River Deep Mountain High: the Aspen-Snowmass Guide
Words by Michelle Margherita @girltraveller
For most people, Aspen = skiing, which is a shame because the truth is, the snow that has made this town so famous is just an icy blanket that covers up one of the most spectacularly beautiful mountain villages in the world. I had no idea how glorious Aspen was going to be until I went last summer and fell immediately in love.
In the heart of the Colorado Rockies, Aspen is that rare mix of picture-postcard mountain scenery and a town so pretty and preserved, you feel like you've stumbled into an idyll of bygone America, where fast-food chains don't exist, streets are leafy, Victorian-era wooden houses look like something out of an F Scott Fitzgerald novel, wildflowers grow between cracks on sun-drenched pavements and people say hello when you pass them on the sidewalk.
Peaceful and easy-paced (perhaps partly due to Colorado's relaxed marijuana laws), Aspen in the summer is all about the great outdoors (hiking, biking, yoga, white-water rafting), but dig a little deeper and you'll find an exciting arts and culture scene to rival that of any big city; a legacy from the town's hippy-dippy Sixties, when Hunter S Thompson (Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas), lived here, bringing with him a raft of international artists, writers and creatives.
Like anywhere in the world, when then artists move in, the money inevitably follows, and from the moment you touch down at Aspen airport and spot the 100+ private planes lined up on the tarmac, you know the place is a magnet for the rich and famous (Aspen has the most expensive real estate in the USA).
Yet you don't have to break the bank to enjoy this billionaire's playground. Many outdoor activities are free or inexpensive, as are a good chunk of all the summer music, arts and film festivals and food + wine events.
Plus, Aspen's thriving foodie scene caters to all pockets – from upscale dining to innovative vegan food. The same applies to nightlife – Aspen is a party town, so there's no shortage of cool clubs, music venues and dive bars you can easily crawl to without calling an Uber. Having had vague concerns that I might get bored after dark, it was brilliant to discover that Aspen is like the coolest, prettiest parts of New York condensed into a tiny grid of streets, with all the fun and none of grime.
Wanting to take it down a notch, I spend a few days in the wholesome outdoorsiness of Snowmass, a town just six miles away from Aspen. Despite signage everywhere referring to 'Aspen-Snowmass' as one entity, they are actually two very different places: where Aspen is an organically formed town with a 100+ year heritage that just happens to be a ski destination too, Snowmass is a planned village, all concrete chalets and chairlifts, built specifically as a ski resort at the base of Snowmass Mountain.
Smaller and quieter, without the glitz of Aspen, Snowmass has its own thing going on, with the majestic beauty of Snowmass Mountain underpinning everything. Hiking, mountain biking, rock climbing, riding, hot-air ballooning and watersports are almost obligatory and with scenery this awe-inspiring, you can't help but get involved.
At night, the vibe is less jet-set party and more boozy bar crawl (Rihanna has been spotted on nights out here), and during the summer, there are loads of outdoor music events that bring the whole town together. Fun and friendly, I loved Snowmass for its chilled-out vibe, fresh mountain air, gorgeous scenery and down-to-earth ski-resort charm- which works winter and summer.
In an alternative universe where I live my dream life, I make Aspen-Snowmass my home amid wildflower meadows and high-altitude hiking trails, because when you find a place this special, you can't help but want to put down roots and stay forever – or at the very least, spend a magical summertime week.
Where to stay:
The Little Nell, Aspen, 675 E Durant Avenue, Aspen, CO, 81611 Doubles from $525, room only, including shuttle transfers and free car service . Cool celeb hotspot, and the only ski-in ski-out hotel in Aspen.
Click here for a full review of Aspen's hippest hotel
The Viceroy, 130 Wood Road, Snowmass Village, Colorado 81515. Doubles from $233, room only. Modern new-build ski chalet with rustic-luxe charm, a favourite of Rihanna and the Obamas
For the best coffee in Aspen, head to Victoria's on the corner of Durant and Galena, where you can also pick up homemade sausage rolls ($4.95) and vegan cookies.
Spring Café at 119 S Spring Street, has the best juice bar in Aspen and super-tasty organic breakfasts – try the Rise N Shine Tacos, $13.
Peach's Corner Café at 121 S Galena, do great sandwiches and tasty fresh salads, while So Café, on the rooftop of the Aspen Art Museum at 637 E Hyman, has not only the best views of Ajax Mountain but a changing weekly menu that won't break the budget.
