Driving Independence Pass on a summer or fall road trip from Denver to Aspen is a must. Summit elevation on the Continental Divide is 12,095 feet making it the highest paved state highway in Colorado (Cottonwood Pass is the highest paved passed). My friend Lisa and I left Denver on our road trip and stopped in Leadville for a late lunch. We stopped at The Silver Llama Market and Eatery. Perusing the menu, I asked the gal about the green chili mac and cheese side. She said, “oh it’s SOOOOO good.” I went for that and the side of superfood apple slaw. Lisa opted for the tomato soup to go with her mac and cheese. The side order is six ounces so perfect to pair with another side for lunch. Both of us devoured every morsel. The Silver Llama is the parent company of Cookies with Altitude, my favorite cookie shop in Colorado. I ordered a peanut butter cookie topped with chocolate ganache, thinking I would eat a couple of bites and save some for later. Lisa went to the restroom before we hit the road again and when she came back, my cookie was gone.
Luxurious Stay at Aspen’s Most Historic Hotel
It was rainy for most of our drive up and over Independence Pass, so we didn’t stop. We arrived at Hotel Jerome just in time to change and meet a friend for cocktails. As we were walking to our room, Victor, who helped with our bags, told me Hotel Jerome is capping its occupancy at 50% because of COVID-19, even though the allowance is higher. Our huge suite was on the ground floor looking out over the pool. Hotel Jerome is a luxurious and historic hotel. It dates back to the mining boom in Colorado. When you walk in, you feel like you’ve stepped by in time to a different era. The rooms are big and filled with touches that are nods to the Wild West, mining history and native Americans. Hotel Jerome has been a gathering place in Aspen since it opened in 1889 during the height of the silver boom.
We met my friend Maureen in Hotel Jerome’s “Living Room.” It’s one of my favorite hideaway spots in Aspen. It’s also a great place to spot celebrities. I toasted our first night in Aspen with a Thyme 75, a twist on the classic French 75 cocktail.
For dinner, Lisa and I decided to try one of the newer restaurants in Aspen. Bear Den had some outdoor seating available, so we dined on the sidewalk. We nibbled on chips and dips while waiting for our fried noodles, which we split.
Day 1: John Denver Sanctuary, Ajax Mountain and Aspen Historical Society Tour
I eased into the day relaxing on our patio with a view. While enjoying the view, our next-door neighbor came barreling through the bushes. Splash is an adorable 4-month old puppy. After playtime with the pup, I went in search of coffee. I could have made it in the room but wanted to walk around Hotel Jerome in the early morning. Leslie, a longtime employee, graciously got me a hot cup of coffee, which I took outside and enjoyed on the steps in the courtyard.
As Lisa and I headed out to walk over to John Denver Sanctuary, I struck up a conversation with Jesse out front of the Jerome. He gave us some local recommendations for food and off we went to my favorite spot in town. In John’s Song Garden, there are native river boulders engraved with the lyrics of some of John Denver’s songs including “Rocky Mountain High.” The singer lived in Aspen for many years before he was killed in a plane crash. This tribute is a beautiful place along the Roaring Fork River to find a little peace and serenity.
We made a quick run through Jus Aspen for juices. I sipped my sweet green juice and nibbled on the protein ball sampler pack as we rode the gondola up Aspen Mountain.
I felt very comfortable on the gondola as they clean each car in between parties, and you can only ride with your party. There are red Adirondack chairs on top of Ajax. As we sat down, we noticed an adorable and pooped dog almost passed out in a chair. Hicks had just finished hiking up Aspen Mountain with his owner. We took in the view for a bit then wandered along the Nature Trail admiring the wildflowers.
We rode the gondola back down to meet my friend Meg for lunch at Ajax Tavern. The patio is another one of my favorite spots in Aspen. A trip to Aspen is not complete without getting truffle fries from Ajax Tavern! I tried the ceviche, a new item on the menu, and it was wonderful. As we were eating, the sky decided to let loose and we dined in the rain so we could stay outside. The shower didn’t last long and made for a memorable and funny lunch.
