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Oct 16, 2020
Hello! And welcome! Today’s post will be covering the journey up and over 8,755’ McClure Pass, and down past the historic areas of Marble and Redstone, all the while winding along the beautiful Crystal River in its fall splendor. Destination? My first ever visit to Aspen, Colorado.
If you have been following along the last couple of weeks, you will recall that this “Western Slope” fall explorations trip is covering all new Colorado territory for me, so there are literally new adventures around every bend! Today’s explorations will be backtracking back into the “Intermountain” region, but Aspen is one of those “destination” locations, not really on the way to anywhere. So to get there, you have to make it your destination. I was excited to finally get to see Aspen (!!) and Marble.
Leaving Crawford State Park, I headed out through Paonia, which looked to be a cute town and the start of seeing some of the area’s famed orchards, most of them full of apples now ready to be harvested. (There is a common misconception by many across the country that Colorado is only mountains, but the western slope is known for its fruits and vegetables production, especially Paradise peaches and Olathe sweet corn!)
The next leg of the trip travels along Hwy. 133 (West Elk Loop Scenic Byway) and the north fork of the Gunnison River, with its widely scattered tiny towns, tree-clad mountains, and evidence of the coal mines that keep the area going.
All the while, you are climbing ever upward through luscious mountains of thick forest, with the striking yellows and oranges of fall aspens glowing against the dark greens of the pines (mostly spruce and firs), looking as if they are lit from within.
Ute Indians were the first humans known to use this ancient hunting route through the mountains.
Spanish settlers came through the area around 1776, and miners, farmers, and ranchers would later expand this route into a wagon road by the late 1800s.
In 1947, when improved highway was established, this 8,755’ mountain pass was named after “Mac” McClure, who built and operated a hotel along the nearby railroad.
The eastern side of the Pass sports views of some of the most dramatic wilderness area in Colorado.
These shots were taken on the east side of McClure Pass. These valley views were probably looking out toward the Raggeds Wilderness area. Smoke from the Colorado wildfires is adding to the mountain ridge haze, but it was such a beautiful view I couldn’t resist at least a few pictures!
(With lots to do, and a long way still to go, the decision was made to wait to explore Marble until later in the day, when I would have to return via the same route.)
Yule Creek begins high above the town of Marble, eventually merging into the Crystal River and leaving the mountains to run down along Hwy. 133 toward the town of Carbondale. South (and upriver) of Redstone, the upper reaches of the Crystal River are so beautiful.
“Perfect” is the word I hand-wrote about this spot. The glow of the aspens was exquisite, the water crystal clear, the sounds of the water flowing over and around the rocks was the music of Nature.
The delicate reflective light dancing across the tops of the submerged rocks definitely added a “crystal” quality to it. And all the while, the mountains in the distance, beckoning… I was left with the feeling that THIS is where I should be (at least on that magnificent fall day!).
I stopped and made my way down to an accessible spot along the river to sit on a boulder in the sun, listen to the water’s song, and dip my feet into its clear waters. Even in late September, the water was truly freezing! It was SO cold, I started with my heels, and it took me at least 10 minutes before I could even stand to briefly submerge my feet up to my ankles! Even so, it was glorious!
Here and there along the river, you can spot chunks of white marble lying on the banks of the river. You know just how strong the heavy spring melt waters cascading out of the mountains can be, when you realize just how far downstream these large blocks of Yule Marble have had to travel to end up here.
Apparently trains would also occasionally lose pieces of their loads as they carried the cut pieces out of the mountains on their way to destinations all across the country. (Colorado Yule Marble was used in Civic buildings in San Francisco, New York City’s early skyscraper- The Equitable Building, plus both the Lincoln Memorial, started in 1915, and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (dedicated in 1921 ).
I did make one other side jaunt, pulling off the highway at Redstone (nicknamed “the Ruby of the Rockies”), and driving through this beautiful little town full of Victorian buildings and shops. (Not that I took any pictures of the humans…) Founded in 1898, as part of a coal mining enterprise, it originally contained 84 cottages (most still used as homes) and a 40-room Inn. (The town has been designated a Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.) I would have loved to have seen it back when it was a tiny peaceful little hamlet (it had 130 residents as of 2010), before it became a total tourist mecca. Even on a Wednesday afternoon, it was crammed with people.
The road north of town was crowned in fall colors.
Upon reaching the highway again, I turned south to make one more run back up to the entrance to take some photos of the row of “coke” ovens that still edge the highway.
Built in 1899, Colorado Fuel and Iron built them to burn out the impurities from coal to create “coking" coal, which was used to create steel in the steel mills. A lot of this steel was used to build the railroads.
