ColoradoFavesRoad TripsUnited States

Hot air balloons in gorgeous Colorado!

Balloons, bells, a ghost town and fall colors!

Honey, check out this deal! Let’s get our mountain fix!

Sometimes Groupon has great timing with their offers. In this case a condo at Snowmass Village lured us. Sheila was very enthused about the Snowmass balloon festival. It’s always a scenic drive from Denver up I-70 west through the mountains and the forecast looked like good weather for a road trip. Plus, it was mid-September, a splendid month in Colorado and the early part of the aspen viewing fall season. The aspens quake in brilliant gold! We travel I-70 often to visit Tom’s parents in Grand Junction. This time, we turned south at Glenwood Springs. The condo was in Snowmass Village.

Colorado hot air balloons! We arrived in Snowmass Village just about sunset on a Saturday evening

Plenty of time to get checked into Timberline Condos (we were pleasantly surprised at how big and nice it was – with a very complete kitchen and a nice hot tub overlooking the slopes) and take a stroll down Fanny Hill which is the beginner slope at the bottom of Snowmass. The hot air balloon glow was on display and the special entertainment stage was set up. Depending on each balloon’s color scheme, some glowed nicely when the burners were aflame, others had a lesser impact, but the sounds and bursts of the flames heightened the enthusiasm for the glow. The entertainment stage featured a variety of eclectic performers (magicians, jugglers, acrobats), plus techno music and songs like Queen’s “We will rock you” boomed out while the balloons attempted to synchronize their flames to the beat.

One drawback for hot air balloon enthusiasts – these ascensions are for early risers. Oh, we managed to drag ourselves out of bed, and we got there in plenty of time, but it sure was early and nippy.

Of course, we had a great time gawking at all the fancy balloons and the vivid colors. The spectators are allowed to get up close and personal with the ground crew and the pilots for the balloon launchings. About 3 dozen balloons participated.

The balloonists have competitions

Balloons paired up with a ribbon tied between them. As they drifted through the morning sky, they would attempt to keep the balloons close enough for the ribbon not to break. Watching to see where each balloon would land was interesting, especially imagining the reactions of people in the hillside homes where balloons ended up in their yards.  What a view they had!

Bonus for our day was that Tom’s parents drove over from Grand Junction (about 2 hours) to visit for the afternoon and watch the Denver Broncos game with us!

The most photographed mountain peaks in the US

The Maroon Bells are well known in Colorado as one of the most beautiful places in a state known for its mountain scenery. The two 14,000+ foot bell shaped peaks are nicely framed by a reflective lake and other mountains on each side. We’ve read that they are the most photographed peaks in the US – not sure if that’s true or not, but it is easy to believe. They are very photogenic and the scene changes depending on the season, the light, and the weather.


Exploring Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness

The adventurous can attempt a long hike to climb these peaks, but be warned – it is considered a dangerous technical climb. When we were there, signs warned of an aggressive moose in the area, but we never saw him.

The road to the Maroon Bells begins in the traffic circle just north of Aspen – take the exit that goes past the Aspen Highlands ski area. We’ve been there several times and it never gets old. In peak times, a shuttle bus is required to relieve congestion in the parking lot. On a mid-September weekday, the bus was not in use and there were a number of mesmerized visitors.

Exploring the ghost town of Ashcroft

Castle Creek Road, emanating from the same traffic circle, will take you to a different, beautiful scenic area. From this road which roughly parallels Castle Creek, you can see more fun scenery, a cross-country ski area, and the ghost town of Ashcroft, a short-lived silver mining town which has been partially preserved with several buildings and historical markers – definitely worth a stroll. A caretaker is there to explain and will accept donations.  In 1883, the camp was called Castle Forks City, with a population of perhaps 2,000 people, two newspapers, a school, sawmills, a small smelter, and 20 saloons—bigger than Aspen. The silver streak was shallow and by 1885 only 100 residents remained.  Ashcroft became a National Register of Historic Places, and the Aspen Historical Society received the first U.S.F.S. permit ever granted to a historical society to preserve and interpret a ghost town. The road turns into a four wheel drive route deeper into the mountains.

Independence Pass. Not for acrophobiacs!

For the drive home to Denver, we opted for the scenic route over Independence Pass rather than returning via I-70. Part of State Highway 82, Independence Pass is the highest paved state highway over the Continental Divide in Colorado at 12,095 feet. Though it is a paved road, it’s narrow and winding with steep inclines. It also has steep drop-offs in places along the route so it’s often listed as one of the scariest roads in the USA. Several areas of the roadway can only accommodate a single car width. Oversize and overweight vehicles are prohibited from using the pass at any time. The pass is generally open from Memorial Day until late October. Once the snow arrives, it remains unplowed and closed all winter.

Sheila says: Why are the reflector poles so tall? I remember wondering about this my first summer in Colorado, then realizing it was because of the height of snow in winter. Never had that in Florida 🙂

The pass includes a wide variety of fun pullouts and stops along the way, including the ghost town of Independence, once a booming gold mining town. There are many trailheads and campgrounds, scenic overlooks, wildlife viewing areas, and points of geologic interest within a short hike of developed parking areas including the Grottoes and the Devil’s Punch Bowl. We especially enjoyed the Grottoes area for a picnic stop. Here a stream carves its way through a granite ridge with a series of cascades. In one area, the stream cuts through the granite to form some cave-like formations, often with nearly year round ice (the ice caves).

Time lapse video clip from the Snowmass Village Balloon Festival website: Balloons at high speed!

Bucket List: Albuquerque Balloon Festival and others similar!

Trip Date: September 2014

? What is your favorite hot air ballooning experience?  Where are your favorite places to see fall colors?   Any ghost stories or interesting ghost towns to tell us about?

1 Comment

  1. Tracy
    September 24, 2016 at 8:20 AM — Reply

    Looks like I need to add this trip to my fall fun planning!

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