Rocky Mountain High
David J Whyte takes the High Road as he continues his road trip across America
I was on the road again, heading for the hills or in this case the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.
John Denver got it right when he said the Rocky Mountains were high as I soon discovered during a fly fishing expedition on the Eagle River just west of the village of Vail. All was going well until I had to climb a moderately steep embankment to reach the path back to the guide’s truck. Mimicking the trout I’d just released back into the river, I was gasping for breath! Cooper, my guide enlightened me, “It’s the altitude! Vail’s 8,000 ft up and you’re not used to it.” He wasn’t kidding! It was a 12-foot embankment and I felt like I’d just run up Ben Nevis. “There’s nothing you can do except avoid exertion,” Cooper added. “And drink lots of water… remember, you’re that much closer to the sun!” Once I got strolling again, my trout impersonation diminished and all returned to normal.
Lifting the Vail
Being at altitude has its compensations. Early the next morning I teed up at Vail Golf Club with club pro, Alice Plain, her brother and sister-in-law and was immediately struck by how far the ball flew. I’ve never hit such prodigious drives and I’d highly recommend a trip to the Rockies for this reason alone. What an ego-boost! It’s a blast with the big stick - although I had to screw-back on the approach shots as they were sailing straight over the greens. You have to drop your club-lengths by around a club and a half. But who cares when 300-yard drives are a distinct possibility.
Vail Golf Club is absolutely stunning! Surrounded by glassy peaks, its 150-yard markers are delineated with half-buried skies and old, painted ski boots serve as tee-markers. In the winter, the course is used for cross-country skiing trails when Vail magically and no doubt majestically transforms into one of the US’s top ski destinations. In the summer months, it’s a healthy lifestyle up here and everyone bikes & hikes. The food scene is lean too with an emphasis on green.
There are a few golf courses around Vail such as Red Sky Ranch, a Greg Norman layout and Eagle Ranch by Arnold Palmer. But I was getting itchy feet and eager to hit the road. By the way, at Denver International Airport, the car hire companies try to ‘upsell’ you to more expensive models saying you need a bigger engine at altitude and a transponder for toll roads ($10 per day extra). Total tosh! My little Hyundai purred along Interstate 70 perfectly, through magnificent Glenwood Canyon and later up over Independence Pass (12000 ft) never missing a beat. And I never saw one toll road!
I emerged onto the Western Slope of the Rockies crossing over the Continental Divide where the rivers flow west towards the Pacific rather than east. Here the towns have curious names such as Silt, Anvil Points, Rifle and Parachute. I guessed they’d run out of ideas when they came to the town of ‘No Name’. This is dry, high desert full of mule deer, mountain goats, bobcats, moose and mountain lion. The Colorado River follows the I-70 and as I neared the town of Grand Junction, everything on the south side of the highway turned green. Irrigated by the Colorado, the town of Grand Junction is famous for fruit-growing especially peaches and grapes. It’s a blue-collar community and I liked it immediately, a bit more like the American West we all know and love.
I settled into the downtown Springhill Marriott and next morning met Bill Killgore, a friend of a Denver friend, 83 years young and still super-fit. We were first off the tees at Redlands Mesa Golf Club to sample golf in the High Desert on spectacular strips of green velvet laced through stark, red rocks and sagebrush with a backdrop of the beautiful Colorado National Monument. This is a classy layout with a premium on long drives from elevated tee boxes and uphill approaches. Bill played superbly and is an inspiration to us all. He goes to the gym three times a week, plays a lot of golf and is still running a busy insurance business. More power to him...
Tiara Rado Golf Club borders the spectacular Colorado National Monument with views of the Grand Mesa and the ever-changing Book Cliffs, so called as they look like the pages of a book on its side. The course is flat and to be honest a little uninspiring except for the closing holes which reminded me of the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad ride at Disney World.
Town of Palisade
Colorado’s Western Slope is all about outdoor lifestyle; hiking, biking, fishing and golf. Compared to other parts of the country it is still quite affordable. I was taken to the little town of Palisade, until recently a cowboy town with a few seedy taverns and tumbleweed blowing along Main Street. Today, it’s the centre of Colorado’s developing wine industry, probably much like Napa Valley was 30 or 40 years ago. After visiting a few vineyards, I was somehow thirsty and cycled up to Peach Street Distillers, an operation run by a few very enthusiastic young hipsters. Breweries and distilleries have become the places to hang out and the guys at Peach Street have got it just right. They make a Scotch - a bit like a Lowland single malt. They also do smoked rye, vodka and bourbon all from scratch and right there on the premises. After sampling a couple of cocktails, I somehow managed to peddle my bike back down to Main St and catch a lift back to Grand Junction.
