Aspen—where the beer flows like wine and the aspen trees cover the mountainsides like a happy Bob Ross painting. Aspen has always been a destination for tourists looking to soak in the stunning scenery and 300 days of sunshine in Colorado. In the winter, high-profile celebrities flock to Aspen’s ritzy downtown area and exclusive ski resort. But at night, when the bright lights that illuminate the flashy purses and stilettos in the display windows at Gucci and Louis Vuitton go out, the town of Aspen becomes something more than a place to drop a couple hundred dollars on one meal or to catch a glimpse of some of Hollywood’s hottest actors. It resets back into a quaint Colorado mountain town, with it’s crisp mountain air and small town charm, perfect for hitting up for a wonderful weekend getaway.
With good intentions and plans to enjoy the great outdoors in Central Colorado, my recent trip to the area actually began with a stay at the Hotel Aspen and some live music at the Belly Up. After getting caught up in a delaying rockslide on Independence Pass, unlocking the door to my spacious room at the clean and conveniently located Hotel Aspen was just what I needed. Situated a few blocks from Aspen’s main drag, the Hotel Aspen’s affordable prices and friendly and knowledgable staff definitely won me over as a go-to place to stay while in town. After a quick shower and change of clothes, I headed down to the front desk in search of directions to the Belly Up. But instead of directions, I was offered a free ride by the hotel’s shuttle, and within minutes, equipped with some newly acquired breakfast joint recommendations, I landed outside of the Belly Up Aspen for my first Belly Up show ever. And it was awesome. I spent the next few hours soaking in the incredible intimacy and sound in this small venue, listening to the original tunes penned and performed by Austin-based artist, Shakey Graves. If you’re a fan of live music, you owe it to yourself to catch a show at this venue that has featured artists like John Hiatt, Eve, Michael Franti, and REO Speedwagon. The remaining summer line-up at the Belly Up Aspen is something to plan your summer vacation around.
The following morning, after indulging in a little too much whiskey and rock music the night before, I made the short walk across the street for some breakfast fuel at the Main Street Bakery and Cafe—the spot recommended most by the Aspen locals I came across. If some rigorous outdoor activities are on your agenda while in town, the Main Street Bakery and Cafe is a pretty solid place to start your day. For breakfast, I devoured a massive and delicious chorizo-filled breakfast burrito and a soul-saving cup of coffee before heading out to meet up with the folks from Aspen Alpine Guides to spend a little time exploring the area’s beautiful backcountry.
As a born-and-raised Colorado kid, the concept of hiring a guide for a trip to the mountains that I’ve been exploring for nearly three decades was a little strange to me. But shortly after arriving with our team of friendly guides at the Harry Gates Hut nestled in a particularly gorgeous section of the Sawatch Mountain Range about 15 miles northeast of Aspen, I knew that this was going to be an enlightening trip. Surrounded by clear blue skies and some of the most beautiful natural scenery imaginable, our group quickly got situated claiming sleeping bag-clad beds in one of the two common sleeping areas in the hut. Part of the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association, the Harry Gates Hut is the largest hut in the association, comfortably accommodating 16 people with 2 private bedrooms upstairs, 6 beds in the upstairs communal area, and suitable cushiony furniture dotted throughout the rest of the hut. When you roll with guides, expect to feel at ease as you explore your new surroundings. After a tasty snack at basecamp, the group headed out on a hiking trip, led by a seasoned guide with a crazy amount of knowledge about the mountains, weather patterns, and secret places not to be missed while hiking in the area. Secret spot #1 consisted of waterfall, streaming like a freight train from an opening in the brilliant blue sky above. But hiking up to get a view of the waterfall wasn’t enough. Our guide safely led us behind the steady downpour of water to really appreciate nature’s beauty and everything that comes along with it, (i.e. a cool-down on a hot summer day and a all-natural sunglass cleaning). Secret spot #2 was a series of natural springs jetting out from the mountainside a mere 2-hour hike from our hut.
As we made our way back up through the narrow footpaths towards our lodging for the night, a simple breeze brushed through our group of hikers, prompting our guide to correctly forecast an afternoon rainstorm the next day. Visions of the white tails of deer lingering nearby dotted openings throughout the forest as we made our way back to the hut that afternoon. On top of creating an incredibly efficient and comfortable experience in the great outdoors, the folks at Aspen Alpine Guides also arranged a 5-star worthy dinner that evening, utilizing the talents of a local Aspen chef to create a meal made up of a rich and hearty snow pea risotto, delicately grilled asparagus, a decadent sweet corn soup, and an expertly cooked bone-in pork loin with a romesco sauce. When spending the night out in the wilderness, a skillfully made risotto is typically the farthest dish from a backcountry campers mind. But anything goes with the Aspen Alpine Guides. Whether you’re looking for guidance on finding the least crowded place to explore the backcountry in the area, or you’d rather “glamp” than camp, Aspen Alpine Guides can make it happen. On this trip, my time putzing around the mountains in and around Aspen was definitely enhanced by the preparations and education offered up by the guides. Their presence is a great reminder that regardless of your pre-conceived notions of a place, or town, or experience, there’s always some hidden gem, or secret natural spring, or adventure waiting to be discovered—as long as you’re willing to seek it out.