on the main trail, and after the climb, I dropped down a playful descent through aspens — are you seeing a trend here? — and popped off the jump lines.
Snowmass Bike Park
For those who want to plunge down gravity-fed trails without working up a sweat, the Snowmass Bike Park has 25 miles of trails that drop nearly 3,000 vertical feet from the top of the Elk Camp Chairlift. With names such as Cowboy Coffee, Battle Axe, Dust Bunny, Valhalla and Valkyrie, the trails are a mix of technical and more flowing free rides.
Walker is a writer based in Boulder, Colo. Follow her on Twitter: @racheljowalker.
Where to stay
Aspen Meadows Resort
845 Meadows Rd.
Located about a mile from downtown on 40 acres, Aspen Meadows has 98 Bauhaus-inspired suites, each with floor-to-ceiling windows and a wet bar with a sink and microwave. The resort also has a full-service gym, art gallery, outdoor sculptures and fine-dining restaurant. Rooms from around $400 per night.
St. Moritz Lodge & Condominiums
334 W. Hyman Ave.
Among Aspen’s more affordable hotels, St. Moritz offers standard rooms with kitchenettes and one- and two-bedroom condos. Rate includes breakfast, parking and happy-hour drinks and appetizers. Rooms from $75 per night.
Where to eat
The Wild Fig
315 E. Hyman Ave.
This Mediterranean-inspired bistro in downtown Aspen offers housemade pasta, seafood and an extremely tender filet mignon. Entrees from $31.
119 S. Spring St.
Eating fresh and healthy is easy at this popular vegetarian cafe. Relying on fresh ingredients and spices, the cooks prepare appetizing meat-free entrees, salads and smoothies. Don’t miss the spinach and mushroom enchiladas.
Lunch ranges from $6 (cup of soup) to $19.
845 Meadows Rd.
Farm fresh and local is the theme at this high-end restaurant where the dining room has expansive views of area peaks. Expect Western twists on classic dishes, such as soft-shell crab served with a tomatillo base or elk striploin with wild mushrooms. Entrees from about $20.
What to do
Aspen Alpine Guides
1280 Ute Ave.
Leave the navigating to the professionals, who will also carry a first-aid kit and extra snacks. The company guides mountain, road and gravel biking and offers standard or customized itineraries. Full day rates from $475 per person, $75 per additional person. Half-day $375 per person for first rider; additional riders $55 per person.
430 S. Spring Street
Rent an electric bike, stock up on water bottles and get local information about trails, trail conditions and popular routes. E-bike rentals from $130 per day.
Coal Basin Ranch
4180 Coal Creek Rd.
After a successful soft opening in summer 2020, Coal Basin Ranch aims to ramp up outreach to highlight the public/private partnership that transformed a defunct coal mine into a family-friendly recreational destination. The ranch has a pump track and beginner practice area, plus a roughly five-mile single-track loop. Free.
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