Exploring Aspen’s history filled our afternoon. We did Aspen Historical Society’s Historical Downtown Walking Tour. Currently they are limiting the number to only six people per tour. Cost is $15 per adult and $12 for seniors and children 18 and under. We met outside of the Wheeler Opera House for our 1.5-hour tour. Our guide Suzie was dressed in an outfit perfect for the late 1800s. We learned the Ute Indians were the original inhabitants of Aspen. The discovery of ore deposits in the second half of the 1800s, sent droves of fortune seekers and miners to Aspen. There are so many historic buildings in Aspen and it’s fun to learn the back stories. The Andres Building is believed to be the oldest building in town dating back 1885. It now houses Prada in the street-level space, which is fitting because haberdasheries sold couture in the late 1800s and early 1900s. I also loved hearing the story of how Aspen went from a booming town during its mining heyday to the world-class ski destination celebrities flock to today. The town has had to re-invent itself many times. We finished to tour at Hotel Jerome. Finished in 1889, it was originally a boarding house. Hotel Jerome is one of the oldest hotels west of the Mississippi. From the stunning tile floor to the antique clock by Prospect Restaurant, everything has a story in this historic hotel. The clock is the oldest piece of furniture in the hotel and has only been brought down once for repair.
After our walking tour, Lisa and I took a tour of Hotel Jerome. We started in the J-Bar. I love the tin ceilings and chandeliers made from bottles found during renovations in the 1980s. I had learned on a previous stay that bartenders get to write their names on drawers of the till. It’s a tradition over 100 years old. The backbar Chinese Chippendale cabinet is stunning. It’s a nod to the many Chinese immigrants who came to Aspen to work during the early railroad days. The maple bar is over 100 years old. While sipping mini Aspen Cruds, we heard the story of the famous cocktail. In the early days, miners and cowboys would ride their horses right into the bar. During Prohibition, J-Bar turned into a soda foundation with a special secret drink. Aspen Crud is a bourbon-spiked vanilla milkshake. The boozy shake was popular with 10th Mountain Division members after long days on the slopes in the 1940s. If you want to sip a bit of Aspen history, order the Crud with a wink or a finger brush on your nose.
We got a glimpse of Bad Harriet, Hotel Jerome’s newest dining space. The name pays homage to the wife of the hotel’s original proprietor, Jerome B. Wheeler. It’s the original home of the Aspen Times. We headed up to the fourth floor in Hotel Jerome to see one of the best views in Aspen, which was especially pretty as an afternoon summer storm was passing over the mountains. After our tour, as we headed into the courtyard, we laughed when we saw a Bernese mountain dog having a conversation with the “Sidewalk Judge.” The paloma with a smoky flavored rim was the perfect refreshing cocktail for late afternoon.
Our plan for dinner was Meat and Cheese, one of the newest additions to Aspen’s culinary scene. We had to wait for an outside table, so we headed into their sister property, Hooch. The speakeasy joint is in the basement of Meat and Cheese. Its eclectic blend of funky furniture is a hodgepodge of flea market treasures and expensive antiques. It feels like a secret find. Wanting something light and refreshing I ordered a sparkling negroni. It’s strawberry-infused Suze aperitif, lime and bitter soda. Lisa went classic and ordered an old-fashioned. At Meat and Cheese, we dined al fresco. I went for the marinated white fish and shrimp tacos.
Since we ate light for dinner and knowing we were doing a big hike the next morning, we called it a day early and indulged in Hotel Jerome’s ice cream sundae. It’s peanut butter ice cream, chocolate sorbet and peanut-fudge crisp drizzled with caramel. I super indulged savoring the decadent dessert in bed.
Day 2: Cathedral Lake, Ashcroft Ghost Town, Maroon Bells, Limelight Hotel
We got up early the next day. On our agenda was a big hike to Cathedral Lake. After two nights at Hotel Jerome, we moved over to the Limelight Hotel for the next two nights. Before heading to the trailhead, we dropped our luggage at the Limelight then head off for a big day of adventure. We grabbed coffee and burritos at Paradise Bakery to fuel up for our hike. Paradise is a locals’ favorite that I’ve been a fan of for years now.
Cathedral Lake Trailhead is 12.2 miles down Castle Creek Road, just beyond Ashcroft Ghost Town. We turned off and drove the dirt road a half mile to the trailhead at 9,880 feet. This is not an easy hike. It starts in an aspen forest that looks like something straight out of a fairy tale. As it enters the Maroon-Snowmass Wilderness, to trail ascends along Pine Creek into a canyon. You go through forests and a series of rockslides before you hit the toughest part of the hike. The series of short, very steep switchbacks will make your thighs and lungs burn. Once at the top of the switchbacks, it about 15 more minutes through forest and meadows to the alpine lake. Cathedral Lake sits at 11,866 feet. We hit it at peak wildflower season and got a bonus of colorful flowers in the forests and meadows. This hike is 5.6 miles round trip. It’s a tough one, but also a beautiful hike.
