The Art of Fun: Basalt In Winter

Article by Moira McCarthy

The lure of nearby Aspen Snowmass is undeniable. Those storied peaks stand close enough you feel you could touch them. And indeed, Basalt is a prime choice for just the right place to call your vacation home while visiting Aspen.

But those in the know understand that the best move for a Basalt stay isn’t to head directly to Aspen for all your adventure. Rather, savvy visitors tuck down into Basalt itself where they discover an entire winter cornucopia. From Nordic and back country skiing, to breathtaking winter hikes, to the thrill of fat tire biking or the uber thrill of ice karting (the only place in North America you can enjoy that wild, wonderful sport), Basalt is a winter destination in itself.

While many who choose to visit – or live – here are first drawn by that close to Aspen proximity, Basalt has location nailed on its own. Surrounded by wilderness, Basalt sits at the gate of the Frying Pan Valley along the Gold Medal waters of the Roaring Fork and Fryingpan Rivers in the White River National Forest at an elevation of 6,610 feet.

That means it’s an oasis of rivers, lakes, thick woods, open plains and even a bustling town, all tucked into and surrounded by breathtaking mountains. So what’s a winter visitor to do? When you peruse the possibilities, the question is often: how do you choose? A nice winter day often starts with a hearty breakfast or a perfectly brewed coffee drink downtown. CC’s Cafe, formerly Saxy’s, is a local favorite. With a homey feel and a staff that gets to know your “regular” right off, it’s a great way to start the day.

Now you are ready to work hard, so head over to the Rio Grande trail, where a half-groomed, and part left-to-nature trail system gives the Nordic skier variety on the gentle and roaming-to-more-challenging trail. Local resident and avid Cross Country enthusiast Howie Mallory, Trustee and Board Member of Pitkin County and City of Aspen Open Space and Trails Boards, and member of the Aspen Snowmass Nordic Council, loves skiing in the area, and describes it this way: Rio Grande is a town to town trail 20 plus miles long that runs from Aspen to Basalt on the old Rio Grande Railroad grade. This partly groomed trail parallels the Roaring Fork River with overlooks and passes through the late Hunter Thompson’s favorite little community, Woody Creek (worth seeing!). Along the trail that ran freight trains until the 1990’s (some cabooses are still spotted off-track in a couple Woody Creek locations) you’ll get great views of all four major mountains. The trails are a great spot for dog walking (or running) and fat tire biking as well. Even better: accessing the trail is free, since it is groomed and maintained by Pitkin County Open Space & Trails.

For a ‘middle of nowhere’ feel, which is actually in the middle of somewhere pretty darn beautiful, head to Spring Gulch trail system about 10 miles out of Basalt into Carbondale. Trek through the woods on impeccably groomed trails which meander through open space and tree clusters all across a 13.13 mile trail system. Those new to Nordic may enjoy the forgiving Lazy Eight. Or try a longer journey on Rafter T with spectacular views to Holdens or Finlandia. Discover a peaceful aspen grove on North Star, or turn it up a notch on Highball and Big Dipper. Don’t bring your dog, but do bring your lunch because there are no services except a portable bathroom here. For backcountry enthusiasts, or those who’ve always wanted to give it a try away from Aspen, Mallory says locals know to head up to Mount Sopris, about seven miles out of town. But if you’re just getting started, the Aspen, Aspen Highlands and Snowmass general area has a wealth of experienced guides with many choices. You can get geared up with your tour outfitter or get your rentals out of the way the night before at Bristlecone Mountain Sports in Willits Town Center. The folks there can set you up and get you started, even offering suggestions of where the snow is best on that day (but be nice to them; that kind of information is true locals gold).

Fat Tire biking is another fun way to soak in the winter scenery while getting exercise and thrills. While at Willits Town Center you can rent bikes (and helmets) at Basalt Bike and Ski, where the folks will tell you that fat tire biking is “just like riding a bike!” in more challenging (snowy) conditions. In other words, if you know how to ride a bike, you can adapt well to this sport. They suggest you reserve your bike and helmet ahead of time, as the sport is quite popular all winter. Their bikes are Specialized, and while they look substantial, weigh just 28 pounds.

Trails are plentiful and groomed. Beginners to the sport are usually pointed up to Four Miler in Aspen (of course, it would be just like the mountain locals to call something the 4-miler that’s actually 4.5 miles), where bikers can get their legs and get a true feel for riding the bikes on snow. The Four Miler is a groomed trail that expands on to the Maroon Creek Trail accessed by three convenient trailheads; Aspen Rec Center, Marolt Open Space or Buttermilk’s Tiehack. But an even closer option is Crown Mountain Park, just off the back side of City Market beyond Willits Town Center. The park offers a 1 mile loop in Winter that’s great for winter running away from car traffic, but off-track in the fields are wide, snow-covered paths perfect for spinning some fat treads. Another local favorite come March is Prince Creek, a well-maintained groomed intermediate level trail that flows you down into the trees and offers amazing views of the peaks and valleys. It has lots of fun twists and turns, with a flowy feel on its single track. Since Basalt is at a slightly lower elevation than Aspen and surrounding ski mountains, the snow often melts off the riding trails way before the snowy alpine ski slopes would have you believing. Rugged terrain is out there and fun for those who are up for it as well. Red Hill is a Moab style trail on the perimeter of neighboring Carbondale that is beloved in the summer, and taken on by the more daring in the winter (expect some ice and other challenges).

To really get a feel for the trails and sport, ask around for the Stomperillas, a volunteer group of local enthusiasts who maintain the trails and just plain love the sport. When you want to divert the energy from pumping the bike pedals to the gas pedal – there is Ice Karting! A sport you will only find in Basalt here in the United States. Ice Karting is a kind of F-1 racing track – on ice. This sport puts you (and anyone 4’10” and over, regardless of age) in a fun, open racecar with studded tires. Following your training, you’ll head out in 10 minute intervals (breaks come to warm you up and to allow the carts to be checked and tweaked; a must in the winter cold) when you’ll zip round some fun twists and turns (it’s not just an oval track), race the clock and hit speeds up to 50 miles per hour. Tires with screws hand screwed into them give you traction, but you can expect to spin out, slide and draft. That, after all, is where the company’s motto “Let’s Get Sideways” comes from. The half-mile track is on a private ski lake surrounded by soaring mountains, a breathtaking location for a sport that really will get your heart pumping. The feeling of racing along in these cool cars while on ice is a feeling of being on the edge. Safe and yet crazy fun, it leaves the driver thinking “Gosh, maybe I was meant to be a race car driver.” In Basalt, such dreams come true. Reservations are recommended for this as well, as only five carts are allowed on the half-mile, well overseen (by guides along the tracks) course. Dress warm – in ski pants and warm boots, as you are doing all this in the open winter air.

Of course, there is all that Aspen has to offer. The mountains for Alpine, beautifully maintained Nordic trails (you can ski from Aspen to Snowmass on one fun trail), variety for après skiing and dinner – but just 20 minutes down the road, dig deep into all Basalt has to offer and find an economical and eclectic Colorado choice you can’t overlook. You can have your tucked away town and big ski mecca, too. Basalt and its location is truly the best of both worlds. Those mountains will call to you, and Basalt will bring you home.