Off-season excursions (and one tale of near-disaster)
Editor’s note: To the rest of the world, Aspen is synonymous with paradise (well, OK, and flagrant excess). But to locals it’s home, and we all need to get away from home now and then. Spring and fall are the times that Aspenites escape – to the beach, to the desert, to the big city, to visit family and friends, to anyplace. We asked our staff for some of their favorite off-season destinations. We got a series of recommendations, near and far, and one tragicomic tale of a trip to avoid.Walking the Cinque TerreMy typical spring getaway is a low-budget affair involving a tent, a bike, hiking boots and beer. Instead of cleaning out my bank account, I get to clean out my car when I get home.I generally bring back enough Utah grit to account for a modest piece of desert real estate.The wonder of slickrock at sunset, canyons and petroglyphs run together in my arched-out memory like watercolors. But one spring trip – one hike in particular – stands out with the clarity of a snapshot. Something tugs at me when I think of it, an inexplicable longing that I know will take me back there to do what I didn’t during my first visit – linger.I was in Italy with a friend. Our itinerary was dictated by spontaneity, a map and a justifiable fear of driving our rental car into anything resembling a big city, having done so once already. We were heading west across Tuscany with no particular destination in mind when I suggested we check out a place I’d heard about back at the office. A friend of a co-worker had raved about a place called the “chinka terra” or something. It wasn’t on our map, but we pointed the car toward the Mediterranean and figured we’d find it when we got there.The Cinque Terre, we discovered, isn’t a single place, but a collection of five impossibly picturesque coastal villages tucked into little inlets or clinging to rocks overhanging the oh-so-blue Mediterranean Sea. Cinque Terre literally means “Five Lands.”It’s part of what’s referred to as the Italian Riviera, which I suspect is a lot more affordable than that other Riviera.The villages were once connected only by a trail, but travelers can now take a tour boat or train up and down the coast. One can also drive, though the road is set considerably farther back from the coastline than the railway, and cars aren’t permitted – or even physically possible – in some of the towns. Walking is really the only way to see the Cinque Terre anyway.The trail connecting the villages is roughly eight miles long, or so I read somewhere. It varies between dirt path and boardwalk, concrete and well-worn stone. Its entire length can be easily hiked in a day, but that was our mistake. We should have spent several days exploring the coastline, traveling with only what we could carry on our backs. The smallest of the towns had no hotels, as far as I could tell, but there were rooms to rent in each of them.We stayed in the large port city of La Spezia and got up at 4 a.m. to catch the first train headed north up the coast, figuring we could hike back down the coast while the trail was A) cool, and B) empty. We were right on both counts.Since we didn’t know quite what to expect in terms of the hike, we didn’t ride the train to the northernmost village of Monterosso, but got off instead at Vernazza, where we didn’t see a sign of life at 5 a.m. It didn’t matter. We were immediately awestruck. In fact, we pretty much felt like that all day. It was like standing in the middle of a picture postcard. Brightly colored boats bobbed gently in a tiny, teal-blue harbor. Pastel-washed buildings were clustered around it.After a bit of searching, we found the route and made our way south to Corniglia and then to Manarola, which is perched precariously atop a cliff. The shortest link in the trail, between Manarola and Riomaggiore, is a reportedly spectacular walk cut into the rocks above the sea called the “Via dell’Amore” or “Street of Love.” It was closed due to rockfall. Apparently, crashing boulders aren’t conducive to romance.Since it was barely noon, we got back on the train and rode to Monterosso, intent on hiking the segment between Monterosso and Vernazza that we’d skipped in the morning.Monterosso boasts a tempting beach, and I wished we’d come prepared to spend the afternoon frolicking in the sea and the night in the village. Instead, we hiked what is probably the most challenging stretch in the heat of the day.By then, the trail was also crowded with breathless tourists, laboriously trudging up long stretches of stone steps that climb through terraced vineyards and lemon groves outside of Monterosso. For two Coloradans, it was an easy hike through oxygen-rich air, especially given the promise of a double-scoop of gelato at a harborside table in Vernazza.That table beckons me still.