Legends & Legacies: Poetic waxing on sandstone

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Courthouse showing the darker sandstone (lower portion) quarried in the Maroon Creek valley.
Photo by Tim Willoughby

Coming from a family of miners, I developed a love for rocks and minerals in all their splendid forms, from alabaster to zinc. The most locally colored are azurite and malachite, found together in small amounts in the Little Annie Basin. They don’t measure up to the rare exceptional examples you see in museum collections in Los Angeles or Denver, but on a small scale, they dazzle.

The subsoil is where most of Aspen’s minerals have been found. I passed many columns and parts of columns touting sliver, lead and zinc. It’s time I gave the rocks their due too.

Aspen has outstanding boulders visible along its mountain roads. Going through the Col de l’Indépendance, you see acres of granite. There is granite and then there is granite.



The Sierra is all granite, but our granite is more colorful, at least for a Colorado native, with greater contrast between the white and black components. The streambeds turn it into rounded lumps which, in the water on a sunny day, give off a broad spectrum of light reflection.

In our area at Marble we have some of the whitest and finest marble in the country, chosen for the Lincoln Memorial.



Closer to home, there is black marble in the Conundrum Valley. It is as dazzling as Marble’s marble in the opposite color.

There is a layer of sedimentary rock associated with local mineral deposits called porphyry, another metamorphic rock that you would easily confuse with marble as it has the same bright white appearance. Aspen’s version also includes pyrite dots to brighten it up. There are few exposed areas to see, for a time the Highland Mine Tunnel to Castle Creek had loads visible from Castle Creek Road, but these have disappeared.

To the west of the city, you are in shale country. Most of us aren’t in love with it, mainly because it’s a dull gray. It’s more interesting up close, and if you peel back a few layers of places like Shale Bluffs, you’ll discover its hidden mysteries, its fossils.

Saving the best for last, sandstone is my favorite. You see it everywhere, even in town since the old Victorian buildings used sandstone. It began in the 1880s with a quarry in the lower end of the Maroon Creek Valley and accelerated when the Midland Railroad came to town. There was a quarry along its route in the valley of the frying pan. Its pink sandstone, known as Peachblow, became popular statewide with 10 wagons a day leaving the quarry in 1890.

Aspen’s finest sandstone bears the geological name of Maroon Formation. Red Mountain is a version. My favorite areas are in the middle of the Castle Creek and Maroon Creek valleys. The Castle Creek formation was shot almost vertically.

The rock has a deeper darker red color, and its grain size is a Goldilocks version, neither too small nor too large. But perhaps it’s the combination of its surroundings that enhances its color – surrounded by the green of aspens at lower elevations or the darker green of pine trees at higher elevations.

The blue of the sky at high altitude creates the most stunning color contrast. Seasonally, it seems to be beautiful regardless of the season, and it has an even darker color after a thunderstorm. In winter the white of the snow highlights it. The color of the fall sky creates a spectacular sight, and the golden aspen leaves also do wonders.

The next time you head into Castle Creek, slow down and look east. It will forever be your favorite Aspen rock.

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