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Legends & Legacies: Waxing poetic about sandstone

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
Courthouse showing the darker sandstone (lower portion) quarried in Maroon Creek Valley.
Photo by Tim Willoughby

Coming from a mining family, I developed a love for rocks and minerals in all their splendid forms, alabaster to zinc. The most colorful locally are azurite and malachite, found together in small amounts in Little Annie Basin. They don’t measure up to the rare exceptional ones you see in the Los Angeles or Denver museum collections, but on a small scale they dazzle.

The underground is where most Aspen minerals were found. I have spent many columns and parts of columns extolling sliver, lead and zinc. It is time I gave rocks their due, too.

Aspen has outstanding rocks viewable along its mountain roads. Traveling over Independence Pass, you see acres of granite.  There is granite and then there is granite.



The Sierra is all granite, but our granite is more colorful, at least to a Colorado native, with greater contrast between the white and black components. The streambeds transform it into rounded chunks that in the water on a sunny day broadcast a broad spectrum of light reflection.

In our region, in Marble we have some of the country’s whitest and prettiest marble, chosen for the Lincoln Memorial.




Closer to home, there is black marble in the Conundrum valley. It is as dazzling as Marble’s marble in the opposite color.

There is a layer of sedimentary rock associated with local mineral deposits called porphyry, another metamorphic rock that you would easily confuse with marble as it has the same glistening white look. Aspen’s version also includes dots of pyrite to jazz it up. There are few exposed areas to see, for a while the Highland Mine tunnel up Castle Creek had piles of it visible from Castle Creek Road, but those are gone.

West of town, you are in shale country. Most of us are not enamored with it, mostly because it is a dull grey. It is more interesting up close, and if you pry a few layers apart from places like Shale Bluffs, you will discover its hidden mysteries, fossils.

Saving the best for last, sandstone is my favorite. You see it everywhere, even in town since the older Victorian buildings used sandstone. It began in the 1880s with a quarry in the lower end of the Maroon Creek Valley and accelerated when the Midland Railroad made it to town. There was a quarry along its route in the Frying Pan Valley. Its pink sandstone, known as Peachblow, became popular statewide with 10 railroad cars a day leaving the quarry in 1890.

Aspen’s best sandstone has the geologic name Maroon Formation. Red Mountain is one version. My favorite areas are in the mid-Castle Creek and Maroon Creek valleys. The Castle Creek formation has been turned almost vertical.

The rock has a deeper darker red color, and its grain size is a Goldilocks version, not too small and not too large. But it is maybe the combination of its surroundings that heighten its color — surrounded with the green of aspen trees in lower elevations or the darker green of the pines at higher elevations.

The high-altitude blue of the sky creates the most stunning of color contrasts. Seasonally, it seems to be beautiful no matter which season, and it has an even darker color after a rainstorm. In winter the white of the snow enhances it. The fall sky color creates a spectacular show, and golden aspen leaves work their wonder, too.

Next time you head up Castle Creek, slow down and look east. It will forever be your favorite Aspen rock.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching at Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at redmtn2@comcast.net.

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