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When in Wonderland

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Know the ins and outs of Aspen, Colo., and get familiar with all the mountain town has to offer besides time on the slopes. 

By Deborah Stachelski, Photos by C2 Photography, Deborah Stachelski, Jeremy Swanson and Zach Maraziti

Boasting such a glamorous reputation, it might come as a shock that the town of Aspen, Colo., started from humble beginnings. Originally settled in the mid-1800s during a silver-mining boom, Aspen was years away from becoming the glitzy destination it is known as today.

The small town, an area of not quite 4 square miles, can be found right at the base of Aspen Mountain, or Ajax, meaning one moment you could be hitting the slopes, catching major air on a powdery jump, and the next, you could be clunking down sets of steep steps on the way to your next après-ski cocktail.

The magic of this mountain town goes way beyond Hallmark-worthy storefronts, though. When the snowflakes start falling and the streetlights come on, it can make the hardest winter heart want to break into song.

Throughout the decades, the valley has transitioned from a mining settlement to a ranching community before evolving into a hideaway for the rich and famous. The nostalgia is in the details: century-old buildings gracing cobblestoned streets adorned with vintage mailboxes, rugged aesthetic remains from the town’s more brawny days seeping through a refined veneer.

With enough luxury amenities to cater to a demanding and savvy demographic, Aspen somehow manages to preserve a quaint, small-town feel. With only one fast-food joint in town—Domino’s Pizza—Aspen is, for the most part, hyperlocal and wants to stay that way.

One might wonder what there is to do in this snow-globe-like hub squeezed between mountains, and the answer is simple: everything.

Skiing is obviously the main highlight and visitor attraction, which makes sense, considering there are more than 5,303 acres of skiable terrain to be found in the surrounding slopes. It’s important to note there are no beginner runs in Aspen proper, although newbie skiers can enjoy easier terrain at the nearby Buttermilk Ski Area, just a 3-mile jaunt down the road.

To help push you out of your adventure comfort zone, companies like Blazing Adventures Aspen take over organizing all logistics for an outing so you can relax under the guidance of trained professionals. From whitewater rafting and hiking the most treacherous mountains to bird-watching tours and nature walks, activities can be summoned for almost every fitness level. For the adrenaline junkie, the 12-mile drive to Maroon Bells is in order. The two Elk Mountains peaks, each topping 14,000 feet, are the most photographed mountains in North America. Come fall, the gold foliage of aspen trees and the bursting color of wildflowers majestically re ect on the glassy waters of Maroon Lake, an incredible sight worthy of dropping the camera.

In the winter, activities such as snowshoeing, ice skating and fat biking (riding bikes with large snow tires) take over the town. During the day, make some tracks and explore the terrain at one of the more than 30 public parks or the thousands of acres of open space in and surrounding the city. In the evening, take in one of the frequent live-music shows, a yoga class at a local studio or some vintage shopping and ne dining.

Art lovers can revel in more than 10 art galleries blanketing the town, as well as the famous Aspen Art Museum, which features the latest exhibits in contemporary art.

The Wheeler Opera House, commissioned by one of the town’s first developers, in 1889, is still active today and showcases big names in theater, comedy and music.

With just a few luxury hotels to speak of, the majority of lodging options are condo rentals and timeshares. Hotel Jerome is the oldest and most historically relevant hotel in the area, inspired by luxury European hotels and donning a red-brick facade. A three-minute walk from downtown Aspen, it’s also listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Hotel Jerome’s history parallels that of the town, with stories dating back to the days when Prohibition was in effect and, to survive, the J-Bar inside became a soda fountain. Liquor service continued in the form of a popular drink called the Aspen Crud, a bourbon-spiked vanilla milkshake still served today.

The dress code in Aspen is a mix of ski garb and leather boots, and that’s to be expected anywhere you go at any time. The community is laid-back, and although you’ll see people of all ages, Aspen is a relatively young-adult town. With a few late-night bars and hangouts for old friends, it seems everyone knows each other. In most places, the season’s end comes with a twinge of sadness, but for this mountainside hideaway, change is always welcome. As the frosty white melts to reveal fresh green, crowds rush in for the spring and summer seasons, which bring whitewater rafting, hiking, golfing, tours, off-roading, mountaintop yoga and food festivals.

Unquestionably, Aspen is a town geared toward the well-being of its dwellers. Today, this means you can hike and ski in the morning, practice yoga and discuss artwork in the afternoon and end the day with a glass of wine by the fire and some late-night dancing.

The real secret to enjoying Aspen is understanding that it’s not just for the rich and famous. It’s for anyone adventurous enough to just jump in.

STAY

Hotel Jerome has a unique history, great amenities and attention to detail, along with an intricate and cozy décor. hoteljerome.aubergeresorts.com

St. Regis Hotel provides the ultimate luxury experience, stellar service and a beautiful view of Ajax mountain. stregisaspen.com

SEE

• Go whitewater rafting with Blazing Adventures Aspen. blazingadventures.com

• Hot-air balloon rides are available through Above It All Balloon Company. aboveitallballoon.com.

• Sightsee from above the slopes with Aspen Heli Charter. aspenhelicharter.com.

• Paraglide with Aspen Paragliding. aspenparagliding.com

EAT

• The Aspen Crud, a vanilla milkshake generously spiked with bourbon, is available at J-Bar at Hotel Jerome.

• Check out the Silver Queen brew series at Aspen Brewing Company. aspenbrewingcompany.com

• Nibble on famous crab cakes at Jimmy’s. jimmysaspen.com

DO

Grottos Trail and Rio Grande Trail are two favorite hikes in the area.

• Take in an art exhibit at the Aspen Art Museum, or enjoy a live performance at the Wheeler Opera House. aspenartmuseum.org, wheeleroperahouse.com

The Aspen Food & Wine Classic takes place June 15 through 17 this year, and will bring many celebrity chefs to town. aspenchamber.org/event-calendar/food-wine-classic-aspen

 

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