Spend a weekend in the Roaring Fork Valley mountain towns of Glenwood Springs, Carbondale, Aspen, Snowmass and Basalt. From its confluence with the Colorado River at the mouth of Glenwood Canyon to its beginnings near Independence Pass, the Roaring Fork River flows through a valley that has always been one of Colorado’s favorite places to play. Watch our video on fly-fishing on the Roaring Fork River >>
Start day one with a bike ride up the Colorado River on the paved bike path into Glenwood Canyon. As you stare up at the 1,300-foot chocolate-colored canyon walls, you will undoubtedly notice that Glenwood Canyon feels like a precursor to the Grand Canyon located nearly 500 miles downstream. As an alternative to cycling, hikers should visit Hanging Lake, a mysterious natural wonder located high in the bluffs. Visit in the morning to avoid the crowds — those on the trail by 5:30am find tranquility and spectacular light for photos. Visit on early weekday mornings to avoid the crowds — those on the trail then find tranquility and spectacular light for photos. If you’re visiting May 1–Oct. 31, you’ll use the new reservation service. Go to VisitGlenwood.com/HangingLake to learn more.
Next, melt any muscle aches away at the Colorado River-side Iron Mountain Hot Springs or long-time favorite Glenwood Hot Springs, home to the world’s largest hot-springs pool and a new adventure river and splash pad to keep the kiddos occupied. The springs are the perfect antidote for the everyday stresses of life, with mineral-rich waters that fluctuate between 90 and 93 degrees, while the nearby Yampah Spa & Salon Vapor Caves provide another unique way to unwind.
Get your bearings on the area as a whole from Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park’s new Glenwood Gondola, which lifts you off the valley floor to the top of Iron Mountain. There's also an alpine coaster, mountain sling shot and a new zipline — among other thrill rides — that provide year-round exhilaration for all ages. Then, grab some laughs at the Glenwood Vaudeville Revue, where family entertainment and comfort food collide. Or seek out one of the town's three escape rooms.
For a blast of another sort, hook up with a rafting outfitter for a whitewater ride on the Colorado River as it winds through spectacular Glenwood Canyon.
For a wind down, check out the Glenwood Springs Fish Hatchery along Mitchell Creek on the west side of town. Bring quarters to buy fish food for the five species of cold-water fish raised there.
Dine alfresco along Seventh Avenue and stay the night in Glenwood Springs, named the Most Fun Town in America by Rand McNally and USA Today, or head up to Carbondale for shopping, dining, golf or a drive through the magnificent Crystal River Valley.
Make your way farther into the valley today. In Carbondale, the (free!) Powers Art Center focuses on contemporary and pop art. Recently named a Certified Colorado Creative District, arts events, performances, galleries and workshops abound. Walk or bikeride along the Rio Grande ARTway, a path lined with public art installations, gardens and Mount Sopris views.
Touted as one of “The Top 10 Adventure Towns in the U.S.” by National Geographic Adventure Magazine, possible outdoor pursuits include biking, kayaking, paddleboarding and fly-fishing. In winter, excellent cross-country skiing can be found at Spring Gulch.
Farther on, the small town of Basalt at the confluence of the Roaring Fork and Fryingpan rivers is known for Gold Medal fishing year-round (in fact, fly-fishing is at its most serene in winter). Kayaking in a new whitewater park, paddleboarding on Ruedi Reservoir, hiking and biking the area’s seemingly endless trails are other draws for active travelers. There’s also charming shops, galleries and cafes, and the new Arts Campus at Willits hosts concerts and shows.
Eating local is the norm in both towns, with farm-to-table dinners and several restaurants’ menus informed by seasonally available ingredients grown nearby.
Days 3 & 4
It’s time to explore Aspen and Snowmass. The towns are less than 20 minutes apart and it’s easy to go back and forth between them during a stay. Before you get started, find out about the Aspen Pledge, showing you ways to help ensure the Aspen area remains a beautiful and unique place for years to come.
Renowned as a haven for celebrities, skiers and culture vultures, Aspen manages to maintain a character that is 100-percent Colorado.
