Crystal City of the Shining Mountains |

Crystal City of the Shining Mountains

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

In a letter to his sister in 1873, John Muir wrote, “The mountains are calling and I must go.” This has more or less become one of the mantras of modern backcountry, environmental and wilderness enthusiasts, even though it took a long while for the idea to catch on.

Coincidentally, 1873 was the same year that F.V. Hayden, a well-known Western explorer, made an investigative run through Colorado. He and members of his party gave names to much of the topography they found in the Roaring Fork Valley and the surrounding area. Some of the names were original, some were overlaid on top of pre-existing monikers, and in the end, there are still a number of unnamed peaks and small streams in this neck of the woods.

Beating Hayden to the punch, however, was a group of indigenous and resilient people known as the Utes, dwellers of the Aspen area centuries before the white man polluted the neighborhood with mining activity.

Of prominent note, at least to this writer, is the fact that, for eons, the Utes called the Rocky Mountains the Shining Mountains. In all fairness, “rocky” is quite descriptive, but “the Shining Mountains” is a poetic and romantic expression, such attributes totally lacking in the current name.

Henry Gannett, the leader of the topographic and geographic division of Hayden’s Geological Survey, and his helper, W.D. Whitney, named many of the massifs around the Elk Mountain area, including all of the 14,000-foot peaks, such as Pyramid, Castle, Snowmass and Capitol. Over the years, the Maroon Bells morphed from First, Second and Third Maroon into today’s Maroon Bells. That’s a lot easier to keep track of, but distinction must be made between the three when a rescue operation is being considered or when giving directions to others.

Mount Hayden, the alluring peak with the great north-facing ski terrain, as seen from the Sundeck, was aptly named after Hayden himself, and although there is some conjecture that the expedition leader should have had a fourteener named after him, I think the local population, which dreams of skiing Hayden each winter and spring, is quite happy that it turned out the way it did. And don’t forget, Mount Hayden was the focus of Ted Ryan, Billy Fiske and T.J. Flynn in 1936 when they were dreaming of creating the greatest ski area in the world. Hayden just wouldn’t be Hayden if it were named something else. And we can thank Ryan, Fiske and Flynn for bringing Andre Roch to the area, without whom there would be no Roch or Corkscrew runs on Aspen Mountain, and the Winter Sports Club, founded in 1936 and the original name of the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club, might not have gotten off the ground when it did, slowing Aspen’s development as a ski area.

Ever heard of Rock Creek? Not many people have, but prior to 1886, that was the name of the Crystal River, the sweet-flowing stream between Schofield, Redstone and Carbondale. The more recent name seems to have an added, graceful ring to it.

Early in the game, Independence Pass was named Hunter’s Pass, and the town of Independence was named after the Independence Mine. However, residents were unhappy with the town designation, and before the smoke finally settled, the town of Independence had been called Chipeta, Farwell, Sidney and Sparkill. In the end, Independence was a good and lasting compromise, although Chipeta (a Ute princess) had an allure none of the others could muster.

It seems old hat now, but Basalt was originally named Aspen Junction, a moniker given to it by the Colorado Midland Railway Co. in 1887, but prior to that, Basalt started out on the other side of the Fryingpan River, a small collection of charcoal kilns calling itself Frying Pan. The kilns, recently restored, are still there. And I’m sure you’d like to know how Frying Pan got its name, but it’s not such an easy question to answer, although your first guess may be the most likely one. Put that question next to the one about which came first — Aspen Mountain or Ajax. There are answers, but you’ll have to work for them.

Red Mountain, just north of Aspen, with the winding roads, overpriced houses and gateway to Hunter Creek, was originally called Phil Pratt Mountain — it’s hard to imagine that name could have survived the ages, although the common nickname for Red Mountain has, for many, many years, been Elephant Mountain.

Aspen, a town of world-renown almost from the beginning, was dubbed the Crystal City of the Rockies in 1891, a well-earned nickname due to the unusual conglomeration of schools, churches, large commercial brick buildings and hundreds of well-built and substantial residences.

Just think how much more enticing that name would have been as Crystal City of the Shining Mountains.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at


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