Not long ago, a “ski vacation” in the Rockies meant downhill skiing and nothing else. A vast array of exciting activities now share the spirit of winter fun at Aspen: dog sledding, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, ballooning, paragliding, ice climbing, and even fishing. Snowboarding continues to grow in popularity, especially on the 42 trails at nearby Buttermilk Mountain, two miles west of Aspen.
Aspen is a culturally rich, freewheeling, tolerant town that welcomes diversity of personal expression. Local annual events include Winterskol, Aspen’s Winter Carnival, the Aspen Music festival, with concerts and recitals by world-class artists, also the International Design Conference and a Food and Wine Festival. Wheeler Opera House, carefully restored in every detail to its 1889 grandeur, is the site of operas, dramas, concerts and films throughout the year.
Aspen’s location on the eastern part of White River National Forest in the midst of the beautiful Elk Mountains, in the Rocky Mountain Range, makes it the perfect choice for year-round outdoor activities.
Originally known as Ute City, Aspen’s original claim to fame was a 1, 840 pound silver nugget taken from the Smuggler Mine and displayed at the Chicago Columbian Exposition in 1893. Within 15 years, the silver market crashed, and the city was gone.
Its rebirth came in the 1930’s as the result of other natural resources: the incredibly beautiful scenery and the perfect contours of the slopes for the new sport of skiing. Swiss mountaineer and ski consultant Andre Roche determined that Aspen Mountain would make a prime ski area, and by 1941 it was the site of the U.S. Nationals.
Snowmass Village (originally called Snowmass-at-Aspen), 10 miles northwest of Aspen, was built in 1967. Snowmass began as just a series of condos, but in recent years, Snowmass Village has become a different place. Excellent restaurants and a livelier after-hours scene have brought skiers into the village, where they remain long after the lifts close. This “suburb” of Aspen contains 3000 acres of ski terrain and the same rugged, spectacularly beautiful scenery that predominates throughout the Aspen area.
Snowmass Village is often the preferred alternative for families with young children, while the town of Aspen seems to attract a more sophisticated, partying crowd. Snowmass Village has an abundance of on-slope, ski-in/ski-out lodging, a slow pace, and as much peace and quiet as one chooses.
Summer in the Aspen area is as breathtakingly beautiful as winter. There is a short Spring shut-down while snow is melting and summer is moving in, but by mid-June, lifts are running and a whole new schedule of family oriented activities begins.
Summer visitors have a wide range of choices such as golf, hiking, biking, and summer ski lift rides. A summer ride up the lifts gives a panoramic view of the town and the valley. The weather is pleasant and mild, and the ride back down on the lift (or on the bicycle you took to the top with you), is indescribable.
Be sure to stay long enough in the summer to enjoy Theater in the Park, the Aspen Dance Festival and one or more of the summer Janus Jazz Aspen at Snowmass concerts. Top name performers appear through Labor Day. Once the Labor Day Festival is over, there are the Fall and Winter Festivals. Perhaps you will decide to stay on just a little longer, and then another week, and before you know it you will have become an Aspen resident.
Once you visit Aspen, and experience its beauty and warmth; its cultural richness and ability to restore and rejuvenate, you may find yourself searching for a way to stay permanently, and surely for an opportunity to return as soon as possible for another visit.
Things to do
Downtown Aspen is easily explored on foot. The Aspen Historical Society puts out a walking-tour brochure. You can spend an afternoon admiring the window displays of the shops in the outdoor pedestrian malls, as well as the graceful Victorian mansions, many of which now house fine boutiques and restaurants.
12 miles south on Castle Creek Road. A good example of the basic structure and layout of the old mining towns. The town was bypassed by the railroad and ceased to exist in 1890.
Aspen Art Museum
590 N. Mill St., 970/925-8050
Tues., Wed., Fri., Sat. 10-6, Thurs. noon-8, Sun. noon-6.
Top local and national artists exhibit their work here. A complimentary gallery tour with wine and cheese is held every Thursday at 5.
Aspen Center For Environmental Studies
Hallam Lake Wildlife Sanctuary, 100 Puppy Smith St., Aspen
Children and adults alike will enjoy this wildlife sanctuary and research center. The facility sponsors snowshoe walks with naturalist guides in winter, and backyard-wildlife workshops that teach children to create a mini sanctuary in their own yard. In summer there are bird-watching hikes and special Little Naturalist programs for four- to seven-year-olds, which include nature walks and arts and crafts.
Independence Ghost Town
15 miles east on SR82
Guided tours June, July, August 11am and 1pm.