Originally, there were 249 ovens (90 of which remain today). It was the largest coking operation in Colorado, producing 6 million tons of coke a year, and employing 10% of Colorado workers at the turn of the century. The ovens were heated to 2,400° to create the coke! 10 years later, closure of the nearby coalmine that supplied much of the coal for the coke ovens caused the enterprise to fold. In 1990, these ovens were added to the National Register of Historic Places.
(I did not go up to see the 42-room “Redstone Castle” mansion.)
OK, ONWARD TO ASPEN!
From there, it was a continuous drive up to Carbondale (and the meeting of drivers coming southward from I-70), at the junction of Hwy. 82 heading to Aspen. Ok! Now we’re getting somewhere!! Thoughts? Hmmm… Well… Much of the drive along Hwy. 82 was fairly uninteresting and scrubby. But the scenery does get better as one gets closer to Aspen, though much more open than I had envisioned it would be.
Can you spot the chair lift??
I have lived in the Loveland, Colorado area three times over the years, and every time I mentioned to someone that I had yet to ever get to see Aspen, they usually looked at me rather blankly and made little comment. Of course, initially, my brain did not actually register that lack of response. There was certainly no encouragement given to go visit. Naturally, I had a certain image in my mind- perhaps a cross between Georgetown and Vail, with Georgetown’s historic buildings, which are delightful, mixed with Vail’s dedication to downhill skiing. (Vail, being a newly constructed ski town, lacks the historical architecture. Plus, for me, parts of Vail feel crammed into the steep V of the mountains.)
But Hey- John Denver loved Aspen, and he wrote beautiful music about it, so it must be amazing, right? (Of course, sadly, he has been gone from us now for 23 years, and “progress” moves relentlessly on. There’s a reason they call it “the ravages of time”, and I don’t think it always has to do with things falling apart…) I had heard about and expected the Prada/Gucci stores (I did actually see Prada while struggling to find a parking place amidst the traffic, one way streets, and the road construction), and perhaps see people walking around highly dressed to the 9’s, in ridiculous western wear or furs, but I do not recall seeing any of that. I also expected it to be much more of a huge ski resort, with big lodges with massive two-story angled window lobbies visible all over. I did not see that either (though maybe it would be more obvious in the winter with all the snow?). But you couldn’t help but notice the 45+ super clean shiny private jets stacked up at the little Aspen Airport, which you have to pass as you approach the town. That display of wealth was hard to miss. (Apparently, this is an increasing new problem for their “off-season”, somehow related to Covid.) And none of it was conducive to making me want to take pictures, so I will just show you some of the prettier views of the area…
Now, I’m first to admit, I did not spend very long in Aspen, because it just seemed like any tourist trap town anywhere. So I will first tell you of my favorite place, which was found literally accidentally. (Unfortunately, I can’t show you any photos of it, because I did not have my camera with me when I came upon it! :>( Still, maybe you can go there, and take some for me?? Or tell me of some hidden jewels that would make me want to go back??)
My initial plan was to check out some of the Galleries in Aspen, and see if any of the work would be a good fit with my art. To find out where the Galleries were located in town, I found my way to the brick Visitor Information Center in a nice wooded area on the southeast side of town (which I believe also houses the Chamber of Commerce?). With Covid, it was mostly shut down, and was being manned by a quite unfriendly lady who seemed to think she was doing me a favor by giving out any information. I picked up a booklet that was supposed to be about the art scene in Aspen. (Sadly, only later did it occur to me that perhaps Galleries paid to get space in this catalog, and that there might have been others around that would have been worth investigating.) Anyway, I took it back outside where there was a nice shaded park-like area beside a mountain stream- the “Roaring Fork River”. Sitting on a bench, I discovered that, unlike the Vail Galleries, not one listed carried any kind of realistic art, let alone with a wildlife focus. And somehow, that seemed to go along with the rest of my impression of Aspen.
At the far end of this park area was a nice footbridge spanning the rock-strewn river, and people were strolling and bicycling across it, so I went to investigate. There on the edge of downtown Aspen, on the far side of the bridge was a sign for “The John Denver Sanctuary” – which turned out to be lovely and very peaceful. Bordered by the stream on one edge, it is a rolling 4-acre open space of woods and open grass area, with some wetlands and the largest perennial flower garden around. Inscribed on large monolith landscape rocks are tastefully etched the words to some of John Denver’s songs, artistically placed throughout the gardens. (The edge of the park is also home to “Theater Aspen”, which provides live stage entertainment during normal summers.)
