If sports-minded Vail is the Sparta of the Colorado Rockies, culture-conscious Aspen has always considered itself the Athens. Each summer this former-silver-mining-outpost-turned-ski-resort hosts the Aspen Food & Wine Festival and an extravaganza known as the Aspen Music Festival, which celebrated its fiftieth anniversary last year. Aspen probably has more art galleries--as well as more Hollywood celebrities, tree-hugging backpackers and Harley-riding cowboys--per capita than any town on either side of the Continental Divide. And as a lot, Aspen's gourmet restaurants and luxury hotels surpass those in Vail.
But Aspen has always ranked a distant second to its cross-mountain rival in terms of publicly accessible golf courses. I'm happy to report, however, that enlightened golf course developers in the Roaring Fork River region are now making up lost ground in suitably Athenian style.
River Valley Ranch, located a half-hour drive upvalley from Aspen, near the town of Carbondale, is one of the region's best daily-fee golf courses. Designed by Jay Morrish, this 7,348-yard course is a rough-hewn hybrid of parkland, links and mountain styles. Morrish was especially masterful in weaving the Crystal River into the routing of the opening and closing holes of both nines and in treating golfers to views of snowcapped Mt. Sopris.
River Valley Ranch also roiled my competitive juices without unduly disturbing my serenity. The parklandlike outward side features two fine risk-reward par fives: the 514-yard second and the 561-yard fifth. There is also a right-to-left sloping Redan hole, the 224-yard par-three third, and one of Morrish's drivable par fours, the 322-yard seventh. The linkslike inward nine is even more challenging thanks to holes such as the 421-yard fourteenth, a dogleg left around a pond with devilishly positioned fairway bunkers supported by native grasses. The course climaxes with the dramatic downhill 237-yard par-three sixteenth, followed by the brutal 623-yard par-five seventeenth and the 452-yard par-four eighteenth, which cants leftward over and around the meandering banks of the Crystal River.
My favorite course in the Roaring Fork River region turned out to be another father-son collaboration, Aspen Glen, which is located just a couple of miles down the highway toward Glenwood Springs. Designed by Jack Nicklaus and Jackie II, Aspen Glen is a 7,455-yard par-seventy-three private course that is also open to members of clubs affiliated with the Club Corporation of America.
Papa Bear is infamous for constructing architectural fortresses that can only be conquered by means of hitting his own patented high fades. But thanks to Junior Bear's influence, Aspen Glen calls for a variety of ball flights, which makes the course more interesting and more thoroughly challenging than his father's solo work. You are invited to draw the ball, for example, on holes like the 479-yard seventh, a gorgeous par four known as The Carry, that doglegs left from an elevated tee around a low-lying marshland, and on the humpbacked 456-yard ninth, another dogleg-left par four. Likewise, many of the immaculately manicured greens are large, three-section affairs that abide a variety of pin placements in addition to Jack Sr.'s favored back-right location.
After two rounds--one at River Valley Ranch, then Aspen Glen--I had the good fortune to be introduced to the Roaring Fork Club, a 7,240-yard private course designed by Jack Nicklaus that is about fifteen miles from Aspen. Thecourse extends playing privileges to residents of the nearby community of Basalt. Ranging across three distinct and uniquely beautiful sections of terrain, Roaring Fork may be the best reason to relocate to Basalt since the mining boom of the late nineteenth century. The first five and the last two holes roll over a parklandlike expanse of lakes and meadows near the clubhouse. Holes six through eight and the fifteenth and sixteenth holes hug the flats near the banks of the Roaring Fork River. The sixth, lined with century-old cottonwood trees, is one of the best short par fours anywhere. Holes nine through fourteen do a switchback across the elevated foothills of the adjacent mountainside.