Aspen, for all its money, taste and eccentricity, owes its current status to the surrounding slopes. Above all, this is a ski town and one of the best in America, with four mountains accessible from a single lift ticket – each offering a different flavor and an adventurous twist. But downhill is not the town’s only gift.
Local Knowledge: 10th Mountain Division Hut-to-Hut Trips
Exploring the Colorado wilderness is already quite an adventure in summer, but imagine the thrill of gliding through the backcountry on skis: just you, your friends and quiet snowfall blanketing the mountainside. Well, thanks to the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association, which manages a system of over 30 huts (some with wood-burning saunas), it can be done – without having to spend the night in a snow cave.
The huts are connected by a 350-mile trail network ideal for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in the winter, and mountain biking and hiking in the summer. The majority are located between Vail Pass and Aspen (10th Mountain Huts and Braun Huts), but there are growing networks in Summit and Grand counties. You'll be out in the wilderness, so you should be a decent backcountry skier and be familiar with avalanche safety before reserving a bunk. It's best to go as a group (some huts only accept group reservations), with at least one experienced leader who knows how to find a trail in a storm.
So how do you sign up for all this winter fun? The catch, of course, is securing reservations: these huts are incredibly popular and space is limited. Winter reservations for the following year begin with a member-only lottery on March 1 (annual membership $35). Call-in reservations for non-members open up on June 1. In other words, you have to plan your trip six to 12 months in advance and be somewhat flexible with your dates (avoiding weekends is key).
Summer is generally easier to arrange, though not all huts are open; call-in reservations for the following year open October 1.
Cycling & Mountain Biking
Once the weather warms up, there's no shortage of two-wheeled fun in the Aspen area. Road cyclists can pedal the easy Rio Grande Trail, the harder Maroon Bells Road or the masochistic Independence Pass. If you're eager for blistering downhill and jumps, head for the Snowmass Bike Park, though there are plenty of free singletrack classics to choose from: the 10.5-mile Rim Trail is a top Snowmass ride that leaves from the Rodeo Lot.
Linking Snowmass with Aspen is the newer, much loved Sky Mountain Park, with a variety of terrain, while in Aspen itself you can head straight out into the open space on the Smuggler-Hunter Creek Loop – extending it all the way to Sunnyside if you're up for a challenge.
Cycling to Maroon Bells
According to local cycling gurus, the most iconic road-bike ride in Aspen is the ride to Maroon Bells, mainly because it climbs a lung-wrenching 11 miles to the foot of one of the most picturesque wilderness areas in the Rockies. Most folks drive it or take the shuttle, but if you crave sweet, beautiful pain, let your quads sing.
Hiking to the Grottos
One of the most popular summer playgrounds in Aspen and a great family hike, the Grottos area is accessed via a complex web of short trails (most about half a mile in length) that sprout from old Weller Station on the original Independence Pass wagon road, leading to waterfalls and sculpted gorges. The shortest, wheelchair-accessible trail visits a series of thundering falls and swimming holes on the Roaring Fork River.
On the opposite bank, the Old Stage Rd leads upstream to Lincoln Creek, and an offshoot heads to unique water-carved slots known locally as the Ice Caves. These are worth hunting for. Head up Independence Pass east of town for 9 miles on Hwy 82 and look for a ‘Trailhead’ sign on the right-hand side of the road, nearly a mile after passing Weller Campground. Leave your car or bike in the small parking area and start exploring. Be warned: the rocks are slippery and the water icy. Deaths are not frequent, but have been known to happen.
Aspen Ski Tips
With four sublime mountains to choose from there’s no way you can ski all the terrain in the Aspen Snowmass Ski Resort in a few days, but if you follow our lead, you'll find your bliss wherever you ski.
- Snowmass With the most terrain in Aspen and superb views of the Maroon Bells from the top of Elk Camp, Snowmass is the best all-around choice. The best beginner run is Assay Hill: it’s short, typically free of crowds and sloped perfectly for newbies. Access it via the Assay Hill lift or the Elk Camp Gondola. The top intermediate choice is Sneaky’s: offering sweeping views of the Roaring Fork Valley, this wide-open cruiser is the perfect blue groomer, and those looking for a challenge can ski into powder and trees on either side of the run at anytime. Access it from the Sheer Bliss or Big Burn lifts. Any run in the Cirque or the Hanging Valley Headwall will suit the adrenaline set. Make the 10-minute hike to the top of Headwall and head down Roberto’s to Strawberry Patch, where you can often find fresh powder. It's accessed via the High Alpine lift. There are three terrain parks here.
- Aspen Mountain Accessed from town, Aspen (or Ajax) is the only mountain with no beginner terrain. It can get crowded, so expect bumps. Intermediate skiers and riders will dig Ruthie’s, a wide-open groomed run with sweeping views; this is the same terrain that has been skied by Women’s World Cup racers for the past fifteen years. Local tip: stay skier’s right at the top of Ruthie’s and you’ll head into the Jerry Garcia Shrine, accessed from the FIS and Ruthie’s lifts. Walsh’s, on the other hand, is for experts – it's steep, deep and breathtaking (visually and physically), with jaw-dropping views of Independence Pass.
- Aspen Highlands You know all those amazing promo shots of beautiful people joyfully hiking atop an exposed snow-covered ridge with skis hoisted on one shoulder and incredible alpine scenery in the background? That's here. Although there are some beginner and intermediate runs here (Apple Strudel, accessed by the Exhibition lift, and the groomed Golden Horn run to Thunderbowl), the Highlands is all about extreme skiing in the stunning hike-to Highland Bowl: expect chutes, vertiginous drop-offs and glades. Try G-4 for a steep, deep tree run and Hyde Park for one of the longest bump-and-tree runs you’ve ever taken. It's accessed by Loge Peak and Deep Temerity lifts, then hop a free snowcat ride part-way or just hike it.
- Buttermilk Beginners here head to Westward Ho via the Summit Express and West Buttermilk Express. The Summit Express and Upper Tiehack lifts take intermediate skiers to the blue runs at Buckskin; the best advanced terrain is Buttermilk Park, starting on Jacob’s Ladder. This is where you can ski/ride the same hits and 22ft superpipe as Shaun White, Julia Marino and all your favorite X Games athletes. You read that right: this is one of the venues for the Winter X Games.