Best of North American Travel
Aspen – 13 secrets the brochures won’t tell you
The clichés about Colorado’s shiniest ski town, Aspen, roll as fast and true as a mid-season snowball. Yet the town is not all just about Gucci, private jets and being seen with celebs (actually more difficult than you think). It has a quirky edge that money can’t buy too. Here are a few strange but true Aspen facts that break the mould, finds Steve Madgwick.
1. Aspen's mountains shrines
Among Aspen town’s four mountains resorts, hidden within it trees runs, are 74 makeshift shrines, created and looked after by locals (at last count Aspen Mountain 38; Snowmass 18; Aspen Highlands 12; Buttermilk 6). Musicians dominate, from John Denver to Liberace, with plenty of other pop culture icons, such as Marilyn Monroe, getting attention too. Strangely, there’s even a shrine to golf – who knew it was dead? For more information on this peculiar alpine tradition, see Sanctuaries in the Snow
2. Rent a pet
Brooding over Spot, left in that kennel back in Australia, while you ski your two weeks’ holiday away? Help is at hand. Aspen Animal Shelter offers a ‘rent a pet’ program to soothe your pining soul. Everyone wins: you get your fill and the shelter pooch gets a walk. Aspen even offers free leashes at trail heads, if you feel like a companion for a long walk.
3. Uphilling is the new downhilling
The super-fit humans who call Aspen home apparently don’t class down-hill skiing as good enough aerobic exercise these days, so they’ve taken to skiing uphill as well. If you catch first lifts in the morning, you’ll see solo and tribes of ‘uphillers’, purportedly the fastest growing alpine sport in Colorado. They have special skins which make their skis grippy enough to trek up the mountain. They do still ski down the mountain – probably just for a rest though.
4. Jennifer Aniston. Sorry, who?
You can buy your way into plenty of ‘exclusive’ clubs in Aspen, but your name, no matter how renowned or reviled, won’t necessarily get you inside. Case in point: Jennifer Aniston, who was reportedly refused entry to private members-only Caribou Club because she wasn’t a member. Apparently the doorman didn’t recognise her.
5. Trump fight over lunch
Yes, ‘The Donald’s’ sphere even extends to alpine Colorado. His two former leading ladies, Marla and Ivana, got into an intense squabble (that reportedly turned physical) in Bonnie’s Restaurant (Aspen Mountain) back in the ’90s.
6. Putting the boots into the Highland Bowl
One of the most difficult ski runs around any of the four resorts is the Highland Bowl (requiring a ski cat ride and a 45-minute walk above Aspen Highlands). It’s double-black diamond steep, which usually means that there’s a fair to strong avalanche risk. However, the ski patrol has instituted a ‘boot packing program’. They employ people to stomp down the snow (literally walking back and forth) at the beginning of the season. The resulting firm snowpack is said to lessen the avalanche risk.
7. Thousand-buck wine with a hip-hop soundtrack
The wine cellar at The Little Nell, one of Aspen’s most refined accommodation options, is the total and utter opposite of its five-star persona. Based in a carpark storeroom, the cellar is covered in graffiti scrawled by patrons, plays hip-hop (loudly), and features red-light-district style lighting. In keeping with the ‘Aspen way’, minimum spend is $1000 and there are single bottles inside that could literally bankrupt mere mortals in one fell swoop.
8. Rugby, anyone?
Strangely, for a country that doesn’t embrace the sport, there is a rugby pitch in the middle of town. The field does actually see action, from the Gentlemen of Aspen Rugby Football Club and their nemeses.
9. Justice for sale?
Not unusually, Aspen’s Pitkin County Courthouse features a statue of Lady Justice holding up the Scales of Justice. What is unusual, however, is that she is not wearing a blindfold. In Aspen, money talks, so they say, the inference being that justice is not blind and, perhaps, therefore for sale.
10. Mammoth find
Rather recently, Aspen accidentally discovered its prehistoric past, by complete serendipity. A building crew in 2010 dug up a juvenile female mammoth’s bones at a reservoir just outside of Snowmass. Find it and they will come: after the initial discovery, more than 30,000 individual bones have been located originally belonging to everything from sloths to camels.
11. A legal ‘high-end’ boutique
Yes, it has been legal to buy marijuana in Colorado (and therefore Aspen) since 2014. The pick of the places to ‘score’ in Aspen is the ‘high-end’ Silverpeak Apothecary. There are a few legal ‘pot’ holes dictating where you can smoke your stash, however. You can’t do it in the shop or indeed public for example (even though you can clearly smell it in the street).
12. Kennedy’s accident
One of JFK’s nephews, Michael LeMoyne Kennedy, was killed in a skiing accident on Aspen Mountains’ Copper Bowl, back in 1997. He was reportedly throwing a football around when he hit a tree at speed. There is no shrine for him on the mountain.
13. Thrifty Aspen
Of course you can find just about any high-end label of note somewhere in Aspen town, but you may also find some of their merchandise at a bargain basement price too, in one of the town’s charity consignment (thrift) stores. You may even uncover that pre-loved Gucci clutch at the Thrift Shop of Aspen, which is across the road from the real Gucci store.
MORE... Everyone does winter... What about Aspen in summer?
If you do just 7 things in Yellowstone…
America’s most famous wilderness, Yellowstone National Park, is one of the world’s most remarkable protected places. Why? This list of Yellowstone attractions put the 'high' in highlight, writes Daniel Down.
