With its burgeoning restaurant, shopping and arts scene, Basalt breathes new life into the mid-valley.
For those brave enough to venture the roundabout, Basalt has finally come out from Aspen’s more glamorous shadow and into its own. If anything, Basalt’s lack of proximity to the ski areas has become part of its appeal. At least for now, it remains a quaint mountain town (Free Parking! No crowds! Abundant wildlife!), with not one, but two rivers that literally run through it. The confluence of the Roaring Fork and Frying Pan, both designated as gold medal waters, are world renowned for fly fishing Colorado’s famed trout. Surrounded by a vast expanse of undeveloped wilderness, with the Frying Pan Valley on one side of town and the mighty Mount Sopris on the other, its historic downtown has, at least so far, remained relatively unmolested by luxury development. The big amenities ended up in Basalt’s South Side (just off Highway 82 where it doesn’t detract from charm or scenery), at Willits Town Center. After Whole Foods, a new hotel, several shops and a slew of several legit restaurants cropped up (including Mezzaluna, Market Street Kitchen and Free Range Kitchen & Wine Bar, all owned by former Aspen chefs and restauranteurs). And finally, Capitol Creek Brewery, Basalt’s first brewery, was opened by Bill Johnson from the Aspen Alehouse at the base of Aspen Highland this summer. To top it all off, The Arts Campus at Willits, a multi-disciplinary performing arts center just launched “The Temporary” with plans for a mixed use space large enough for 350 people.
“Last night my husband and I went to a gypsy jazz cabaret at The Temporary and then had dinner across the street at Capitol Creek. Dinner and theatre in Basalt? Really?” jokes Basalt’s mayor, Jacque Whitsitt. “Can you believe I’m even saying this?”
Historically, Basalt’s identity has always been somewhat ambiguous. It began as a mining settlement in 1882, but when mining went away, it became a bustling train center, where the Colorado Midland Railroad split and went to Leadville over the treacherous Hagerman Pass in one direction and to Aspen and Glenwood in the other. Originally known as Aspen Junction, it changed its name in 1894 when the mail kept getting lost, ending up either in Aspen or Grand Junction. After the railroad went away, it became a ranching community. Then after the ski industry took hold in Aspen, it became a bedroom community for resort workers, the horse pastures and dirt roads gradually eclipsed by suburban-ish development.
The real clincher though, is what’s known as the Pan and Fork property, an empty lot front-and-center on the river in downtown Basalt. The undeveloped site has been the source of heated debate and political gridlock since the removal of the Pan and Fork trailer park in 2014. “What is ultimately done with that property is going to make or break downtown Basalt,” says Whitsitt. Coincidentally, several of downtown Basalt’s marquee properties, including the buildings that house Basalt institutions like Two Rivers Café, The Brick Pony, Heirlooms and Café Bernard, have all just recently been put up for sale. Basalt’s future may be as ambiguous as its past, but at least this small town has finally grown up.