Top of the Rockies Byway: Wild West Meets Aspen Utopia

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INT. TABOR OPERA HOUSE, LEADVILLE – 1882 – EVENING

OSCAR WILDE, wearing finery and diamonds, lectures a group of rough-and-tumble miners on The Practical Application of the Principles of the Aesthetic Theory to Exterior and Interior House Decoration, With Observations upon Dress and Personal Ornaments.

OSCAR WILDE (uncomfortably)

The artist is not dependent on the visible and the tangible. He has his visions and his dreams to feed on. But the workman must see lovely forms as he goes to his work in the morning and returns at eventide. 

ROUGH-AND-TUMBLE MINERS (loudly)

Zzzzzzz. 

STAGEHANDS (offended by WILDE’S dapper appearance)

 He’s a wuss! Let’s see how much he can drink!

EXT. SALOON, 3 A.M.

STAGEHANDS are rolling around under a bar table, deleriously drunk as Wilde looms over them, downing yet another drink.

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That’s a true story. (As described much more eloquently by the Guardian’s Sam Jordison.)

Jordison describes Leadville as being “enjoyably, though worryingly, ‘authentic.'” The Wild West hasn’t completely disappeared from this former mining boomtown. At 10,200 feet, it’s America’s second-highest town and, aptly, a main attraction of the Top of the Rockies byway.

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Image: CDOT

The Top of the Rockies blends exquisite high-mountain scenery with ghost towns and mining outposts straight out of a Hollywood western. From the Lover’s Leap steel-arched bridge to the colorful mining ghost town of Gilman to the towering Black Cloud Mine near Leadville, history is alive on this byway.

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There’s plenty of hiking, mountain biking, fishing and riding along the way. Also be sure to check out Camp Hale, where the famous 10th Mountain Division trained.  Built in 1942 for the war effort, Camp Hale trained an infantry of skiers, ice climbers and mountain specialists to fight for the US in Italy. Now decommissioned, it later served as a training ground for a group of Tibetans recruited by the CIA for Cold War purposes.

Camp Hale

After winding over the stunning Independence Pass, you get a taste of the most chi-chi town in the intermountain West.

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Aspen is what happens when you transform a mining ghost town into a “utopian community for the mind and body.” By “you,” I mean Chicago business tycoon Walter Paepcke and master skier Friedl Pfeifer; by “transform,” I mean facelift the town into a celebrated hub for skiers and people who own Lear jets.

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Aspen is the gold Rolex to Leadville’s rough-hewn nugget. Even on a budget, though, it’s worth the trip. The Maroon Bells, delicious eats and summer festivals–and yes, people watching–make Aspen a must-see.

To learn more about the Top of the Rockies byway, including where to eat, best places to stay and which ghost towns to check out, crack open a copy of the Backroads and Byways of Colorado, Second Edition.  

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