Enjoying the Sunnyside of mountain life | AspenTimes.com

Enjoying the Sunnyside of mountain life

Hunter Creek Valley was a prime place for leaf peepers last weekend.

Twenty years ago, the mountain-bike trails of Smuggler Mountain and Hunter Creek Valley were the cornerstones of my recreational existence. Now Basalt Mountain is my go-to place, given where I live and work. It felt really satisfying to re-immerse myself in the Smuggler-Hunter trails on Saturday in full fall splendor.

Friend and former colleague Bob Ward and I used to religiously leave The Aspen Times office at about 4 p.m. every Friday during summers in the mid- and late-1990s and undertake some combination of the Smuggler-Hunter-Four Corners network before hightailing it home to the midvalley. Those were the days when the route between the north Hunter Creek Valley floor and the Hummingbird patented mining claim was a narrow, rough, Jeep double-track that truly seared your lungs, especially on a hot summer afternoon.

The wider route that resulted from Jim Auster's land-use battle with Pitkin County still inflicts pain, but not like it once did. I noted with satisfaction on Saturday, though, that nature is slowly but surely reclaiming that road. It might not ever be as steep as it once was, but it will be as narrow and rocky.

Bob and I departed Aspen at about 10 a.m. Saturday and weaved among the parade of hikers going up or coming down Smuggler Mountain Road. We continued up to the Lollipop Trail for a cool and wet zip through the aspen and conifer trees. What a contrast to the sunbaked road. After riding the Iowa Shaft Trail and descending into Hunter Creek Valley, we couldn't help ourselves from stopping at an old cabin and soaking in the scenery. Red Mountain was ablaze in yellow and rust to the north. Smuggler Mountain provided the perfect patchwork of yellow and deep green. Hunter Creek further upvalley was pure eye candy.

We climbed Hummingbird Road, diverted onto the Hunter Creek overlook trail and then gaped in amazement as we rode in Van Horn Park and soaked in the sights from Aspen Mountain to Sopris. Climbing the Hobbit Trail to Four Corners brought back fond memories of what I think is one of the greatest trails around Aspen. After catching our breath at Four Corners, we continued up to Sunnyside and marveled at having the traverse to ourselves. Yellow aspen leaves rained down in a light breeze. The trees were so thick and conditions so sunny it seemed like we were riding behind a sheer yellow curtain. The glory of the Sunnyside traverse even made the plunge down to McLain Flats Road worth it.

I don't experience that route with any regularity anymore, but it's a real treat when I do.

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