Aspen’s surrounding mountains are a playground for core and casual adventurers alike. Here’s how to best enjoy the Elk Mountains (and maybe get a shot of adrenaline) by foot, bike and air.
Perched at 8,000 feet above sea level at the head of the Roaring Fork Valley, Aspen—Colorado’s famed tromping ground for fur-clad fashionistas, devotees of Hunter S. Thompson, thrill-seekers and dedicated local rippers—lies within perfect striking distance for a mid-summer road trip from the Front Range. Nestled in the heart of the Elk Mountains and home to seven fourteeners, a raging river, and countless trails, the supposedly hoity-toity mountain enclave offers endless possibilities for exploration.
Alpinists can head to the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness and the classic Maroon Ridge. This mountaineering route tackles two peaks, 14,156-foot Maroon and 14,012-foot North Maroon, and the airy, exhilarating (and often very loose) traverse between them. Beginning and ending at Maroon Lake, the most photographed spot in Colorado due to its iconic view of the Bells, the route pushes climbers physically and mentally, with route-finding challenges, white-knuckle exposure, and dicey scrambles over crumbling rock.
If you stay on route, the climbing ranges from class 4 to 5.7 and it’s packed with thrilling features‚including an airy dihedral with a big-fall risk and a 45-foot tower with extreme exposure but surprisingly solid rock. There’s also a divided chimney that offers two options: a shorter 5.7 line that requires navigating an overhanging boulder and reachy stem moves, or a longer, easier 5.4 route up a 45-foot crack. On route, you’ll experience unrelenting steep ascents and descents on loose terrain. You also won’t see too many other people and most likely have the breathtaking views of the Elks’ chiseled summits—including Snowmass Mountain (14,092 feet), Capitol Peak (14,131 feet), and Pyramid Peak (14,018 feet)—all to yourself.
Go Guided: During a long day in the mountains (like this one!), moving efficiently is key to achieving goals, having fun and staying safe. You can leave the navigation, route finding and technical aspects to the pros so you can enjoy the exploit. Aspen Alpine Guides has been leading mountain adventures since 1987 and each guide is encouraging, accomplished, certified, passionate and able to tailor any expedition to your skills and needs.
Be safe, smart and aware: Eleven people died on Colorado’s highest peaks last summer, including seven on fourteeners near Aspen. Motivated to stop this trend and change the mindset that these are simple hikes instead of climbs requiring preparation, technical skills and mountain sense, five different entities—USFS, Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, Mountain Rescue Aspen (MRA), Aspen Expeditions International, and Aspen Alpine Guides—have joined forces to develop a comprehensive education program that includes presentations at locations on the Front Range and hands-on clinics in the peaks around Aspen. You can find dates and more info about the program at aspenalpineguides.com. MRA also runs its own workshops: mountainrescueaspen.org/summer-workshop/.
The Snowmass Bike Park (aspensnowmass.com/plan-your-stay/biking/bike-snowmass), which is in the midst of a multi-year expansion that will add nine new trails ranging from beginner to expert, currently offers a 14-mile network of ripping, lift-served, purpose-built downhill singletrack. Snaking from the top of the Elk Camp chairlift to the bottom of Snowmass Base Village, the park, which has something for everyone, dishes out 3,000 feet of descent. Novice riders will enjoy Verde, a flowy green run ideal for gaining fundamentals, confidence and comfortability. Advanced adrenaline junkies can get their fix on the gravity-defying Valhalla, a smooth line that cruises through giant berms and up and over jumps, and Animal Crackers, a technical trail opened in 2017 that features steep climbs and descents, tight twists and fun off-camber sections. Once you fill your need for speed, switch bikes and explore the 50-plus miles of cross-country trails snaking through Snowmass and the surrounding area.
Go Guided: Run by coaches looking to teach riders new to downhill mountain biking, the three-hour Park Ready Clinic gives you the ABCs (active stance, braking and cornering) of the sport. It’s offered daily starting June 22 through September 3, 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and costs $50. Or, take a private lesson, which can be personalized to your experience level and goals, with a mountain bike pro. These lessons are offered daily with a reservation and cost from $105 for one hour to $500 for a full day.
Soar like an eagle on a tandem paragliding escapade with Aspen Paragliding (aspenparagliding.com), where you and a pilot certified by the USHPA (U.S. Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association) launch off Aspen Mountain, one of the few resorts in the country that allows visitors to float high over its slopes. Pilots will catch thermals, utilize air currents and maneuver so that you swoop, glide and spin thousands of feet above Earth. While sailing across the sky enjoying mountain views like never before, it’s not uncommon to reach altitudes up to 18,000 feet.
Go Guided: Aspen Paragliding offers a full range of courses, services and clinics. Tandem paragliding costs $295 per person. If you get hooked, they offer a private training program so you can learn to fly on your own.
Even the biggest adrenaline addict needs to take some time to rest and refuel (while others may actually prioritize gastronomic pleasures). Hit up our favorite relaxation spots.
L’Hostaria: Carbo load at this welcoming Italian restaurant that boasts a fantastic bar menu, scrumptious house-made pasta (we suggest you try the melt-in-your-mouth gnocchi), patio seating and a wine list that spans the globe. hostaria.com
The Limelight Hotel: At this adventure basecamp, you can grab a solid night’s sleep, fuel up on the breakfast buffet, or cool off with a refreshing post-adventure cocktail—we recommend the new Limelight Frojito (frozen mojito)—during happy hour. limelighthotels.com
The Little Nell: Not only is this fancy but unpretentious hotel and dining spot located right at the bottom of the lifts in the middle of Aspen, it also offers a wide range of events and outdoor programs all season long. Sign up for the Ride and Dine ($150 per person), on July 19 and again on August 9. This event combines a bike ride that starts at the hotel and ends up in the Ashcroft Valley with an al fresco dinner in the woods at Toklat. thelittlenell.com
Snowmass Free Concert Series: Every Thursday in the summer, you can chill out and enjoy one of our favorite community events: free live music concerts on the ski slope. Enjoy the welcoming vibe when tons of folks come together to picnic and dance. bit.ly/2kOV7dX