- Janet UrquhartSecret treasures in a quiet cornerThe best kinds of trips are the ones that unearth hidden treasures, that provide memories you didn’t expect to find. Such was the case last spring when I took my family on a three-day road trip to Dinosaur National Park.I always plan a lengthy spring trip into the Utah desert with a gang of friends that involves biking and hiking in obscure canyons, searching for ancient Indian relics and the unforgettable beauty that only the desert can offer. To make up for all that time away from home, I often take my family for a shorter trip somewhere else in desert country, something less demanding and more designed for my daughter, Willow.She studied dinosaurs at school last year, and I had long wanted to explore the national park that straddles the Utah-Colorado line to the northwest. So it seemed natural to venture to Dinosaur and see the quarry. The dinosaur exhibit was worthwhile, but it was the unexpected that made the trip truly memorable – and turned Willow’s attention from dinosaurs to ancient Indian art, a subject she is still talking about a year later.While studying maps and deciding which route to take, I discovered a “place of interest” called Caon Pintado, just south of Rangely. After a little research on the Internet, I discovered it contained one of the heaviest concentrations of rock art in the West, much of it right along the road. It was on the way to Dinosaur, so we headed through Grand Junction and then turned north on Highway 169.The drive up 169 is worth a day trip in itself. We saw little in the way of human life, and the road crosses a steep, winding pass distinctly different from any others we’ve seen in Colorado. On the northern side of Douglas Pass, the road drops gently into rolling hills and sagebrush. There are none of the deep canyons with red walls where one would expect to find remains of ancient Indian societies.However, just a few miles outside of Rangely we came to our first wall of art. It contained numerous pictographs, including an eerie pair of white waving hands. My daughter became more and more entranced as we continued down the road, stopping at about a half-dozen panels. We saw everything from alienlike beings to a fully intact Kokopelli and a huge, evil-looking guy named “The Guardian.”We spent about an hour hunting around, but the impact on Willow will likely last a lifetime. We “pinky-promised” to return someday with a four-wheel drive and visit all the sites. There’s a “Carrot Man” hidden out in the hills somewhere that we are determined to find.The afternoon drive to Vernal (we opted for a motel rather than camping because of the cool and rainy weather), characterized by rolling hills and sagebrush, gave us little clue as to what we would find the next day.The next day threatening clouds hung over impressive Split Mountain, and we figured it best to get our outdoor adventures out of the way before the rain hit. We drove to an old cabin built by a hearty “pioneer” woman, and along the way we discovered the real treasure: panel after panel of pictographs (paintings) and petroglyphs (pecked into the rock). My daughter was in heaven as we climbed and wandered and were continually rewarded with a vast array of Native American art. The best surprise was a huge white lizard we spotted high on a rock face near the end of the road. We never could figure out how someone could climb up there, much less create such impressive artwork on the massive rock face.By the time we got to the dinosaur quarry, now a museum, my daughter had lost much of her interest in seeing the big bones scattered by the thousands on a huge section of upturned riverbed. As hard as I tried to get her interested in the exhibits, her mind was still pondering the beautiful artwork we had discovered. After four hours of hunting for rock art, we only spent a half-hour in the museum.On the way home on Sunday, we took the long drive to a viewpoint over one of the most beautiful canyons I have seen. Gazing down on the confluence of the Green and Yampa rivers, thousands of feet below, made us want to drive down Echo Canyon Road to the water’s edge. But time was running out, and we had a long drive home.Our family – especially Willow – highly recommends a visit to Dinosaur for a long weekend. This little-visited corner of Colorado and Utah offers something for everyone, and we barely skimmed its surface. And, especially for children, there are many surprises along the way.We may have gone for the dinosaur bones, but to this day my daughter starts hopping around the room when I say “Utah,” only because it means a chance to hunt for the ruins and artistic relics of the West’s ancient past.