Delayed while flying into stormy Denver from New York, I made my connecting flight to Aspen with minutes to spare. The terminal-long sprint was not the only thing that had my heart racing, though. After rising above the snow-capped Rockies, thankfully with little of the customary chop, the plane broke through the clouds over the sunny, sweeping Roaring Fork Valley and glided into Aspen-Pitkin County Airport.
Between the 7,908-foot elevation and mountainous panoramas, it was a heady start to my first-ever visit to Aspen, where I was invited by Jaguar (www.jaguarusa.com) to test drive two brand-new cars over some 350 miles of high-country, high-adrenaline mountain roads.
After checking into the Viceroy Snowmass (130 Wood Road, Snowmass. Tel: 970-923-8000. www.viceroysnowmass.com), my luxurious digs in Snowmass Village, I biked (braved, really, with no time for altitude adjustment) the 11-mile paved trail through mountain-backed ranchlands into Aspen (www.aspenchamber.org).
Originally home of the Ute Indians, who called the area the “Shining Mountains,” this tony town of nearly 7,000 people first rose to prominence during the silver mining boom of the 1890s, before reinvention in the 1930s as a world-class ski resort. Set on the western slope of the Colorado Rockies, Aspen is centered in the Elk Mountains and Sawatch Range, two of the West’s most picturesque and accessible ranges.
A few days earlier, Aspen had been hopping with the annual FOOD & WINE Classic in Aspen (www.foodandwine.com/classic), which turns 35 in June 2017. The scene is positively mad come November, when the area’s four mountains, Buttermilk, Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, and gargantuan Snowmass (www.aspensnowmass.com), bring in the ski and holiday crowd, pushing the populace above 37,000 people. Among the big draws is Aspen Gay Ski Week (Tel: 970925-4123. www.gayskiweek.com), which celebrates its 40th edition in January 2017 as Colorado’s premier LGBTQ winter travel and vacation event.
On this warm June day, though, I looped around town with relative ease. Highlights included the stunning new glass and latticework cube-shaped home of the freeadmission Aspen Art Museum (637 East Hyman Avenue. Tel: 970-925-8050. www.aspenartmuseum.org), and my quick peek inside historic Hotel Jerome (330 East Main Street. Tel: 855-810-1573. www.hoteljerome.aubergeresorts.com).
I dropped off the bike at Four Mountains Sports (520 East Durant Street. Tel: 970-9202337. www.aspensnowmass.com/planyour-stay/equipment-rentals) and took a shuttle back to the hotel. With nine area locations, this operator is the go-to for summer and winter activity equipment rentals.
That evening, I joined the Jaguar team for welcome cocktails and dinner at the Viceroy’s chic Eight K Restaurant, which features an 87foot glass bar, dazzling display kitchen and panoramic mountain views. Executive Chef Will Nolan, originally from New Orleans and with a global resume, laid on a shared-plate feast including prosciutto-wrapped elk loin and crispy-skin salmon.
Up at dawn, I breakfasted on the restaurant’s outdoor terrace, with mighty Daly Peak, painted pink by the rising sun, providing a preview of the mesmerizing mountainous day ahead.
Stationed around the hotel’s circular driveway, engines purring and ready to roar, was our first ride of the day, the Jaguar XE compact sports sedan. Later, we would switch to the F-PACE, the legendary British automaker’s first-ever SUV . Both model year 2017, the duo joins the two-seater F-TYPE, XF sports sedan, and XJ luxury sedan to create the first fivevehicle set in Jaguar’s 80-year history.
Distinguished by Jaguar’s new modular architecture using high-strength, lightweight aluminum alloy made predominantly from recycled material (sustainability is a major brand focus), the award-winning XE’s sleek body, as we learned, is “absolutely at the cutting edge of what is achievable today.”
With memories of motoring around London in the early 1970s in a green Jaguar XJ12, its buttery interiors redolent with cigarette smoke and engine surging like silk, it was back to the future as I sank into the XE’s cabin. Cockpitlike with its low sporty seating, spacious leg room, and deep center console, the car with its 72-per-minute double heart beat the same as a jaguar at rest, was poised to sprint. After confirming my navigation on the eight-inch touchscreen, interface for the new InControl infotainment system, I joined the departing parade in high anticipation.
Bound for historic Buena Vista, some 70 miles away, the first leg put us on Highway 82, part of the historic 115-mile Top of the Rockies Scenic Byway. After Aspen, the high country mountain road winds upwards through alpine scenery as breathless as the altitude. With a promised acceleration of zero to 60 mph in 7.4 seconds, the turbocharged diesel engine had to catch its breath before hitting stride as we rose above 9,000 feet, but on a course designed to showcase its driving dynamics and versatility, the XE proved a peak performer overall.
