Whether you live in Kansas or Kyrgyzstan, you’ve probably heard of Aspen, Colorado. It is, after all, America’s most famous ski town — a place where hardcore ski bums coexist with billionaires; where one can both spend thousands of dollars shopping for designer clothes and $3 on happy hour beers; and where the women instinctively flock like the salmon of Capistrano.
While winter in Aspen sees an average snowfall of 300 inches, summer swings hard to the opposite end of the pendulum with temperatures in the upper 70s and long, sunny days. Simply put, the town has a perfect four seasons. So far, I’ve visited Aspen in three of those seasons, winter, summer and fall, and each time discovered more to love about the town.
But while winter often and understandably steals the spotlight, summer is when Aspen truly comes alive. And it’s not just me who thinks so. There’s a local saying that goes like this, “You come to Aspen for the winter but you stay for the summer.” And with Colorado’s early fall only a month out, it’s time to go now, before the mornings start arriving with a chill.
How To Get There
Flying: If you’ve got limited time, fly into Aspen-Pitkin County Airport. This tiny airport populated mostly by the private jets of the area’s ultra-wealthy also has direct summertime flights to and from cities like Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Dallas, Houston, Chicago, San Francisco and Denver. But fair warning, flights into Aspen can often be pricey. Another option is checking the price of flights into Vail/Eagle County Airport, located about 1.5 hours from Aspen, then catching a shuttle (it’ll cost approximately $79 each way). Or if you’ve got more time on your hands, consider flying into Denver International Airport and taking the three to four hour drive through the Rockies. Flights to Denver can often be cheaper, but consider the added cost of the rental car and gas you’ll need.
Road Trip: Aspen makes a great stop on a cross-country road trip or road trip of the American West. Located 41 miles south off of U.S. Route 70 (a highway that spans the better part of America and serves as the main artery through Colorado and the Rocky Mountains), the town feels like a much needed break from towns on or near major highways..
What To Do
By car, Aspen and Crested Butte are separated by over 100 miles. But on foot, an 11-mile trail through the Aspen-Snowmass Wilderness (part of the Rocky Mountains) connects them. Beginning at the Maroon Lake Trailhead near Maroon Bells (more info below), the hike starts at 9,580 feet elevation and gains about 3,000 feet elevation over 6.5 miles as you hike up and over the 12,500-foot West Maroon Pass (the good news: after that it’s mostly downhill). It’s best attempted by those in good health and ready for a challenge as the high elevation can make it more difficult, especially for those coming from low elevation places.
I hiked about 3/4 of this trail in September 2015 while hiking the Four Pass Loop (a 26-miler that shares the same trail until it veers off after crossing West Maroon Pass) and can tell you from experience it’s home to some of the most awe-inspiring scenery on the planet.
Pro Tip: Turn your trek into a proper getaway with the Aspen to Crested Butte package from Aspen’s Limelight hotel. It includes a night at the Limelight, transportation to the trailhead at Maroon Bells, transportation from the trailhead at the other end into downtown Crested Butte, and one night’s accommodation in Crested Butte. Transportation back to Aspen can be arranged via shuttle ($60 per person) or via helicopter ($1,600 for six people — or $266 per person).
Just 20 minutes by car from Aspen, the Maroon Bells (the name given to the two mountains that define the landscape here) are visited by 200,000 people each summer. Still, you can beat the crowds by simply arriving early. I suggest arriving at 6:30am (entry is $10 per car). During this early morning hour, you’ll get to breathe in the fresh mountain air in peace and take photos without tourists standing in your shot. Between 8am and 5pm, cars are not allowed into the park and you’ll be required to enter via a group shuttle bus (again, arrive early to avoid that hassle). Personally, I stayed at the Limelight hotel and borrowed one of their complimentary Audis to get here (more on that below).
Once at the Bells, you can stroll along Maroon Lake and take photos that are guaranteed to blow up your Instagram, or get a taste for hiking in the Rockies by following Crater Lake Trail 1.8 miles to Crater Lake (just save enough energy to hike the 1.8 miles back).
