Road Trip Diaries Part III: Ring My Maroon Bells


The view from inside our pashmina-curtained car camping set up

During the last week in August, Ryan and I dropped the dogs off at boarding, packed up the Versa and embarked on a 5-day road trip through the southwest. Thousands of miles and 35 hours of driving took us through 5 states: California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado and Arizona. In Part III, we are waking up in Aspen after a long day of driving through Utah.

When Ryan and I told people we were car camping for the wedding we were attending in Aspen, we got a lot of looks. Looks that said it maybe wasn't the best plan. And that might have scared me off the idea.

That is, if we hadn't done it before.

Similarly, the last time we road tripped to a wedding, we decided to camp. During that trip, to Big Sur in 2012, we also arrived at our campsite in the middle of the night, in pitch black darkness. So this time, just like before, we had absolutely no idea what we were going to be waking up to.

Oh, and just like last time? Yeah, it was breathtakingly beautiful.

I woke up in desperate need of finding a bathroom and stumbled out of our car to find the most gorgeous scenery surrounding us. Aspen trees, blue sky, and pure morning sunlight filtering through the leaves. Screw the bathroom... I had Instagrams to post. 

When we booked our campsite for Aspen, we literally got the last site available at Difficult Campground (a name, by the way, which was the butt of many jokes).

There are only 48 sites at this little spot, about 4 miles outside of downtown Aspen, and we were staying over Labor Day weekend. The fact that we found anything was amazing.

The cost was laughable compared to Aspen hotel options: only $18 a night. The campground was well maintained and each spot was kind of tucked away, giving campers a bit of privacy. There were no showers that I could find, but there were bathrooms aplenty. Our site also included a picnic table, bonfire pit and bear box.

Bear box?

You can see the door to our bear box food locker in the bottom left corner of the picture above. Having never been in bear country before, I decided that I was terrified and must learn all there was to know about bears. So I whipped out my phone to Google it. 

That's when I realized we had no service. None. Nada. Not even one little 3G bar. 

Don't get me wrong: I actually like being off the grid sometimes. However, my dad and stepmother were staying in a hotel in town (how we planned to work around the whole "no showers" thing to get ready for the wedding) and they were supposed to pick us up that morning for breakfast and to start the day. But apparently we had no way to call them. So I woke Ryan up and made him take a walk with me to find service, because... bears. 

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Using nature signs to find a path to LTE

Eventually we found a square foot of reception and I got a hold of my dad. He picked us up and we headed back to his room at the Inn at Aspen.

The Inn had a shuttle service to town so we didn't have to deal with parking in downtown Aspen, which is pretty bad. After picking up my stepmother and dropping off bags with our change of clothes for later, we took the shuttle down and asked our driver where the best breakfast lived. He said that he was a fan of a place called Over Easy, so we headed there. 

pc c/o: Aspen Times

I ended up ordering the Belgian waffle Over Easy style, which just meant it had a crap ton of fruit on top. It was decent, but too much to eat for one Bri, which is saying a lot. 

I also decided to try one of their cocktails since we were in fact on vacation and when you're on vacation you can drink before 10am. I got the Hangover Easy, with vodka, elderflower liquor, and grapefruit juice. 

Obvs, the grapefruit juice made it breakfasty. 

After our leisurely breakfast outside on the patio, we decided to walk around town and check out some of the stores. That's when I realized how richy rich Aspen really is. I mean, there are some serious designer stores in Aspen. Gucci, Prada... I didn't know what I expected but it wasn't that. 

Eventually we stumbled upon one of the new pot stores that have been all the rage since marijuana became legal in Colorado. This place, Silverpeak, had a bouncer checking IDs to get into a relatively barren room with roped off lines leading up to a counter where they took your order. It was very reminiscent of the baggage check area at an airport. 

We went in for the novelty and looked around, though there wasn't much to look at: just two in-wall display cases with some of their products. There was however a hilarious informative pamphlet being handed out, titled "Guide to Responsible Cannabis Consumption."

After Silverpeak, it was time to meet up with family for an afternoon hike that the wedding couple had planned up to Maroon Bells. Randomly enough, I had learned about the Bells the week before in an Element Eden blog post and then planned on trying to go there with Ryan while we were in Aspen. So I was stoked that it was already part of the schedule and that we could do it with everybody. 

We piled into a couple of rental cars and headed to Aspen Highlands Village parking lot where we could buy shuttle passes. The roads are closed between 9am and 5pm in the summer, so the only way to get up there is by bus. Bus passes can be purchased for $6 ($3 each on Wednesdays!) inside Four-Mountain Sports at the Highlands Village. 

(Otherwise, from 5pm-9am and during the spring and fall, you can drive up yourself and pay $10 for a parking pass. But if you want to go during the winter, forget it... the road is closed completely and the only way up is to cross country ski or rent a snowmobile.)

After we piled in, the shuttle traveled up Maroon Creek Road to Maroon Lake and our guide pointed out things along the way, such as wildlife, avalanche paths, and a meadow that had been donated to the public.

The Bells are the most photographed peaks in the United States and now I know why. The short, half-mile walk down to the lake was so incredibly gorgeous. After a half hour there, we headed back to the top of the trail to wait for the shuttle.

On the way back, we passed 3 campgrounds that I had seen when I was looking for camping in Aspen. All three (Silver Bar, Silver Bell and Silver Queen Campgrounds) apparently book up a year in advance and they are a good 7-8 miles from the center of town. With our flat, short 4-mile distance from Aspen proper, I'm glad we were at Difficult.

After getting back to town, we took a short walk to the John Denver Sanctuary and then headed back to the hotel to change for dinner.

Dinner was at a place called Hickory House, aka "the best ribs in Colorado!" I'm not so sure about that... Our food there was decent, nothing special, but good. The ribs... I've had better. Our friend Jason makes them!

Tired after a long day, my dad drove us back to the campsite. Right before leaving Hickory House, I had grabbed a bunch of newspaper to help start a fire in our fire pit. Back at camp we also bought some firewood from the manager's yard outside his RV; there's a little box there to pay for your wood.

As Ryan got ready to start the fire, he asked me where the newspaper was. I told him I put it on top of the car. When he acted shocked, I thought he was just making a joke about the lesson I'd learned earlier in the trip, which, it turns out, apparently I didn't learn at all: it had rained while we were out, and now the newspaper was soaked with the moisture from the car.

I swear I've learned my lesson now.

Somehow we managed to get a fire started. And the rest of the night was perfect: a sky full of stars, a crackling fire, and a nice bottle of wine.

And better yet? No bears.

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Check out Part IV: In Which We Flip Out