- Mike HaganExploring Colorado National MonumentConventional wisdom dictates that mountain folks must run off to Utah to get their desert fix when spring hits, but conventional wisdom isn’t always wise.My 9-year-old daughter and I couldn’t find enough time to head to Utah during her spring break this year, so we “settled” for Grand Junction. I wish “settling” had worked as well on some prior outings.I’ve visited the Colorado National Monument between Junction and Fruita numerous times, but usually from the seat of a bicycle. Only in the last year or so have I taken the time to explore some of its hikes.The highlight of our most recent adventure was a hike through No Thoroughfare Canyon. It’s labeled on the Park Service’s map as an unimproved trail, so it builds expectations of something rugged and difficult. The name is also mildly imposing.In reality, it’s mostly a pleasant walk, ideal for a 9-year-old, through a sandy stream bottom with a couple of scrambles through rocky areas. The big payoff in this canyon is the ability to get close to three waterfalls. All three can be spectacular, or duds, depending on the time of year.The first fall is technically just a pour-off pool, where the stream has scooped out the sandstone; the water spills over and drops about 8 feet. Nothing spectacular, but there’s something about water flowing in this parched land that drives home the point of being alive.The second and third falls are more true to their name. When we visited in March the water wasn’t so much cascading down the 40-foot sandstone wall as it was plastered to it. The ice was just beginning to thaw in the cool morning shade, so water was starting to trickle down. Tiny icicles were breaking free, shattering and littering the frozen pool below.Cottonwood trees and other vegetation crowd around the pool to drink freely before the spring runoff disappears. The water doesn’t always run the length of the streambed, so sometimes the waterfalls are nothing but dryfalls. However, the stream is fed by snowmelt south of the Monument so it is usually reliable late in the spring.The trail itself winds through some spectacular rock formations created by some geologic phenomenon that’s way beyond me to explain. There are places where gigantic boulders are striped from intrusions. In other places the canyon closes in and the rock changes to the mishmash I call nature’s concrete.The hike starts on a plateau, then follows the streambed into a canyon where the walls steadily climb until they tower 400 feet on either side. They easily drown out the sounds of the road snaking through the Monument.The second major falls are about 3.5 miles from the start of the hike, so it’s not too arduous. The hike through No Thoroughfare Canyon can also be combined with slickrock crawling in the Devil’s Kitchen area, in the same neighborhood, or a scramble up the 2.25-mile Serpents Trail.Serpents Trails was the original road chiseled into the high country by John Otto, an outdoorsman who promoted creation of a national park showcasing the canyons southwest of Grand Junction. The trail is known as “The Crookedest Road in the World,” because it has more than 50 switchbacks while climbing about 1,000 feet.- Scott CondonRoad trip to Baja CaliforniaAfter loading our camping gear, both coolers, Zack the lovable pit bull, my wife, Elaine, and me into the car, we hit the road with a vague plan to car-camp our way down Mexico’s Highway 1 toward La Paz in Baja California.During the first seven days of our three-week trip, we wander through the Southwest. Sights include the Virgin Club (no-touch dancing?) in Orderville, Utah, a bride in her wedding dress alone at the slot machines at the Bellagio in Las Vegas and the opera “Billy Budd” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles.Day 8 begins with sausage and eggs in L.A.’s tony Hancock Park neighborhood and ends with the tastiest pork taco ever at a street cart vendor in Rosarito, Baja California Norte. It’s the first notable Mexican experience any of us have ever had.Our second stop of note comes on Day 9, when we turn off Highway 1 (one narrow lane each