Aspen and Snowmass



Forever honored in the lyrics of John Denver, the Roaring Fork Valley—and Aspen, its crown jewel—is the quintessential Colorado Rocky Mountain High. A rampart of the state’s famed Fourteeners (peaks over 14,000 feet) guard this valley. There are only two ways in or out: over the precipitous Independence Pass or up the four-lane highway through the booming Roaring Fork Valley that stretches nearly 50 mi, from Glenwood Springs to Aspen.

Aspen and Snowmass Sights

One of the world’s fabled resorts, Aspen practically defines glitz, glamour, and glorious . To the uninitiated, Aspen and Vail are synonymous. To residents, a rivalry exists, with locals of each claiming to have the state’s most epic , finest restaurants, and hottest nightlife. The most obvious distinction is the look: Vail is a faux-Bavarian development, whereas Aspen is an overgrown mining town. Vail is full of politicians—it’s where Gerald Ford, Dan Quayle, and John Sununu fled to escape the cares of state—whereas Aspen is popular with singers and movie stars. Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith married (and divorced) here, and this is where Barbra Streisand took a stand against state legislation that discriminated against gay people.

Between the galleries, museums, music festivals, and other glittering social events, there’s so much going on in Aspen that even in winter many people come simply to “do the scene” and never make it to the slopes. High-end boutiques have been known to serve free Campari-and-sodas après-ski, a practice so over the top that there’s a certain charm to it. At the same time, Aspen is a place where people live fairly average lives, sending their children to school and working at jobs that may or may not have to do with skiing. It is, arguably, America’s original ski-bum destination, a fact that continues to give the town’s character an underlying layer of humor and texture. You can come to Aspen and have a reasonably straightforward, enjoyable ski vacation, because once you’ve stripped away the veneer, Aspen is simply a great place to ski.

Aspen has always been a magnet for cultural and countercultural types. The late bad-boy gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson was one of the more-visible citizens of the nearby community of Woody Creek. One of Aspen’s most amusing figures is Jon Barnes, who tools around in his “Ultimate Taxi” (it’s plastered with 3-D glasses, crystal disco balls, and neon necklaces and is redolent of dry ice and incense). You’ll find everyone from socialites with Vogue exteriors and vague interiors to long-haired musicians in combat boots and fatigues. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what you wear here, as long as you wear it with conviction.

Originally called Ute City (after its displaced former residents), Aspen was founded in the late 1870s during a silver rush. The most prominent early citizen was Jerome Wheeler, who opened two of Aspen’s enduring landmarks, the Hotel Jerome and the Wheeler Opera House. The silver market crashed in 1893, and Aspen’s population dwindled from 15,000 to 250 by the end of the Depression. In the late 1930s the region struck gold when Swiss mountaineer and ski consultant Andre Roche determined that Aspen Mountain would make a prime ski area. By 1941 it had already landed the U.S. Nationals, but Aspen was really put on the world map by Walter Paepcke, who developed the town as a cultural mecca. In 1949 he helped found the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, and subsequently organized an international celebration to mark Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s 200th birthday. This event paved the way for such renowned annual festivities as the Aspen Music Festival and the International Design Conference.

Downtown Aspen is easily explored on foot. It’s best to wander without a planned itinerary. You can spend an afternoon admiring the sleek window displays and graceful Victorian mansions, many of which now house fine boutiques and restaurants.

Heading east along Highway 82 toward Aspen you’ll spot the turnoffs (Brush Creek and Owl Creek roads) to the Snowmass Ski Area, one of four ski mountains owned by Aspen Skiing Company. The town at the mountain’s base, Snowmass Village, has a handful of chic boutiques and eateries, but it’s more down-to-earth and much slower-paced than Aspen.

Snowmass Village was built in 1967 as Aspen’s answer to Vail—a ski-specific resort—and although it has never quite matched the panache or popularity of Vail, it has gained a certain stature with age. But the town struggles with finding its identity, a difficult proposition since it often calls itself Snowmass Village at Aspen. And the town’s most recent battle—what to do with its outdated base area—has been another problem.

Still, an effort has been made to breathe new life into Snowmass Village to the tune of $25.5 million in village improvements for the 2007-08 season, including the Treehouse Kid’s Adventure Center (full of fun activities for children ages eight weeks and up) and new restaurants and shops. In general, Snowmass is the preferred alternative for families with young children, leaving the town of Aspen to a more up-at-the-crack-of-noon crowd. Snowmass, one of the best intermediate hills in the country, has more ski-in ski-out lodgings and a slower pace than Aspen.

Redstone is a charming artists’ colony whose streets are lined with pretty galleries and boutiques, and whose boundaries are ringed by the impressive sandstone cliffs from which the town draws its name. Summer sees streams of visitors strolling the main drag, Redstone Boulevard; in winter, horse-drawn carriages carry people along the -covered road.

Aspen and Snowmass Restaurant Reviews

Sushi? Coconut curry? Bison and lobster? Colorado’s culinary repertoire reaches its zenith in Aspen. With all the Hummers and designer handbags comes a certain gourmet sophistication that eclipses the rest of the state. Plates can be pricey, particularly in Aspen, but many eateries offer several moderately priced entrées (usually pastas) as a nod to the budget-conscious. For those who want a break from Aspen, there are good dining options down valley in Basalt and Carbondale as well.

Aspen and Snowmass Hotel Reviews

There’s no shortage of lodging in Aspen and the Roaring Fork, however you’ll pay the highest rates in the state. Downriver alternatives like Carbondale and Glenwood Springs are attractive for budget hunters—but you’ll face a surprising amount of traffic when commuting to Aspen. With seven drive-in campsites around the city, tenting it is also an option; make sure you reserve a site early, though, as summer campgrounds fill before noon. If you’re staying for more than a weekend or are traveling with a large group, condominiums offer an affordable option and the added bonus of a kitchen.

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