Aspen Times Weekly: Independent Spirit

by Jeanne McGovern | photos by Anna Stonehouse
Desler Hatter leads guess along the Lost Man Loop trail on a fall day.
Anna Stonehouse/The Aspen Times


As any local will tell you, fall in Aspen is one of the best times of the year.

Town begins to quiet down after the nearly nonstop activity of the summer months, allowing a mellower, calmer vibe to permeate. The weather is fantastic, too, with warm, sunny days and cool, crisp nights nearly always on tap.

But it’s the city’s namesake that truly bespeaks the spectacular during the fall. Explosions of color from the numerous aspen groves that paint the mountainsides of nearby valleys and vistas are breathtaking and easy to access by foot, bicycle or car (assuming you can’t get out there on horseback). Here are a few suggestion on how to soak in the season.

HIKE IT: When the aspen leaves peak, the Castle Creek Valley is a sea of gold year after year, especially on the trails to American Lake and Cathedral Lake. The valley is also home to the ghost town of Ashcroft, which the public can walk through on their own.

DRIVE IT: The section of Highway 82 from Aspen to Leadville is part of the Top of the Rockies Scenic and Historic Byway, named for good reason. And countless aspens line the road as well as the trails and peaks surrounding it. The byway continues to I-70 by two different routes — Highway 91, which ends at Copper Mountain, and Highway 24, which takes drivers to Minturn.

“On this drive you can be a part of history, as countless generations have experienced viewing the fall colors on this pass, from skiers, miners, ranchers, railroad travelers, and many generations of Native Americans,” says the White River National Forest’s website.

BUS IT: OK, yes, there’s lots of hiking here too. But the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority will continue to offer bus service to the Maroon Bells every day through Oct. 1. That will be the only way to access the site between the hours of 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Bus tickets to the Bells cost $8 for adults, $6 for children ages 6 to 16 as well as seniors and are free for children under 6. After Oct. 1, motorists are welcome to drive up to the Bells at any time.

BIKE IT: A cyclist’s dream singletrack, Tom Blake Trail in Snowmass Village is also a leaf-peeper’s paradise­, as it is flanked by a thick grove of aspen trees. Gary Tennenbaum, assistant director of Pitkin County’s Open Space and Trails Program, called it the “Yellow Brick Road” because it traverses stands of aspens. And you might just spot some wildlife peeping back at you, too.

RIDE IT: The weekends of Sept. 30 to Oct. 1 and Oct. 7 to 8 mark the final days to ride the Silver Queen Gondola to the top of Aspen Mountain before ski season begins. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (last ride down at 4:30 p.m.), and the views from the 11,212-foot summit are always stunning — whether you’re hiking the nearby trails, playing a round of disc golf or just enjoying a drink at the Sundeck Restaurant. Over at Snowmass, Sept. 30 to Oct. 1 is the final weekend of lift-served mountain biking on the Elk Camp Gondola; it’s also the last time to ride the gondola — and enjoy the offerings at Elk Camp — before the winter season.

A story has played through my mind since I was a child: It’s me, on horseback, meandering through a high-mountain meadow. The sun is shining, the air is warm and the landscape before me is breathtaking, bold and beautiful — all at the same time, something a girl growing up in the city does not see all the time (or ever, really).

Just a couple of weeks ago, this fairy-tale became my reality. In an attempt to find Colorado’s famed fall colors (in a way different than years past), I was lucky enough to explore the surrounding mountains on horseback. I had never ridden a horse before, and my utterly ungraceful attempt to get in the saddle proved the point. But I had a guide. A really good guide. A guide found simply by driving up Independence Pass.

“Trail Rides … Walk’ins Welcome,” read the sign, festooned with two American flags, positioned just so on the side of the winding road just past Lincoln Creek. Pulling into what seemed on first glance to be an abandoned gravel pit soon became exactly what my Western daydream always was: Canvas tents, a corral with horses of all colors, a trailer filled with gear and, at the center of it all, a pair of cowboys ready to lead the four-footed animals and their riders into the forest around us.

“No worries … this is what we do,” explains Desler Hatter, the mild-mannered but clearly capable young man charged with getting me up on my assigned horse, Pecos. “Just follow me and let Pecos do his job … he knows what to do.”

Indeed, Pecos — and his equine mates, as well as two dogs who seemed to rule the roost with unending energy and playfulness — were seasoned veterans.

We rode up and down (and up and down again) over rocky single-track and tree-laden terrain until we hit the open meadow of my vision. From there, we meandered on past Lost Man Reservoir into the fields ahead. The colors were vivid, the tempo just right and the fear factor nonexistent.

“These horses are our babies; they are chosen for their ability to do just this,” said Desler, telling tale after tale of each horse and its past, personality and place in the Hatter family.

After all of these stories — miles of stories — it was surprising to learn the Hatters’ operation had just claimed its stake, up Indy Pass near the Midway and Lost Man trailheads, two years ago. Taking over the “shop” from a previous outfitter, Desler and his family dove head-first into operating Independence Pass Outfitting Company. The sign, referred to before, was a saving grace.

Others might argue it was the Hatters themselves. Trolling the web for reviews of the company — which offers half-day, full-day, overnight, hunting and other horseback guide services — and the story is the same, with words such as “kind,” “skilled” and “awesome people” repeated time and again.

It seems a family tradition of outfitting explains the reviews. According to the 30-year-old Desler, his roots go back to the wagon train and his forefathers settling into Colorado’s cattle industry — though horses were always the end game.

“The stories I hear, everyone always wanted to be in horses,” said Desler, with a drawl that is not Texas but clearly cowboy — Colorado cowboy, that is. “But we were in Colorado; we did what we had to do.”

For the Montrose-based Hatter family, that included stints in the coal mines (decades for Desler’s dad, who runs the show up the Pass with his son; a decade for Desler himself).

“This is what we love,” said Desler, pulling up his horse, and ours as well, to a perfect spot along the trail for grazing, viewing and just soaking in the Colorado colors we were in search of. “Showing you all a good time; getting these horses out for the day.”

But as summer turned to fall, and fall turns to winter, one can’t help but wonder what the Hatters — and their outfitting company — do to keep it real.

Desler’s reply dispels all myths: “First, we try to keep warm up here; then when we can’t run trips, we go back down the hill and continue doing our jobs with the horses there … until we can get back to camp.”

For a non-cowgirl, “camp” up Indy Pass is a true Western tale — with fall colors, authentic cowboys and great conversations.

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