Obviously there’s an overabundance of things to eat, see, and do in Aspen—it’s why we’re continuously topping lists like “America's Best Ski Towns” and seeing a growing number of international visitors year-round. But whether you’re a local itching for a new adventure or an out-of-towner looking for a scenic road trip, our new series takes you beyond Aspen’s symbolic entrance and into different Colorado locales within driving distance for the day.
Nestled in the North Fork Valley in Delta County, Paonia is home to the state’s largest concentration of organic farmers thanks to its richly fertile land, which yields ample fruit (peaches, apples, cherries, pears, and plums) and veggies while supporting some of the country's best livestock. Incorporated in 1902 and named by founder Samuel Wade after the peony rootstock he brought in a covered wagon all the way from Ohio, the town has now grown into a haven for aging flower children, new-agers, liberal activists, and environmentalists. It was the childhood home of Terence McKenna, a renowned advocate for psychedelic plants, and is known for a potent strain of local cannabis—Paonia Purple Paralyzer. The town of just under 2,000 residents prides itself on its vibrant off-beat culture filled with farm-to-table restaurants, progressive media outlets, art galleries, boutiques, and wineries.
Drive Time: 1 hour, 49 minutes
It doesn’t get more scenic then driving from Aspen to Paonia in the fall, with expansive views of the western Elk Mountains from McClure Pass. It’s a direct route from the Roaring Fork Valley to the North Fork Valley via State Highway 133; the road takes you through Carbondale and Redstone, and is open year-round. The top of the pass is a prime spot for leaf-peeping. The drive then traces Muddy Creek down to Paonia State Park—worth a stop on your way there or back to take in the stunning sight of the Ragged Mountains.
Taste: Azura Cellars & Gallery
One of the few regions in Colorado to successfully cultivate and bottle pinot noir, the North Fork Valley is a hotbed for high-altitude grape growing, with plenty of vineyards to explore. We love this winery for its bold, blended reds, which taste best sipped on the picturesque patio or in the adjacent gallery curated by winemakers and art lovers Helen and Ty Gillespie. 16764 Farmers Mine Rd., 970-390-4251, azuracellars.com
Do: Delicious Orchards
Continue down the road to the home of Big B's juices and hard ciders, where you can pick apples, along with plenty of other produce, depending on the season. It's the quintessential autumn adventure, so plan on spending an hour or two to soar from the giant tree swings, have a pulled pork slider or tamale plate at the Café & Farm Bar, and sample the hard ciders on tap in the tasting room. The on-site organic farm market stocks produce, handmade gifts, and local wines. 39126 Highway 133 970-527-1110, bigbs.com
Shop: Harness Saddle & Leather Shop, Old River Trading Post
As you explore Paonia's charming downtown, be sure to stop by this working saddlery run by a longtime local leatherworker (who asked to remain nameless). Watch him in action behind the counter along with his three canine assistants. One-of-a-kind leather purses, pouches, and belts line the walls. No website, no phone number, no address, no problem! Grand St. between 2nd and 3rd
Drink: Revolution Brewing
Founded in 2008 by husband and wife Mike and Gretchen King, this microbrewery uses locally grown hops with water directly from the springs on nearby Mount Lamborn for beer that's hand stirred and brewed on a six-barrel system. Sip seasonal favorites like the cherry IPA, lavender IPA, or pumpkin ale in the tasting room, which is located in a former church. 325 Grand Ave., 970-260-4869, revolution-brewing.com
Eat: Flying Fork Café & Bakery
Make your last stop an early dinner (opens at 5:30 p.m. and reservations are recommended) for handmade pastas, Neopolitan-style pizzas, and farm-fresh salads from Chef Kelly Steinmetz. The garden out back, shaded by fruit trees, is a particularly nice place in which to enjoy a meal. On your way out, pick up a loaf of artisan-style bread or anything from the assortment of pastries in the adjoining bakery. Corner of 3rd & Main St., 970-527-3203, flyingforkcafe.com
Updated 10/18/2018: Unfortunately Flying Fork Café & Bakery has closed since the publication of this article.