#Aspen is, in many ways, what people see in their minds when they think of Colorado: a mountain town that is draped in the gold of turning Aspen trees in autumn and snow-covered slopes in winter. A reputation as a playground for millionaires lingers, but Aspen is so much more than it appears to be
PAST AND PRESENT
Aspen is, without doubt, a year-round destination. But in the minds of many, particularly the tens of thousands who visit to ski every winter, it is defined by its winter endeavors. But as hard as it might be to believe today, Aspen went through a boom-and-bust period before reemerging, after a few decades of dormancy, with a new look and feel.
Hundreds of years ago, the Ute Indians “summered” in what would later become Aspen, but it wasn’t until gold was discovered in Colorado (and silver in Aspen) that people flocked to the area seeking their fortunes. The town that quickly sprung up swelled to around 16,000.
Eventually and inevitably gold production slowed and eventually stopped and silver prices dropped (although large-scale silver mining in Aspen continued until 1917) as the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which was put in place to increase the amount of silver the government was required to purchase, was repealed by Congress. Aspen began a period of rapid decline and was on the cusp of befalling the same fate as many other former mining towns that have long been deserted.
It would be too simple to attribute Aspen’s renaissance to a single person, but if there is one person who is routinely credited with breathing life back into Aspen, it is Walter Paepcke, a Chicago industrialist who visited the area in 1945 at the request of his wife Elizabeth who had herself visited in 1939 for a skiing trip with friends.
Aspen was still far from being an established ski town, but Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke saw the town’s potential (and had the financial clout to do something about it). They eventually formed Aspen Skiing Corporation, which had already been initiated by a determined group of skiing enthusiasts, including veterans of the US Army’s 10th Mountain Division.
Legendary in Colorado, the 10th Mountain Division was formed and stationed at Camp Hale (today called Ski Cooper) near Leadville when the United States entered World War II. They trained in the area before they were deployed to Italy. Upon their return many of them set about transforming the ski industry in the US.
Aspen’s first chair lift, the longest in the world at the time, was installed in December 1946 on Aspen Mountain and more and more people began to arrive as skiing became increasingly popular, particularly as the middle class found themselves with more money to spend on luxuries.
Skiing became so popular in fact that in 1958 Buttermilk and Aspen Highlands opened up for business. While the first organized skiing at Snowmass started that same year, the official opening followed much later in 1967.
While Aspen was on the path to long-term prosperity, Paepcke also saw Aspen as the perfect place for thinkers, leaders, artists and musicians from all over the world to gather and exchange ideas. He envisioned the mountain town as a summertime cultural hub.
In 1949, Paepcke invited more than 2,000 people, among them noted intellectuals and artists, for a celebration of the 200th birthday of German poet and philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. That year, Paepcke created what is now the Aspen Institute and with his wife began planning a campus that to this day is perhaps simultaneously the most interesting thing about Aspen and one of its lesser know elements (read more about the Aspen Institute on page 112).
Modern Aspen was taking shape, and Paepcke seemed to have a hand in all of it, including Hotel Jerome and the Wheeler Opera House reopening, both of which are two of Aspen’s most notable and beautiful buildings to this day.
Aspen continues to grow, but it was this blueprint, laid down seven decades before and masterminded by the Paepckes, that has served as the frame that has been continually built upon to make Aspen the place it is today.
See and do
Aspen the town shouldn’t be confused with Aspen Skiing Company or the four ski resorts it operates. They are inextricably linked, but they are certainly not one and the same. The latter may well be the overriding reason for the town’s resurrection and continued success, but there is more to Aspen than skiing. (But if it is skiing you're after read more here).
NORDIC SKIING, UPHILL SKIING & ICE SKATING
Away from the groomed trails and the après affairs, there are other winter pursuits available in the area including cross-country skiing and snowshoeing on the Aspen Snowmass Nordic Ski Trail System which is one of largest free trail systems in the country (more details on page 36). There are also a few places to ice skate in town including at the Aspen Recreation Center and Aspen’s only outdoor rink at CP Burger on East Durant Avenue. There are also fat tire bikes available for rent.
Aspen is also a good place to try the relatively new trend of uphill skiing. Skinning, as it is sometimes known, is all about earning your turns: ski uphill and then turn around and ski back down. In Aspen (that’s all four mountains) uphill skiing is free where it is allowed, but you will need a permit. Every December, Aspen hosts Summit for Life, a nighttime uphill race and fund-raiser for the Chris Klug Foundation.
If you’re looking for something to do that gets you out of the frigid temperatures, but before you indulge in an après-ski aperitif, Aspen has other attractions, particularly for lovers of art and culture.
ASPEN ART MUSEUM
A non-collecting institution with free entrance, Aspen Art Museum is a regional cultural center that brings programs and exhibitions to Aspen from around the world. The current location, on the corner of Spring Street and Hyman Avenue in the heart of town, was deemed necessary thanks to consistent increases in visitor numbers.
Designed by Shigeru Ban, the building is based on transparency and open view planes: inviting those outside to engage with the building’s interior and providing those inside the opportunity to see their exterior surroundings.
