Aspen is best known as a luxury travel destination for the rich and famous – celebrities, politicians, business tycoons and other A-listers vacation here year-round. And while many of the stores, hotels and restaurants in Aspen can be pricey, you can still take advantage of the Roaring Fork Valley’s stunning natural scenery, eclectic history and rich arts and culture scene on a budget. If you’re planning an affordable trip to Aspen, bookmark this list of free things to do.
Pedal around town on a bike
Riding a bike is one of the best ways to experience Aspen. And, thanks to Aspen’s WE-cycle bikeshare program, you can take short trips on traditional pedal bikes or electric bikes (e-bikes for short) for free.
WE-cycle offers free, unlimited rides of up to 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, the rate goes up to $0.50 per minute for pedal bikes and $5 per minute for e-bikes. The bike-share program is designed for short, point-to-point trips – pedaling from a restaurant on one end of town to a museum on the other for example – but you can ride as many times as you want. You can dock the bike you’re riding at one of WE-cycle’s 50 stations, check out another bike and start a new, free 30 minutes. (If you’re looking for a longer-term rental or a specific type of bike, there are several bike rental shops in town, too.) Many hotels also offer complimentary bikes to their guests.
Hum a tune in the John Denver Sanctuary
John Denver was one of Aspen’s best-known residents. Though the singer-songwriter famous for “Rocky Mountain High” and other folk hits died in 1997, his memory lives on through the John Denver Sanctuary, located along the banks of the Roaring Fork River in the center of Aspen.
The serene spot, situated within Rio Grande Park, features colorful perennials, grassy knolls, gurgling streams, small waterfalls and native trees and shrubs – even if you’re not a fan of Denver or his music, it’s an idyllic place to have a picnic or spend a contemplative moment watching the hummingbirds flit from flower to flower. The site’s Song Garden is home to several massive boulders with etchings of Denver’s song lyrics.
The sanctuary, which doubles as Aspen’s stormwater filtration system, is free and open to the public. And if you’re looking for other ways to celebrate Denver’s life, consider attending the John Denver Celebration, an annual, multi-day event held each October – many of the gatherings and activities are also free.
Travel back in time at Independence Ghost Town
Fortune-hunters struck it big when they discovered gold just below the Continental Divide on July 4, 1879. They set up their tents and created a small community called Independence at 10,830 feet above sea level. This high-altitude mining town boomed, growing to some 1,500 residents, three post offices and more than 40 businesses by 1882 (it even had its own newspaper, The Independence Miner).
But, as gold production dwindled, so too did the town’s population – many miners packed up and moved to nearby Aspen, which had a milder climate and plenty of jobs. A few dogged residents remained, but eventually, Independence became a deserted ghost town. Today, Independence Ghost Town has been preserved and reconstructed by the Aspen Historical Society and is free to wander through, though there’s a suggested donation of $5 per person. There are walking paths, interpretive signs, artefacts, restored log cabins and the ruins of other buildings from the 1880s. Aspen is also home to Ashcroft Ghost Town, but that has a $5 admission fee.
Try cross-country skiing or snowshoeing
If you’ve got your own gear, it’s free to cross-country ski or snowshoe on the Aspen Snowmass Nordic Ski Trail System, which is one of the largest free systems of its kind in the country. There are more than 55 miles (90 kilometers) of free trails to explore, including several that are dog-friendly. There are also a handful of trails designated for fat bikes, or bikes with especially wide tires designed for riding over snow.
If you’ve never skied before, or you just want to brush up on the basics, there are group and private lessons (for a fee: around $20-$50), plus guided cross-country ski tours. You can rent gear or get your equipment tuned at the Aspen Cross Country Center.
Get inspired at the Aspen Art Museum
Aspen has a world-class art museum – and it’s always free. The three-story museum, located right downtown, has a striking appearance, with a facade on two sides that looks like a woven basket. Inside, the museum is modern and full of natural light, with galleries on the first and second floors. The museum’s third level is a hybrid indoor-outdoor space, complete with a rooftop garden that also features art and a popular lunch cafe.
