No other county in Colorado is so aptly named. Summit County boasts some of the state’s highest peaks —... [more]
Aspen and Snowmass
By Lillian Ross
photos by j. kevin foltz
If You Knew Aspen Like I Know Aspen
The year was 1958, but it seems like yesterday. There I was, all of 23 years old,
riding a bus alone from Denver to Aspen. Aspen! The big mountain this little New Yorker had heard about, but never seen. Its reputationpreceded it even 45 years ago.
I was told it was big and steep, so when I saw the bus heading toward Mt. Sopris, I thought I was in big trouble. Arriving in Aspen, fears were allayed, but not by much. Barely able to execute a stem christy, I knew I’d bitten off more than I could chew. Besides, I wasn’t about to ride that rickety-looking single chairlift ascending Ruthie’s Run.
Not to worry; Aspen Highlands opened that year so I planned to hide out on its novice slopes. Then on to the Alpine Lodge at the south edge of town — a rustic, affordable place run by Tony and Ilse Woerndle, who dished out hearty breakfasts and dinners, to boot.
Evenings were spent at the Crystal Palace listening to Mead Metcalf and his politically incorrect tunes. (He’s still belting them out.) Or at the Limelite, where Marilyn Child, Glenn Yarborough and the Limeliters got their start.
That was then, and this is now.
You won’t find the Alpine Lodge today. It was razed years ago and replaced by high-end condos. In fact, you won’t find a spare acre of ground that hasn’t been developed with lodging, shops and restaurants.
Aspen is the quintessential winter and summer resort, attracting the rich and famous to the town’s extraordinary boutiques, galleries, historic hotels, and luxurious mountain amenities.
Aspen also attracts serious snow sport buffs looking to log thousands of vertical feet on the big mountain’s legendary, steep runs. Aspen Mountain deserves all the respect you can bestow upon it. It’s the Grand Dame.
When Buttermilk, Snowmass and Aspen Highlands debuted, they offered sweet alternatives close by for those not quite ready for prime-time Aspen.
Aspen Highlands, however, also touts the state’s epic challenges. In its bowl at a heady 12,392-ft., you can tackle a 45-degree double black diamond slope of 1,000 vertical feet. To reach it, take the upper chair, a free snowcat ride, and then a short hike. The thrill is worth the work.
The Highlands recently unveiled its new ski-in/ski-out village. With its restaurants, shops and residential neighborhoods, it offers the chance to live along the slopes famous for their untamed character, colorful past and maverick image.
Snowmass, with its sequestered village down valley a bit, has a mountain that’s an intermediate’s delight. The Big Burn still holds the distinction of being the best wide-open cruising playground in Colorado. Its extended pipeline terrain park is a snowboarder’s favorite. Snowmass boasts the longest lift-served vertical rise in the United States: 4,406 feet.
Buttermilk is what its name implies: Cushy, non-threatening, easy-going, and home to the world’s longest snowboarder terrain park.
Aspen’s Silver Queen gondola takes you two-and-a-half miles to the summit of Aspen Mountain in 18 minutes (a far cry from that single-seater chairlift). Aspen, one of the last hold outs for a skier-only mountain, caved to the pleas of snowboarders. Now, both skiers and riders share the mountain.
For a radical experience, climb aboard a snowcat to blast through the untouched powder in Aspen’s backyard. Or, strap on snowshoes for tours in conjunction with the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, and conducted by naturalist guides. Aspen’s tour starts at the top of the mountain (following your gondola ride), and is an easy walk along 11,000-ft. Richmond Ridge. Tours at Snowmass follow a secluded, off-trail loop through the woods at Two Creeks. Along the way, mountain ecology, flora and fauna are explored and explained.
Cross-country skiers, those into classic and skating disciplines, will find 65 kilometers of trails at Aspen/Snowmass — the largest groomed Nordic trail system in North America.
Twelve eager huskies (some Iditarod veterans) pull two-person, handcrafted wooden sleds across snowfields at Snowmass, and to four-course wild game lunches at Krabloonik, a 100-yr.-old log cabin restaurant.
Horse-drawn sleigh rides are a given in the Aspen/Snowmass valley. Massive draft horses laden with sleigh bells do the work; you enjoy the ride.
For a true adventure, try paragliding above the slopes of Aspen. USHGA-certified tandem pilots take you off Walsh’s or Ruthie’s Run for the most exciting 15 minutes of your life.
Like things a bit more tame? Hot-air balloon rides give you the thrill of a bird’s-eye view without the adrenaline rush of paragliding.
Snowmobile tours take you into the nooks and crannies of the Aspen valley backcountry. Guides know their way; you just enjoy driving a machine of your own.
Indoor and outdoor rinks let you practice ice skating techniques. Of course, rental skates are available.
Spas have become a way of life in tony resorts. Indulge yourself in a luxurious massage, facial or beauty treatment at the acclaimed Aspen Club, Snowmass Club and Aspen Meadows Health Club.
Down valley, in Glenwood Springs, dip into the world’s largest outdoor hot springs pool, and float under the stars in 90-degree water, surrounded by snow-covered peaks.
Winter Aspen Culture
The internationally renowned Aspen Music Festival, thrilling audiences in summer, also presents an Artist Recital Series from November through April, as well as a winter concert series. Prepare to be enchanted.