In Snowmass, The Nest is an upscale lunch spot in The Viceroy with a tasty gastro-pub menu (tacos, burgers, salads); the Elk Camp Restaurant, at the top of the Elk Camp Gondola, is a massive grab-and-go cafeteria with a salad bar and delicious wood-fired pizza; and if you're passing by the Anderson Ranch Arts Centre on Owl Creek Road,stop in at the café to pile up your plate at the organic salad bar and hot-meals counter ($15 per plate).
For more upscale dining, Aspen's Cache Cache is a buzzy French-style restaurant that uses mostly locally sourced produce (try the Colorado Rack Of Lamb, $63) – pricey but worth it.
For excellent sushi, tempura and homemade sake, head to legendary chef Nobu's Matsuhisa – my favourite dish was the sautéed mushrooms with yuzu dressing ($16).
Element 47, in The Little Nell hotel, is Aspen's only five-star restaurant – the food is exceptional: pea soup with buttermilk, mint and pumpernickel; rack of Colorado lamb; dry aged duck breast… (let Patrick Dunn surprise you with the Chef's Indulgence Menu for $125 ), the wine list is beyond comparison and the vibe is relaxed.
For the best vegan food in Aspen check out The Pyramid Bistro, a 'nutritarian resaurant'. I loved everything I tried, with healthy dinner mains (Galangal Curry Bowl, Roasted Sweet Potato & Stuffed Cremini Mushrooms) coming in at around $21.
The Prospect at Hotel Jerome is a modern American bistro serving innovative cuisine (roasted salmon with lentil curry, almond crusted ruby trout with roasted turnips) in a gorgeous Victorian-period dining room, while 10-minutes outside of Aspen, in the middle of a meadow, is The Pinecreek Cookhouse, a real log cabin that dishes up elk bratwurst, smoked trout and wild game.
In Snowmass, be sure to check out The Edge for alpine-inspired dishes (think fondue, schnitzel and wurst in huge portions), where, apparently, the Obamas regularly dine in winter.
At EightK at the Viceroy you'll find fine dining with a Southern-style twist (think grits and crawfish), while French restaurant Ricard, also owned by The Viceroy but over in Snowmass Base Village, is great for seafood and smoked meats.
In Aspen, Justice Snows was by far my favourite cocktail bar – think hipster mixologists with man-buns, a speakeasy vibe and a massive menu-cum-book of cocktails (try The Sand County Almanac with peach whiskey, $15). Eric's Bar is slick and modern although the vibe is a bit hit or miss but fun when there's a crowd.
Ajax Tavern at The Little Nell owns the best sun-drenched terrace/view in town, while the legendary J Bar at Hotel Jerome (Hunter S Thompson's fave haunt in the 1960s) has a cosy, buzzy vibe and a beautiful old wooden bar.
For local beers and brilliant live music,Bellyup is Aspen's coolest music venue, where you can catch homegrown and international acts in an intimate setting.
In Snowmass, EightK at the Viceroy is the swankiest cocktail bar around with a gourmet restaurant. Venga Venga has cool interiors, a brilliant terrace overlooking the mountain, a great Mexican menu and the best Margaritas. For a pumping nightclub/dancing vibegot to Wild Wood, while Zanes Tavern is a super-fun dive bar, where you can get cheap beer, hot wings and dance with the locals.
The Great Outdoors
Aspen-Snowmass is activity heaven from hiking to biking, stand-up paddle-boarding to white-water rafting, rock climbing to yoga.
Hiking: For an easy one-hour hike, The Rim Trail up to the "Yin Yang Stone" in Snowmass is a gentle ascent, with masses of wildflowers and 360° views of Snowmass, Mount Daly and Capital Peak. You'll also see the Zeigler Reservoir fossil site, where mastodon bones were discovered in 2010.
For a more challenging hike, the two-mile Ute Trail in Aspen gives glutes a great workout.
Guided walking: Take a gentle two-hour hike through meadows of wildflowers and Aspen-tree groves via the Ghost Town of Ashcroft, just outside of Aspen, where you can jump on the free Green Day Hike with an ACES Naturalist.
Mountain-top yoga: Enjoy a free yoga lesson (mats provided) at 11,200ft every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 10.30am on top of Aspen (known as Ajax) Mountain. Don't worry if you feel unfit – it's just the altitude making the air thinner and harder to breathe.
