August 23, 2021
We woke to rain spattering on the roof, wind blowing the aspens and gray skies. Without a recent forecast we had no idea of what the weather was supposed to do and our phones were relegated to nothing more than cameras without a cell signal. At a break in the weather, we got up and made ready to go. About a half hour away at the continuation of the road we’d come in on was Marble, either a ghost town or small village, depending on who you believe, along with a road or trail that led up to the iconic Crystal Mill along the Crystal River.
Driving up to the town, we followed the Crystal River along a beautiful winding road, everything wet from the night’s rain. The threatening clouds looked to put a damper on our planned hike as we drove into the “town.” There were a few scattered houses along the road as we soon found the reason for the town.
Marble was aptly named. An enormous marble cutting and polishing factory once stood near the center of town but was now decrepit and abandoned. The Marble area was known for some of the best quality marble in the world and during its heyday, shipped huge amounts around the world, including to Washington DC where it was used to build the Lincoln Memorial, among other structures.
A sign discussing the history of the factory and the town was installed nearby. According to the sign, the marble company went out of business in 1918 after marble began to fall out of fashion. Shipping the heavy marble out of the mountains also became an issue even after a special railroad was built.
The remnants of the factory structure still had giant columns made of marble that originally supported a huge building where raw marble was brought in from a nearby quarry, cut, shaped and polished. But there were no walls and no roof anymore.
What made the place almost surreal though was that everything nearby was built of marble and huge chunks of it were lying about everywhere. They ranged from fist-sized to car-sized and a few had been lovingly carved by talented artists and then left out in the open.
Though the factory area was empty when we visited, it appeared that Marble was trying to remake itself into something new. Curiously, a frisbee golf course of all things had been set up among and around the rotten buildings, there was an adjacent semi-abandoned campground and a small stage announced a coming festival. And a new bathroom house (with running water – something we always appreciated while camping) had been constructed.
The place had an eerie, almost bizarre feel as we walked through old broken rooms with crumbling flooring around tall walls made of marble. The low clouds and spitting rain made the place seem even sadder, especially since we were the only visitors. What a place this must have been over a century ago, we thought.
After touring the facilities, we drove up a dirt road and headed toward the trail that led to a mill built to supply power to the marble factory several miles away.
The road brought us through the crumbling remains of the town along with a few newer, prosperous-looking houses with stunning views of the river and surrounding mountains. Soon the road wound past a pretty lake and changed from being a dirt road through town to the road we were looking for–a very rough and narrow 4 ½-mile jeep/hiking trail that climbed past a lake then steeply into the mountains, and at the end of which was supposed to be the picturesque and frequently photographed Crystal Mill perched on a rock ledge over the river.
The jeep trail was recommended only for 4×4 high clearance vehicles or it could be hiked. We’d seen pictures of Jeeps, ATVs and a few lifted bro-dozer type trucks trying to navigate the road but today there was no one, adding to the eeriness. So, we decided to see how far Rocky could go. Rocky is much longer than a Jeep and with his long overhangs isn’t suitable for most Jeep roads, but I put the truck in four-wheel drive and we slowly ground up the steep hill over sharp rocks and deep gullies.
It quickly became obvious that what we were doing was pretty silly—we could hike up the road if we really wanted to get up to the mill and we were really just beating up the truck. So, we found a steep place to pull to the side (hoping the parking brake worked) and started to walk up.
A light rain fell again as we started out and, knowing we could end up hiking 9 steep miles in the rain, we realized this hike would not be part of our day after all and we turned around. Maybe we’d return one day in autumn and see the mill when the aspens turned gold.
Then we had to figure out how to turn Rocky around on the narrow road, as backing down would be nearly impossible. Susan guided me as I backed across the steep road, and at one point I felt like the truck was just at the point where it might roll over, which would have not been good as Susan hadn’t even had her coffee yet.
I wondered how much a tow truck would charge to recover a large rolled-over SUV located at a remote semi-ghost town. It was tense for a minute but we finally got turned around and ground back down the steep rocky road and back through the “town,” past the weird marble factory. The rain continued on and off as we changed plans on the fly and headed for Aspen.
Shortly after we reached the main road we noticed a rushing river on one side of the road and a waterfall on the other that one of our fellow mud-bathers the day before had mentioned we might find. We stopped to check out both. Apparently Colorado is in a drought but it certainly isn’t anywhere near as bad as in California. Not only had we seen rain and mudslides since we arrived in Colorado, but unlike California where the rivers are barely trickling and the waterfalls are bone dry, here the water was rushing in the rivers and over the falls.
On the advice of the mud-bathers, we also stopped just past the falls in the tiny “destination” town of Redstone. The town was built along the Crystal River and had created a park with picnic tables overlooking the rapids. There was also a heated bathroom for visitors, something we used and appreciated. It was well past time for Susan to have morning coffee but the picnic tables were still wet from the rain.