The Anderson Ranch Arts Center, formerly a turn-of-the-century cattle and sheep ranch, turned its historic barns into studios, set up a gallery and inaugurated an informal workshop program. Today, this year-round visual arts community holds public functions each week.
What was originally the first hydroelectric plant west of the Mississippi is home to the 23-year-old Aspen Art Museum, and open to the public to showcase its rotating exhibits.
Aspen Filmfest has presented new American independent films, international films, premieres and tributes for the past 20 years. In recent years, screenings have included Shakespeare in Love, Life is Beautiful, and Central Station. Holiday screenings of this year’s surprises are planned.
The only professional ballet company based in the Colorado Rocky Mountains is the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet. Holiday performances are scheduled.
Be sure to check out the schedule of dance, theater, music and comedy slated to appear at the historic Wheeler Opera House. Past acts have included Lyle Lovett, Stomp, and Jewel.
Summer In Aspen/Snowmass
Aspen is so named because of the proliferation of aspen trees covering the valley in green — and in fall, illuminating the area in gold.
Golf courses in the Aspen/Snowmass valley have won more awards than you can shake a club at. In addition to the challenging layouts, the courses are encircled with drop-dead gorgeous views. With golf drives traveling 10 to 15 percent farther than at sea level, you’ll feel as though you can reach the mountain peaks.
Hiking tours on Aspen Mountain follow the same routes as snowshoe tours in winter. Instead of snow-covered forests, you’ll walk through meadows carpeted with flowers of every color. At Snowmass, ride the Burlingame lift to mid-mountain and enjoy a game of disc golf, hike the trails, or walk down the hill. For the more serious hikers, the fourteeners around Aspen oblige.
Fish for famed rainbow trout on the Roaring Fork River. Get your fill of whitewater excitement in a raft or kayak on the nearby Colorado, Arkansas or Roaring Fork Rivers.
Bike the roads in the valley and mountain bike in the hills. There are even downhill bike tours for every ability, beginner to expert.
Tour the Compromise and Smuggler Mines to see where miners first discovered silver deep in the mountainsides. Then, allow the Aspen Historical Society to show you the ghost towns of Ashcroft and Independence, and get a feel of what life was like in the mid-to-late 1800s.
As much as the Aspen valley draws you outdoors, its cultural offerings bring you indoors. More than 100,000 visitors flock to the Aspen Music Festival in its 2,050-seat elaborate music tent. For nine weeks each summer, the festival presents 150 musical events and concerts. Afternoon rehearsals, where you can listen in on conversations between the conductor and the musicians, may be enjoyed for a fraction of evening concert prices.
In addition to the plethora of cultural opportunities mentioned above, the Aspen Writers’ Foundation sponsors programs for readers and writers of all ages, and Theatre in the Park produces classical and new works, integrating local and national talent.
Jazz Aspen at Snowmass is dedicated to the performance and preservation of jazz and American musicians. The June and Labor Day festivals attract the top names in jazz, as do the free concerts throughout the summer.
Dining And Shopping
Without question, some of the planet’s best restaurants are in this valley. So many, you may make a return trip solely for the dining experiences.
For a truly unique evening, reserve a seat at the Chef’s Table at the Cooking School of Aspen. Part dining, part education and part theatre, the evening incorporates watching culinary talents from Tokyo to Tuscany to San Francisco and Aspen prepare a four-course dinner paired with wines selected by the in-house sommelier.
The Century Room at the Hotel Jerome is a classic. Under the direction of Executive Chef Todd Slossberg, nominated in 2000 and 2001 for the James Beard Foundation Award as \"Best Chef in the Southwest,\" the Hotel Jerome offers contemporary American cuisine with regional influences.
Renaissance Restaurant, presenting haute rustic French cuisine, and Rustique Bistro, a French-styled cozy bistro, are two restaurants under the direction of chef/owner Charles Dale, who has been named one of Food & Wine magazine’s best new chefs.
Olives, in the St. Regis Aspen, showcases award-winning Mediterranean-inspired cuisine. Try the grilled rib eye of beef served on a red wine oxtail braise.
Takah Sushi is always packed. Make a reservation or belly up to the bar with the locals.
Sister restaurant to Napa’s famous Tra Vigne, Ajax Tavern — at the foot of the gondola — is a favorite among locals, visitors and celebrities.
A landmark in Aspen, with its roots planted in the 1950s, is the Crystal Palace, serving dinner and cabaret-style entertainment spoofing today’s political scene.
Out of the way, but out of this world, at Snowmass, a snowcat takes you to the Lynn Britt Cabin on the slopes for exquisite delights.
Shopping in the Aspen valley is incomparable. Out in Castle Creek valley is the Toklat Gallery, where you’ll find handcrafted art in all media — Polish tapestries, Zapotec rugs from Mexico, totem poles, pottery and shamans.
The multitude of shops in Aspen offer everything from fine European antiques to second hand collectibles. There are 23 art galleries, an equal number of clothing shops and 20 jewelry shops. If you’re looking for the Gucci label, or any other designer label, head to one of many world-class shops and name-brand outlets.
Lillian Ross is a freelance writer who writes weekly travel stories for The Denver Post, and travel stories for Colorado Expressions Magazine.