Set against a gorgeous mountainous backdrop, Aspen is quite simply a sight to behold, with dramatic vistas every which way you turn – and tons of unique things to see and do.
Nestled in the heart of the White River National Forest in Colorado and surrounded by the peaks of the Elk Mountains – part of the iconic Rocky Mountains – Aspen is most famous as a year-round skiing destination. But the town has plenty more to offer than world class pistes. Whatever your reason for visiting this picture-perfect town, there’ll be something to keep you entertained for days – and here’s our starter for 12.
Hit the slopes
For a small town, Aspen certainly punches above its weight when it comes to skiing. Within each reach of the town are four skiable mountains, each drawing huge numbers of skiing enthusiasts every year. The most famous is Aspen Mountain, which can be accessed directly from downtown via the Silver Queen Gondola. The remote Aspen Highlands, meanwhile, is only accessible via a hike and isn’t recommended for beginners. For newbies, Buttermilk Mountain is the one to visit – in particular for families with its dedicated kids’ area. Finally, there’s Snowmass, which boasts the highest vertical rise in the state at 4,400 feet.
Go mountain hiking
If you’ve ever received a postcard from Aspen, there’s every chance that it features a picture of the Maroon Bells twin peaks. Located just 10 miles from the town, Maroon Peak and North Maroon Peak in the Elk Mountains are quite simply breath-taking, and can be best enjoyed by embarking on a hike in the area. There are a number of hiking trails available here, with something to suit every energy and fitness level, but for a less arduous option, the one-mile Maroon Lake Scenic Trail is a popular choice.
White River National Forest / Access restricted in Summer & Fall
Visit a world-class arts museum
One of the most distinctive buildings on the city landscape, the ultra-modern Aspen Art Museum is a major cultural venue that plays host to a wide range of exhibitions, educational programmes, and immersive activities throughout the year. The ideal attraction for some respite after a few days on the slopes, the contemporary art on display spans everything from drawings, paintings and sculptures to multimedia installations and electronic media, with a keen focus on showcasing works by local artists.
637 East Hyman Avenue / Tues-Sun 10am-6pm Closed Mon
Catch a show at a 19th-century Opera House
Named after the renowned developer Jerome B. Wheeler, the Wheeler Opera House dates back to the 1890s and is Aspen’s only example of Romanesque Revival and Italianate-style architecture, as well as being the city’s first building to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. But the venue’s appeal extends far beyond its impressive façade, with the upstairs auditorium staging a number of distinguished performances every year, ranging from national music and comedy acts, to shows during the Aspen Music Festival, to productions by local community groups.
320 East Hyman Avenue Mon-Fri 12pm-5pm Closed Sat-Sun
Take a look around downtown
Whether it’s skiing season or not, Aspen’s downtown district pulsates with energy throughout the year. The area’s historic streets are positively brimming with chic hotels, restaurants, art galleries, bakeries and boutiques that attract a steady stream of visitors. Downtown is also home to the Silver Queen Gondola, which transports you up to the top of Ajax Peak, as well as the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, where visitors can learn about the rich history of the local environment.
Jump aboard a snowmobile
Tucked away in the Maroon Creek Valley in the White River National Forest is the T-Lazy-7 Ranch, a veritable outdoor playground for outdoor adventure. Whether it’s snowmobiling in winter, horseback riding, fly fishing, or exploring a real-life working ranch, this is a superb way to spend the day when visiting Aspen. For snowmobiling, there are several types of tour packages available, all guaranteeing gorgeous mountain scenery as you hurtle through the powdery snow.
3129 Maroon Creek Road
Discover Aspen’s dark side
Every city has a dark underbelly and Aspen is certainly no different. Visitors can explore its seedier, spookier side by joining a dark history guided walking tour, during which you’ll be regaled with sinister, spine-tingling tales about ghosts, murders, massacres, and more. After meeting your expert guide at a central meeting point in downtown, you and your tour group will traverse the streets at a leisurely pace while listening to hair-raising stories from the past. The tour lasts for one hour.
Explore a true-life ghost town
A quick drive south of Aspen lies Ashcroft, once one of Colorado’s most thriving towns thanks to a booming mining industry, but today virtually deserted save for the odd curious interloper. After the golden era of the 1880s, the town went through various peaks and troughs before it was virtually abandoned in the mid-to-late 20th century. In the 1970s, the Aspen Historical Society decided to preserve the town’s heritage and it was soon added to the National Register of Historic Places, welcoming infrequent visitors to explore this historic ghost town.
Pay homage to a music icon
A memorial to a famous Aspen resident of yesteryear – the singer John Denver – can be found along a small river in the Rio Grande Park. Here at the John Denver Sanctuary, a dedicated Song Garden features the lyrics of the singer’s most popular songs etched into granite rocks including: “Annie’s Song”, “Rocky Mountain High”, “Sunshine on My Shoulders” and many more. Smaller rocks on the hill are said to be arranged in a way that represents musical notes from other Denver songs. The memorial can be accessed through a trail beside Theater Aspen and is free to enter.
470 Rio Grande Place Mon-Sun 7am-7pm
Dine at 10,000 feet
For an indulgent dining experience with a difference, this cosy cabin high in the Rocky Mountains will leave you with memories to last a lifetime. Starting with a fun snowcat ride, you’ll be transported up to an atmospheric European-style cabin known as Cloud Nine Alpine Bistro. As well as dazzling you with its awe-inspiring views, you can also tuck into an array of lavish dishes including fondue, raclette, steak tartare and caviar, not to mention an impressive wine and champagne menu. What’s more, a south-facing deck plays host to buzzing evening dance parties.
76 Boomerang Road, Top of the Cloud Nine Lift Fri-Tues 11.30am-3.30pm; Weds-Thurs 11.30am-3.30pm / 6pm-10pm
Test your nerves with some mid-air adventure sports
Adventurous visitors to Aspen can enjoy the ultimate thrill thanks to Aspen Paragliding, one of the region’s best paragliding schools. Taking to the sky in an airfoil glider is truly a memorable experience, made even more special here thanks to the stunning Colorado scenery down below. Flights are taken in tandem with your pilot, with each of you seated in separate harnesses but attached together. Flight paths vary depending on the conditions, with favourable weather allowing your pilot to guide you several thousand feet above the dramatic Aspen Mountain, offering jaw-dropping vistas that will stay with you forever.
Visit a psychedelic-inspired home
Hallucinogenics are well known for getting the creative juices flowing, but rarely could they have helped inspire the design of an entire home. Back in the 1970s, when the original psychedelic revolution was still in full swing, a local Aspen architect dropped some LSD and set about creating a wonderfully unique living space. Featuring myriad natural curves and constantly moving light, it soon became known as the Magic Mushroom House and even played host to notable celebrities including Andy Warhol and Hugh Hefner. Self-guided tours of the house run daily.