Where Aspen nestles
As people come to Independence Pass, so they tend to see it. Some know it only as a winding, twisty, narrow road over a gulp-producing mountain pass. They see it as a scenic drive, a challenge to acrophobes or simply as a route that cuts the driving time from Aspen to Denver in the summer.
Others come up the road to bike, hike, trail run, and rock climb. They see the Pass as Aspens outdoor gym. It is a living history book for some, with its wind-swept ghost town and old stage coach road where the snorting horses and the cursing prospectors can almost be heard echoing down through the years. Still others treasure the Pass for how easy it is to escape the increasingly urban hustle of downtown Aspen. They come seeking relief and in a few short miles find peace in a cool and shaded place where the busiest thing is water frothing over wet granite.
Many, many more recognize the Pass as the backdrop to Aspen on their approach from downvalley. Right around the entrance to Wildcat Ranch, the Pass first comes into view. Then, after Shale Bluffs, the view tightens and the Pass gives Aspen its secure visual backdrop. When visiting writers describe Aspen as being nestled, it is the Pass that does the nestling. Framing the peaks of the Pass in a commuters windshield view are the green-draped flanks of Aspen Mountain on the right and Smuggler Mountain on the left.
The rounded rocky knob of Mount Shimer, often wearing a white cap of snow, juts out from behind Richmond Ridge, which stretches from North Star out to Difficult Creek. Mount Shimer is the Rodney Dangerfield of local mountain peaks. It is rarely mentioned in guide books and gets no respect as the dominant peak behind the townsite of Aspen.
Heck, one can imagine the peak saying, you can not even see the Maroon Bells from Aspen, but you can hardly look at Aspen without looking at me. No formal trail leads to Shimers 12,340-foot summit, and few ever mention hiking up remote Columbia Creek on its western side. Across the top of the valley view of the Pass stands the barren ridges of New York Peak, which stretch between the mountains four distinct peaks, all of which are above 12,000 feet. The Pass itself, crossing the Continental Divide at 12,093 feet, cannot be seen from downvalley, on either the Aspen side or the Twin Lakes side. It is hidden in the timbered folds, and on the Aspen side only shows itself towards the last switchback, where the upper part of the Lostman Lake loop trail comes out.
The first prospectors from Leadville – the leading edge of the wave of men seeking precious metals who soon founded Aspen – crossed that hidden pass on, yes, July 4, Independence Day, 1879. Not that the prospectors were the first men to walk over the Pass. Surely bands of Ute Indians rambled up from the hot springs where the Colorado River is joined by the Roaring Fork, which the Indians called Thunder River. If they followed the river far enough upstream, to its headwaters, they were close to the Pass. And upon reaching the Pass, why wouldnt a small band keep walking to Twin Lakes and on toward the pleasant waters of the Arkansas River?
According to a new guidebook on Independence Pass called East of Aspen, buffalo may have also once roamed the Pass: It is a vastly popular travel route that inspires wonder and awe. Once traveled by migrating buffalo, Ute Indians, and prospectors in search of mineral wealth, the road has become an interface with man and nature.
Today, it is the bikers huffing up the pass, their backs hunched and heads down, that most closely resemble the buffalo of old. And if there is a prime interface of man and nature, it can be found on the blacktop pavement of Highway 82 as it winds up and over the Pass. The summer sees a pulsing stream of traffic and overflowing parking lots. It almost takes on comic forms in the impossibly narrow sections edged by precipitous dropoffs, especially when two campers meet, passengers leaning back in their seats, sure that a clash of oversized mirrors is imminent.
The road is a blessing, as it provides access to the Pass and its many pleasures. And it is a curse, as it provides for the almost constant summer roar of traffic through an otherwise pristine area. by burro trains, which had followed the path set by Ute horses, which had followed ancient game trails set by deer and elk. Todays modern travelers, many in their motor homes, stop for the night in the same locales that the stages rested – at Difficult Creek, Weller Lake, Lincoln Gulch and Lost Man – now all Forest Service campgrounds. And the Pass is still a crossing, a journey, and a passage.
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