We had about an hour to explore Ashcroft Ghost Town in between our hike and heading to Maroon Bells. Sitting at 9,500 Ashcroft was founded as a silver mining town in 1880. In its heyday, 2000 people lived in Ashcroft. You can wander around and into some of the miner’s cabins, saloon and hotel. I’ve been 5 or 6 times, and each visit is different. There’s always something to explore. If you have time, I recommend having lunch at Pine Creek Cookhouse, close to Ashcroft. You need to make a reservation in advance.
We had booked a reservation for the 2:15pm shuttle to Maroon Lake. This year you have to make a reservation in advance to park at the lake or to take the shuttle, which is only allowing 15 people per shuttle instead of the normal 45 people. You have to wear a face mask the whole ride. It started raining as we drove to Aspen Highlands to catch the shuttle. On the 18-minute shuttle ride, it rained even harder. I’ve been to Maroon Lake multiple times, but this was the first time I had seen the Bells peeking out of clouds and fog. It was rainy and chilly, yet also magical and mystical. Because it was raining, the normal droves of people standing in awe at the Bells or snapping pictures weren’t there. If the weather would have been better, we would have hiked around the lake and enjoyed a little more time there.
A little wet and tired, we checked into our modern and huge room at The Limelight Hotel for two nights.
It’s one of my favorite places to stay because the rooms are big, the price point is really good for Aspen accommodations and the Lounge in the lobby has great sips and eats.
It was still raining so we didn’t feel like going out to dinner, and the food in The Lounge at the Limelight is really good. I was so hungry I didn’t even dry my hair and let it go curly for the evening. First up was a well-earned cocktail to cheers a great day. When I saw the “Livin’ My Best Life” cocktail on the menu, I knew that was the one for me. It’s made with Casamigos silver tequila, Union Uno mezcal, St. Germain liqueur, apricot jam, fresh lime agave and a splash of club soda. We wasted no time ordering something to eat and started with the warm spring dip made with asparagus, kale, pea, chevre cheese, cream cheese and tarragon. It’s served with tortilla chips. This dip packed with greens is delicious. The pizzas at the Limelight are fabulous. They are 10-inch hand tossed pizzas cooked in a brick-oven. We split the mushroom and pesto pizza topped with pesto, wild mushrooms, roasted tomatoes, crispy garlic and mozzarella cheese. Somehow, we had a little room for dessert and splurged on the chocolate chip cookie bake. It’s baked in a small cast iron skillet and was still bubbling when it arrived at our table. The caramel sea salt ice cream takes this decadent dessert over the top. That a way to have sweet dreams while staying at the Limelight.
Day 3: Independence Ghost Town and Bike Ride to Woody Creek Tavern
One of my favorite things to do in Aspen is to take an early morning walk to admire the architecture before the streets get busy. We took a leisurely stroll looking at the Wheeler Opera House, Elks Building, Hotel Jerome and courthouse. We noticed St. Mary’s Catholic Church was open and went inside to see the sanctuary.
When you stay at the Limelight, breakfast is included. This year everything is grab and go. We fueled up with some healthy eats as we sat outside in the courtyard. We had a really busy day the day before, so it was nice to take a leisurely morning.
We decided to head up Independence Pass to check out the Grottos Trail and Independence Ghost Town. It wasn’t even 10 a.m. and parking lot for Grottos was pack so we planned to hike it early the next day. That gave us plenty of time to explore one of my favorite ghost towns in Colorado. We parked at the Farwell Mill, which is roadside on Highway 82 (Independence Pass). From there we walked the trail to what was the business district. Legend has it that prospectors discovered the Independence Gold Lode on July 4, 1879. A tent city flourished into a bustling mining town with a general store, five hotels, a boardinghouse, cabins and businesses. We wandered around for about an hour. I’ve been here a few times but always love imagining what life was like in the 1880s at elevation of 10,900 feet.
