We too are amazed at the beauty of this place. We drive past wildflower meadows and a herd of bighorn sheep to meet up with our afternoon rides at Hi Country Stables: Cactus Jack, Pepper, and Lotsa Dots.
Sam, Kate, and I have purchased cowboy hats for the event. "This is the kind of sport I like," I tell our guide, recent college grad Melissa Day, as I settle into the saddle atop Cactus Jack. "You get to wear cool clothes." I tap my new brim.
Surprisingly, Melissa fails to comment on my cute hat. She smiles weakly and nudges her horse up the trail.
We ride to Upper Beaver Meadows, stepping around quaking aspens and purple lupine. We ride through a dense lodgepole pine forest; with the rows of equidistant, narrow trunks, it's like entering an M.C. Escher painting.
A four-hour ride, however, makes for difficult walking afterward. I step achingly around our campground. Kate boasts that she will prepare "the perfect camping meal": couscous with lentils and spinach. It is delicious. Maybe Kate's a better cook than I knew, or maybe anything tastes fantastic around a campfire after a day of horseback riding.
Rocky Mountain National Park to Aspen
Driving is tiring in Colorado, not just because of the twisting mountain roads but because every place is so beautiful that it drains your concentration.
We already have our routine in the station wagon: Kate takes the wheel, Sam runs the music, and I check the map and rock out in back. At high points, we play Outkast's "Hey Ya!" Andre 3000 calls out, "Okay, now ladies ... we're going to break this down," as we descend from 12,095-foot Independence Pass through shimmering forests into Aspen.
In this famously rich town, we'll face the biggest challenge yet. At dawn the next day, we meet up with Gabe Metzger to, in local parlance, bag a fourteener.
Mountain climbers make lifetime sport of tackling peaks above 14,000 feet in the Rockies. No adventurer could really say she'd experienced Colorado without attempting to summit one. But climbing that high is not to be underestimated. We chose Castle Peak, one of the area's less challenging climbs, and hired an Aspen Expeditions guide to take us. In a move that would upset traditionalists, we also drive up to 12,000 feet to start.