While Aspen is known the world over as a top ski destination, those in-the-know also know it as a top mountain biking spot in summers. At Snowmass Bike Park on Snowmass Mountain (part of the Aspen/Snowmass four mountain complex), you’ll find 50 miles of trails with options for all ages and skill levels — from those ready to tear it up to those ready to take it slow. And if you’ve never mountain biked before, don’t worry, you can easily rent all the gear you’ll need and join a three-hour-long introductory clinic.
Once you get the hang of it, it’s easy to get hooked. Afterwards, you’ll have earned a mountaintop lunch and a beer at Snowmass’s Elk Camp.
While you may think of winter when you hear the word gondola, Aspen Mountain’s Silver Queen Gondola leads to just as many, if not more, adventures during the summer. Up at 11,211 feet elevation, you can join a free 45-minute hike guided by a naturalist or find some inner peace in a mountaintop yoga and meditation class for just $5. Afterwards, grab lunch or a beer at the Sundeck, a lodge with upscale cafeteria dining, a bar, and plenty of outdoor space to enjoy the endless mountain views.
The Sundeck is also the home of Bluegrass Sundays, a free mini concert of live bluegrass music starting at noon on Sundays during summer months. For more music, check out Classical Saturdays, free, live classical music performed on a gently sloping hill just a short walk from the gondola. Arrive a few minutes early to snag a picnic table or bring a blanket to sit on the ground.
Pro Tip: Turn your trip to the top of the mountain into a picnic by grabbing lunch to-go from the Sundeck or bringing a packaged lunch from town. Since I stayed at the Limelight, I ordered one of their picnic baskets and took the feast of a meal to the top of the mountain with me to eat.
Stroll Through John Denver Sanctuary
Pro Tip: late afternoon or early evening is the best time to visit as the golden sunlight during these hours make the place look even more magical.
So Many Activities!
Where To Stay
The Limelight is one of Aspen’s most popular hotels thanks to its location, thoughtful service, spacious rooms, and community atmosphere (during one rainy afternoon during my stay, the hotel’s common space was full of locals and guests enjoying the hotel’s live music). It also falls in the middle to upper middle of the pack as far as hotel prices in Aspen go — so while it’s not cheap by national standards, it’s less expensive than Aspen’s other higher end, well-located hotels.
Pro Tip: The Limelight has a partnership with Audi and all guests can reserve one of the hotel’s Audi vehicles for free two hours. I took one to visit the Maroon Bells (mentioned above), but other nearby destinations worth the drive include Ashcroft Ghost Town, Independence Ghost Town, and short hikes like Grottos Trail.
Camping + Budget Options
While Aspen may often be thought of as a luxury destination (and luxury does abound), it’s more than possible for travelers to experience Aspen on a budget. If you really want to save on lodging, camping is your best option — and there are plenty of amazing campsites nearby. But if you’d prefer a roof over your head, your next most affordable option is St. Moritz Lodge, budget accommodations with hostel-style shared rooms, as well as single rooms and one and two bedroom apartment units. Moving up a notch (to rooms in the low to mid $200 per night range), Hotel Durant and Molly Gibson Lodge are sure to do the trick.
Worth The Splurge: Hotel Jerome, an Auberge Resort
Opened as a hotel in 1889 during the area’s silver mining heydays, Hotel Jerome has long been an Aspen institution. Today, the hotel — beloved by both locals and the international jet set alike — oozes impeccable style and creature comforts while maintaining a relaxed vibe and its authentic mountain town heritage. Although well worth the splurge, not all will be able to afford a room here. But no matter where you rest your head at night, Hotel Jerome’s public spaces, like The Living Room and J Bar are must visits.
Where To Eat
For such a small town, Aspen is jam packed with incredible places to eat. So many in fact that you’ll never get to them all in a weekend or week long visit. But, you can certainly try with these abbreviated recommendations.
Breakfast: For a healthy breakfast, swing by Spring Cafe for a green juice, candied yam smoothie, or breakfast bowl of coconut yogurt and granola. For a big, traditional breakfast of pancakes, omelets, hash browns and other classics to fill you up for a day exploring in the mountains, head to Aspen Over Easy. Bakery and deli, Jour de Fete, is also a local-approved breakfast spot for breakfast burritos and bagel sandwiches.
