Insider Guide to A-List Aspen

This tony ski resort town is appealing in winter and summer. It even can be surprisingly affordable.

Skiing and culture have been at the heart of Aspen’s heritage for more than 60 years, ever since the first chair lift—then the world’s longest—was constructed on Aspen Mountain.

Aspen’s recorded history dates back more than 120 years to the convergence of the area’s first residents, Ute Indians, with prospectors who settled the valley. By the late 1800s, the city was a modern gem in the Wild West, with six local newspapers, an opera house, churches, banks and schools, as well as a hospital that drew residents from throughout the region. The vestiges of this boom can be seen in the city’s Victorian architecture, much of which has been repurposed as shops and restaurants.

In the late 1930s, a new group of pioneers began to transform Aspen into a destination for skiing enthusiasts, a process that grew during the 1950s and 1960s as the Aspen resort complex spread to include three other ski areas. Today, it has a reputation for luxury and celebrity, and has become my favored stateside spot for skiing and snowboarding.

Primo Snow Sports

Aspen and its sister town, Snowmass Village, are edged by four ski areas: Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Snowmass and Buttermilk.

Keep in mind that Snowmass and Aspen Mountain typically open for the season two weeks earlier than Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk, which this year means skiers and boarders can hit the slopes Nov. 27. So, if you like to spend Thanksgiving enjoying a downward trajectory, this is the place for you. Going early also means snagging pre-season prices on lift tickets. Often, you can save about $90, and even though it’s an official holiday, the mountain’s not packed with people.

Although the first chairlift on Aspen Mountain made its debut more than 60 years ago, a recent $35 million improvement continues to cinch the area’s luxury reputation. Snowboarders of every level will want to check out the new 22-foot Olympic-size halfpipe at Buttermilk, as well as new runs at Aspen Highlands.

My favorite pick is Aspen Mountain, but if you’re not an experienced skier, your options are a bit limited. The majority of runs are designed for experienced boarders and skiers, and the runs are blissfully uncrowded. There are a few trails that allow you to ski right into Aspen proper, which is one of the mountain’s most endearing features.

The Family That Skis Together Stays Together

For families—and I have four children ranging in age from teenager to infant—I recommend Buttermilk. It has a great ski school and wide, rolling runs that build confidence, no matter what the learner’s age. There aren’t as many trails as Aspen Mountain (44, compared to Aspen Mountain’s 76), but the runs are roomy, and include a nice mix of beginner and intermediate trails. If you’re just starting to ski, or are skiing with your kids, check out West Buttermilk. The long trails give plenty of room to practice new skills, but aren’t intimidating.

If you haven’t been to Snowmass recently, chances are you won’t recognize it. The Snowmass base village now has ski-in condos and a conference center, as well as new restaurants and an impressive experience for kids, known as the Treehouse Kids’ Adventure Center.

Billed as a “first of its kind” venue, the Treehouse offers front-door drop-off, which I fell in love with immediately. Just knowing I didn’t have to park and hike with a baby, preschooler, and their gear in tow, made me smile.

My preschool-age daughter was enthralled with The Bear Den, which has a theater for puppet shows and a napping loft. (She didn’t actually take a nap, but she certainly considered it.) The helpers were lovely, and even though it was an entirely new experience for my daughter, she was eager to stay. Parents everywhere, particularly those already wearing their ski boots, will understand how priceless this is.

With themed rooms for children ranging from 8 weeks to teenagers, the 25,000-square-foot Treehouse also houses the kids’ ski and snowboard schools (when they’re not on the mountain, of course). Nearby, there are magic carpets for skiing tots and kid-friendly gondolas to deliver students to various trails. In fact, my preschool-age daughter could access the magic carpets from The Bear Den, which prompted us to enroll her in a combination ski lesson/child care program. Genius!

Powder Programs for Adults

Whichever mountain you’re on, I’ve got the secret password to a memorable run: powder. Admit it, you love fresh powder as much as I do, so ask about the Powder Tour. Guides on snowcats will take you to the back of Aspen Mountain so you can ski or board on untracked powder. They’ll even feed you lunch.

If the ski boot fits, check out Bumps for Boomers®, an innovative ski program that teaches Baby Boomers how to confidently ski terrain previously considered beyond their capabilities.

And don’t forget about snowshoeing. There are excellent trails for those who prefer a slower-paced cardio workout without the risk of a downhill fall.

Backcountry Skier

Although I’ve been skiing and boarding on Aspen Mountain for years, only recently did I stumble upon a tip so fabulous, I’m tempted to keep it to myself: Once you’re familiar with the groomed slopes, venture off of them. There’s an entire series of trails that bridge the gap to Aspen’s backcountry. These black diamond and double-black diamond trails aren’t for the novice, but the experienced will appreciate the unrivaled terrain.

Need a break? Take the Silver Queen Gondola on a 2.5-mile ride to the top of Aspen Mountain. The gondola was refurbished in 2006, and unlike less-comfortable journeys we’ve made, the Silver Queen is cushy and offers postcard-perfect views. Visit the Sundeck Restaurant at the summit for lunch, or pack your own.

Summer Action

Aspen is increasingly becoming a destination of choice for the summer months as well as during ski season, especially for hiking, rafting and mountain biking enthusiasts.

For summer activities (and I do mean “active”), try Aspen Expeditions’ Four Mountain Sports Adventures. This four-day package deal takes you on four activities—paragliding, fly fishing, kayaking or rafting, and rock climbing—at the region’s four mountain areas. It sounds strenuous, but it’s designed for families and older adults.

Although the gondola offers a nice break from skiing, if you go in the summer, Aspen’s summit has a lot to offer: check out the rock-climbing wall for kids and a bungee-jumping/trampoline hybrid that’ll give them a thrill.

