Asher on Aspen: Aspen’s Gold Rush | AspenTimes.com

Asher on Aspen: Aspen’s Gold Rush

Shannon Asher
Asher on Aspen
(Photo by Shannon Asher/For The Aspen Times Weekly)

As a kid, I measured my summers in corn. Being from a small town in Iowa, it was everywhere. In June, we’d drive past our neighborhood farms and watch the tractors precisely place the seedlings into the dirt. By Fourth of July, the shrubs would be knee-high and by Labor Day the corn would soar above my friends and me. Despite the fact that the towering corn stalks meant it was time to go back to school, it also symbolized that fall was on its way and the trees would soon start to change.

I remember loving fall as a kid. We lived on a lake and the trees that flanked the water boasted the most ravishing colors. I thought this was one of the most magical things I’d ever seen. Then, in seventh grade, right at the beginning of October, I traveled to Aspen for the first time in my life. From that point on, I never quite again fantasized about Iowa’s fall the same way.

Sometime between mid-September and mid-October, there is about a two-week time frame where the aspens change from green to golden yellow to amber orange to fiery red. The fall foliage in its prime is absolutely breathtaking and on a recent morning, the leaves seemed to be at their peak. After a late-morning Sunday brunch at the Hickory House, we decided it was the perfect day to venture to the Crystal Mill in Marble — about an hour-and-a-half drive from Aspen.

The mill is touted as the second-most photographed destination in Colorado (behind the Maroon Bells). To reach it, one must either hike the 9-mile-round-trip, heavily trafficked trail or drive a high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle down the extremely rough and narrow road.

We had five adults, two kids and two dogs crammed into a Denali crew cab pickup truck. Upon reaching Marble, we meandered into Slow Groovin’ BBQ to talk to the locals and get some advice. After explaining what type of vehicle we were driving, the locals recommended against us making the trip. They cautioned that we’d undoubtedly scratch up the truck and that it wasn’t worth it. The waitress advised we rent ATVs. But did we listen? Of course not.

We made it about a mile up the dirt road before realizing that it wasn’t going to work. So, half the crew decided to go back to town for lunch and a few of us — plus the black lab — decided to continue on the 9-mile hike. This mill has been on my bucket list ever since I moved to Aspen and we were too close to give up now.

Dust kicked up as the truck pulled away and I knew there was no looking back. The air smelled of crisp pine trees and the crunching of leaves beneath our feet made it really feel like fall. A full color spectrum of leaves illuminated the trail as we traversed the rocky road. The hike was mostly flat, making for a moderately easy stroll, although it wasn’t short. There was a plethora of puddles along the way, but most were easy to maneuver around or leap over. After about a two-hour journey, we finally reached the mill and it was well worth the hike.

Tucked away deep in the woods, 7 miles southeast of Marble, the Crystal Mill sits perched on an outcropping of rock just above the Crystal River — resembling something like a treasure chest surrounded by gold. Built in 1893 as a wooden powerhouse, the mill eventually closed its operations in 1917. The landmark was later added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985 and has been preserved to date by the Gunnison and Aspen historical societies.

After signing a waiver with our new friend Mark, we were allowed to shuffle down the steep slope side and explore the base of the hill where we could touch the water and see the mill up close. In warmer months, visitors can actually swim in the watering hole adjacent to the mill. Mark warned us the water was ice-cold, but I obviously had to see for myself.

Fearful of hiking back in the dark, we suddenly felt the need to leave in order to get back before sunset. Tired and out of water, the two-hour hike back to town seemed burdensome. Not even five minutes into our journey, a nice young man named Daniel pulled up next to us and asked if we wanted a ride back down. Without hesitation, we jumped into the RZR with enthusiastic gratitude. After further conversation, we learned that Daniel’s family owns the mill.

“The Crystal Mill has been in my family for six generations,” he told us proudly. “Isn’t it the most magical place you’ve ever seen?”

This mystical and highly unusual place is not easy to reach. But, provided you’re up for the adventure, it’s well worth it. And if you’re contemplating a road trip somewhere to participate in the leaf-peeping shenanigans, I’d advise skipping over Iowa and coming straight to Aspen!


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