Small admission fee for tour
this is the remains of the Roaring Fork Valley’s mining community. It boomed during the gold discoveries of the 1870’s and closed up in the decline of the mines in the late 1890s.
330 E. Main St.
Named after the town’s most prominent early citizen, Jerome Wheeler, this enduring landmark was opened in 1889, at the height of Aspen’s prosperity. The ornate lobby, bar, and restaurant of the elegant redbrick hotel re-create fashionable turn-of-the-20th-century living.
White River National Forest and Maroon Bells
10 miles south, off State Route 82
Road closed to all but vehicles with camping permits: 8-5
Otherwise, Open for tour buses only
Tour leaves downtown Aspen every 20 minutes daily 9-4 mid-June-Labor Day
Combination ticket for round trip tour and Silver Queen Gondola available.
is 14,126 feet high, and is one of the country’s most photographed mountains. Maroon Lake has hiking trails, Forest Service tours, picnicking and fishing. A telescope is available at West Maroon Lake. Aspen Center for Environmental Studies offers 45 minute guided tours there daily from 10-2.
Wheeler-Stallard House Museum
620 W. Bleeker St., 970/925-3721
Small admission fee.
Jan.-Mar. and mid-June-mid-Sept., Tues.-Fri. 1-4.
Built in 1888.
Victorian life is the focus of this museum, which displays period memorabilia collected by the Aspen Historical Society.
Two hour walking tours of Aspen’s west end leave from this museum.
There is an additional charge for the walking tour.
Downhill Skiing and Snowboarding
Aspen and Snowmass are really four ski areas combined into one resort. Aspen or Ajax Mountain, Buttermilk, Snowmass, and Aspen Highlands can all be skied with the same ticket.
970/925-1220 or 800/525-6200.
Early Dec.-early Apr., 9-4.
This ski area is reached off Maroon Creek Road. Until 1993, it was the only area not owned by the Aspen Skiing Company. Though it can no longer play on its independence as the “maverick ski area,” locals ski here for other reasons as well, including the best views among the four mountains, comparatively short lift lines, and some thrilling runs.
Though not quite as challenging as Aspen Mountain, the Highlands offers steep descents at Steeplechase and Olympic Bowl, as well as the wide-open Thunder Bowl.
While you’re here, enjoy Aspen Highlands’ special events such as the freestyle contests every Friday, and the Ski Patrol Jump, over the deck — and the heads of startled skiers — at the Cloud Nine Picnic Hut, every day at noon, weather permitting. Six lifts access 619 acres of terrain with a 3,635-ft vertical drop.
Late Nov.-mid-Apr., 9-4.
Aspen Mountain hosts galleries, museums, international conferences, and events. Offers year round cultural activities that attract visitors from around the world: skiers and non-skiers alike.
Aspen Mountain, also known as Ajax, is the standard by which many good skiers test themselves. Aspen is not for beginners. A black diamond here might rank as a double diamond elsewhere. The narrow mountain is laid out as a series of steep ridges with little room for error. Eight lifts, including a high-speed gondola, service the 631 acres of challenging terrain, spanning a vertical drop of 3,267 ft.
Buttermilk contains more than 410 acres with 43 trails and a vertical drop of 2,030 ft
Off Rte. 82
Late Nov.-early Apr., 9-4.
Accessed by West Buttermilk Road, Buttermilk is known as Aspen’s “learning” mountain. With plenty of gentle slopes and an excellent ski school, this is the place for skiing and snowboarding novices. At the same time, the Tiehack section on the east has several advanced cruising runs, as well as sweeping views of Maroon Creek Valley. It also has superb powder.
Travel southeast on Route 82 to the turnoffs for Brush Creek or Owl Creek roads to Snowmass.
This is the largest of the four ski areas owned by the Aspen Skiing Company. Snowmass Village predominantly caters to families. These differences apply equally to the development and to the mountain itself. Aspen Mountain is a rigorous ski experience, while Snowmass is Aspen Skiing Company’s family resort, with 52% of its 2,655 skiable acres designated intermediate
However, don’t overlook that Snowmass is four times the size of Aspen Mountain, and has triple the black and double black diamond terrain, including several precipitous gullies. Hanging Valley is accessible by a short hike.
With 20 lifts covering the five clearly defined skiing areas with 2,655 acres and a 4,206-ft vertical drop, it can be a good idea to plan your route carefully. The novice and lower-intermediate terrain on the lower part of the mountain makes Snowmass a terrific place for young children.
Ashcroft Ski Touring
Forty km 25 mi of groomed trails in the White River National Forest are available at this nordic ski area. Aspen, 970/925-1971.