Lunch: For a classic deli sandwich ideal for taking on a picnic, head to hole-in-the-wall Grateful Deli. Speaking of picnics, and as mentioned above, guests of the Limelight hotel can also have a picnic basket of sandwiches, snacks and drinks prepared and ready to go for a picnic at places like The John Denver Sanctuary or Classical Music Saturdays. Annette’s Mountain Bake Shop also makes a mean sandwich, which you can take outside to eat on pedestrian-only East Hyman Avenue. Annett is best known for her delicious, homemade baked goods and Donut Thursdays (arrive a bit before 4pm on Thursdays to snag a freshly made donut before they’re all gone). For a casual but sit down lunch, head to Meat and Cheese Restaurant, a restaurant and specialty food store dishing out quality, “farmhouse” style fare. If you’re just looking to snack, order one of their meat and cheese boards to sample their well-curated selection of charcuterie and international cheeses.
Dinner – A favorite of locals and visitors alike, J-Bar at Hotel Jerome is a must-visit for dinner and/or drinks. This historic bar has been one of Aspen’s go-to watering holes for over 100 years and was frequented by Aspen local, Hunter S. Thompson who turned it into his de facto office when he ran for town sheriff in the early 1970s. Be sure to order the J-Bar Burger and an Aspen Crud (a vanilla milkshake spiked with a healthy pour of Jim Beam). Next, try the intimate White House Tavern, a small restaurant housed in one of Aspen’s oldest buildings (built in 1883, it was originally a miner’s cottage) and order a spicy margarita and a crispy chicken sandwich — just be prepare to compare all other chicken sandwiches to this one for the rest of your life. For tasty pub fare at a n0-fuss local favorite, head to The Red Onion, an Aspen mainstay since 1892.
Desert – For something sweet after dinner, head to the beyond cozy Le Creperie du Village for an after dinner drink and desert, like sweet crepes and chocolate fondue with strawberries and marshmallows. With its savory crepes and classic french dishes, Le Creperie du Village is also a splurge-worthy choice for dinner. For a more casual and classic desert, join the locals in line at Paradise Bakery and Cafe for gelato style ice cream in a waffle cone.
Where To Drink
Aspen loves its booze, and in summer, it’a all about happy hour (of which almost every eating and drinking establishment in Aspen seems to have). Just three of many happy hour stops to make include Aspen Brewing Company for $4 pints from 5-7pm daily, Craft beer bar Hops Culture for $4 select pints, $7 shot and a beer combo, and discounted bites (loaded fries!) from 3-6pm daily, and perennial happy hour favorite Jimmy’s Bodega for a happy hour menu of discounted food and drinks on their patio from 3:30-5:30pm.
Also a must-visit during a hot summer afternoon is The Lounge at the Limelight hotel. They’ve got the longest happy hour in town (3-7pm) and most importantly, a Frosé machine cranking out, ice cold, slushy rosé. Even if you’re not the biggest rose fan, chances are you’ll love this. Or, try their sangria flights, comprised of three different sangrias made red wine, white wine and rosé.
Moving on into the night, be sure to visit to The Living Room at Hotel Jerome, a vibrant yet cozy lounge with an uber-stylish hunting lodge vibe. Linger here for awhile with one of their signature cocktails (it’s a great spot for pre-dinner drinks before heading to the hotel’s J-Bar or upscale restaurant, Prospect, for dinner) and snack on their American tapas menu.
Next, stop by Justice Snows and select a specialty cocktail from their 95+ item, leather bound bar menu. It’s often cited as one of the country’s best bars, so rest assured the expert bartenders can also mix you whatever you’re in the mood for. For a dimly lit and quieter nightcap, head to The Monarch, a classically styled, old-school steakhouse best experienced while sipping a martini at the bar.
Mostly importantly, note that this just scratches the surface of places to drink and eat in Aspen, so don’t be afraid to also forge your own path and talk to locals to ask for more recommendations of places they like.
Trevor Morrow is a travel writer based in Los Angeles, California. You can follow him on Instagram for more photo from Aspen and travel inspiration from around the world.