Among the current exhibitions is “Elmgreen & Dragset: It’s Never Too Late to Say Sorry.” Running until May 19, 2019, it consists of a display case containing a polished aluminum megaphone on a granite pedestal. Every day at noon, a man will appear at the case, open the door, take out the megaphone and shout: “It’s never too late to say sorry.” It is said to be a reminder of the power of language, gesture and action.
100 YEARS OF BAUHAUS
Aspen is also celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Bauhaus movement with a range of events throughout 2019. Read more about Aspen’s connection to Bauhaus and what the town has planned here.
Dining & Drinking
It cannot be denied that ostentatious displays of wealth can be seen in Aspen, particularly during ski season. It has long been, and remains very much a place to be seen. However, where the well-heeled congregate so do the best and brightest of the culinary world.
The Chef’s Club at the St. Regis Aspen is perhaps the most unique option in town. The idea is relatively simple: a chef and his or her team will arrive at the St. Regis Aspen to give locals and visitors a taste of something new. Until April 6, 2019, Chef Daniel Humm from New York’s Eleven Madison Park (EMP) will bring his culinary chops to bear on Aspen. Humm and his team will bring a slightly more laid-back version of what you can expect in New York with a menu that takes inspiration from the surrounding countryside and Humm’s Swiss heritage.
The St. Regis Aspen also has a proprietary Bloody Mary. Perfected (not necessarily created) by the St. Regis in New York, each St. Regis property creates its own version. Read more about Aspen’s Downhill Snapper here.
Ajax Tavern inside The Little Nell is a great place for breakfast, lunch or dinner. It is also a great place to indulge in an après-ski drink or snack given it sits right next to the Silver Queen Gondola. Read about it in our Top 10 Après-Ski Spots here.
A good spot for coffee, breakfast or a relaxing lunch in beautiful surrounds, SO Café at the Aspen Art Museum is on the rooftop of the museum and offers amazing views of Aspen Mountain, a feature that alone makes it worth a visit. SO Café offers a lunch menu that changes weekly.
Elsewhere, Element 47 at The Little Nell (a Forbes Five-Star restaurant) is well known for dinner, but a somewhat elevated breakfast buffet during ski season is a good place to fuel up before a day of activity.
Two other options that are highly rated and recommended are Bosq and Cache Cache, both of which were part of our “Fall Fine Dining” feature in issue one. Both also offer a bar menu which is a good option for those who want something quick or less formal but with the same exacting culinary standards.
At ski resorts in the winter it is called après, but in any other place and at any other time it is called day drinking. So whether you call it a libation or a brewski and whether you drink it out of a hand-blown Zalto wine glass or off a ski, Aspen has everything from a pint of hoppy nectar to Champagne on the mountaintop.
Aspen Brewing Company, Aspen’s only craft brewery, has a taproom on the corner of South Galena Street and East Hopkins Avenue. Along with traditional pub food, cocktails and wine, they serve some very fine Colorado beer. Try the Ajax pilsner or the Cloud 9 saison.
For wine lovers, Aspen is quite possibly one of the best places in the country if you like variety. Cache Cache and The Little Nell (available in Element 47 and Ajax Tavern) have wine lists that are as diverse as they are extensive (November’s count put The Little Nell’s cellar at an impressive 21,530 bottles). Both work with several Colorado producers including Sutcliffe
Vineyards, Jack Rabbit Hill Farms, Monkshood Cellars and Buckle Family Wines.
For those who simply can’t wait to get off the slopes to start enjoying themselves, there is Chair 9 on Aspen Mountain. With just eight chairlifts on Aspen Mountain, Chair 9 was named to evoke the 19th hole in golf. It opens just as the lifts are closing.
Belly Up Aspen is somewhat of an institution and features live music from both big names and local talent.
Where to Stay
Aspen has a range, relatively speaking, of places to bed down for the night. The St. Regis Aspen, the Limelight Hotel and Hotel Jerome are among the better known. And then there is The Little Nell, the only ski-in, ski-out, five-star, five-diamond hotel in Aspen.
THE LITTLE NELL
Owned and operated by Aspen Skiing Company, The Little Nell is welcoming with professional but not overly-formal staff. Located at the base of Aspen Mountain, the fireplace that serves both the lobby and the Living Room, a lounge area off Element 47, is very welcoming. Guest rooms and junior suites underwent a renovation in 2017 which has left the hotel with very tasteful and comfortable rooms that are predominantly white with furniture in shades of gray and splashes of color from the art and other personal touches.
If you’re looking for something super cool and relatively unknown, there is Aspen Meadows. Designed by Bauhaus master Herbert Bayer, Aspen Meadows is on the 40-acre campus of the Aspen Institute (which also operates the hotel).
A work of art, quite literally, the campus is just one mile from downtown Aspen but is somewhat secluded and feels as if it is much further away. Rooms ooze Bauhaus style and while they may feel a little stark to some, lovers of culture and art will adore them. The resort is competitively priced compared to others in town and there are shuttles to and from downtown.