Some 200 miles west of Denver, Aspen, Colorado, is nestled in the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. It’s a peaceful retreat in every season, alive with colorful wildflowers in the summer and golden yellow aspen leaves in the fall. But in the winter, this mountain town feels especially magical—fresh snow glitters on the trees, and downtown comes alive with twinkling strings of lights.
With four ski resorts and expansive terrain to explore on snowshoes or cross-country skis, Aspen is a major winter outdoor recreation hub. Plus, after you come in from the cold, you can warm up at the chicest après-ski scene in the country. At 8,000 feet in elevation, Aspen sees chilly temperatures in the winter, but thanks to Colorado’s abundant sunshine and dry climate (and the right jacket and gear), you’ll hardly notice.
Here’s how to plan a weekend trip to Aspen—and what to do once you’re there. Note that Pitkin County, which includes Aspen, is currently requiring all visitors to obtain a negative COVID-19 test 72 hours before arriving (or quarantine for 10 days), and sign a traveler affidavit agreeing to an array of local coronavirus precautions and rules. Don’t forget to read up on the latest state restrictions and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines before you head out as well.
Fly into the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport, which offers direct flights from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Houston, and several other major cities, as well as hundreds of connecting flights. And when you fly directly to Aspen, you can lower the environmental impact of your flight for a small fee through the airport’s new carbon offset program.
To explore more of Colorado, fly into Denver International Airport, then rent a car (ask about a vehicle that meets Colorado traction law standards, which go into effect during winter storms) and head west on I-70. This four-hour drive will take you past the Denver city skyline as well as through gorgeous mountain scenery. There are also daily passenger shuttle options from Denver International Airport to Aspen if you don’t feel like driving yourself.
What to do
Travelers head to Aspen during the warmer months for patio dining, world-renowned concerts and festivals, and warm-weather activities like hiking, cycling, and fishing. But from December to early April, Aspen is all about downhill skiing at its four sister resorts—Aspen Mountain, Buttermilk, Aspen Highlands, and Snowmass—which have varying terrain types and difficulty levels (as well as ski and snowboard lessons if you need a refresher). You can ski right into downtown from Aspen Mountain, known locally as “Ajax,” which has 64 miles and 3,267 vertical feet of terrain, while sprawling Snowmass offers tons of family-friendly amenities. If you want to hop around and try all four mountains, you can choose from several multi-mountain ski passes.
Beyond downhill skiing, a slew of other outdoor winter activities are popular here, like snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, uphilling, winter birding, hiking, and ice fishing, to name a few. If you’re new to any of these, there are experienced guides and instructors who can show you the ropes, including Sun Dog Athletics, Blazing Adventures, and Ashcroft Touring and Adventures. To learn more about Aspen’s plants and animals while out and about, book a guided tour with a naturalist from the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies.
More experienced mountaineers can take advantage of the region’s backcountry skiing areas (out-of-bounds, ungroomed, and unmonitored terrain), but brush up on your avalanche skills or tap a guide to be safe—Aspen Alpine Guides, for example, offers regular avalanche courses and guided backcountry excursions. For a backcountry-esque adventure that’s still in-bounds, try hiking up to the 12,392-foot summit of Highland Bowl, then skiing the double black diamond terrain down—you’ll want to be in peak physical shape and be an experienced skier for this one.
Aspen is also a shopping hub, with fashion brands like Prada, Gucci, and Ralph Lauren lining the walkable cobblestone streets downtown. To round out your shopping trip, browse for unexpected treasures—like a vintage Louis Vuitton suitcase or a pair of World War II binoculars—at Daniel’s Antiques, then head over to Chequers for tastefully curated home decor and art.
Take advantage of Aspen’s robust arts and culture scene by strolling through the Aspen Art Museum and the many galleries around town, including the Gonzo Gallery and the Cha Cha Gallery. The Aspen Historical Society’s Wheeler/Stallard Museum offers guided walking tours that provide a window into Aspen’s early mining days, influential residents throughout history, and evolution as a cultural and artistic powerhouse.
Where to eat
Get a sense of Aspen’s natural environment with dinner at Bosq, where chef and co-owner Barclay Dodge creates dishes and cocktails highlighting local ingredients he foraged himself in the surrounding wilderness. This winter’s multi-course tasting menus feature entrees like venison with blue spruce mole, root vegetables, and mountain berries, as well as appetizers like lamb grilled on oak branches. If you can’t get a table (try to make a reservation at least two weeks in advance), Bosq also has a delicious takeaway menu.
For lunch, stop by White House Tavern and order the locals’ favorite crispy chicken sandwich, made with Swiss cheese, tomato, and spicy coleslaw. Other spots to bookmark include Nakazawa Aspen for sushi, Ellina for contemporary Italian cuisine, French Alpine Bistro for raclette and fondue, Hooch for craft cocktails, and Bear Den Aspen for brunch. Before you leave, stock up on artisanal cheeses, cured meats, and pickles from Meat and Cheese, a hybrid restaurant and specialty food store.
Where to stay
Hotel Jerome has been an Aspen landmark since 1889, and the hotel’s rich 130-year history alone makes it worth a visit. The hotel first opened amid Aspen’s silver-mining boom as a model of class and elegance, pioneering innovations like electric lighting and indoor plumbing. It survived Aspen’s subsequent silver bust and the Great Depression, then tracked the city’s rise to become an elite mountain destination among skiers, movie stars, artists, and intellectuals. Now, it’s centrally located downtown and offers the perfect blend of modern luxury and historic Old West charm in its 99 guest rooms, complete with mounted wooden deer heads and burnished leather bed frames. Head down to the J-Bar for an “Aspen Crud,” a boozy, Prohibition-era milkshake.
If you’re traveling with your pandemic pod, Aspen Street Lodge is a new nine-room boutique hotel with a two-bedroom penthouse available this winter for total buyouts. You can easily walk to the slopes from the Limelight Hotel Aspen, which has a laid back yet upscale vibe in its 126 rooms, two rooftop terraces, and cozy, living-room-style lounge. For architecture lovers, Aspen Meadows Resort offers an up-close view of Bauhaus architect and designer Herbert Bayer’s distinctive style and legacy.
The Little Nell is another Aspen icon, offering high-end accommodations and ski-in/ski-out access to Aspen Mountain for guests in its 92 rooms. Even if you don’t stay there, at least stop by for a glass of wine at the new Wine Bar at The Nell or a steaming mug of their popular hot chocolate, made with rich Dutch cocoa.
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