Back to the Mountains
From the desert slopes, I headed southeast again, into the mountains and eventually, the resort town of Snowmass. Snowmass is another purpose-built ski resort but when there’s no snow around it seems a bit soulless. However, there is lots to do and some lovely resorts like the Snowmass Club where I was residing.
Snowmass Golf Club
I had the pleasure of playing golf at the Snowmass Club with the two pros and it’s great to get some knowledgeable guidance on such a testing layout. Elevated tee areas onto immaculate fairways and fast-flowing greens made this one of the tougher challenges of my trip. Mount Daley keeps an eye over most holes and you’ll most likely see some Mule Deer prancing across the fairways.
Snowmass and Aspen are superfit communities once again with everyone making the most of the outdoor life. As testimony to the native's lean nature, the clubpro mentioned, "We don't buy XL sizes for the proshop," he told me. "We just can't sell 'em!"
My accommodation was at the Villas at Snowmass, individual apartments with all that is required for self-catering and self-containment. But who wants to cook with great restaurants such as Sage only a short walk away. Or if you like, drive into Aspen.
The Town of Aspen
The town of Aspen is downhill & highway from Snowmass, a seriously ritzy township not so much in appearance, as it looks like pretty much any other Colorado hamlet, but for whom you might bump into... They used to call it Glitter Gulch and it’s still where Hollywood comes to get away from - well, Hollywood! The town’s little airstrip is lined with private jets.
The Kennedy’s made it trendy then Goldie Hawn & Kurt Russell called it home when raising their kids and they still show up. The likes of Jack Nicholson, Kevin Costner, Mariah Carey, Antonio Banderas and Melanie Griffith all now have homes in Aspen, mainly because the locals don’t bother them. I enjoyed having a nose around and didn’t get bothered by the locals either so I guess they must be right. However, I nearly won an Oscar for my part as a man having a heart attack when I saw the price of dinner. But it’s all part of the experience - and my expenses bill to the magazine.
Aspen’s municipal golf course is 2-miles north of town and a pretty nice track with mountain views and delightful lakes but a round on this muni will still set you back $180 in the summer months. There are other courses around town such as Maroon Creek or Aspen Glen which are both meant to be amazing but they’re private as you might expect and you have no chance of playing them unless you know a member, who would no doubt have to be an A-lister.
After another night in Snowmass, I drove through Aspen one more time and didn't feel sad about leaving. It's not really my kind of place. I'll leave it to the rich guys! I turned my nose up the mountain and headed out of town.
I drove back out of the valley, a long climb, the road reducing to almost a single track at points. I also began to realise there wasn’t a lot of gas in the tank. I hadn’t filled up in Aspen as it would have no doubt been at celebrity prices and thinking to myself “This is America! There’ll be a gas station and McDonald's just around the corner.”
Independence Pass stands at an elevation of 12,095 ft (3,687 m) right smack in the middle of the Continental Divide, the watershed that determines whether rivers run east or west. This terrain must have been nigh impossible to cross back in the days of exploration and settlement. The Lewis & Clark Expedition and railroads chose easier passes to the north of Colorado to cross the mountain range.
There were no gas stations or even a McDonald’s - that’s how remote it was. I walked down to a scenic overlook to enjoy the views and alpine tundra. You get a fine view of Mount Elbert, Colorado's highest peak and the second-highest mountain in the contiguous United States. Then, from this lofty peak, I coasted into the town of Buena Vista, running on fumes as the gauge had read empty almost since the pass. I really didn’t think I was going to make it but my brave little Hyundai pulled up to the pumps and drank thirstily. I decided I quite like these little foreign cars. They certainly deliver a lot of miles to the gallon.
Buena Visit is a flat little town in an arid valley with the high mountains that I’d just come through off to the west. I parked at the Evergreen Cafe and did some refuelling myself sitting at the diner counter next to a couple of rough-looking locals - just like in the movies. “Order up!” the short-order chef would shout every few minutes and another enormous omelette breakfast would find its way to a customer. I asked the guy next to me what Buena Vista was all about. “Whitewater rafting,” he came right back with and that was it! Sometimes it’s not easy to get a conversation going in these parts.
Looking at my schedule, I didn’t have time to hang out and chew the fat with these guys anyway and so jumped in my fully-fuelled Hyundai and headed for Colorado Springs. Next stop, The Broadmoor and The Garden of The Gods...