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
Just east of
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
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
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
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
Aspen was not always a quirky town filled with posh eateries, hotels, multi-million dollar homes and fur-clad celebrities on skis. What is now the winter hub for the rich and famous, and a world-class destination for extreme sport fans, was once the summer hunting home of the Ute Indian tribe. Archaeologists have found evidence of an ancient people in the Roaring Fork Valley some 8,000 years ago.
By the time Colorado achieved statehood in 1876, the rush for gold and silver was in full swing. Mining settlements sprung up on the high country, as prospectors pried their fortunes from the rock with an undying urgency. At the time, Leadville was the state's second largest city next to Denver. The settlement, tucked away on the east side of the Continental Divide, had some of the deepest veins of silver ever found. But it was not until 1879, when a few pioneers surmounted the divide at what is now Independence Pass and ventured into the Ute's hunting ground, that the ground was literally spitting silver. They quickly set up camp, pushed the tribe out of the valley and named it Ute City. In 1881, the city changed its name to Aspen.
Mining camps popped up everywhere west of the divide and took names like Ashcroft and Independence. But Aspen benefited from more than just mining. Two railroads utilized the town as a hub. Plus, outside investments from the likes of Macy's president Jerome Wheeler and lawyer David Hyman helped build a solid industrial infrastructure and urban framework.
By the late 1880s, Aspen's population topped 12,000. The town now had an opera house, six newspapers, a red light district, three banks, a host of churches and a hospital. At that point, close to a million dollars worth of silver and one of the biggest nuggets ever (weighing in at 2,200 pounds) had been extracted from the area mines.
Once the Sherman Silver Act was passed and silver was devalued in 1893, those hunting fortune vanished, and the area settlements stood empty and dilapidated. Most of them ultimately crumbled and disappeared. The remnants of Independence and Ashcroft are now ghost towns popular among tourists. Aspen survived, but the population dwindled, bottoming out to about 700 people in the 1930s. In 1935, a group of international investors came to the Roaring Fork Valley looking for an ideal location to build a ski area on par with European resorts. Andre Roch, a renowned Swiss outdoorsman, was given the task, but after constructing a lodge, boat tow, and initial slope, World War II began and eliminated any hope of completion.
The 10th Mountain Division, a military ski unit stationed at a camp outside of Leadville, returned to Aspen Mountain once the war ended. The most prominent of these soldiers was an Austrian named Friedl Pfeifer. Pfeifer, who purchased a number of the mining claims and some of the surface rights to the area, partnered with Walter Paepcke, a wealthy industrialist, to transform Aspen.
Paepcke sought to create the “Aspen Idea.” He wanted the town to be a cultural Utopia, a place where great thinkers could assemble and share ideas, a place where people could travel to renew the spirit and rejuvenate the mind. Pfeifer just wanted to build a major skiing center and watched with pride as the longest chair lift (Lift-1) in the world at the time escorted the first skiers up the slopes for Aspen Mountain's official opening in the winter of 1947.
Two years later, Paepcke conceived the Goethe Bicentennial Convocation, where Dr. Albert Schweitzer and other distinguished minds put Aspen on the intellectual map. This event spawned a number of programs in music, theater, art and dance, including the Aspen Musical Festival. Paepcke also hired Bauhaus architect Herbert Bayer to leave a visual impression on the town. Bayer, along with Fredric Benedict, designed the Aspen Institute and Aspen Meadows Conference Center, which acted as the grounds for Paepcke's intellectual meetings. Bayer also restored existing structures like the Wheeler Opera House.
In 1950, the ski area hosted a prestigious downhill championship, attracting the best skiers in the area. This event, the first of its kind in the states, established Aspen as a world-class ski destination. The stage was set for Aspen's final conversion from a mining hub to an elite cultural and sport center.
In 1958, Pheifer went on to construct slopes at neighboring Buttermilk Mountain, while Whipple Van Ness Jones carved the trails for Aspen Highlands. An avalanche of development spread across the valley as investors sought to make Aspen attractive year-round. The Aspen Golf Course soon popped up and condominiums became the preferred choice of housing.
The Aspen Ski Corporation, which took over management of Aspen Mountain, Highlands Mountain and Buttermilk, built Snowmass in 1967 to complete the four-mountain resort. Snowmass, back then, featured around 50 miles of trails.
The 1970s and 1980s brought about the quaint pedestrian malls. Posh restaurants, five-star hotels, mansions, and, of course, celebrities followed, solidifying Aspen as a high-class ski wonderland.
