Aspen Times Weekly: Spring Break Escapes
The calendar HAS flippED over to March, the ski season is more than halfway over, and the days are getting longer. Indeed, spring break is on the horizon. And, truth be told, we at The Aspen Times could use a break. So rather than share highfalutin stories from seasoned travel writers about the luxe vacations they’ve taken — to places we most likely will never see, nor are altogether interested in seeing — we’re keeping it real in this edition of the Aspen Times Weekly. We’re keeping it low-key and having a little fun, because, well, spring break should be all about the fun, right?
Toward that end, we asked every reporter and editor to tell us about the trips they’ve taken. And like the characters who fill our newsroom, these vignettes all have their own character. We visit deserts and beaches, ski slopes and small towns. And almost all writings are filled with fond memories.
We hope you come away inspired to get out of Aspen — or maybe stay in right here in town? — but, more than anything, we hope you embrace life and discover the joy of a good spring break escape this year. —JM
Wanted: Mexican resort with wider beaches
A few Novembers ago an old friend and I traveled to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. I flew into Cancun a few days before him and spent my nights drinking in the many patio bars lining the streets of downtown Playa del Carmen or gambling at the sports book and off-track betting venue. During the day I would sleep late or relax near the hotel pool, chatting with friendly locals and visitors alike, in an attempt to decompress from coverage of another stressful Aspen election cycle (anyone remember the Castle Creek hydropower debate?).
Once my friend finally arrived, I suspended the gambling activity (I was $150 in the hole after three days) and we ferried over to Cozumel and rented scooters to travel to the eastern side of the island, which has a few inexpensive beachfront restaurants and bars. On another day we explored the rocky beaches south of Playa del Carmen, catching fish with our hands as they got swept up into small tidal pools. All in all, it was a good trip.
I want to return to Mexico soon, but perhaps for a different type of vacation. I’m considering an all-inclusive (hotel and meals included) package to either Cancun, Cabo San Lucas or the Acapulco area. One thing I learned about my previous trip was that you can spend a lot of money on cab fare and other forms of transportation by trying to go here, there and everywhere. The constant activity also meant many more stops at an ATM, and in Mexico the service charges run somewhere between 10 percent and 20 percent of whatever you withdraw. It’s a rip-off.
Also, the beaches in the Playa del Carmen/Cozumel area are dramatic and fun, but not so spacious. I got tired of being bothered every 15 or 20 minutes by somebody trying to sell me a massage or a fishing tour. I’m looking for wider and sandier beaches that are either in a compact resort area or off the beaten path, areas good for wading and walking without worrying about cutting my foot on some sharp coral.
Yes, the next vacation I take south of the border is going to carry a theme of four letters: “L-A-Z-Y.” It needs to happen soon.
A father-daughter tradition
A desert trip with my daughter Hannah is a spring break tradition that dates back to when she was a 5-year-old kindergartener. She’s now a 20-year-old sophomore in college.
It’s a testament to growing up in the Roaring Fork Valley with an appreciation of the outdoors that she still wants to go on these trips when Mexico is on the minds of so many sun-starved college students.
We’ve built memories that will last a lifetime from our adventures. I still have the colored-pencil sketches she made for me at Garden of the Gods in southeastern Utah. We had to make emergency adjustments three years ago when a sandstorm peppered our car so violently that we couldn’t tell we were driving through Hanksville, Utah. On a different trip, we got caught in heavy graupel and sharp lightning and thunder while hiking in Island in the Sky north of Moab. I was convinced I had failed her and we wouldn’t make it back unscathed (we did). On the other extreme, we once ran into such good weather at Chaco Canyon that we camped five nights without a care about showers.
A highlight of these spring break forays for me is I can circle back to show her some of the places I visited years ago, on the many “guy” trips I’ve taken to the desert. For the second year in a row, we will head to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, an area so vast it would take years to do it justice.
We’ll see how the weather unfolds before planning too many details. Slot canyons are our targets, and Grand Staircase-Escalante doesn’t disappoint. A delightful loop called Little Death Hollow-Wolverine Canyon is the focus of the trip. It’s an eight-hour hike that’s difficult at times but not technical. Hannah’s been hitting the gym back at her Midwest college to make sure she’s up for an eight-hour hike punctuated with several climbs over boulders and debris “choking” the narrow canyons.
We can’t wait.
