When you live in Colorado, it’s easy to think you can skip Aspen and not be any worse for it. After all, you’ve been conditioned to believe that unless you own a private jet, Aspen doesn’t accommodate “your type.” You couldn’t be more wrong. Not only does Aspen and its surroundings hold some of the most breathtaking 14ers (and 13ers and 12,000-footers) in the state, it’s got a quirky subculture and intriguing history that elevates the area far above the multi-million dollar real estate and the Gucci boutique.
There’s no “best time” to visit, but autumn can be particularly good. That’s when the leaves on the region’s eponymous trees shimmer into a golden hue and when the locals come out of hiding after a summer besieged by tourists. Yes, it’s going to cost some money. It’s also going to be breathtakingly beautiful, memorable, and exciting. My advice? Go big. Here’s how.
Eat: If you venture beyond the Hotel Jerome (and you should), you might encounter the same dilemma I did: Aspen restaurants are spendy, and,unless you drop significant amounts of money, there’s a high likelihood you will be disappointed. That is unless you head to Hops Culture, which advertises craft beer, wine, and good eats. That was my experience with one of the restaurant’s “Huge Salads,” the Mediterranean Couscous ($14), which showcased cucumber, tomatoes, peas, cashews, mint and couscous with transformative vinaigrette. As for the beer, well, they feature 200 (that’s not a typo) “unique craft beers and ciders from around the world,” with roughly 30 poured fresh on the restaurant’s draft system. If you can’t find something that suits you, you’re way too hard to please.
Play: Whether your idea of a good time includes pounding out 13-plus miles in running shoes, shooting through stands of aspens on a mountain bike, or sampling early season snowfall from a craggy summit, it’s easy to get outside in Aspen. Two terrific local trails include the Government Trail, nine miles of extremely sweet single-track that feature prominently in the aptly-named Golden Leaf Half Marathon and the Sunnyside Trail, which is easily accessed from town. Both are open to pedestrians and mountain bikers.
Nearby Mt. Elbert, 14,440 feet, are Colorado’s highest mountain and a (relatively) easy walk up. For something more off the beaten path head to Grizzly Lake, a high alpine watering hole on Grizzly Peak, elevation 13,988.
Sleep: I love a good campsite s much as the next person, but if I am going to Aspen, I will beg, borrow, or steal for a night or two at the Hotel Jerome.Built in 1889, this stately hotel recently underwent an extensive renovation that restored it to its grandeur of yore. I don’t say this lightly. This is original luxury, tastefully done and respectful of the hotel’s m
ining, cowboy, and western legacy. Past meets present in the hotel’s lobbies, restaurants, and guest rooms where contemporary artwork hangs alongside relics of the past, including original United States flags and ancient mining caps. The rooms have high ceilings and elegant touches like cashmere curtains and burnished-leather frames. The outdoor pool offers terrific views of Ajax mountain, the famous J-Bar serves a burger that should be illegal, and the gastronomic Prospect Restaurant’s breakfasts might convince you to do nothing but dine in the comfortable, cool room all day—to say nothing of their scrumptious dinner and lunches
–Rachel Walker likes to pretend her home in Boulder, Colorado, is a mountain town, but when she returns from a visit to Aspen, she’s fully aware it’s not. Follow her on Twitter at @rodellwalker.