Recently I took a little road trip with my son out to Redstone Colorado. Redstone appears as just a minor blip on the map of western central Colorado, sandwiched between other more fashionable locales such as nearby Aspen and Crested Butte. But it actually lies in a quietly peaceful and obscenely picturesque little pocket of our beautiful state, one that most likely is often passed over.
Well I am here to expose this little gem. Driving out of Glenwood Springs south on 82, you will encounter Carbondale. The main traffic will continue on 82 to Aspen, but if you take a right into Carbondale you will also embark onto Route 133, which reaches Redstone and beyond to Paonia and Hotchkiss. Route 133 is where the traffic thins out considerably, nature encloses you and the magic begins!
This part of Colorado contains a handful of little towns that are bursting with rustic simplicity and agrarian charm, like a map of constellations dotted with small points of light – each one worth a quick visit. Several years ago I explored the Colorado wineries of Paonia and Hotchkiss from the opposite direction – route 50 south out of Grand Junction. You will find charming apple orchards and fruit farms, scenic splendor, and rural country towns from a bygone era. It’s a glorious area with sweeping vistas, working ranches, forests of birch and aspen trees, valleys and prairies surrounded by towering mountains.
A leisurely drive exploring the area will make your city cares disappear and remind you how wonderful it is to live so close to nature. It is quiet and rural enough to possibly remind you that yes, there is a way to retreat from the hectic nature of life; it may inspire you to change, to put things in perspective again. Stop and smell the roses. Live with authenticity. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Love your family, love your friends. Enjoy the outdoors, it’s good for your health. At least it reminded me of these things. But oh how I philosophically digress.
Redstone has one main street that runs parallel to Route 133. Even if you’re headed that way you might just drive right by it, so keep your eyes peeled. The only marker is an unassuming sign pointing at the turn. Or you might notice – actually you can’t miss – the historical Coke ovens along Route 133 precisely at the turn into Redstone.
In Redstone you will find charming and well kept little homes, and a variety of cute highlights to leisurely explore. The generous general store displays hand painted signs offering homemade brownies and fudge. They also sell ice cream and some beer and wine. Along the road is also an art gallery, and an expansive shop of rustic, curious country objects and decor – rusted farming equipment, artisanal soaps, sculptures, furniture, and various curious objects. The kind of stuff you look at and appreciate, but you probably don’t open your wallet for.
At the end of the main street you will find the Redstone Inn, an elegant and refined inn offering a relaxing atmosphere with a well appointed lounge and an upscale restaurant. The decor is inviting – stained woods, comfortable seating, a bar and lounge, a pool and outdoor area and tennis court, and a friendly staff to welcome you. To be perfectly honest, it’s an escape within an escape.
Just before the town of Redstone along 133 you will find the Avalanche Ranch, a small resort of rustic, charming and mildly luxurious cabins. Avalanche Ranch is an intoxicating experience – you can ponder the farm animals such as sheep and chickens, visit the gift shop, visit the pond on site and a limited network of walking trails, and of course indulge in the hot springs. In my opinion these are the finest springs in the state – discreet and private yet family oriented, with rugged mountain views. The place has a soporific effect – you lounge in the hot pools for an afternoon, to retreat to your comfortable cabin for a nap or to read a book or have a snack. You just…chill. I have been here several times, and often there are only a few people in the pools, and at certain times of the day or week, there may be nobody but you. Here you can truly relax.
In addition to the on site cabins, Avalanche offers an off site cabin in the town of Redstone called the Fisherman Suite, where we stayed. The room was beyond cozy, warmly outfitted with rugs and throws, an enormous king size bed, fireplace, full kitchen and bath. And very importantly and in contrast to the on site cabins, it has full wi-fi!