For the less adventurous who prefer golf or tennis, Aspen has plenty of courts and courses to challenge both novices and advanced players. Try the Aspen Golf & Tennis Club. For private clubs, such as the Ironbridge Club, check with your hotel concierge to see if it offers access to guests.

Where to Stay

If comfort is a priority, and you don’t mind taking the chance you’ll run into someone famous, then opt for a stay at one of Aspen’s luxury hotels.

The St. Regis Resort Aspen is plush to the extreme and makes the splurge feel like a real treat. Relaxing in the St. Regis Aspen’s heated pool (which comes with a fabulous mountaintop view) is at the top of my A-list, as is its award-winning Olives restaurant. In fact, I swear by its Remède Spa treatments as a sure-fire way to relax sore limbs after a day on the slopes. It seems that no matter how often I hit the gym, I always discover “new” muscles after a day of skiing. Prices during peak ski and summer season start at $1,100 per night; off-season (April and May, October and November) rates can be had for a comparative bargain at $275 per night.

The historic Hotel Jerome is an Aspen icon, and has been treating travelers like royalty since 1889. This boutique hotel, which was renovated a few years ago, isn’t a big one, but it does rent rooms for a sizeable rate, ranging from $200 to $380 a night.

To score a deal at a pricey Aspen hotel, go in the off-season. Aspen in the summer offers unbeatable scenery, ideal temperatures and there is still plenty to do even if you aren’t wearing skis. For in-season deals, lock in some last-minute price slashing by staying flexible on your travel dates. Many lodging purveyors in Aspen and Snowmass offer ski package or other “getaway” deals that have attractive price breaks.

Don’t have the dough for a pricey celeb hotel? Go unique. The 10th Mountain Huts are a system of 29 rustic digs in some of Aspen’s most beautiful backcountry. Nestled within the Colorado Rocky Mountains, many of these huts are within easy hiking or a short 4-wheel drive excursion from Aspen proper. The huts are cheap to rent and they come equipped with fireplaces, cooking equipment and water. Prices range from $25 to $41 per person, per night.

Aspen’s ‘Must Eat’ List

In Aspen, there are plenty of places to spend a small fortune on small portions, but don’t blow the dough unless you’re rolling in it. Even foodies will love these prime spots:

Paradise Bakery & Café

Stop here for breakfast. There are muffins the size of a small child’s head, and there are few things more fun for kids than taking a shot at eating something as big as they are. Plus, all the baked goods really are delicious. The bakery’s cookies are legendary, so grab a few for an anytime snack. My favorite treat was the croissants. Don’t plan to sit inside, Paradise is always packed. The benches outside have a nice view of Aspen Mountain, though.

Little Annie’s Eating House

A great place for families, Little Annie’s is a local favorite. There is the usual fare of ribs,  burgers and chicken, but we liked the lasagna and seafood. Our must-have? Mashed potatoes. Order extra if you need to; they’re that good. If you promise not to act like a tourist, we’ll let you in on a little-known fact: Celebrities are often seen eating at Little Annie’s.

Pacifica Seafood Brasserie

For a more sophisticated experience, Pacifica is our choice for fresh seafood and the perfect glass of wine. There’s a raw oyster bar, but we always opted for the specials. They don’t disappoint. Many locals time their Pacifica meal to take in a show at the nearby Wheeler Opera House.

Affordable Aspen for Everyone

If the very mention of Aspen makes your credit limit quiver, you’ve got the wrong impression of this popular destination nestled high in the Rockies.

The truth is, Aspen can be tailored to meet nearly any budget. Surprised to learn you can have an economical Aspen vacation? So was I. The best part is that no matter what your spending level, you can experience Aspen the local character of this unforgettable community in a way that will keep you coming back for more.

In fact, some of the best things about Aspen are just in my price range: free. [Read more about 5 Free Aspen Attractions.] Picturing morning hikes with breathtaking scenery, sunsets that will make you put away the camera so you can paint them in your mind, and lots of other things to see or do that don’t take an American Express card.

Me? I loved drinking in Aspen’s natural beauty, taking in the local galleries (there are 33!) and, of course, keeping my eyes peeled for Aspen’s most elusive breed of wildlife: movie stars. On a recent stay at the St. Regis Aspen, I exchanged a friendly nod with a cast member of the television show, CSI, and worked hard to keep my cool when I realized I was seated near Jodie Foster during lunch at Little Annie’s. Be sure to check out the new Sky Hotel’s lounge, 39 Degrees. It is the après-ski spot in Aspen.

A Rock Star Life on a Struggling Artist Budget

Aspen is the right place to be entertained, too. Although the renowned Cooking School of Aspen recently shuttered its doors, the St. Regis is planning to launch cooking classes with its top chefs.

I also recommend the Wheeler-Stallard House Museum, which offers sightseeing adventures June through August. Or spend an afternoon in the Aspen Art Museum. Each option offers inexpensive ways to experience the community.

As for shopping, luxury boutiques abound in Aspen—Burberry, Chanel, Christian Dior, Prada, to name a few—as do art galleries. But you can score last-season’s hot items at one of the town’s many terrific consignment shops. [Read more about Great Deals on Designer Duds in Aspen.]

Even if your bank account doesn’t make you feel much like Aspen material, I have a secret: You don’t need a cash cow to feel like you belong in this beautiful place. Pack your sunscreen and your sense of individuality. You’ll fit right in.

Destinations: Colorado, Aspen, Snowmass Village

Themes: Luxury Travel, Mountain Vacations

Activities: Hiking, Golf, Rafting, Skiing, Snowboarding, Tennis

User Comments

We love Aspen, especially the shoulder seasons for warmer skiing and walking around town.