We drove back into Aspen and rented bikes at Four Mountain Sports to ride along the Rio Grande Trail to have lunch at Woody Creek Tavern. We cruised along the paved path as we followed the path of the Roaring Fork River. The ride is shady for the first couple of miles. It does turn into a dirt path for about two miles. There are plenty of places to pull off and enjoy views of the river. One thing I was not expecting on the ride was a series of small waterfalls. The spray cools you off a bit before you hit the McLain Flats part of the trail. The trail is pretty flat through that stretch, but you’re also in full sun. There are signs to follow. When you get close to Woody Creek, there’s a steep downhill into the neighborhood. Woody Creek Tavern is legendary. There are Polaroid snapshots covering the walls. The eccentric writer Hunter S. Thompson was a regular. Woody Creek serves up burgers, sandwiches and tacos. The margaritas are so strong they come with a warning. Lisa and I ordered the Mexican veggie burger and bean nachos with the works to split. Both of us ordered a margarita. We thought about having another, but the 8-mile ride back to Aspen deterred us from ordering another round. The food is delicious, and the portions are huge. Even splitting the burger and nachos we couldn’t finish it all. It was good to work off the lunch some with the ride, even with the short steep hill to connect with the Rio Grande Trail. On the way back we stopped about halfway to sit by the river. I even took off my shoes and dipped my feet in the icy cold water.
It was after 5 p.m. when we got back to Aspen. Both of us were still pretty full from our mid-afternoon lunch. Before retreating to the Limelight for the night, I popped in Victoria’s to get a peach smoothie made with fresh peaches from Palisade, Colorado. We took a very low-key night of relaxing, reading, and falling asleep before sunset.
Departure Day: Grottos Trail, Farmers’ Market and Lunch in Twin Lakes
We got up super early so we could get in a hike before I had to sit on a panel talking about road trips for a virtual travel conference. We started hiking the Grottos Trail at 6:45 a.m. With a couple of minutes on the trail, we saw our first geologic wonder. Erratics are giant boulders on top of a slab of granite that’s called a whaleback. The boulders were deposited 18,000 years ago. It only takes about five minutes of hiking to arrive at the entry of the ice caves. There’s a sign. Walk behind it to the opening in the boulders. That’s where you climb down about six feet. When you’re inside the cave, you’ll see giant slabs of jagged ice, rocks and boulders strewed across the ground and ultra-smooth walls. We had this out-of-this-world cave to ourselves, which is a treat as the trail is very popular.
We scrambled back out of the ice caves and did the short hike to the cascades. We caught the cascading falls just as the sun was coming up over the mountains. We followed the river and climbed up on slick rock to get a closer look at the erratics as we rounded the loop.
We grabbed a quick latte and burrito at the Limelight and I did my panel before checking out. It was a gorgeous morning to stroll the streets of Aspen. We headed over to Aspen’s Farmers’ Market. It’s one of my favorites in the state because normally it’s filled with tons of artisan vendors. This year is different, but the market is still great. I grabbed some veggies and goodies as I wandered through this summer’s one-way system.
Before hitting the road, we stopped at Spring Café. The Spring Shake smoothie was refreshing. We popped into Ute Mountaineer, my favorite shop in Aspen. They always have a great selection of outdoor gear and clothes.
On the drive back over Independence Pass, we stopped again to walk around Independence Ghost Town. Independence Pass Summit was super busy, so we didn’t stop.
The tiny town of Twin Lakes is a fun place to stretch your legs and grab some grub. We sat outside at Twin Lakes Inn for a late lunch. I went for the black bean burger with fries. I’ve even here several times and it’s always really good. Lisa had seen a shop she wanted to check out. Shooting Star Gallery is a co-op of local artists. Both of us found a couple of goodies to take home. That was the last stop before driving back to Denver.
Four nights isn’t nearly enough time to fully explore Aspen. I’ve been many times, in every season, but I always find more trails to hike and history to re-discover. Hiking to American Lake, exploring Smugglers Mine and an early morning walk to admire the details in historic architecture are on my list for my next trip.
The drive between Denver and Aspen over Independence Pass in summer and fall usually takes about 3 hours. Author Jennifer Broome loves exploring in and around Aspen. Another one of her favorite hikes is Ute Trail. More in-depth blogs are posted about a some of the adventures from this trip including on John Denver Sanctuary and Grottos Trail.