Stand-Up Paddle-boarding (SUP): Book a half-day SUP lesson ($85) with the Aspen Kayak Academy, where you'll pop on a wetsuit, booties and helmet and paddle out into the ridiculously beautiful Northstar Nature Preserve river. You may think you'll never be able to stand up, but you'll be amazed by what you can achieve in one lesson.
Ride the gondolas: For the best views of Aspen and Snowmass, take a gondola ride (an enclosed cable-car). The 15-minute Silver Queen Gondola ($20) in Aspen will whisk you to the summit of Ajax Mountain for superb views of the Elk Mountains, while the Elk Camp Gondola in Snowmass ($20) will take you mid-mountain, where you can then jump on The Elk Camp Chairlift to the top of Snowmass Mountain for prime views of Mount Daly and Maroon Peak.
See The Maroon Bells: Get up early for a spectacular view of Colorado's most-photographed peaks. Take the free RFTA bus from Rubey Park in Aspen, which departs every 20 minutes.
Aspen has every designer store covered from Dior to Prada, but it's the boutiques that are really special. Check out the beautifully styled Magasin store on E Hyman Ave for local jewellery, cool leather goods and accessories. For denim, head to Kali's on Cooper Ave – it's a bit of a jumble but they stock cool and unusual brands including Siwy and Tag+. Don't let the overstocked rails in Pitkin County Dry Goods , also on Cooper, put you off – there are cool-brand bargains to be found. For a more sophisticated shopping experience, browse the minimalist Scandi-style O2 boutique (o2aspen.com) on Cooper, or for a taste of cowboy Colorado, head to Kemo Sabe on Galena for real-deal cowboy boots and hats.
Opposite the Dior store is The Thrift Shop Aspen. With cast-offs from the rich and famous, it's unsurprising that my friend found a pair of Manolos there for $5. For quirky vintage interiors finds, don't miss the eclectic and endlessly fascinating Georgia Brown Co antiques boutique at 217 S Galena.
For hiking gear, head to Snowmass Village Mall, where you'll find loads of shops stocking everything from Northface to Patagonia.
Arts, Culture & Fun
The controversial Aspen Art Museum is an ultra-modern woven-wood cube that fits seamlessly into the town's historic chocolate-box architecture. With no permanent collection, what you see depends on when you go – the powerful Chris Ofili: Night and Day exhibition, shipped in from New York's New Museum, was on display when I went.
For smaller galleries, simply walk the streets of Aspen, where you'll find almost as many galleries as hotels – my favourites were Gallery 1949 on Hunter for modern art and sculpture, 212 Gallery on E Cooper for contemporary drawings and paintings and Baldwin on S Galena for huge modern abstract canvases. For a different experience, check out the historic Anderson Ranch Arts Centre in Snowmass. A super creative, world-class visual arts workshop and gallery space, you'll see artists at work in-studio and can chat to them about their art. This was one of my favourite places in Snowmass.
Five years ago, mammoth bones were unearthed in Snowmass, and the Ice Age Discovery Centre in Snowmass Village Mall gives you the lowdown on the palaeontology site. It's free, you can zip through it in 10 minutes and it's probably the only time you'll get up close and personal with dinosaur fossils.
For an all-American bowling experience in Snowmass, Slopeside Lanes is an alley-cum-bar with pizza oven – perfect for a late-night game.
For cowboy fun, catch the Snowmass Rodeo for bull riding and "mutton bustin"; and lastly, if you happen to see a New York style vintage yellow taxi bombing around Aspen, flag it down for the ride of your life – The Ultimate Taxi is the craziest disco trip you'll ever experience with a virtual rollercoaster simulation thrown in – trust me, it's insane and ridiculously fun.
After a day of outdoor fun, a little spa-time is the ultimate way to unwind. In Aspen, the Remède Spa in the St Regis hotel is the town's unrivalled sanctuary of bliss: nip between the hot and cold plunge pools, enjoy the cascading waterfall pool and detox in the Steam Cave before a relaxing massage treatment (try the Shiatsu, $205, that includes a paraffin foot wrap and a Moroccan oil scalp treatment). End your spa session in the Oxygen Lounge, where you can kick back with a tank of pure oxygen to get you feeling great and combat the effects of the altitude.
In Snowmass, the boutique spa at The Viceroy is small but perfectly formed with a waterfall Jacuzzi and six treatment rooms – try the hour-long Path To Tranquility massage ($165) to knead out knots and get you feeling chilled.