But this scenic mountain town in Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley also has a vibrant arts and culture scene, great shopping, engaging museums and top-notch bars and restaurants, making it a crowd-pleasing vacation destination for just about anyone. Whether you’re visiting for the very first time or you’ve been coming here for years, don’t skip out on these quintessentially Aspen things to do.
Jam out at a concert at Belly Up
Belly Up is an intimate concert venue with a big reputation – it’s been a downtown Aspen staple since 2005 and regularly attracts big-name artists in all sorts of musical genres (B.B. King, Jimmy Buffett, Snoop Dogg are among the many well-known artists that have played here). The Colorado venue’s small size is a major draw: fans can get up close and personal with their favorite musicians. With a diverse lineup and over 300 concert a year, you could attend a gig nearly every night of the week and have a different experience every time.
Drive or bike over Independence Pass
Topping out at 12,095 feet, Independence Pass is a two-lane (and, at times, one-lane) highway that traverses the Continental Divide. It’s a scenic summertime drive, with vibrant orange Indian paintbrushes, lavender Columbines and other abundant wildflowers blooming along the side of the road in July and August. The pass is also popular among road cyclists, though it’s a challenging climb that requires a high level of fitness and constant vigilance for cars. Whether you drive or bike, stop for a break at Independence Ghost Town, where you can wander among restored miners’ cabins and the remains of abandoned buildings from the 1880s.
Snap a sunrise photo of the Maroon Bells
The Maroon Bells – a pair of 14,000-foot peaks reflecting in an alpine lake near Aspen – are some of the most photographed mountains in North America. Their natural beauty has made them incredibly popular, but you can ditch some of the crowds by waking up before dawn to reach Maroon Lake. Plus, sunrise is a stunning time to photograph the Bells, which become pink and sparkly as the sun hits them. You can also start one of Aspen's best hikes from there.
Depending on when you go, you may need to make a parking reservation or take a shuttle bus, so be sure to read up on the latest seasonal requirements for visiting the Maroon Bells.
Find the shrines on Aspen Mountain
Keep your eyes peeled while skiing at Aspen Mountain, aka Ajax, and you might suddenly find yourself immersed in a colorful shrine to Jerry Garcia or John Denver. There are dozens of shrines hidden among the trees at Ajax, as well as Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk and Snowmass, paying homage to everyone from celebrities to beloved deceased locals; there are even shrines honoring dogs who have crossed the rainbow bridge. Some are somber, others are lighthearted and fun – but they offer a window into Aspen’s unique culture and identity.
Go mountain biking at Snowmass Bike Park
While there are hundreds of miles of mountain bike trails throughout the Roaring Fork Valley, a good place to start is Snowmass Bike Park. In the summer and fall, the snowy ski slopes transform into lush, wildflower-speckled singletrack trails for all skill levels. The bike park makes it easy to spend all of your time going downhill, since you can hop on the Elk Camp Gondola with your bike for the ride up the mountain – no huffing and puffing required (unless you want to ride cross-country!). There are 25 miles of downhill trails spanning nearly 3,000 vertical feet, with terrain for beginner, intermediate and advanced riders. If you want to beat the crowds on trails like these, September to November might be the best time to visit Aspen.
If you’re new to the sport, Snowmass Bike Park is also a great place to take a lesson or sign up for a skills clinic; you can rent gear there, too. Beyond that, there are more than 300 miles of mountain bike trails throughout the valley, which has been designated a gold-level ride center – the highest rating possible – by the International Mountain Bicycling Association.
Enjoy music under the tent at Aspen Music Festival
In the summer, Aspen is brimming with music students and professional musicians from around the world, who travel to the Roaring Fork Valley for the renowned Aspen Music Festival and School (you’ll often hear and see students playing expert-level classical music downtown to make a little extra cash!). Since 1949, students have been able to rehearse and perform alongside principals from major orchestras, attend lectures, participate in masterclasses and listen to panel discussions.
Members of the public, meanwhile, benefit from the hundreds of public performances that students and professionals put on, many of them taking place in the open-air Benedict Music Tent on the Aspen Institute campus. Though the venue seats more than 2,000 people, many concert-goers lounge on the grassy lawn surrounding the tent, with a picnic or a book to read, while listening to the world-class performances.
Stroll through the Aspen Art Museum
Designed like a woven picnic basket, the Aspen Art Museum is a great place to spend an afternoon, no matter the season. The museum, one of the many free things to do in Aspen, hosts rotating exhibitions featuring mostly contemporary art; there’s also a gorgeous, sunny cafe on the third floor that’s perfect for a light lunch or catching up on emails. Expect to spend about an hour here – it’s not a very big museum, but the architecture and building design are also inspiring.
Go uphilling at Buttermilk
To work up a little sweat while you ski – or “earn your turns,” as some skiers say – try uphilling at Buttermilk, one of Aspen Skiing Company’s four mountains. Uphilling is exactly what it sounds like: skiing uphill. It’s a workout for sure, but also allows you to skip the lift lines and avoid many of the crowds, which can make for a more peaceful, serene experience on the snow.