We wandered across the street from the park to the only open business —a general store. We’d been told the proprietor of the store was from the town we live in and wanted to meet her. Entering the store, we were greeted with the aroma of a hearty breakfast cooking. The tiny wooden store and restaurant had nearly everything a local or traveler might need tucked into every nook and cranny and we explored as we waited for what turned out to be excellent coffee. I found some inexpensive organic day-old muffins that were better than nearly any non-day-old muffin I’d ever had.
The cooking aroma, we soon learned, was from Gina, who was making a family-style breakfast for several other people who’d also stopped by. I wasn’t hungry enough to partake but after she finished cooking and serving an amazing breakfast outside to the delight of the patrons, we chatted. It turned out Gina was not from our town, but she was from close by and knew the area. She was here helping her daughter she said, who had just bought the place and was trying to make a go of it.
We’d hardly met a friendlier person in all of our travels and before we finally said goodbye, she loaded up a huge container of the breakfast (she insisted and besides the group would never finish, she said) and gave it to us free of charge. We wished her well and hoped we’d be able to stop by again someday.
Having been in similar towns like Jackson, WY and Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA, we had a pretty good idea of what to expect in Aspen. The town, in a gorgeous setting at 8,000 feet, was surrounded by mountains and had every high-end boutique you could think of. Expensive people walked around looking important and Bentleys mixed with visiting Subarus. The clouds had broken and the sun was shining as we walked the town peeking into Dolce and Gabana, Gucci and Prada. Sadly, the only two stores we wanted to go into – a second hand store and a consignment shop – were closed.
We couldn’t afford the six-dollar an hour parking meters in Aspen for long, so we headed out of town toward nearby (and much cheaper) Snowmass where we’d reserved a hotel room for later in the day. It was too early to check in so Susan looked up some nearby trails. Coincidentally, I had turned off on an alternative backroad toward Snowmass and just as Susan mentioned the name of a popular trail we happened to see a sign for the trailhead.
After some serious huffing and puffing (we were at nearly 9,000 feet) we realized there were no views along the trail, just pretty aspen stands, so we hiked only a few miles. Before turning back, we took a side trail up to a closed ski lift that led to some expensive cabins farther up the mountain. We realized there were no roads to the cabins and that people who owned them could reach their property only by hiking up or taking the lift and skiing in winter.
Back at the truck, we opened the container of breakfast (now lunch) that Gina had given us and feasted. Then we headed onward to Snowmass and hoped our room would be ready. The room we found was relatively inexpensive for where we were and it showed. Budget skiers who couldn’t afford Aspen prices likely filled the place up in winter but in the summer only a few people kept the place open.
After checking in, we took advantage of the outside hot tub and discussed with some other couples there the fires in California we’d been escaping that had even brought bad air to where they lived in Colorado Springs a couple of weeks ago. They couldn’t understand why anyone would live in California with the fires, high prices and politics. We could.
Though somewhat tired already, we had more to do. We’d gotten a reserved entry pass and parking spot at a place called the Maroon Bells back near Aspen. The forest service strictly limits the number of visitors to a few dozen at a time and the only pass we could get was for 5 pm. It turned out to be a perfect time to go with the heat of the afternoon waning and the sun beginning its descent. We left the hotel and arrived at the entrance station a little early but were let in and drove five miles farther up the road. We were one of the first at the parking lot and soon realized we pretty much had the place to ourselves. The earlier visitors had to leave by 4:30 and our early arrival put us there before the 5:00 visitors arrived. We then began a two-mile hike in one of the most beautiful places we’d ever been.
The Maroon Bells are twin mountains that had claimed the lives of many rock climbers, a sign said. But they were just a small part of a 360-degree view that included even higher mountains in colors of red, white, and green, a rushing creek, a lake, and forests of aspen, firs and pines.
A level trail led from the parking lot to the small pretty lake. And as we walked alongside its clear water, a fox sauntered by us and without looking up, strode to the lake and took a long drink and found a snack.
Continuing past the lake, we crossed a small bridge over a stream and felt nearly overwhelmed by the magical scenery
We hiked deeper into the forest, toward the highest peaks. Enchanting aspen groves fluttered in the light wind and fields of wildflowers rose against the backdrop of mountains as the setting sun began to light the peaks. We felt like we were in a painting.
The trail was a lollipop-type and soon we were on the loop that passed around the end of the lake. Too soon we were heading back on the other side of the creek, first across a bridge over the rushing creek and then through open fields past the lake along a rocky path, now facing the high mountains where the sun was casting long shadows on the red peaks. We barley spoke as we hiked the last half mile back to the truck, thinking how incredible the experience of this short trail was.
Back at the room, we were exhausted and sat on the balcony for a while before calling it a day.