The first stop was Independence Pass (12,095 feet), marking the Continental Divide and highest paved road in the Rockies. Up here, the snowy tundra-like landscape, 1,000 feet above the tree line, was otherworldly.
Picturing Sean Connery’s drive in the Swiss Alps from Goldfinger, my descent into the gorgeous Lake Creek valley put the XE’s adaptive technologies to the test. Down the switchbacks, around the tight corners and into the straightaways, the air-deflecting brakes, and torque vectoring system did their job. Watching the laser displayed speedometer on the windshield reach three digits was a thrill, too.
After passing Twin Lakes Reservoir, magnificently reflecting its backdrop of snow-capped peaks, I headed south into the Upper Arkansas River Valley on Highway 24. Dotted with ghost towns and old mining camps, the road parallels the river and Collegiate Peaks, the range boasting 15 of Colorado’s 53-plus “14ers,” or mountains with elevations of at least 14,000 feet.
Reaching Buena Vista (www.buenavistacolorado.org), the former “Head Lettuce Capital of the World,” we rested at The Trailhead (402 E. Main Street. Tel: 719-395-8001. www.thetrailheadco.com) outdoor store before switching to the F-Pace.
With the same lightweight aluminumintensive body, including an all-aluminum supercharged gas engine (zero to 60 in 5.1 seconds, as I would verify back on the highway), superior aerodynamics and handling, and features like the sliding panoramic roof, this roomy SUV provided its own rewarding drive.
After retracing the morning’s route, equally spectacular in reverse, the afternoon leg began 14 miles northwest of Aspen with a BBQ lunch at Snowmass Cottages (26801 Hwy. 82. Snowmass. Tel: 970-927-5313. www.snowmasscottages.com). On a site dating to 1886, this vacation spot on the Roaring Fork River, opened in 1947, offers the landmark Log House and seven cabins for rentals and events.
Continuing on 82, we exited the highway at El Jebel to chase a meandering country road across rolling pastures dotted with homes and ranches. The first landmark for this leg was cinematically stunning Mount Sopris. Rising 12,965 feet, this twin-peaked beauty stayed in view as I then dropped into Carbondale and raced south along historic Highway 133 and the Crystal River into another jaw-dropping wonderland of canyons, valleys, and soaring peaks.
Highlights of this 50-mile leg included the fascinating roadside coke ovens in Redstone. Undergoing restoration, these landmark beehive-like domed brick structures from 1903 once burned impurities from coal mined in the area. Following the steep climb through 8,755-foot McClure Pass, the landscape unfolded into high pasture, backed by the Ragged Mountains, their vertical flanks forming a long knife-edged ridge. Near Somerset, we reached our turn-around point, a for-sale resort property where we enjoyed coffee and delicious Wagyu beef jerky.
Switching to the gas-engine XE, it was a dream drive back to the Viceroy, where after two shots of Johnnie Walker Blue at the hotel’s Ricard restaurant, nearby in the Base Village, it was lights out for the night.
For our final morning, I took the XE for the 16-mile drive through breathtaking Castle Creek Valley to Pine Creek Cookhouse (12500 Castle Creek Road, Aspen. Tel: 970-925-1044. www.pinecreekcookhouse.com), a log cabin dining and event venue set amid rolling meadows at the base of yet another priceless Elk Mountain panorama.
With those peaks serving as the view for our continental breakfast on the outdoor patio, I reflected on getting “high” in the Rockies. In this valley paradise, elevation 9,500 feet, there was no outside world. It’s not all fantasy here, however, as our subsequent mile-long hike to the Ashcroft Ghost Town reminded.
Founded in 1879, Ashcroft started out promisingly enough as a highly productive silver mining camp, peaking in 1882 with around 2,500 summertime residents. The end came in 1887, when the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad line was shifted to rival Aspen. Some stakeholders held on, but the rest, as the saying goes, is history. Maintained by the Aspen Historical Society (Tel: 970-925-3721. www.aspenhistory.org/tourssites/ashcroft-ghost-town), Ashcroft’s nine surviving structures include a two-story hotel, the post office, and Blue Mirror Saloon.
Of course, Aspen and Pitkin County, where 90 percent of the land is public, pristine, and undeveloped, is overwhelmingly about health, happiness, and vitality, following the “Aspen Idea” of “nurturing body, mind, and spirit to fulfill the whole person.” It’s also a fabulous place to roam like a wild cat—on four wheels.