Bikepacking from Glenwood Springs to Aspen (and back)

This weekend, I tried something new. I took a bike ride down the Rio Grande trail all the way from Glenwood Springs to Aspen. Meg and I spend a lot of time biking around the Denver metro area, which is generally amazing. While the Denver metro area has a fantastic network of bike paths, pleasant flat grades, almost perfect weather for biking year-round, and a great view of the (distant) front range, it's still biking in a city. We regularly have to avoid broken glass in streets, constantly have to navigate around tourists on electric scooters, and always have to lock our bikes up if we so much as glance away from them.

Bikepacking

The Rio Grande trail provides the benefits of tax-dollar-supported paved paths with the beauty of not being surrounded by cookie cutter suburban nightmares and constant traffic. And the beauty of being surrounded by... well, beauty. You'll see in a second when we get to the pictures. Anyway, Meg and I haven't gotten out of Denver for a few weeks, so we decided to drive up into the mountains and do an overnight bike trip. We haven't taken any lengthy trips yet, so we wanted to stay somewhere where we'd pass a town every ten miles or so in case one of us experienced a bike problem we couldn't handle with a multitool and a lot of grit. Which, naturally, happened in the very first mile. The Rio Grande trail seemed perfect: a safe place to park in Glenwood Springs, a whole town to explore and book a hotel in to recover overnight, and not so much distance that we'd hit our limits.

Denver

Our first day started at 5 AM. Meg and I woke up, guzzled a smoothie Meg generously blended before going to sleep, and made a couple of Aeropresses worth of coffee. By 5:50, we were on the road. After 3 hours on I-70, including a drive through the highest altitude point and longest tunnel in the US Interstate Highway System and some gorgeous views of Glenwood Canyon, we arrived in Glenwood Springs.

Glenwood Springs

fresh bikes the bikes looking fresh while Clem gets left behind in the RFTA parking lot

By 9 AM, we'd finished our last-minute bathroom break at a nearby Starbucks, and I encountered my first Bike Problem. My rear rack, which I had just put on the night before, fell... backwards.

starbs probably should have noticed the angle of the rack while taking this photo

Not really off the bike, but dragging behind the bike. Ten minutes of finagling and Christmas Story-dad-level-swearing and we got the rack just secure enough to start our ride. Unfortunately, the southern side of Glenwood Springs doesn't have a bike shop, so we decided to persevere to Carbondale to seek out a tiny torque wrench.

rack probs

Carbondale

sopris biking south towards the majestic mount sopris

Thirty minutes of slightly nervewracking riding down a very pretty section of bike path later, we arrived at Carbondale. One wrong turn in Carbondale brought us directly to a very friendly bike shop where I quickly got my rack sorted out pro-bono. To the employee that helped me out: I hope your first house lease works out well!

basalt bike and ski basalt bike & ski to the rescue!

After wrapping up the bicycle repairs, Meg and I headed over to a well deserved meal. Pretty much everything about our breakfast experience was perfect. There were crabapple trees in full bloom right in front of the restaurant, the workers were extremely friendly, and (most importantly) the food was, to put it lightly, absolutely bomb. They:

  • quickly found us a spot on their very cute patio space
  • served a macchiato that was appropriately sized, with an appropriate ratio of milk to espresso
  • served an americano that actually managed to convey floral light-roast flavors
  • balanced egg, hashbrowns, some extremely flavorful cheese, and green chili with just enough tomatillo in my breakfast burrito
  • paired Meg's french toast (made with homemade bread, of course) with a raspberry compote topping that made me reconsider my decision to ever waste my time on jam again

french toast the best french toast Meg has ever had 10/10

burrito one helluva delicious breakfast burrito 9.7/10

Nicely done, SILO. We'll be back.

art path art path through carbondale

By 11:15, Meg and I were back on the Rio Grande trail heading through Carbondale. We were treated to some very fine views of Mount Sopris as we rode our way through the Rio Grande ARTway. I couldn't help but appreciate a downtown public space that provides a full bike repair station, a small singletrack bike trail, a gravel bike trail, a paved bike trail, and public parks with picnic benches.

riding out of carbondale bikey boi

Once we made our way out of Carbondale with fully-functional bikes and full stomachs, the scenery transitioned from scrubby high desert plains to incredibly green farmland nestled between gently sweeping hills. At times, it felt like we were biking through the Austrian Alps -- compared to the last 6 months of brown grass in the Denver metro area, I finally started to appreciate the whole "hills are alive" bit from The Sound of Music.