The USA’s National Park Service embarks on a new century of protecting the country’s wilderness areas this year. Within its charge is Yellowstone, the world’s oldest national park founded in 1872, in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.
This sprawling landscape of fire and ice, forests, mountains and lakes, with a thriving ecosystem of some of the world’s largest mammals, makes it a park you have to see at least once in your life.
And more than 4.25 million people did so last year, a record for Yellowstone. Don’t worry, at 8991 square kilometres it’s a big place.
They came to see its many wonders, from show-stopping geysers (approximately half of the world’s total are here) and colourful volcanic springs, to the soaring peaks of the Grand Tetons to the south with countless bison grazing the grasslands below.
It’s a picture of much of the continent as it once was, home to Native Americans for more than 11,000 years before it became the rugged frontier of the New World. Yellowstone’s grand age makes it the old man of national parks, a fitting start to our series exploring the most wondrous natural spaces on the planet.
The must-see sights...
1. Hayden Valley
Drive along this broad valley and keep your zoom lens close as you spot herds of bison and elk grazing on the lush grasslands. If you’re lucky you’ll see a roaming grizzly or a pack of wolves; it’s a good opportunity to see a thriving ecosystem of large mammals – something you’d normally need to embark on an African safari to witness.
2. Old Faithful
The reason most people head to Yellowstone is surely to witness this famous natural showpiece, a geyser that erupts with (almost) boiling water around 20 times a day. In the 19th century people would throw their linen and cotton clothes into its roiling pool to be cleaned by being blasted up to 56 metres into the air.
3. Petrified Forest
Yellowstone sits on a subterranean super volcano (which could go off at any time, destroying a large portion of the US!) that drives all its spectacular geothermal activity. Eruptions over the millennia have created its remarkable forest of fossilised (petrified) trees. Having been encased in volcanic material from eruptions thousands of years ago, the trees eventually became rock themselves and remain standing after the softer rock surrounding them wore away.
4. Grand Prismatic Spring
At 110 metres across, the largest hot spring in the US is also one of the most photogenic lakes in the world. Its beauty owes to the fact that its colours match the rainbow that you get when you split light through a prism (hence the name). Going from a brilliant red/orange through to yellow, green and deepening shades of blue, the colours are a result of various layers of microbes that exist in its boiling waters.
The three walks...
Take these Yellowstone trails to reach new peaks and perspectives.
5. Bunsen Peak Trail
Hike to the summit of Bunsen Peak – a 6.9-kilometre round trip – and you’ll be able to see all the way from the western Gallatin Range out across the plateau that comprises much of the park, to the Beartooth Mountains.
6. Observation Point Trail
Walk up into the forests surrounding the main geyser site to get a different perspective of Old Faithful firing its plume. Head up in the early morning to have these views to yourself on this 2.8- or 3.7-kilometre walk.
7. Lamar River Trail
Take this 11.2-kilometre trail to find yourself in rolling prairie country with ample opportunity to spot bison, elk and wolves; the Lamar Valley is referred to as the American Serengeti for good reason.
MORE... Tick off the 'Big 5' Yellowstone wildlife list
Lodging and camping inside Yellowstone National Park fills up fast. It’s recommended that for summer trips you book six months to a year in advance; for autumn/spring trips, three to six months. Visit National Parks Service - Yellowstone for more information.
Yellowstone’s ‘Big 5’ wildlife-spotting guide
Yellowstone is perhaps most renown for its grand landscapes, but its the animals here which makes it one of (if not the) premier North American national parks. Here is your Yellowstone 'Big 5' wildlife list to tick off.
1. The Grey Wolf
European settlers had eradicated wolves from Yellowstone by the 1930s, and for the rest of the century the strange side effects of removing the predator started to appear.
Tree species like willow declined; without wolves to keep elk numbers in check, too much flora was being consumed. This reduction in plant life then meant that beaver numbers declined, willow being a food source, as well as various insect and bird species.
Following a reintroduction of wolves in 1995 and an ongoing effort to establish packs, the sound of a beaver slapping its tail on the water to warn of an approaching wolf pack has made a welcome return to the park.
The largest herd in the States can be found in the park, an icon of North America, and its biggest land animal. They migrate to Yellowstone’s lower ground in winter and are fed upon by wolves and grizzlies. If disturbed they can be aggressive and weighing up to 900 kilograms, you don’t want to get in their way.
3. Grizzly bear
A threatened species, Yellowstone is one of the best places to see this fearsome predator, the males of which can weigh up to 317 kilograms and easily outrun Usain Bolt. So there’s no point in making a run for it if one approaches. If you’re going for a hike in the park you’ll need bear spray for protection, but you may also be lucky enough to see one from the road at places like Hayden Valley.
There are about 800 of these unusual-looking animals ranging between Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. The largest member of the deer family lives in the marshy land near lakes and rivers, with specially adapted legs and feet to help bear its weight on unstable ground.
5. Bald Eagle
The USA’s national animal flies here. The birds can stand 114 centimetres tall with a wingspan of up to 2.3 metres and hunt small animals and scavenge on elk and bison carcasses. Successful nationwide conservation saw the bird taken off the federal endangered list in 2007.
MORE... If you could do just 7 things in Yellowstone
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