The town John Denver put into song has come a long way from its mining heydays. The population now hovers around 6,000. Issues of growth have forced locals to take extreme measures to preserve its sanctity. Commercialization is rampant and high monthly rents, especially in the Downtown vicinity, have sky-rocketed to be more than most people's annual salary. Condos sprawl along the four mountains and many of the mammoth mansions littering Red Mountain and the upper West End sit empty most of the year.
Unlike many other Colorado resorts, Aspen maintains a small town charm. The locals are exceptionally friendly and make a great effort to take away any preconceived pretensions associated with the town. Sure, the stars like Kevin Costner, Jimmy Buffet, Michael Jordan and Jack Nicholson are just a few that frequent the town. But under a mass of stylish ski wear, they look just like anyone else.
Aspen Mountain recently celebrated 50 years, reminding everyone just how far a town will go for the love of a sport. Through all the glitz and glamor, the “Aspen Idea,” is still at the heart of the town.
Aspen is a town ruled by seasons and when it comes to finding accommodations, the time of year can mean the difference between hundreds, and even thousands, of dollars. Unfortunately, you cannot categorize everything into four simple seasons. Aspen has a multitude that make lodging decisions even more complicated. Most hotels are in and around Aspen proper and the four ski mountains, although you can also find inexpensive options Downvalley. Aspen is so small that on a good day you can probably throw a snowball from one end to the other. The slopes of Aspen Mountain and all the shops, galleries and restaurants of Downtown are within walking distance of most hotels.
The Ullr Lodge B&B, located on the outer edge of the West End, is a bare bones lodge perfect for those who enjoy a bit of quiet, although Main Street traffic can border on being obnoxious during certain seasons. At the edge of Downtown, the lodging levels of luxury and price escalate dramatically. The Sardy House occupies a charming Victorian hidden beneath lofty spruce trees. The pleasant suites, with vaulted ceilings, period antiques and cherrywood beds, not to mention the whirlpools and feather comforters, are popular with couples. Two doors down, the Hotel Aspen offers a contemporary alternative to the Old World, European style lodging prominent in town.
Other choices include Ski Magazine favorite, the Boomerang Lodge, one of the first built after Aspen became a ski town in 1947. You can choose from a studio or upgrade to a posh three-bedroom suite, complete with a soaking tub to rest your body after a long day on the slopes. The St. Moritz Lodge & Condominiums is another no frills, affordable choice only five blocks from Downtown. The Limelite Lodge, is a short walk across Wagner Park to the Cooper Avenue Mall.
The Aspen Meadows Conference Center, designed by Bauhaus architect Herbert Bayer, is an ideal setting for business retreats. Although it is quite far from Aspen Mountain, the hotel is within walking distance of the music tent that hosts the yearly Aspen Music Festival. The rooms are some of the most modern and interesting around.
For the experience of staying in a backcountry hut that's still within six blocks of Downtown, consider L'Auberge d' Aspen. These 16 cottages look like something out of Hansel and Gretel, and each features individual decorations that range from simple to ornate. Just past Third Street, you run into the Aspen Mountain Lodge. Famous for its towering river rock fireplace, the lodge offers a variety of stylish rooms, but watch out for the five-day minimum stay imposed during the winter ski season.
The Innsbruck Inn, just across from the Aspen Mountain Lodge, has a friendly staff that makes you feel like they really want you to be there. The rooms are cozy and some offer views of Aspen Mountain. The French toast served with the Continental breakfast is worth the room rate alone. Over on the other side of Main Street, the holiday spirit is always alive at the Christmas Inn. The small, family owned inn, accented with the traditional green and red colors of the holiday season, is one of Aspen's more affordable finds. A mammoth sculpture of an eagle, easily seen from Main Street, is a signal you have reached the Tyrolean Lodge, which offers cheap and spacious rooms.
If you crave a bit of history and extravagance, the Hotel Jerome is the jewel of Main Street. Built in the late 1800s, at the height of Aspen's silver boom, the hotel is now one of the most sought after. Seven conference rooms make it ideal for business, and with room names like Grand and Premier, that hover around a thousand dollars per night, staying here is a real treat. If you cannot secure a room reservation, make sure you stop by the hotel's famous The J-Bar or stroll around the lobby just to check out the architecture.
The ski-in/ski-out crowd can opt for The Little Nell, a five-star gem at the base of Aspen Mountain. Not only are you a few steps from the Silver Queen Gondola, but Downtown is only a block away. The only drawback is that the Little Nell is one of Aspen's most expensive hotels. With designer decor, fireplaces, jacuzzis and every other amenity imaginable, the rooms are worth the money. The St Regis Aspen has many of the same luxuries as the Little Nell without the ski-in/ski-out access, but Lift 1A is just up the road.