In addition to rotating exhibitions (the museum is a non-collecting institution, so it has no permanent collection), the Aspen Art Museum hosts an array of lectures, musical performances, film screenings, workshops and programming for kids and adults.
Check out the goods at Aspen Saturday Market
Every Saturday from June to October, the streets of downtown Aspen come alive with farmers, ranchers, purveyors, vendors and artisans. Even if you don’t buy anything, the free Aspen Saturday Market is great for people-watching, checking out the wares of some really talented artists, chatting to Colorado growers and just enjoying the sunshine.
Scope out the Aspen Institute
Herbert Bayer was a student of The Bauhaus, the influential school for art and design in Germany that operated from 1919 to 1933. Bayer moved to Aspen in 1946 at the invitation of Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke, a philanthropic Chicago couple who decided to invest in the city and make it a hub for skiing, arts and culture and intellectual exploration.
To that end, the Paepckes founded the Aspen Institute, which hosted seminars, lectures, discussions, concerts and more – and, importantly, they asked Bayer to design it. Today, the campus is a shining example of Bauhaus style, which prioritized functionality and featured crisp, clean geometric shapes and bold colors. You can use their walking and art guide (free online) to explore Bayer’s artwork and architectural design principles across the 40-acre property; the on-site art galleries are also free and open to the public.And if you’re looking for somewhere to stay during your trip to Aspen, the campus also doubles as a 98-suite hotel, Aspen Meadows Resort.
Hike to the top of Aspen Mountain
Before and after ski season, you can hike up Aspen Mountain for free – no lift ticket or ski pass required. The Ute Trail, which starts just steps from downtown Aspen, climbs among the evergreen and aspen trees while offering sweeping views of the city below. Make the Sundeck restaurant your target destination, then perhaps reward yourself with a pizza and a beer (not free!).
There are dozens of other free hikes in Aspen, all ranging in difficulty level, views and terrain.
Get creative at Anderson Ranch Arts Center
Head over to Snowmass, Aspen’s neighboring city, to wander the grounds of Anderson Ranch Arts Center. In 1966, ceramicist Paul Soldner purchased the 5-acre property and its 14 ranch buildings, with the goal of creating an artistic hub in the Rockies. Today, Anderson Ranch continues that legacy with artists-in-residence programs, 55,000-square-feet of studio space for artists, lectures, workshops, salons and other events.
The tree-lined campus itself is gorgeous, and it’s all free and open to the public. Wander through the Patton-Malott Gallery, which hosts rotating exhibitions throughout the year, then check out the 19 outdoor sculptures in the “(Still) Sculpturally Distanced” exhibit, a nod to the Covid-19 pandemic. The ranch also has a cafe and a store that sells art supplies and original art. Aspen is also home to many downtown art galleries – and window-shopping is always free.
Take a history lesson in mining and ranching
Managed by the Aspen Historical Society, the Holden/Marolt Mining & Ranching Museum is located on the grounds of the Holden Lixiviation Works, which processed silver ore during Aspen’s mining boom. The plant operated for just one year before silver collapsed. Later, after it closed, the Marolt family purchased the property and combined it with their existing land to create the Marolt Ranch, where they raised livestock and grew potatoes.
Today, the property offers a window into Aspen’s past, sharing stories and artefacts from the city’s industrial and agricultural days. The museum and its grounds are free and open to the public (museum hours vary depending on the season).
Walk, cycle or rollerblade the Rio Grande Trail
The Rio Grande Trail spans 42 miles between Aspen and Glenwood Springs. It’s free to use, mostly flat and paved for some stretches, which makes it the perfect place to get outside and enjoy Aspen’s fresh air. The accessible Rio Grande also serves as the backbone to the Roaring Fork Valley’s wider network of trails, helping to connect runners, walkers, cyclists and other users with dozens of other routes and trailheads, all without needing a car.