Time to get Moab-bound
When there’s no more snow to be skied, the next best thing is a four-hour drive to Moab, Utah, where you can hike through the famed Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, bike your favorite lines or take a dip in the Colorado River.
After setting up camp, stop into town, where you can check out Moab’s art galleries, grab a bite at Eddie McStiff’s or rent rafts and four-wheelers. Boasting the most unique red-rock formations in the West, Moab was settled in 1878 and incorporated in 1902.
Featuring more than 2,000 arches across 76,518 acres, Arches includes short 10-minute walks for all, four-hour hikes and everything in between. Park entry is $10 per vehicle, giving access to Double O Arch, Tower Arch, Landscape Arch and, most notably, Delicate Arch.
As the largest national park in Utah, Canyonlands sits atop a 1,500-foot mesa, which includes the Island in the Sky District. Entry fee allows for incredible hikes with views of 100-mile horizons that remind visitors of the West’s expansiveness.
One Key trip
One place I wish I could have spent more time is Key West. I went for a quick trip with the boyfriend right before Thanksgiving, and man was it beautiful. Wearing shorts and a bikini day and night was a welcome respite from winter just before we got too far into it to leave, and if I still had spring break, that’s where I would go.
We didn’t have too much of a schedule while we were there. The first day we drove in from Miami and stopped at Bahia Honda State Park, where the entrance fee is minimal and the beaches don’t get too crowded. That ended up being our beach spot; we drove back there on our last day and watched the sun set from the Old Bahia Honda Bridge, which faces roughly west.
Our little bed and breakfast in Old Town might not have been enough for some people — some people don’t like to share bathrooms with strangers — but we liked being close to the heart of town, right down the street from Hemingway’s house. We made it a favorite bar the first day that we returned to every night, and the one day that we didn’t hit the beach, we rented bikes and cruised around town. And just like our resort town, people there are extremely friendly and helpful.
A Staycation, with a quick trip to the Beav
Spring break when I was in college meant wild parties in places like Mazatlan. In my 20s, spring break was an offseason camping trip in the desert, filled with mountain biking, rafting and beer-drinking. Once my children arrived, things changed; spring break often meant a trip to see the grandparents (conveniently located on opposite coasts of the U.S.). Last year, I’d had enough — and my wallet was empty — so a staycation was the call.
I couldn’t have made a better choice. Who knew how cool Aspen can be in late March? Awesome ski days, sunny apres-ski afternoons, cozy nights by a fire. True, we had friends in town with a killer condo, so it felt like being away from home (though we were just 3 miles from our house). But still, this was a true spring break escape. I’d run into co-workers or friends on the street and they’d say, “I thought you were on vacation.” I’d reply honestly, “I am.”
And then, on the final weekend of our stayacation, we made a break to the Beav (that’d be Beaver Creek). Again, who knew how cool a ski resort less than two hours away could be in late March? We skied — my daughter got the chance to join in a Lindsey Vonn race clinic; both kids were invited to have lunch with her; we went tubing; we ice-skated in the center of town; we went in the hot tub; we ate at restaurants well beyond our budget. We were on vacations, dammit, and it was pretty darn nice. A staycation worth repeating (which, by the way, we are doing again this year…stay tuned.)
Ocean Shores: a different beach vacation
It’s been almost two years since I brought my family to the Roaring Fork Valley and we haven’t had much of a chance to do a spring fling since we’ve been here, so I’ll share a favorite from my home state of Washington.
There’s a quirky community in the small town of Ocean Shores that rests on the Pacific Ocean, about a three-hour drive from Seattle. It’s not someplace you go to get a suntan because it’s cloudy or foggy far more often than not, but the coast is amazing for beach combing and whale-watching.
While most all of the tourist activities are in the center of the small town, there’s a park about three miles down the beach that the locals like to frequent. Damon Point State Park was flooded out a decade ago during a major storm and the state decided not to rebuild the facilities. In many ways, it was a blessing as now the former parking lots are overgrown and no vehicles can access the 60-plus acres that provide amazing views of Mount Rainier, the Olympic Mountain range and of course, the Pacific Ocean.
The wildlife is diverse and surprising as you can see everything from whales and seals to foxes and snowy owls. There’s a great shore fishing for salmon and sea perch, and as long as you have a wetsuit, the surf’s up almost every day at Damon Point. My favorite activity is to search the beach for agates and let my dog, Thomas, chase boats up and down the shore.