To experience the essence of Aspen in a day can be a tall order, so hit the ground running with a stroll through downtown to survey the stores that the town is famous for. While high-end fashion may garner much of the attention, Aspen also has a superb selection of children’s shops, bookstores, jewelers and art galleries to peruse. If you are visiting during the summer, check out the Saturday Market for farm-fresh produce and local food-and-drink products. Or cruise the area on two wheels with a bike rental from WE-Cycle Stations in Aspen and Basalt. Be sure to wheel by the massive new Shepard Fairey mural at E. Durant Avenue and S. Hunter Street.
In the afternoon, make ample time to savor the scenery of the valley. One option is to take a scenic gondola ride to the top of either Aspen Mountain or nearby Snowmass Mountain for breathtaking 360-degree views. On Aspen Mountain, you can hike and dine at the Sundeck, while on Snowmass Mountain you can play disc golf or mountain bike more than 40 miles of on-mountain trails. Or, just one mile from downtown Aspen, try your hand at Gold Butte Climbing Area, which has routes for all levels.
Another option is to tackle the new Snowmass Loop Trail, with 25 miles of mountain-biking bliss for riders of all abilities. Or explore the Rio Grande Trail, a paved path that starts in Aspen and follows the Roaring Fork River. Those up for more of a challenge should take the Cathedral Lake and American Lake trails — just two prime spots for amazing wildflower color. The new Camp Elevation in Snowmass hosts adventure day camps for the whole family as another option.
Or take in a workshop, artist lecture or gallery tour at the Anderson Ranch Arts Center, an artists’ residency on a historic ranch in Snowmass. The Aspen Art Museum’s building by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban houses contemporary art and dramatic mountain views from its rooftop sculpture garden. Down the valley in Carbondale, the free Powers Art Center focuses on contemporary and Pop Art.
As early evening arrives, follow the crowds to Maroon Lake via the free shuttle (9am–5pm). This meadow-ensconced lake takes in one of North America’s most famous mountain landscapes: the striped, tilted pyramids of the twin Maroon Bells. As an alternative, Independence Pass offers a variety of recreational opportunities from hiking and biking to climbing. Take a tour of Independence Ghost Town with the Aspen Historical Society to hear the stories of the buildings that remain. There’s also the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, a 25-acre nature preserve just steps from downtown, home to birds of prey and lush riparian ecosystems.
Next up is dinner, and you are in luck: For a town its size, Aspen may be one of America’s finest when it comes to food. Much of this has to do with how Aspen’s chefs have embraced the “locavore” movement. For instance, the chef at renowened Element 47 at The Little Nell built its menu around what local, seasonal ingredients are fresh and available. Or check out Meat & Cheese for perfect picnic ingredients.
Pro tip: Sit in the bar at nearly any Aspen restaurant and sample the same food served from the regular menu at a fraction of the price.
As the town’s name might lead you to believe, Rifle, located about 30 minutes west of Glenwood Springs, is a major year-round hunting destination. The area has ranked on several lists of top places in the country to hunt, including Field & Stream’s Top 10 Best Public Lands for Elk Hunting.
The town of Marble is also great for a quick visit to tour its historic downtown, fish in Youle Creek and a explore the ghost town of Crystal. Visitors who make the off-road trek to Crystal are welcomed by a marvelous sight: the 1893 silver-boom Crystal Mill, an eye-catching remnant of the mining activities that influenced settlement in the area. Paddleboard rentals are available for use on Beaver Lake. Back in town, stop at the Marble Museum and the Marble Gallery to browse the crystallized stone that earned the town its name. The Marble Hub is the place to get questions answered and sip some coffee. Rent an e-bike or fat bike at Marble Bike Rentals. Find out how to horseback ride to lily-covered Lily Lake. Hang around after dark for a show — the town recently joined the International Dark-Sky Association.
New Castle is 9 miles west of Glenwood Springs. Take the self-guided historical tour to learn about the area and meander through and locally owned shops and restaurants.
There’s just as much to do in the Roaring Fork Valley during the winter months. The Aspen/Snowmass area is home to four big-time ski areas (Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Snowmass and Buttermilk Mountain, which has been home to ESPN’s Winter X Games for more than a decade). And Glenwood Springs is home to Sunlight Mountain Resort, where you can ski, hop on snowmobile tours and tackle the scenic Nordic trails on snowshoe or cross-country skis.
Check out our Field Guide itinerary: A 6-Day Recess in the Rockies Playground.
Photo: Gondola at Aspen Mountain; copyright flickr/Insufficient Postage.