To uphill, you’ll need some special equipment – chiefly, skins, which are grippy strips that attach to the bottom of your skis to prevent you from sliding backward as you glide uphill. There are special hours for uphilling to avoid getting in the way of fast-moving downhillers, and you’ll need to buy an uphill season pass for $69.
A popular route for uphilling is Tiehack, which climbs 1,600 feet to Buttermilk’s east summit. Once you get to the top, take off your skins, tighten your boots and let it rip to ski back down.
Eat pancakes at Bonnie’s
Take a break from skiing at Ajax to refuel and warm up at Bonnie’s a cozy, mid-mountain spot that’s known for its pancakes and apple strudel. On bluebird days, it’s also a great place to grab a beer and soak up the sun on the deck while skiers and snowboarders cruise by.
Another must-visit on-mountain restaurant is the Sundeck, located a few paces from the top of the Silver Queen Gondola (the main lift from downtown Aspen). It’s a cafeteria-style setup, but this is far from cafeteria food – perfectly cooked burgers, gourmet pizzas, creative sandwiches and other hearty, fresh foods prepared by the top chefs at the Little Nell, one of the most luxurious hotels in Colorado. Even if you’re not hungry, the Sundeck is worth a stop for the views of the surrounding 14,000-foot peaks.
Walk back in time with Aspen Historical Society
Aspen’s active historical society keeps the city’s history alive and relevant with museums and ghost towns. The Aspen Historical Society also offers an array of informative and entertaining walking tours around town, including a Victorian West End walking tour that explores the historical characters and distinctive architecture of the West End neighborhood. The historians are highly knowledgeable and often wear period-appropriate clothing, helping you imagine what Aspen was like decades ago.
Ride an e-bike to Pine Creek Cookhouse
Cycling is a popular sport in Aspen, but the city’s already high starting elevation (8,000 feet) and even higher mountain roads can make it a challenge for visitors, particularly those coming from sea level. Enter the electric bike, or e-bike for short, which will give you a little extra oomph while you pedal and is one of the best ways to get around Aspen.
Rent an e-bike for the day from one of Aspen’s many bike rental shops, then begin the 12.5-mile climb toward Pine Creek Cookhouse, a popular lunch restaurant in a log cabin. Even with the electrical assistance of your bike, this ride is still a challenge, so you’ll be hungry by the time you arrive. The ride back to Aspen, however, is a breeze as it’s all downhill: don’t be afraid to eat every last bite of your massive Castle Creek Knife Burger.
In the winter, you can also cross-country ski or take a scenic horse-drawn sleigh ride to the restaurant, which is just up the road from Ashcroft Ghost Town.
Go birding at Hallam Lake
Founded in 1968, the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies is a beautiful 25-acre environmental learning facility and nature preserve – and one of the best spots to go birding year-round in Aspen. Hallam Lake, located on the center’s grounds along the Roaring Fork River, is home to dozens of species of resident and migratory birds, including colorful waterfowl, delicate warblers and impressive birds of prey.
ACES hosts monthly group birding outings led by naturalist and writer Rebecca Weiss – and there’s even a bird club you can join to help support the center’s work.
Sip an Aspen Crud at the Hotel Jerome’s J-Bar
The Hotel Jerome has been an Aspen landmark since 1889. For more than 130 years, the stately brick building has stood at the corner of Main and Mill streets, surviving the mining boom, the silver crash, the quiet years, the start of Aspen’s ski area, the Hunter S. Thompson years (when gonzo journalist Thompson ran for sheriff in 1970, he made the hotel’s J-Bar his unofficial office) and, finally, the glitz and glimmer of the present day.
The J-Bar, inside the hotel, was also a very popular hangout spot during Prohibition. According to legend, the bartender would surreptitiously toss a few shots of bourbon into a vanilla milkshake for those who asked for “that Aspen Crud.” The boozy milkshake is still on the menu today – and yes, it’s delicious.
Ride bikes along the Rio Grande Trail
This 42-mile “rails-to-trails” route connects the communities in the Roaring Fork Valley from Aspen to Glenwood Springs. It’s a popular trail for cycling, running, walking, jogging and rollerblading because it’s protected from vehicle traffic (except for a handful of well-marked spots where it intersects with roads) as it meanders through varied scenery along the Roaring Fork River. The trail, which is mostly paved and relatively flat, can also connect you with dozens of other trail systems, which means you can ride to your heart’s content without needing to rely on a car.
Get swept up in a Theatre Aspen show
Head to Hurst Theatre, a unique and elegant enclosed tent structure located right along the Roaring Fork River, to be transported to another time and place during a Theatre Aspen musical or play. The professional theater company puts on Broadway shows like Chicago and Guys and Dolls during its annual summer season.