Great Lake

Ruedi Reservoir Is Aspen’s Favorite Watery Escape

Boat, wakesurf, SUP, and camp at this scenic high country haven.

By Catherine Lutz July 26, 2018 Published in the Midsummer/Fall 2018 issue of Aspen Sojourner

On any given winter day, die-hard skier Chris Goss might be making gondola laps on Aspen Mountain or snowmobiling out to find fresh tracks. Come summer, he enjoys the snow in its melted form just as much. When he was growing up in Aspen in the 1970s and ’80s, his family would often go up to “the Lake,” as they called Ruedi Reservoir. “Being on that water gives you a sense of peace you can’t get anywhere else,” he says.

Today, Goss continues the tradition with his wife, Linda, and a group of motorboat-owning buddies. From late spring through early fall, they spend at least a couple of days per week on the water, staying in one of four campgrounds near the boat ramp or even sleeping on their boats. “All the sports we do in this valley are so individual, but at Ruedi, you can bring the whole family together,” he says.

Fifteen miles east of Basalt up the Fryingpan Valley, the reservoir is an easy getaway for water enthusiasts, offering water-skiing, boating, or just lounging on what passes for a beach in the mountains. It’s an awe-inspiring sight. As you drive up the narrow, red-rock-lined valley, the landscape opens up without warning, revealing Ruedi’s shimmering, deep-navy waters that stretch for miles toward its eastern end. Heavily timbered slopes rise on all sides, and high peaks with lingering snow complete the postcard-perfect picture. In the heat of summer, there’s nothing more pleasant than spending a day here, as temps rarely top 80 degrees—and the water is far cooler. On the other hand, at 7,800 feet in elevation, storms or even just a windy, cloudy day can make the atmosphere cold and unpleasant, reminding you of the rugged wildness of this place.

Part of a system of dams, reservoirs, and tunnels known as the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project, Ruedi was built between 1964 and 1968, burying the small town it was named after in the process. Today, the reservoir provides water, generates renewable energy (it’s a major source for the City of Aspen), and, of course, provides plenty of recreation.

Back in the day, water-skiing was the sport of choice among Ruedi motorboaters; today, it’s wakesurfing, which involves riding the wake behind a boat like an ocean wave, using a regular surfboard or a sport-specific board. Surfers either use the boat’s tow rope to help stay in the wake or drop it once they’re up to speed, using hydraulics and skill to carve turns and enjoy the ride as long as possible.

Jeff “Maui” Elston, an avid water-skier and ocean surfer, claims credit for introducing wakesurfing at Ruedi in the ’80s. He was looking for something to do when the wind picks up daily from around 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., then started teaching friends on his fleet of surfboards. “For beginners, the boat creates a nice, consistent wave to practice on,” says Elston. Compare that to ocean surfing, where “just paddling out and figuring out how to catch a wave can take years to master,” he adds.

Some water-skiers still ply Ruedi’s early-morning “glass,” and tubing is popular, especially among kids; you’ll see boats dragging anything from traditional doughnut-shaped tubes to blow-up couches, inflatable animals, and other contraptions. Plenty of dedicated wakeboarders twist and flip in the waves, too. And hydrofoils—a type of sit-ski with wing-shaped fins that lift the whole thing out of the water—allow for big-air tricks.

Though the main boat ramp buzzes on summer weekends, Ruedi also hosts plenty of nonmotorized water recreation. Kayakers and canoers explore the 12 miles of shoreline, and—like everywhere else—stand-up paddleboarding has exploded. The Freeman Mesa day-use area (a.k.a. Windsurf Beach, though it’s rare to see windsurfers these days) is a popular launch site for SUPs.

There’s still room for the classics, too. Sailing here dates as far back as the reservoir’s creation. The private Aspen Yacht Club, founded in 1968, offers a clubhouse, boat ramp, and slips for its 80-some members, as well as sailing programs for local youth and nonprofits. Whether during the club’s Sunday member races or the annual Aspen Open Regatta in mid-July, one of Ruedi’s most breathtaking sights is watching the undulating flock of crisp white sails tacking into the wind against the backdrop of dense evergreen and snowcapped peaks.

For all the attention the Fryingpan River gets for its Gold Medal fly-fishing waters, the reservoir attracts a fair number of anglers, says Shelly Grail, recreation manager for the Aspen-Snowmass district of the White River National Forest. The campgrounds and day-use areas offer good access to shore fishing, while experienced fishers boat out to deeper waters to run lines for the stock of rainbow, brown, and lake trout. Being able to keep and eat a few fish is a bonus, since the Fryingpan only allows catch and release.

In spite of all the activity in the water and onshore, keeping things low-key is still a perfectly acceptable way to while away a day at Ruedi. “Some of the best recreation is just being out there floating in your boat or enjoying a picnic,” says Goss. In Aspen terms, that’s a true escape.

Ruedi Three Ways

Stand-up Paddleboard: If you don’t have your own watercraft, this is your only option, as no boat rentals exist nearby. Rent SUPs and accessories online through local company Shaboomee, then pick up your kit from the company’s trailer in the Basalt Whole Foods parking lot. Launch from any of the three day-use areas, and explore the many coves along the shoreline.

Camp: Ruedi’s 86 sites across five campgrounds—four near the boat ramp and one at the reservoir’s east end—are in high demand, so reserve a spot well in advance. Only one, Little Mattie, offers first-come, first-served sites, but the 18 spots fill up fast starting on Thursday evenings.

Picnic: Grab lunch from BLT in Basalt—choose from a huge selection of sandwiches, burgers, burritos, and tortas—and beverages from Jimbo’s Liquors next door. Then drive halfway around the reservoir to the Freeman Mesa day-use area and spread out a blanket or dine at a table.


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