Easy access to the slopes does not have to cost a fortune. Places like the Skiers Chalet, Lift One Condominiums and the Mountain Chalet are great alternatives to the high priced hotels.
Aspen only has a few bed-and-breakfasts. The Independence Square Bed and Breakfast, located across from the Cooper Street Mall, and the Snow Queen Victorian Bed & Breakfast Lodge are the only two in the Downtown area.
Beginning skiers and snowboarders flock to Buttermilk Mountain to hone their skills, but the Inn at Aspen is the only lodging choice, and it does offer ski-in/ski-out access.
Snowmass Village, which is 12 miles west of Aspen, not only offers over 50 miles of downhill trails, but has a wealth of shopping, après ski activities and lodging. The Snowmass Club, which offers one, two and three-bedroom condos, is a complete resort, with skiing in the winter and golfing and tennis in the summer. If business is on the agenda or you are planning a big wedding, the Silvertree Hotel has a number of conference and banquet rooms, many with slopeside views. Plus, the spacious suites, some with whirlpools and balconies, are very affordable. The Woodbridge Condominiums offer two-bedroom units available directly adjacent to Lift Six, and give you the feeling you never left home.
During the ski season and high summer season Aspen becomes so crowded you get the feeling you are walking around a rock concert—the traffic congestion is an annoyance, parking is impossible, and the streets are jammed with people. To avoid this, give up the convenience of staying in Aspen and opt to find lodging in Basalt or even Carbondale.
Basalt, in addition to the Best Western Aspenalt Lodge, has a couple of notable bed-and-breakfast houses, including the cozy Midland House. Located in an old Victorian home that once served as a bunkhouse for railroad workers, this family owned B&B has four comfortable rooms bedecked in western motifs. The Shenandoah Inn, located on the banks of the Roaring Fork River, also has four rooms, including one that has a balcony that hangs over the river. If you still miss the comforts of a chain and do not mind staying 30 minutes outside of Aspen, Carbondale has a Days Inn and a Comfort Inn.
Solving the Seasons
Low ski: The time from opening day (usually mid-November) until the holiday season, which starts mid-December. Rooms in Aspen are still easy to come by and relatively affordable.
Holiday: The period from mid-December until January 1 is the most expensive time to stay in Aspen, and lodging is hard to find unless you reserve well in advance. Also, most places require a minimum stay of up to seven days, which can get costly considering you will find few rooms under USD200.
Value Ski: With people sluggish from the holidays and pinching pennies after their gift buying sprees, the month of January tends to be slow in terms of visitors, making it a perfect time to hit the slopes. Many hotels and bed-and-breakfasts still require a minimum stay (usually two to three days), but room prices do come down.
Regular Ski: February and March bring more snow and more people to the slopes than any other time during the ski season. Room rates become expensive and the minimum stays remain in effect. But the powder is awesome.
Spring Ski/Spring/Mud Season: During April (although only at Snowmass and sometimes Aspen Mountain) you can don a bathing suit and ski the heavy-snow slopes beneath the sun. But once the ski slopes close, the entire area goes into brief hibernation from April until early June. You cannot ski, and the snow run-off mucks up the trails making summer activities like biking and hiking difficult. Many businesses close shop for a week or so during this time. But rooms are easy to book and at some of the cheapest rates of the year. No minimum stays in most cases.
Summer: Room rates shoot back up over the summer (mid-June through September), but they are not nearly as high as during the ski season. Although a large number of visitors occupy area campgrounds such as Difficult and Weller, or head off into the backcountry, rooms still fill up, especially during Aspen Jazz Fest and the International Outdoor Festival. If you look around you can usually find a good deal on a room, but many units in the luxury hotels, especially the suites, still run upwards of $500 a night.
Fall Off-Season: If you are looking to avoid crowds, head to Aspen from October to mid-November. The town is literally empty of tourists and the rooms are as cheap as they get. The daytime weather for October tends to be mild, so you can still hit the trails, and if a heavy snowfall does blanket the area, you can snowshoe or cross country ski. Rooms are easy to come by, and you can even show up without a reservation and quickly find a room on the spot for as low as $60 a night (the fancy hotels still charge over USD100 a night). Many of the restaurants and shops close during the beginning of November, but you can easily find enough going on to make the trip worthwhile. Plus, it is cool to see the locals giddy with anticipation over the ski area's approaching opening day.
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 sautéed 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.