Aspen/Snowmass Nordic Trail System
This trail system contains 80 km 48 mi of trails through the Roaring Fork Valley. 970/544-9246.
Aspen Alpine Guides
These guides will customize multi-day tours along the 10th Mountain Hut and Trail System connecting Aspen and Vail, and through the Alfred A. Braun Hut System connecting Aspen and Crested Butte. 970/925-6618.
Arranges tours along the hut systems. Edwards, 970/926-5299.
Hut and Trail Systems
Alfred A. Braun Hut System
This system, run by the U.S. Ski Association, explores the backcountry between Aspen and Crested Butte. An exhilarating trek, this is a perfect test of skiing expertise. Box 7937, Aspen 81612, 970/925-6618.
10th Mountain Hut And Trail System
During World War II, hardy soldiers camouflaged in white parkas practiced maneuvers in the stinging cold at Camp Hale, in the Elk Mountain Range between Aspen, Vail, and Leadville. That’s where the U.S. Army 10th Mountain Division prepared for alpine fighting on hickory skis.
Today, strong intermediates and experts can follow in their tracks on the 300 miles of trails crisscrossing the area. The surprisingly comfortable huts accommodating up to 16 people in bunks; bring a sleeping bag are solar-powered and have wood-burning stovesThe huts can be used by mountain bikers and hikers from July to September.
Lessons and Programs
The Aspen Skiing Company 970/925-1220 or 800/525-6200 gives lessons at all four mountains.
You’ll get some savings on multi-day tickets.
Numerous ski shops in Aspen and Snowmass rent equipment. Christy Sports 970/920-1170 at the Aspen Mountain gondola base is conveniently located. Aspen Sports 970/923-3566 in Snowmass Village is also convenient. Rentals are also available at the Buttermilk base lodge.
Backcountry Nordic Skiing
The Alfred A. Braun Hut System is one of Aspen’s major backcountry networks. The trailhead leads from the Ashcroft Touring Center into the Maroon Bells/Snowmass Wilderness, and it generally covers terrain more prone to avalanche possibilities than the 10th Mountain Division Trail.
Huts sleep six-nine people. Reservations are required at least a day in advance, considerably earlier for weekends and peak-season periods 970/925-6618 or 800/643-8621.
The 10th Mountain Hut and Trail System, named in honor of the U.S. Army’s skiing 10th Mountain Division, includes 10 huts along the trail connecting Aspen and Vail. The main trail follows a generally avalanche-safe route in altitudes that vary between 8,000 ft and 12,000 ft.. Reservations are taken beginning in June; weekends in peak ski season fill up very quickly. 1280 Ute Ave., Aspen 81611, 970/925-5775.
The Aspen/Snowmass Nordic Council charges no fee for the 80 km 48 mi of maintained trails not all interconnected in the Roaring Fork Valley. Probably the most varied, in terms of scenery and terrain, is the 30-km 18-mi Snowmass Club trail network.
For a longer ski, try the Owl Creek Trail, connecting the Snowmass Club trail system and the Aspen Cross-Country Center trails. More than 16 km 10 mi long, the trail provides both a good workout and a scenic meadows and aspen-gladed hillsides.
Lessons and rentals are available at the Aspen Cross-Country Center 39551 Rte. 82 at the Aspen Golf Course, 970/925-2145. Diagonal, skating, racing, and light-touring setups are available. Lessons and rentals are also available at the Snowmass Lodge Cross-Country Touring Center Drawer G-2, Snowmass Village, 970/923-3148 and the Hub.
Twelve miles from Aspen, the Ashcroft Touring Center Ashcroft Touring Unlimited, Castle Creek Rd., 970/925-1971 is sequestered in a high alpine basin up Castle Creek, which runs between Aspen Mountain and Aspen Highlands. The 40 km 25 mi of groomed trails are surrounded by the high peaks of the Maroon Bells/Snowmass Wilderness. It is truly one of the most dramatic cross-country sites in the Rockies.
4250 Divide Rd., Snowmass, 970/923-4342, with about 200 dogs at its disposal, offers a half-day ride beginning at 8:30 AM or 12:30 PM. The ride is preceded or followed by lunch at the Krabloonik restaurant.
Aspen Mountain Powder Tours
. 970/925-1220 ext. 3549 provides access to 1,500 acres on the back side of Aspen Mountain via Sno-Cat tours with about 10,000 vertical feet constituting a typical day’s skiing. Reservations are required at least a day in advance, but you should book as far in advance as possible during the season.