The mountain town of Aspen, Colorado, has had several lives: a thriving silver-mining mecca, a deserted town and a laid-back resort. Since its final transformation in the 1940s, Aspen has offered a rich mix of recreation and culture with a comfortable, casual style and an ample splash of elegance in its accommodations, restaurants and boutiques.
Aspen's storied past is evident in the 19th-century architecture of refurbished houses and other buildings downtown. That Victorian influence is left over from the silver boom, and it gives the city a character unknown to its ski-town rivals, some of which (such as Vail) have existed as resort towns from the beginning. There's more to Aspen than skiing. With plenty of wilderness areas for hiking, plus ghost towns and music festivals, Aspen is, without a doubt, a year-round vacation spot.
Mountains are the most prominent feature of Aspen. Sixteen peaks surround the city, but the most prominent are Red Mountain to the north, Smuggler Mountain to the east and Aspen Mountain to the south—it stretches all the way to the sidewalks downtown. Nearby Mount Elbert is the tallest in Colorado at 14,443 ft/4,475 m.
The town sits on the western slope of the Colorado Plateau and in the valley of the Roaring Fork River, a tributary of the Colorado River. The altitude is 7,850 ft/2,435 m. The town itself is a mere 3.5 sq mi/9 sq km.
Towns surrounding Aspen include Glenwood Springs, Basalt, Carbondale and Snowmass Village. Independence Pass, a major route to Aspen on Highways 91 and 24, is closed in winter. The city is laid out on a grid at the base of Aspen Mountain. Mill Street divides the city north-south, and Highway 82 bisects it east-west.
The mountains surrounding Aspen once served as prime hunting grounds for the Ute tribe. The area remained quiet until 1879, when the silver strike put Aspen on the map. The town grew quickly, and by 1890, it was Colorado's third-largest city. When the silver market crashed in 1893, the town was deserted and virtually forgotten.
In the 1930s, just a few hundred people lived in Aspen, and they had the Highland Bavarian ski resort all to themselves. (It was the first downhill ski mountain in Colorado, but there were no lifts.) World War II brought the 10th Mountain Division ski troops to the Aspen area for training. The ski-hut system created for training is still used for high-altitude year-round recreation.
It took an Austrian-born ski instructor named Friedl Pfeiffer and Chicago cardboard businessman Walter Paepcke to transform Aspen. Pfeiffer convinced Paepcke to invest in a ski resort development (Aspen Skiing Company). In 1950, the ski runs made Aspen famous when the World Ski Championships were hosted there. Aspen Highlands Resort opened in 1958, and the teaching mountain, Buttermilk, opened a short time later. The Snowmass ski area opened in 1967.
Despite Aspen's transformation into a retreat for celebrities and skiers alike, most visitors agree that its laid-back attitude hasn't changed. There will always be tension between those who don't want to change a thing and developers with new ideas. There are still mainly small stores lining the downtown streets, and Aspen still plays host to a wide range of cultural events.
Aspen doesn't have many historical landmarks or high-rises, though it does enjoy a backdrop of Victorian-era gingerbread homes from its mining-town past. Still, most visitors are more enthralled with the view of the surrounding peaks.
No matter what time of year you visit, you'll want to spend the majority of your time outdoors. The mountains, The Grottos and the area surrounding American Lake are great spots for a summer picnic or a winter snowball fight. Keep in mind that in winter, you can only access The Grottos and American Lake by snowshoe or snowmobile.
Within the city, you'll find several indoor pursuits worth your time. Architectural buffs will enjoy a walk through downtown—many houses and buildings sport great Victorian features. The Aspen Historical Society (located in the Wheeler House) offers downtown Aspen maps and self-guided walking tours for US$2.
While the well-heeled and sporty may go to Aspen for the skiing, the nightlife attracts just as much, if not more, attention. In this year-round town with a relaxed mood, Hollywood celebs rub elbows with nonplussed locals.
Aspen offers a healthy music community with a good selection of live music venues and hip DJ clubs. The best rock and jazz performances are in intimate settings. During summer, you'll often find talented students of the Aspen Music Festival and School practicing and performing in front of the Paradise Bakery.
It's common to find an acoustic artist strumming songs at any of the local watering holes or in hotels.
Aspen's relationship with entrepreneur restaurateurs is mixed—many have opened doors only to close them a year or two later. Others have figured out the Aspen market and created popular restaurants that have been around for decades. Each season offers a couple of new restaurants and bars vying to be the next hot spot, so you'll have plenty of dining choices. Indeed, fierce competition between world-class dining establishments ensures that places often try new things and refresh their menus.
Although Aspen thrives with its natural setting, food prices are a bit less down-to-earth. As a destination that attracts the ultrarich, Aspen is packed with elegant dining, extraordinary meals and superior service. Fortunately, for those watching the meal tab, many restaurants offer bar menus and small plates, providing the same great food in slightly smaller portions for much cheaper prices.
For such a small town, Aspen offers a wide range of cuisine choices. A well-heeled crowd typically demands top-shelf offerings. As a result, wine lists are elaborate, and you'll find an emphasis on local, healthy ingredients in almost every restaurant.
Next to skiing and shopping, dining rates as caliber entertainment in Aspen; reservations are critical. The majority of restaurants are located downtown within easy walking distance from hotels and shopping. With a statewide smoking ban, all restaurants in Aspen are smoke-free.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$15; $$ = US$15-$30; $$$ = US$31-$50; and $$$$ = more than US$50.
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