They say you come to Aspen and Snowmass for the winter, but stay for the summer – an old adage that proves true time and time again. While the region is famed for its world-class winter sports – celebrities like Rihanna and even Michelle Obama have graced the slopes here – the warmer months hold more than enough adventures to be had by land, water and air.
The thrill of visiting this exquisite corner of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains in the summer starts even before setting foot on its forested heights. The descent into Aspen airport is notoriously difficult and certainly gets the heart pumping – if not for the turbulence, for the spectacular views of the city cradled by snow-capped peaks. Road-trippers may prefer the three-hour scenic drive from Denver. Either way, the journey will give you a taste of what’s to come: pure air, sparkling waters, and a thawed and thriving landscape primed for exploration.
On the ground
Crank the action up a notch and kick up some dust by zipping down dirt tracks on two wheels. Mountain bike rental shops are easy to find in the area, the most prolific of which is Four Mountain Sports, which offers group and private lessons in addition to skills clinics. With over 50 miles of trails to explore in Snowmass alone, the terrain is ideal for first timers and daredevil pros alike.
Beginners, don’t be intimidated by the exoskeletal protective gear you’ll be given to wear on your first go. You may not like the Transformer look, but the protection is necessary. Luckily your vehicle of choice is equipped with serious suspension and dependable brakes – take it slow and you’ll soon find freewheeling fun.
As well as working to restore and preserve local ecosystems, Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (ACES, aspennature.org) runs free daily hikes all summer. Take in the iconic twin peaks of the Maroon Bells (North America’s most photographed mountains), or swing by Snowmass’ high altitude fossil site, where in 2010 a construction crew stumbled upon thousands of bones dating back to the Ice Age – including those of a Columbian mammoth. Ranging from slow-paced to moderately strenuous, the walks are informative as well as scenic, thanks to the expert guides who know all there is to know about the flora and fauna of the area.
You can, of course, tackle most routes unaccompanied. Follow the rim trail from Snowmass to the yin and yang marble platform for a short and rewarding hike (around 30 minutes each way); the views of Maroon Bells and the town below are spectacular. More experienced hikers can continue on for another five miles until they reach the rodeo, where they can catch a free shuttle back to the trailhead.
Where better to ground down into your best mountain pose than on top of a mountain in the crisp morning air? It seems the ‘om’-loving local population have caught on to this idea, as these days the Rockies are full of yogis, as well as bears. Take the gondola up Aspen Mountain (also known as Ajax) for a free hatha yoga class on the sundeck at 11,212ft (Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, 10.15am, Jun-Aug) or head to ACES at Hallam Lake for a serene waterside setting (Tuesdays, 5.15pm, Jul-Aug).
Global yoga sensation Wanderlust Festival (wanderlust.com) has been opening hearts and minds in Snowmass for the past two years and is due back in 2016. The four-day festival brings yogis from far and wide for outstanding teaching and a celebration of mindful living. A willingness to hug complete strangers is a prerequisite.
On the water
As the mercury rises the mountain ice melts, powering the torrents in the valley below. Feeling plucky? Ride the rapids on a white-water rafting trip – some of the best runs in Colorado can be found just a stone’s throw from Aspen and Snowmass.
Half- and full-day trips range from leisurely paddles to all-out adrenaline-fuelled affairs on water graded one to five depending on difficulty and skill required. Slaughterhouse Falls is a grade four section of water popular with thrill-seekers and expert guides – you don’t need to be an experienced rafter to tackle this run but you must be up for a challenge and prepared to get wet.
If you’re looking for something different, or you just want to see what all the fuss is about, don a wetsuit and test your core with a spot of stand-up paddleboarding. This sport is all about balance, and the trick is not to look down.
Despite its formidable name, the Roaring Fork River has sections of slow-moving water which allow you to float peacefully – or flap – your way downstream. Aspen Kayak Academy (aspenkayakacademy.com) provide lessons in the summer in groups of up to six at a time.
In the air
What’s more adventurous than running off the side of a mountain? Take to the skies with the dudes at Aspen Paragliding to get a bird’s eye view of the city. Tandem flights at 3000 vertical feet can last anywhere between 15 and 45 minutes depending on thermal conditions and the round trip from Aspen (including the flight) takes a total of two hours.
Hot air ballooning
There are worse ways to start your day than by floating above the glorious vistas and peaks of Aspen and Snowmass followed by a champagne brunch. One-hour sunrise flights run year round, but if you’d rather keep your feet on solid ground, check out the Snowmass Balloon Festival. Every September over 30 pros compete in various challenges and put on a colorful show with a synchronized ascension.
Know before you go
- Altitude sickness is a definite possibility in Aspen and Snowmass, which sit at 7908ft and 9100ft respectively. Drink plenty of water and don’t exert yourself too much on the day you arrive. Take it easy on the alcohol too – our research suggests it goes to your head much quicker than usual...
- It’s easy to travel between Aspen and Snowmass; Roaring Fork Transit Authority (rfta.com) runs free shuttle buses between the two, which run every 30 minutes from 6:15am to 2:15am.
- Both towns are incredibly child- and pet-friendly, but while kids can partake in the majority of adventure activities, the pooch will have to sit them out.
Emma Sparks traveled to Aspen and Snowmass with support from Aspen Chamber (aspenchamber.org) and Go Snowmass (gosnowmass.com). Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.