Back to my original mission, there was one gallery that I thought might be worth checking out, so armed with their address and the map from the Visitor Center, I set off to find it. Well… it turned out to be on a one-way street going the opposite direction, tons of road construction clogging the streets, no parking anywhere for blocks around, the day was getting hot, and after circling the 6 block area and figuring there was nowhere to even get close to the Gallery, I widened my circle, moving farther out. Finally locating a couple of open spots, pulled in, only to discover it was the pickup spot for a restaurant. Moved ahead (not clear if that also was part of their area), got out with my change and approached a close parking kiosk to get my receipt. It wouldn’t take my quarters, no matter how many times I tried. Then, I discovered that there were three other quarters in the change return! Being hot and frustrated, I just gave it up! Still, I came away with 75¢ more than I started with, so I am probably the only person to ever leave Aspen with more $ than I came there with! Always a silver lining??
Being hungry, stopped at the “Village Smithy Restaurant” in Carbondale. Due to Covid restrictions, had to wait 20 mins for a table, but that was ok as it gave me time to stroll around the block a little. The building was actually originally a blacksmith shop from 1904, and outside it was the original anvil used to pound the heated metal for horseshoes, hinges, hooks, and other useful objects. When the smithy closed, it was first a school, then a pet store, a newspaper office, and finally in 1975, became a restaurant! I ate out on their shaded patio, and enjoyed their Rueben sandwich and sweet potato fries. Having been refreshed, it was time to head for Marble before the sun got any lower.
Originally, prospectors came to the Marble, Colorado area first in search of gold and silver, then coal resources, and the town of Marble was platted by one of these prospectors in 1881. But it was the discovery of extensive marble deposits that brought the town to life. The tale is a lengthy one - full of resource claims, financial difficulties, railroad interests, heated competition, forced mergers, and recessions and panics. But through it all, there were men determined to bring the dream to life. The Yule Creek White Marble Company, which came to be known as the Osgood Marble Quarry, cut a large block of Yule Marble and shipped it to the 1893 World’s Fair Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The cost for shipment was $1,700, but Colorado's Yule Marble won first prize as the world’s finest marble exhibited - equaling or surpassing the quality of Italian Carrara Marble from Carrara, Italy!
Orders from this World's Fair advertising helped keep the quarry afloat and in operation, though marble was still having to be transported out of the mountains by wagon. (Stairways, wainscoting, and some interior floors of the Colorado Capital building were made from Yule Marble.)
As the 1900s dawned, the railroad finally came to Marble, making Marble residents soar with confidence. That was short-lived however, when J.D. Rockafeller took control of the parent company, Colorado Fuel and Iron, in a lengthy corporate battle in 1903, disrupting needed funding for developing the marble mining efforts further.
But in 1905, Colonel Channing F. Meek, who had lost his marble interests in 1892 through a forced merger, returned to Marble with the backing of multiple eastern banking investors. Finally, the newly organized Colorado-Yule Marble Company was on solid financial footing, creating the boom years of full production, when the town of Marble boasted a population of 782 people. The 2010 census now shows the town’s population standing at 131.
But it is an interesting place to visit. Arriving late in the day, things were all shut down for the day, but there still is a limited amount of mining taking place in the area. (Though how they move such huge cut slabs is a mystery to me!)
Passing through the town, there were a few yards and a gallery parking lot hosting a number of marble statues, and I made a note to stop on my way back through. Being almost dark meant a quick trip up the mountain on a gravel road to get up close to the quarry area before night could overtake the area.
Huge blocks of marble line the sides of the entrance into the quarry area, possibly awaiting shipment?
And along the start of the road
But what was really hard to understand were the big blocks of marble totally lining the deep ravine sides where Yule Creek ran through.
Perhaps these blocks were purposely deposited there because of some flaw that made them unmarketable? Obviously there was no one around to ask.
A few photos during the rush back down the mountain in the gathering darkness.
Finally made it back to the bottom, and here is the marshland at the foot of the mountain as darkness descends.
Getting back to “town”, I took what photos of the marble sculptures that I could, though I can shed no light on the process or the sculptors who created these works.
Nearly 10pm by the time I finally made it back to the camper and tumbled wearily into bed. The day certainly had some interesting sights and adventures, and now I am looking forward to tomorrow! (** Spoiler alert: Next week, Day 4, will be the awe-inspiring Escalante Canyon and a VERY extraordinary wildlife experience there!)
I hope these “armchair travels” are helping to entertain you and your friends while we are still pretty much homebound! I would love if you would leave a comment and tell me of your great escapes this year or your tales from this interesting area! I ALSO need entertainment!
Stay safe and stay sane!
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