Vail, Aspen, the names summon images of skiers and snowboarders flashing down steep slopes of pristine, powdery snow, forests of trees covered with Christmas lights, pricey shops, tony restaurants and fancy hotels. Now think summer. Think of hotel rates which may be half those of winter. Think of restaurant discounts and bargains at fashionable shops. Think of carefully groomed golf courses. Think of rafting and canoeing and hiking, concerts and dance and theater. Then think of a drive along mountains more than 14,000 feet high.
The two resorts are 90 miles apart just around the corner in western terms of distance.
The best way of seeing both of them during the summer is an auto trip that takes you through passes as high as 12,095 feet. It goes through Leadville with its history of colorful characters as Wyatt Earp, Doc Holiday, Baby Doe and the Unsinkable Molly Brown. It takes you into trendy Aspen with its tree-lined streets and sandstone and brick buildings, then over to Glenwood Springs named for its warm mineral water pools and caves and from there east to your starting point.
Vail is where most visitors are likely to start the trip, since it's a direct, slightly less than two hour’ drive from Denver via the I-70 interstate.
Vail is beautiful during the ski season, its beauty augmented by the brilliant whiteness of newly fallen powder snow on the dark mountains. In the summer, Vail's beauty comes from the dark greens of the evergreens, the lighter green leaves and white trunks of aspens, the dazzling blue of the sky and processions of cumulus clouds rubbing against the sharp peaks of the mountains.
Summer visitors come to golf on five top-rated courses. Younger and more vigorous tourists come to mountain bike, torturing muscles and lungs by pumping up steep mountain roads and trails or taking a ski lift to the top of a high peak and plunging down its side on two wheels, dodging rocks and holes and small animals, staging a heart-stopping, animated display of why Vail has one of the nation's largest hospitals specializing in sports injuries and rehabilitation.
Older and less vigorous tourists are likely to restrict their athletic activities to hikes, canoeing or fishing on a peaceful mountain lake, viewing the Vail Valley from a hot air balloon, or riding horses through parts of the surrounding national forest.
In the summer, Vail Village resembles a sidewalk sale of skis, jackets and other winter equipment and clothing marked down as much as 50 percent, sometimes more. In the winter, its impossible to find a hotel offering rates lower than $125 a day or bed and breakfasts under $100. Summer hotel rates are as low as $59. Many restaurants also cut their prices during the summer or offer two for one specials.
My wife and I stayed at the Minturn Inn, a rustic but comfortable bed and breakfast in Minturn, an old mining and railroad town five miles from Vail Valley. Many of the town's weathered buildings have been converted into inns, excellent restaurants and a variety of small, arty shops and galleries, selling items as Indian head dresses, buffalo heads and light fixtures made from elk horn.
Minturn's main street is Route 24, aptly named the Top of the Rockies Highway, which leads off I-70 just west of Vail. Its the most scenic route to take on the first leg of the trip to Aspen.
South of Minturn, Route 24 begins a sharp ascent. Off to the right is the 14,005 foot high Mount of the Holy Cross. The 1,500 foot cross, created by natural crevices in the face of the mountain, can be seen high on the northwest side of the peak.
Continuing toward Leadville, we came into a high, level valley nestled between mountain ranges. Here is the site of Camp Hale, where the 10th Mountain Division trained on skis and snowshoes before engaging in bloody combat in World War II. Robert Dole trained at the camp. So did the founders of the Aspen and Vail Ski Resorts.
From Camp Hale, the highway begins its ascent to the Continental Divide and Tennessee Pass, 10,424 feet above sea level. Fifteen minutes away and six feet higher is Leadville, which describes itself as North America's highest city. It's been more than 100 years since Doc Holiday killed two men in Leadville and Soapy Smith and his thugs ruled the town, over a century since Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson walked the streets and Leadville Johnny Brown and his young wife Molly gave parties.
The gambling tables and brothels are gone, but you can still belly up to a bar where Buffalo Bill Cody and the James brothers downed their drinks and the restored 1866 Delaware Hotel from the rough days of wealth and sin remains open for guests. The Tabor Opera House, once described as the finest between St. Louis and San Francisco, still stands, although in need of refurbishing. It is open for tours from May 30 to Oct. 1.
Once past downtown, there are unobstructed views to the west of Colorado's highest peaks, Mt. Elbert at 14,433 feet and Mt. Massive, only 12 feet lower.
Mt. Elbert continues to dominate the western skyline as Rt. 24 continues south from Leadville. Fifteen miles later Rt. 82 intersects. We turn right toward Aspen. Driving west, Mt. Elbert looms larger on our right. On the left is the Twin Lakes Reservoir, popular for fishing and camping.
Beyond Twin Lakes, the highway climbs in a continuing succession of unguarded curves and hairpin turns to Independence Pass, which crosses the Sawsatch Range at 12,095 feet. The pass is sensibly closed doing the snow season.
On either side of the pass are turnoffs and parking spaces and footpaths where sightseers are offered a feast of mountains, streams and dense forested wilderness.
West of Independence Pass, Route 82 dives down the canyon of the Roaring Fork River. The Roaring Fork flows through Aspen, which got its start as a silver mining center in the 1880s, but found gold nearly a century later as a ski resort. Located in a glacial valley surrounded by magnificent peaks, upscale Aspen, with its many rust-colored buildings dating from the turn of the century and mature trees shading the downtown streets, gives the impression of more permanence and history than modern Vail.
Both are trendy and pricey, the playgrounds of movie and rock stars and a billionaire or two. Vail is a golfers’ paradise, but Aspen ups Vail by also offering travel by helicopter, underground trips through old silver mines and treks into the back country with a llama to carry your gear.
Aspen also has the edge on culture, earning an international reputation for its annual summer jazz and classical music festivals.
We linger in Aspen only long enough to window shop at the fashionable shops and galleries and to people watch as we nibble on crepes served from an old popcorn wagon standing outside near one of several downtown fountains.
Then its back on Route 82 to follow the Roaring Fork River through red rock canyons to Glenwood Springs.
The Ute Indians regarded the hot springs and vapor caves as a sacred place of healing. The old gunslinger Doc Holiday may have hoped to find confirmation in that Indian belief when he came to Glenwood Springs afflicted by tuberculosis. If so, he was disappointed. His grave is now a tourist attraction.
But most visitors come to swim and bathe in the hot water pools, or try to sweat away tensions and stiffness in the caves.
After drying off, we start on a fast 60-mile drive back to Vail via I-70. For the first 12 miles, we follow the Colorado River as it courses through the scenic Glenwood Canyon. The stream is swift here and endowed with challenging rapids with names like Maneater and Tombstone. With those names, its not surprising that it's a popular stretch of the river for rafters and kayakers.
We halt for a late supper in the Gas House, a popular restaurant in Edwards, 15 miles west of Vail. Frequent guests include Frank Gifford and Kathie Lee, who have a house nearby. Then its back to our b&b for a night's long sleep.
Joseph P. Ritz is a retired journalist, an author of two books and a published and produced playwright. His latest book is a memoir, “I NEVER LOOKED FOR MY MOTHER and other regrets of a Journalist" It is meant to be most humorous. You may read selections at Amazon.com or at his website: