Glossy magazines might have you believe that a tollgate outside Aspen only admits film stars and the super-rich. This elite ski resort town is indeed the part-time home of Cher, Jack Nicholson, Michael Douglas, and other celebrities, and while it's not as typically welcoming as the rest of the Rockies, it can be an appealing place to visit in summer – unless you're on an absolute shoestring budget. Visiting in winter requires more cash, though you can save money by commuting to the slopes from Glenwood Springs, less than fifty miles away.
From inauspicious beginnings in 1879, this pristine, mountain-locked town developed slowly, thanks to its remote location, to become one of the world's top silver producers. By the time the silver market crashed fourteen years later, it had acquired tasteful residential palaces, grand hotels, and an opera house. In the 1930s, when the population slumped below seven hundred, it was, ironically, the anti-poverty WPA program that gave the struggling community the cash to build its first crude ski lift in 1936. Entrepreneurs seized the opportunity presented by the varied terrain and plentiful snow, and the first chair lift was dedicated on Aspen Mountain (also still known by its former name, Ajax, among locals) in 1947. Skiing has since spread to three more mountains – Aspen Highlands, Snowmass, and Buttermilk, and the jet set arrived in force during the 1960s. Development is a burning political issue: tight architectural constraints have been placed on businesses (McDonald's is forbidden to have a neon sign), but the last decade has seen the arrival of yet more Scandinavian-style lodges, condo blocks, and giant houses that remain empty for most of the year.
Tucked away at the southeast end of the Roaring Fork Valley, surrounded by the towering Elk Mountains, Collegiate Peaks and White River National Forest, Aspen feels far away from the real world. The rich and famous see it as a playground, but it remains a community of locals that boasts the perfect mix of sport and culture, offering everything from haute couture shopping and fine dining to hiking, biking and skiing.
The West End is a quiet residential nook filled with authentic Victorian homes. Walking through the streets, with Shadow Mountain looming in the background, you would never know that you were in a ritzy ski town. The locals are friendly and the tourists are absent, making you feel like you belong there. In this residential area, you will find a good number of hotels and condos scattered about the West End, especially on Main Street.
The lower West End is where Walter Paepcke brought the “Aspen Idea” to life with the construction of the Aspen Meadows Conference Center and Hotel , which houses the Aspen Institute. This 40-acre spread is also home to the famous Music Tent, the Aspen Center for Physics, the Harris Concert Hall and the Paepcke Auditorium. If you fancy a bit of Bauhaus architecture, you will see plenty of impressive, long horizontal structures scattered about the landscape.
Just east of Aspen Meadows is the Hallam Lake Nature Preserve, home to the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies . This is a great place to spend a few hours relaxing in the summer.
Ski Magazine consistently refers to Downtown Aspen as the ski capitol of North America, and it's easy to see why. The Cooper Avenue, Hyman Avenue and Mill Street Pedestrian malls act as the centerpieces of the area. Each of the tree-lined streets features old Victorian buildings and brick retail units filled with hip shops, eclectic dining and cool local pubs. But the malls are just the beginning. From Main Street to Durant Avenue, the selection of places to eat, sleep, shop, drink, dance, tune your skis, rent a bike and check out art are seemingly endless. The ski slopes of Aspen Mountain serve as the scenic backdrop to Downtown.
The Roaring Fork River splits the East End, and there are so many trees spread across this neighborhood, that you get the feeling you have stumbled into a residential forest. If you are looking to get away from the hubbub of Downtown, the East End streets are a perfect place to go for peace and quiet. Or, after a long day on the slopes, you might instead want to check out the Aspen Club & Spa .
Although Snowmass Village has only been around since 1968 and is purely a ski resort built from scratch, the town has almost 2,000 year-round condo dwellers. Waking every morning to the towering peaks of Mt. Daly and Snowmass Peak, and being able to walk out your door to the ski slopes is a major draw. Snowmass, the largest of the four ski mountains, struggled for years to break out of Aspen's shadow and establish its own identity. It eventually became the mountain of choice for summer festivals, including the renowned Jazz Aspen Snowmass and the Snowmass Rodeo . A major conference center attracted business gatherings and developers, while the Snowmass Club Cross Country Center carved out ski routes for sports enthusiasts. The Snowmass Club Golf Course was also established for those looking to have some summer-time fun.
Roaring Fork Valley
When you leave Aspen and head west into the Roaring Fork Valley, you step into a time when horses ruled the west and ranching was the way of life. But the cowboys and ranchers are slowly facing the effects of modernization, as small towns like Basalt become targets of commercialism.
Many visitors to Aspen opt to spend time in the valley, especially in the summer, to get a true feel of the mountains. Many fishermen are also drawn to the waters of the Frying Pan and Roaring Fork Rivers to the test their fly fishing skills.
If you venture into towns like Basalt, Carbondale, Old Snowmass and El Jebel, expect to find a low-key, local atmosphere. Most of Aspen's manual-laborers are based here. Perhaps the most eccentric town is Woody Creek, famous for former resident Hunter S. Thompson. He could often be found enjoying a cold beer at the Woody Creek Tavern .
When it comes to choosing a restaurant in Aspen, good luck. The cosmopolitan selection of eateries in the Downtown area is so overwhelming, you could go hungry trying to decide on where to dine. Ambling from street to street, and weighing the menus of the numerous five-star gourmet restaurants and endless local food havens, becomes quite a task. You'll find the most selection Downtown, but don't be afraid to explore the options in Snowmass Village or Downvalley as well.
If you need a quick bite before you hit the slopes, stop by the Paradise Bakery for a muffin and espresso. Located just across the Cooper Avenue Mall, it is also the place to find Gelati in the summer. Aspen Bagel Bites is always a popular stop on the lower end of Downtown and offers quick sandwiches. At Zele you can perk up with an assortment of caffeine beverages, bagel sandwiches, croissants and scones. Poppycocks offers the standard bacon and eggs breakfast, but also has granola and yogurt. It is also close to the Silver Queen Gondola .
For a sit down breakfast, there are few places in town that can top the blueberry pancakes at Jack's. Good luck getting a table in the morning at Wienerstube , a local Austrian favorite that serves up eggs benedict, sausages and Viennese pastries. During the peak season, this is the place to be before hitting the slopes.
Inexpensive lunch and dinner options include an array of typical pub fodder, but if you look around a bit you will find a number of creative alternatives. When it comes to bargain Mexican fare, locals flock to the Aspen Underground for the burritos, and to The Cantina for its hearty helpings and potent margaritas. La Cocina has a charming patio that is heated in winter and tree lined in summer.
You will discover big slices of pizza you have to fold to fit in your mouth at New York Pizza, which also offers sandwiches and salads. Keeping with the Italian theme, Lucci's serves up food in huge portions—from chicken parmesan to lasagna to baked ziti. Trattioria Toscana is an excellent find for those in the mood for romance; it takes you from the mountains of Colorado to the hills of Northern Italy for a taste of Tuscan-inspired entrees.
Old-fashioned pub grub keeps Aspen honest, and there are plenty of places you can kick back with a burger and a beer. Bentley's , located in the historic Wheeler Opera House , is a restored Victorian English pub popular with locals. You will see all kinds gathered around the bar, from yuppies bedecked in fancy leather coats to young hippies draped in trendy 70s streetwear. J-Bar , the Hotel Jerome's landmark bar, has drawn a crowd since the late 1800s. It is a casual stop that features normal burger and sandwich bar fare. Little Annie's Eating House is a neighborhood joint with an eclectic menu and multiple personalities. Part Western saloon, part country club, the popular spot is a haven for locals and tourist alike. The 100-year-old Red Onion is another traditional drinking spot. Besides the abundance of microbrews available, you can also order Mexican food, burgers, soups and salads.
Perhaps the most famous cheap eat destination in the Downtown area is the Popcorn Wagon . From hot dogs and sandwiches to gyros and crepes, this 1913 Cretor's Special Model D wagon stocks a wide range of quick treats. Regardless of season, seating is outdoor only. Provided heat lamps, however, do make the winter chill less biting.
Olives , located in the St Regis Hotel , is where chef Todd English wows visitors with his mix of the Mediterranean among the mountains. Try the Brick Oven Roasted Chilean Bass. The signature community table is a great place to meet travelers from around the world. Syzygy is a hip restaurant with a chef skilled in preparing wild game, a master sommelier, and a jazz-laden atmosphere.
If you can track down a member to sponsor you for a week's membership to the Caribou Club , the doors of high society will open for you. Being in this place is like hanging out in a dignitary's den, and it features five-star meals, pricey cigars and a wine list that tops 5,000 bottles. After dinner, the Club's disco heats up for dancing. Cache Cache takes you on a gastronomical journey into the heart of Provence, while Campo de Fiori explores the cuisine of Tuscany. The Mother Lode has been the place for Italian standards and romance for more than 40 years.
If you are craving a taste of Colorado, head over to Pinons for Roasted Lamb Chops, a tasty cut of elk or sauteed Colorado Pheasant. The surf and turf crowd has been filling the Steak Pit since 1960 for juicy cuts of meat and fresh crab and lobster. Meat lovers can find BBQ in Aspen at Rusty's Hickory House .
Aspen has a number of restaurants specializing in sushi and Asian cuisine. Matsuhisa Aspen brings the artful ideas of one of the worlds most respected sushi chefs to Aspen. Celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa raises the art of sushi to a new level, fusing traditional Japanese ideas with a variety of worldly influences. If you are hoping to share sashimi with the stars, it just might happen here. Kenichi is another world-class sushi stop, and offers one of the best sake stocks in town, while Little Ollie's is both delicious and easy on the wallet.
Over in Snowmass Village you will find a number of diverse fine dining options. Mangia Mangia keeps the ski and snowboard crowd happy with impressive specialty pizzas like the Powder Pie and the Big Daddy. You can also build your own pizza, or opt for a sandwich, salad or bowl of pasta. Snowmass Pizza is perfect for a quick, on-the-go slice. Sno'Beach is a local favorite on the Snowmass Mall, serving burgers, ribs and a huge breakfast menu. At The Stew Pot you can warm up with a big bowl of steaming chili or old-fashioned beef stew. Seafood aficionados can get their fill at Butch's Lobster Bar .
The Brother's Grille features a predominantly American menu, with lots of steak, chicken and pasta dishes. You can also order beef at the Village Steakhouse , or instead opt for trout, pasta or chicken. For French fare head over to La Provence for filet mignon, rack of lamb, and a striped bass that melts in your mouth. Or for wild game in a cabin setting try Krabloonik .
To get a taste of real mountain ambiance, venture outside of Aspen to the Woody Creek Tavern . The menu is a hodgepodge of some Mexican, burgers, steak and seafood. The food is good, but the real reason to visit is the local clientèle. The quirky, but immensely popular, tavern resides in a trailer park and is the watering hole for some interesting characters.
Perhaps the gem of the Downvalley cuisine offerings is Carbondale's Six 89 . The seasonal new American menu features Colorado classics such as lamb and smoked duck created by famed chef Mark Fischer.
Once you arrive in Aspen, settle in, catch your breath (you'll be 7,908 feet above sea level), and give yourself some time to decide what to do. Unless, of course, its winter, and your options are limited to skiing, partying, or skiing. Aspen is interesting, fun and enriching year-round. Most locals say, “I came out here for the winters, but stayed for the summers.”
Aspen Art Museum Downtown Aspen is filled with many cultural offerings. One of the largest, the Aspen Art Museum is housed in an old hydroelectric plant. There are also many influential small galleries to explore, such as the photography-focused Joel Soroka Gallery and the artist-run Huntsman Gallery . Dine at the Red Onion . In the summer months, check out Aspen Theatre in the Park .
Aspen Mountain The Compromise Mine, where the largest silver deposits were found, stretches 2,000 feet into the depths of Aspen Mountain . Take a stroll through Wagner Park . A famous dining spot for visitors is the Tavern , although there are also several other restaurants on the Mountain. Tour the historical Hotel Jerome , the Wheeler/Stallard House Museum and the famous Lift One.
Ashcroft Ghost Town Rent a car and drive 10 miles south of Aspen, to the Ashcroft Ghost Town , which features an array of buildings that somehow continue to survive the harsh winters. Guided tours are available for a mere 3 dollars. The mountain scenery in this area is stunning. The nearby town of Independence was once a fierce competitor with Aspen. But the fall of silver ended that. Today, the remnants of the town reside just below Independence Pass , and self-guided tours allow you to wander in the footsteps of prospectors. Grab a fresh pizza from nearby Bonnie's or head over to the Alpine Mountain Market for more variety.
Snowmass Mountain Explore the trails around Snowmass Mountain on foot, or wander down the Rio Grande Trail , which is perfect for those looking for an accessible trail that doesn't require hiking. If you have the energy to do something more, go skating at the Aspen Ice Garden in the West End. Then, head back Downtown and shop on Galena Street . Have dinner at the famous Blue Maize , where the food never fails to please.
Aspen Highlands The Aspen Highlands are filled with natural wonders that will both delight and inspire. You can opt to buy a combination pass for the Silver Queen Gondola and the bus that goes to Maroon Lake. Be sure to bring the camera, because the lake is at the base of Colorado's famed 14,000 foot Maroon Bells . If time permits take the 45-minute hike on the Crater Lake Trail for a truly close look at the Maroon Bells. In the summer, try some of the weekly attractions such as the Tuesday Night BBQ Dinner or the Sunday Bluegrass Festival.
Many of the tour companies that operate in Aspen focus on outdoor-activities. Catch a sky-high view of the mountains on a balloon tour, or gear up for a day outside and be led through the wilderness on horseback.
Horseback Tours T Lazy 7 Ranch ( +1 970 925 4614/ http://www.tlazy7.com )
Horsedrawn Carriage Tours Aspen Carriage Company ( +1 970 925 3394 )
Balloon Tours Unicorn Balloon Tours ( +1 800 755 0935/ http://www.unicornballon.com/colorado.htm ) Adventure Tours Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park ( +1 970 945 4228/ http://www.glenwoodcaverns.com ) Aspen Expeditions ( +1 877 790 2777/ http://www.aspenexpeditions.com/ ) 5 Star Adventures ( +1 970 544 4700 )
Ghost Tours Ghost Walk Through Pioneer Cemetery ( +1 970 945 4448/ http://www.glenwoodhistory.com/events.htm ) Ashcroft Ghost Town Tours ( +1 970 925 5756/ http://www.aspenhistory.org/ac.html )