direction, no shoulder) at Colonet and drive to a wide and long beach with a small trailer park occupied mostly by expats. It’s our first experience with the Pacific Ocean south of the border, and we find it disturbingly similar – temperaturewise, that is – to the unsatisfyingly chilly Pacific waters of the north.After two hours of romping we continue toward El Rosario, a small town that marks the point where the highway turns inland from its coastal path. It’s getting dark when Elaine turns off a neighborhood street onto a dirt road that winds its way up into the hills. One attempt to reach the beach fails, when the dirt track becomes an impassable wash. Finally, as full darkness sets in, we end up somewhere near the ocean. We can’t see anything, but manage to make dinner and put up the tent.On Day 10 we awaken on a beautiful, isolated point. We enjoy coffee and instant oatmeal, swimming, a walk down the soft beach, a few minutes at a protected pool behind a stand of rocks that’s home (for the moment) to pelicans and seals.The road turns inland into an open desert with tall cacti and the occasional sombreroed hitchhiker, and we follow it until we reach the turnoff for Santa Rosalillita, a fishing cooperative (since converted to luxury marina) located on a half-moon bay with a long sandy beach. We talk a couple of fisherman into selling us some fresh halibut out of the back of their truck. They give us the fish and refuse our money. We pay 17 pesos (about $1.70) for a bag full of vegetables and continue (against local advice) down the coast on a hardscrabble road just a few hundred feet above the waterline. Three hours later, all four of us (car included) make it to a marginal campsite, hack one of our halibut apart with a dull Swiss Army knife and fry it up for dinner. It tastes great, despite our worst efforts.By the end of Day 11, we’re on the Sea of Cortez, swatting flies under a tree in a neglected campground on the beach. Zack spends about five hours in the bathwater-warm sea, chasing the splashes of fish. We agree to make this our last night of camping.We pick up a Mexican roadworker on Day 12. He’s the skinniest man I’ve ever seen. This poor man sits in the back seat with Zack leaning into him and doesn’t say a single word until he tells us he’s ready to get out, about about 80 miles after we pick him up.We arrive in La Paz, Baja California Sur (about an hour and a half north of Cabo San Lucas), dusty and dirty and stumble into Hotel Posada de San Miguel in the heart of the city. It takes dogs and charges 130 pesos, about $13, for two-room suites.”You enter through an iron gate down an arched corridor lined with tile and conch shells into a plant-filled courtyard,” Elaine wrote in our travel journal. “Our room is in the back left corner of the courtyard. All the other rooms our numbered, but our two-room suite just has a name – Bugambila for the lush bougainvillea tree next to it, which smells so sweet at night.”The rooms have stained-glass windows and fans that keep the rooms from overheating.We spend the next six days in La Paz. We find a pancake-and-eggs place one morning, a yogurt-and-fruit place the next. We eat dinner one night at Carlos & Charlies, a chain restaurant with great guacamole, and at countless street carts around town for the rest of our stay. We see the band La Lupita, a fairly popular act with college rockers, at Las Veritas, a nightclub filled with bars, wood chips and sex. We rent a Boston Whaler to check out the empty desert islands in the Sea of Cortez. We swim and sun every day, shop now and then. And we constantly ponder what it would take to move to this city of 200,000.Then, on the 19th night of our vacation, we board a large ferry and rent an overnight suite. Elaine says to one of the officers that it reminds her of the Titanic. He makes it clear that it doesn’t remind him of that at all.The next morning we were on the other side of the Sea of Cortez in Topolabampo on the Mexican mainland. After two days of driving we arrive, via Tucson and Cortez and Hotchkiss, back home in Old Snowmass.