baby cows this baby cow's cuteness level was off the charts

At 12:05, we passed yet another lovely green farm, this time with a small group of longhorned cows grazing in it. Meg went crazy as some calves caught her eye and we spent another 15 minutes taking pictures of the cute cows and getting weird glances from passerby. Personally, I think it was worth it for the very cute calves. Eventually I peeled Meg away from the animals and we made our way through a very welcome spray of farm sprinkler water as temperatures made their way into the 70s. We also passed a classic Colorado sight -- a downtown core of a schoolhouse and a couple of brick walkups that must have lost their residents when the road they were built on transitioned into a major highway.

meg in the valley meg's enthusiasm for farms knows no bounds

Basalt

horse bridge honestly pretty disappointed with the lack of horses on the trail

By 1, we reached the town of Basalt. Everyone waved at us as we biked through town, including the cops. With a track meet and a baseball game going on, the world actually felt pretty normal for the days of COVID.

beer rest enjoying a brew on the river

At 1:45, Meg and I stopped for a beer and a break at a little fishing spot before the final stretch to Aspen. Kudos to Breakside Brewery for a hazy IPA that still tasted good after 7 hours out of the fridge. Thank goodness they distribute to some beer stores in Denver -- they're based in Portland, Oregon.

harmony donkeys, goats, sheep, horses, and cows all living in harmony

At 2:05, another animal-based distraction yanked Meg off her bike. Donkeys, goats, cows, sheep, AND horses all grazing together in the same field. Maybe there is hope for the future after all!

train house nate, mandarb, & pullman - name a better trio, I dare you

At 2:20, we passed some trains that now appear to be used as housing. Presumably these trains used to roll over the railroad that used to be where the Rio Grande trail is now, so... sorry trains, for taking over your territory.

aspen view so many shades of green and the first glimpse of aspen snowmass

2:30 granted us our first view of the Aspen/Snowmass ski hills, still largely blanketed in snow. Of course, we didn't just stop for that -- our path took us right through an enormous cluster of prairie dog holes. Fortunately, we didn't catch any bubonic plague, but with the number of prairie dogs we see in this state, it's only a matter of time.

prairie dog one of the hundreds of prairie dogs we spotted. sneaky lil bois

At 3, a triple whammy:

  • beautiful views of the Roaring Fork river passing through a gorge just before Aspen
  • ridiculously fancy second houses for rich people
  • views of planes taking off and landing at Aspen's airport

Who doesn't love gorges, multimillion dollar homes, and watching planes take off? After a brief break, we hopped on an optional "soft surface" section of the trail to test our mettle on gravel, and while we did see a lot of cute small animals, I mostly just missed out on views of the gorge. We eventually made our way back to the paved section of trail, which transitioned into non-optional gravel about 100 feet later. Luckily there were good sights of the airport, a water treatment plant, some dangerously loose-looking rock faces, and a small waterfall on the side of the trail to distract us.

The last stretch of trail into Aspen was a killer -- at that point, the constant uphill grade very much had us in the mood for a beer and a burger. We kept trucking for the last few miles of tree-covered trails into Aspen and checked our bikes into the hotel, then headed out to investigate the town (and the prospect of a beer and a burger).

Aspen

Our time in Aspen started off strong. Instead of a beer and burger, we grabbed a pizza and some beers at a local brewery. And then a quinoa bowl, because we were hungry. And then a couple more beers, because we were still hungry. Honestly, by the end of it they didn't seem like they wanted to feed us any more, so I guess we must have eaten a horrifying amount of food or something. The pizza and beer was pretty solid, though.

aspen wandering around aspen left a strange desire to walk away from the people and up the mountain

Aspen is possibly the stranges town I have ever visited. From the park benches (regularly oiled!) to the bus stop bathrooms (spaceous, lockable, and cleaner than the bathrooms at my old office in NYC), everything is really, really nice. There are nice houses, nice streets, nice sidewalks, a lot of nice parks, and nice views of the surrounding mountains. Even the temperature was nice. But at its core, the town felt a bit hollow. Businesses that looked cute on the outside turned out to be soulless overpriced resort town crap, and service employees all had the shell-shocked look of folks who have to deal with a lot of crap from the natives. Maybe it was just a weird off-season vibe since a lot of businesses were temporarily closed for the spring, but overall it just made me feel strange. In Glenwood Springs, Carbondale, and Basalt, it felt like everybody waved and said hello -- not so much in Aspen.

We ended up walking around town until we found a decent beer to split over a bag of Goldfish. The best we were able to find was a craft cider and a can of bubbly wine. Who doesn't love the life of luxury in a fancy town?

The Ride Back

downhill realizing that the entire trip on day 2 would be downhill

Meg and I woke up at 6 AM and lollygagged until almost 7 before hopping back on the trail. After our afternoon experience in town, we decided not to stick around for complimentary breakfast.

praise the sun the sunlight starts right on the outskirts of aspen. coincidence? i think not. praise the sun. praise ra.