Little Dix, Big trip
As soon you board the twin-engine prop plane in San Juan and land on the sand-covered strip of Virgin Gorda, there’s no questioning that your desire for a remote getaway will be satisfied.
Virgin Gorda is the third largest of the British Virgin Islands and it’s home to the Rosewood Little Dix Bay boutique resort, a collection of beach houses, suites and cottages. The four-diamond resort boasts a bar and grill, a fine-dining restaurant, and open-air dining pavilion, but it’s the beach that steals show.
Fewer than 50 steps away from the beach houses await the calm, turquoise waters of Little Dix Bay. It’s a mellow setting that demands guests to relax in a beach chair under a palm tree, while the friendly servers — all of them are islanders — pamper the guests with adult beverages (another rum and Coke, sir?) and food.
If recreation is your pleasure, there’s plenty of it. The bay offers outstanding snorkling opportunities, sailing, stand-up paddle boarding, among other pursuits. Need a hiking fix? A two-minute walk from the beach takes you to a jungle trail of sorts that provides a near 600-foot ascent, where lizards, crabs and other tropical creatures a common sight. The jaw-dropping views of the Caribbean only add to the enjoyable trek.
Cruise tours are a plenty, with visits to Virgin Gorda’s crown jewel, “The Baths,” along with snorkling and scuba-diving tours. Other stops are Saba Rock and Norman Island, said to be the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island” novel.
If getting off the grid is in your plans, Little Dix Bay fills the bill. The high season runs December through mid-April, and if you’re looking for a deal, more affordable rates are available the rest of the year.
Durango: A different kind of Colorado
Here’s a spring break alternative: It’s still in Colorado, but it’s a world away.
And take all of your toys with you, because you can use them all — often in the same day — on a trip to the San Juan Mountains and Durango.
Indulge me, as a former Durango sportswriter, to be your tour guide for a spring break in southwestern Colorado.
Pack your golf clubs along with your mountain bike, road bike and your spring ski and snowboard gear.
Hillcrest Golf Club, the municipal golf course on the mesa overlooking downtown Durango, has been open since mid-February, according to The Durango Herald, one result of a moderate winter in the Four Corners.
Similarly, the high desert mountain bike trails around Durango and Fort Lewis College are rockin’ and rollin’ already after light winter precipitation.
Start with the Horse Gulch trail system, with connections from downtown and the college. Look for the Trails 2000 maps; they’re available all over town.
Meanwhile, 25 miles north on Highway 550, there is spring skiing and riding at Purgatory, also known as Durango Mountain Resort.
A cruiser’s paradise with bench-like terrain features, Purgatory is like Buttermilk/Tiehack with a high-speed six-pack main chairlift, a high-speed quad, a couple of throwback double chairs and Chair 8 — a Gent’s Ridge-like sloooow quad that serves the area’s best overall terrain.
Abundant spring sunshine can yield spectacular corn conditions (and, of course, slush). If you’re lucky, you might catch a San Juan spring powder day — think Big Friday, Jan. 31, in Aspen.
At “Purg,” start with a run on Upper Hades, and check out the unique fall lines of Styx and Dead Spike. Don’t miss a personal favorite — Siegele Street.
There’s also tons of spring backcountry skiing in the same neighborhood, accessible on the three mountain passes that separate Durango from Ouray. That would be Coal Bank Pass, Molas Pass and Red Mountain Pass (south to north).
Oh yes. You’re also in the Silverton Mountain neighborhood — another backcountry adventure all on its own.
But if the winter’s over for you, spring road biking is in full swing in the Durango area where the most popular local rides start and finish in town.
Ask about the valley ride, a loop from Durango north to Hermosa and back via the famed Bakers Bridge – the film location for the river jumping scene in “Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid.”
The ride will take you past Bread bakery, a must stop in Durango where you’re likely to be served by a Fort Lewis College student/cyclist.
For more refueling, try Serious Texas Barbecue, Home Slice Pizza, Gaspacho’s or Mutu’s Italian Kitchen.
Then, get refreshed and revived for your next day’s activities with a stop at Trimble Hot Springs, just north of Durango.
The SkyUte Casino is a free shuttle or a 25-mile drive away on the Southern Ute Indian Reservation in Ignacio.
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Many locations on Basalt Mountain were barren as recently as two months ago. However, nutrients unlocked during the Lake Christine Fire and a wet winter have sparked a remarkable recovery. Aspen Center for Environmental Studies is leading fire ecology tours to discuss the changes.