The main excursion my son and I took during our visit was to the postcard perfect Crystal Mill in nearby Marble. And in fact, this location is proudly adorned on numerous calendars and postcards that seem to say “This is Colorado folks!” The mill offers the crack addict version of scenic charm, reminding the visitors of former times when men journeyed laboriously deep into mountain canyons to work the land and harness the power of nature. The mill floats above a small natural pool that is clear and deep enough to be a tempting swim, and a mildly raging waterfall.
I love a hike with a big payoff. Perhaps it’s a lake or a sweeping vista; in this case it is an historic mill that perches triumphantly above a very active river. Your hike in will reward you with quiet peace, the fragrant and sweet air of wildflowers and foliage, and views of surrounding rising cliffs and rugged mountains.
During the high season of summer this is certainly a tourist destination, but in mid October there were only a few other hikers and locals present. I would suggest taking this trip in early fall as we did, simply to avoid the crowds and allow for the peaceful contemplation of your surroundings. I’ve outlined the route and details further down this article for helpful planning purposes.
Less than a quarter mile beyond the mill is the abandoned – some say haunted – “town”of Crystal itself. The rustic cabins here used to house the supporting workers of the mill. Today, a few of these rustic cabins are maintained and occupied by residents, so you will see some light activity if you visit. The mill and the town of Crystal are actually privately owned by a single family as I came to learn. There are private property signs clearly displayed on all the structures, and your visit will mainly involve a stroll down the open dirt road to take in the views, and perhaps a picnic.
Although the Crystal Mill might appear to some as logistically difficult, it is actually a very achievable destination. It is reached by 4-6 mile hike (depending on where you park) along an unmaintained dirt road that hugs the Crystal River and requires a high clearance 4×4 or AWD vehicle to navigate. Trust me on this, you need an appropriate vehicle. You can also hire private tour companies to drive you in on atvs, but this will cost you a small fortune. Drive to Marble and stay on the paved road through town, there is only one, as it winds through town towards Beaver Lake and the access road.
The access road is actually a roughly thirteen mile loop which you can choose to complete instead of the more common out-and-back hike. This would be a full day for sure, so plan accordingly. If you picture a lollipop – the beginning access road from Marble is the stick of the lollipop. It reaches the fork where the loop begins, this is the circumference of the lollipop. Now if the loop were a clock face, the access road would be at 9 o’clock, and the mill would be at 6 o’clock. Make sense? Kind of?
I have a Mazda SUV, and I was able to follow the access road up to the fork where the loop begins. This is called Dylan (or Dillon?) hill, though it’s not marked on any map as such. This road was steep and rather rugged, but just within the means of my urban showroom SUV. From here the hike was about four miles each way. We parked in a little alcove and began the hike on the downward road to the right along the river. You may also park at the very beginning at Beaver Lake, which will add two miles and a very steep uphill climb to your journey.
It was late in the day and we were not entirely looking forward to the return hike. The sun was getting lower and things were cooling off. As my son and I began our hike back, we said hello to a gentleman tossing trash bags into his bright red pickup. He replied with a warm, friendly smile. About a quarter mile into the return, he appeared behind us and as I had hoped, he offered us a ride in the back. It turns out this gentleman’s family owns the mill and the town, as well as many miles of the adjacent and rugged mountain terrain.
The land has been in their family for about a century, and he commented on the volume of tourist traffic they receive in the peak summer, and the occasional lack of respect shown by visitors regarding a respect for the land. He mentioned people disregarding the private property signs of the abandoned cabins, (and actually people kicking in doors or something), wandering off onto private land, leaving trash, the usual inconsiderate behavior that ruins a good thing.
After an hour long bumpy ride back, we stopped at the only restaurant in town, and the best thing you could hope for, Slow Groovin’ BBQ! This place had the most tender brisket I’ve ever had. This seasonal joint has a lively and friendly atmosphere, and a cold beer here hits the spot.
Below is a Google map of the area, and how you can expect to approach the hike. Should be obvious, but bring plenty of water and snacks, each way is about a two hour hike.