- Allyn HarveyWith the help of a guidebook, L.A.’s not badIt’s easy to get excited about the big city when you live in a small town. But bright lights, big nightlife and the bustling city might not be your bag year-round – after all, they often come with pollution, traffic jams and crowds.Still, occasionally the time comes to escape this little slice of paradise, and cities are the quickest ticket back to “civilization.” So I hopped in the car this spring and ended up in Los Angeles. Sure, L.A. is the first home of sprawl, but the weather beats the mountain mud months and a stop in Las Vegas is the perfect way to break up a 15-hour drive.Some roll their eyes at the very thought of Los Angeles, with its freeway gridlock, its mind-boggling size and its plastic-surgery casualties, young and old. But there’s a lot to like about Los Angeles if you avoid wandering aimlessly and instead commit to a guidebook (as nerdy as that sounds).What it gets down to is variety – the stuff vacations are made of. Food, museums, historic locations and people-watching are abundant in L.A., so I decided to be a sponge and soak it up.I spent my first afternoon downtown, where I found a lot to explore within walking distance – a novel concept for most Angelenos. The open-air Olvera Street market, which bisects a narrow downtown block, was first introduced in 1930. Some of the city’s oldest buildings still stand in the neighborhood and vendors sell sandals, wallets, toys and lots more from stalls in the middle of the street. Mexican food on this street is the real deal.For a different kind of market, the Grand Central Market on Broadway has fresh produce piled high, and butcher shops display sheep and pig heads. Chinese food vendors beckon with samples of sweet and sour pork.Right across the street from the Grand Central Market is the Bradbury Building, an office tower I almost overlooked. Plain from the outside, the Bradbury is noteworthy on the interior because of the atrium courtyard’s intricate ironwork, open elevators and the way the light from the glass skylight above fills the space. “Blade Runner” was filmed there, but the public isn’t allowed past the first-floor landing.Chinatown isn’t far from this area, and Union Station is a beautiful Spanish Mission-style step back in time. I also took a quick spin past the 1300 block of Carroll Avenue, with Victorian houses either well-maintained or in the midst of being saved. The home at 1345 Carroll is known as the Haunted House, and was seen in Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video (how can you resist visiting something from the “Thriller” video?).My high-altitude lungs enabled me to take a run and many bike rides on the beaches between Santa Monica and Redondo Beach, where the trails are flat, uncrowded and close enough to the ocean to catch a beautiful sunset.Also uncrowded, at least on weekday mornings, is the Farmer’s Market in the Fairfax District on Third Street. The market features produce and flowers, as well as restaurants with alfresco dining under umbrellas. The crepe place handed me my own can of whipped cream, and the freedom was almost too much to bear.On my museum circuit, two hours blew by in the Museum of Tolerance, where interactive exhibits like the ’50s-style “Point of View Diner” allows you to debate various topics and vote electronically. A group tour of the Holocaust exhibit was moving and included plenty of background on why the horrors happened as they did.A visit to the Getty Center was a major highlight. Located on a hill in Brentwood, the museum had a panoramic view of the city above the smog, and the architecture and surrounding gardens were awe-inspiring. After paying $5 for parking, I hopped on a tram up the hill to the campus, where I wandered through several buildings with an impressive collection of artwork, including van Gogh’s Irises, and illustrations from books dating back to the 13th century.Of course, I did some typical L.A. stuff, too – I found Marilyn Monroe’s handprints at Mann’s Chinese Theater, kept my eyes peeled for movie stars (and saw none) and even sat in some traffic jams.But, hey, just stay where you are during rush hour. Find a Starbucks – there’s one on every corner – or rediscover Hot Dog on a Stick if you’re near the Santa Monica Pier.What the hell – this really is the stuff vacations are made of.