We were treated to an absolutely gorgeous crisp morning.

prairie dog paradise

Blue skies, prairie dogs, and nary a human to be seen on the bike trail once we made our way out of Aspen proper. Lots of prairie dogs, chipmunks, and folks walking their pairs of dogs. That's right, in the span of 2 hours we saw:

  • a pair of bernese mountain dogs
  • a pair of corgis
  • a pair of golden retrievers

Those happen to be the three best kinds of dog, so I'm going to go out on a limb and say that folks in Basalt have great taste in dogs.

turkey birb in a field, birb in a field, i am just a birb in a field

We also saw a cluster of wild turkeys wandering across the bike path, which really puts the size of turkeys into perspective. It would have been even more impressive if we didn't regularly see a neighbor's pet turkey on our walks around Denver.

aspen view looking back at aspen snowmass and wishing it didn't cost extra on the IKON pass

church church-house conversion in basalt

We ended up eating breakfast at a cute cafe in downtown Basalt around 8:45. The coffee wasn't the best, but the breakfast burrito and breakfast sandwich were magnificent. They could use some pointers on steaming milk, but maybe they just prefer to focus their talents on steaming eggs.

old basalt trail sully & mandarb ready to take on basalt

On our ride back, we mostly stuck to the Rio Grande trail, but took the opportunity to deviate onto other trails to spice things up when we could. Our ride back included stints on the Emma and Old Basalt/Snowmass Trails, and neither disappointed. It seems the valley has solid bike infrastructure everywhere. Even the secondary trail had a tunnel under the highway in an adapted drainage tunnel!

bridge cute bridge on the old snowmass/basalt trail

On our way back to Carbondale, we also took the opportunity to ride along a dirt road that's parallel to the Rio Grande trail. I haven't had much experience riding on packed dirt roads before (I've mostly ridden on pavement, concrete, and gravel in the past), so it was nice to find that our bikes feel just as great on dirt as they feel on pavement. Especially in Colorado, it opens up a ton of touring opportunities!

lizard artway lizard in carbondale

At 10:50, we got back to Carbondale and admired a fantastic lizard sculpture that we somehow missed on the ride out. By 11, we were back at SILO, enjoying a fantastic:

  • nitro cold brew (properly done, so it was even a bit sweet)
  • iced chai (they nailed the balance of sweet and spicy)
  • lemonade (they nailed the balance of sour and sweet)
  • burger (all I can say is that it's the best burger I've had in Colorado, and even gave the burger at Tørst a run for its money)
  • turkey club (blueberry saba is a bold choice, but it went really well with the bacon. And the bread was a texture I've never had before -- almost biscuity)
  • hashbrowns with green chiles and red onions (crispy bois)

truss nice little beach area between carbondale and glenwood springs

At 12, we enjoyed a quick pit stop at Colorado's oldest truss bridge, the Satank bridge. If the sun hadn't disappeared behind some clouds, I definitely would have dipped into those chilly waters for the memories -- maybe I'll wait for June, though.

hills "it's like they ran out of red paint and just had to switch to white"

At 12:53 PM, we finally got back to Clem, our obnoxiously orange Crosstrek. After a 10 out of 10 weekend of bike adventures, I can safely say that we'll be back soon to check out some of the other bike paths, dirt roads, and gravel routes in the Glenwood Springs area. Some friendly folks on the trail even recommended some routes to us at a stop!

glenwood canyon i-70 between vail and glenwood springs is absolutely wild

Epilogue

fin a happy meg knowing that casey brewing is just minutes away

After our journey, we enjoyed another well-earned beer at Casey Brewing, a world-renowned source of spontaneous fermentation beers. I've had their beers before, but it was pretty great to finally stop by the Casey taproom and see their (very cute) setup.

I also saw Lauren Boebert on the street in Glenwood Springs, which was... well, I guess it's nice to see representatives of Congress on the street, talking to people. That's all I can really say. And yes, she was carrying. I think.

As a final stop of our journey, Meg and I swung by Westbound & Down, who've made some really well-executed sour beers with my favorite beer bar in Denver, Goed Zuur. Their taproom in Idaho Springs (which is also a restaurant... and a coffee shop?) was surprisingly spacious, and their green chili cheese fries were a welcome snack after our long, early morning of biking. I also appreciate the fact that Idaho Springs has pedestrianized their main strip, so it's actually pleasant to walk around. Their beer list was a little sparse for my liking, but we'd been meaning to visit for close to a year now, so it's good to finally get around to that.