- Naomi HavlenThe mother #@&*%! of all mountain bike ridesI have seen the Pearl Pass route from Aspen to Crested Butte described as the mother of all mountain bike rides. My description of the Pearl Pass excursion begins, but doesn’t end, with the word “mother.” Among the many spring adventures in the region, mountain biking 12,700-foot Pearl Pass is not an easy one to recommend.At least not the way I did it.I was a rookie in the mountains, with all of one month under my belt as a local, when my recent acquaintance suggested a weekend-long ride. In retrospect, the depths of my ignorance at the time – of mountain biking, of the mountains themselves, of exactly how much I didn’t know – are astonishing and frightening. I had no idea that my biking partner – commonly known by his riding name, Heinous Buttstink – was perhaps the best mountain biker in the area. I didn’t bother to ask how far Crested Butte was, or about the nature of Pearl Pass. I do remember asking Heinous two questions: Did he think I was up to this? (On virtually no information about my background, he did. Maybe if I had told him that my biggest biking achievement had been to make it up Smuggler with only two breaks, he’d have thought differently.) And what should I bring? (A sleeping bag and a change of clothes; he’d bring everything else.)We got off on a good foot. In what would be the only positive occurrence of the adventure – apart from the fact that I made it back to tell my story – Heinous’ girlfriend, the Dragon, gave us a ride to the trailhead in Ashcroft, cutting 10 miles or so off the trip. On the drive, though, I got a hint of things to come when the Dragon started laughing about a bike road she had taken with her novice friend, who had the audacity to ride a bike with a kickstand.”My bike has a kickstand,” I said.Much laughter from my gearhead friends.”No, seriously.”More laughter, but this time edged with nervousness. Yes, it was true: I would be biking Pearl Pass on a $179 Schwinn that didn’t even really qualify as a mountain bike. It is, I imagine, the crappiest bike to see the top of Pearl Pass in a good 15 years. The bike was well in line with my miserably inappropriate outfitting. I brought a sleeping bag, as instructed. The rest of my pack included a change of socks, underwear and T-shirt. Apart from that, I had the clothes on my body: shorts, T-shirt, sneakers. And not even an inkling of what I had gotten myself into.My memory of the early part of the ride is limited to the fact that, within a matter of minutes, Heinous was several hundred yards ahead of me. Which didn’t bode well. By the time we hit the rock fields that seemed to stretch forever, and beyond, the snow fields – all of which made riding impossible and hauling my bike a necessity – my mind became focused on one thing: Would I survive?Summitting Pearl Pass would have seemed cause for celebration if not for the hailstorm and 35-degree temperatures that had me desperate to carry on to Crested Butte. Downhill, I figured, had to be better than what I had just endured. But downhilling meant trading absurdly slow but relatively safe progress for dangerous, out-of-control speeding.Riding into Crested Butte, I felt like a champion – I had made it halfway there! Dinner and a beer were minutes away!Or so I assumed. Heinous told me he knew a place where we could jump in a hot tub. Which sounded divine – until we were back on the bikes, bypassing the town of Crested Butte (it was right there!) and beginning the climb into Mt. Crested Butte. After another half-hour, we jumped into a hot tub and lit a joint. Hot water and good dope had never felt so good.My stay in heaven lasted roughly two minutes, interrupted by the condo manager informing us he had already called the cops. We got out of the water and headed to a restaurant, where beer, spaghetti and billiards delivered me back into endorphin nirvana.We crashed under an enormous, empty tent the size of a building, the presence and purpose of which remains a mystery to me. We woke, went to a bike shop to check our mounts – my trusty Schwinn, somehow, had endured the abuse – and set off for Aspen. Continually distracted by the question of my survival, I recall one stretch of going over my handlebars three times in a matter of 50 yards. I did have a helmet, which was fortunate (though no credit to my own savvy; Heinous had thought to bring one for me).As I rode back into Aspen, giddy that it looked as like I would make it, I asked Heinous what he thought of Pearl Pass. “Hell, I’m never riding that again. Too damn hard,” was the reply. I made it home to Hunter Creek and headed straight for the hot tub, where I sat way beyond the recommended soaking time. That ill-advised adventure is 11 years in the past, and though I have become a decent mountain biker, not once have I considered repeating my first real ride. Not long ago, after telling the story of my Pearl Pass ride, a friend said he would be pissed as hell at Heinous for jeopardizing my life. I wasn’t and am not now upset. It was a valuable, cautionary introduction to life in the mountains.But I can’t advise anyone to repeat my act of stupidity.- Stewart Oksenhorn
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