Why Aspen Is Even Better in the Summer
Aspen is known as the winter wonderland of the rich and famous, and deservedly so — the four ski mountains have some of the best snow in the western US, the après-ski scene has free-flowing Champagne, and the postcard-perfect town itself is packed with trendy hotels, restaurants, and shops.
But if schlepping pounds of ski gear and dealing with frozen toes aren’t your thing, here’s a secret all the locals already know: Summer is the season where Aspen really shines. When the snow melts, Aspen becomes an entirely new playground, and at an elevation of 8,000 feet, it will literally take your breath away. Here’s how to spend those long sunny days in this charming mountain town.
The Gant, A Destination Hotel: Staying at the Gant is like having your own mountain home but with all the luxe amenities of a hotel: The 120 privately owned condos range from one to four bedrooms and have full kitchens, wood-burning fireplaces, living rooms, dining areas, and patios/balconies. You can enjoy a WE-cycle bike share station in the summer, ski butler service in the winter, and warm hospitality year-round. On-site, you’ll find more amenities to take advantage of: a cafe, two heated outdoor saltwater pools, three hot tubs, two Tesla charging stations, five tennis courts, complimentary shuttle service, plus a view looking up at Aspen Mountain. To celebrate the 45th anniversary of the Gant this year, the hotel is partnering with Leave No Trace to promote conservation and responsible tourism. For every room booked in 2018, the Gant is donating $45 to help restore identified Hot Spots, recreation areas throughout the country that have been damaged by overuse. The hotel also offers a number of special summer vacation packages. (Photo via The Gant)
The Little Nell: The Little Nell’s location has a storied past — it has been everything from the former hunting ground of the Ute Indians to a miner’s retreat to a railroad depot. Now a luxurious (and Aspen’s only) ski-in/ski-out property, the boutique hotel is the place to see and be seen for Aspen’s ritziest visitors. Guests can enjoy 92 recently remodeled rooms, two restaurants, an impressive collection of contemporary art, and a whole menu of pet amenities, including a special in-room dining menu for your four-legged friends.
Hotel Jerome: The Hotel Jerome was built in 1889 (when hotel rooms cost $3) and still is housed in the original building. The hotel’s J-Bar became a de facto office for famed journalist and author Hunter S. Thompson in the ’70s. Both the bar and hotel have since gotten a facelift, but the decor (think mounted deer heads, plush leather seating, and dark woods) and rooms still have a distinctly vintage, hygge-inspired feel.
The St. Regis: The St. Regis in Aspen has the premier service you’d expect of any of the hotel brand’s other locations — amazing dining options, butler service, and rooms with leather beds and marble bathrooms. For a truly pamper-worthy stay, head to the Remède spa to indulge in the spa oxygen lounges, steam caves, and the Confluence waterfall. Or grab a seat in the lobby bar, Mountain Social, sip on a signature Bloody Mary, and see if anyone around you orders the $400 Versailles 75 cocktail.
Meat and Cheese: Part specialty food store, part restaurant, Meat and Cheese uses locally sourced ingredients for its “World Farmhouse” cuisine. They have a number of signature meat and cheese (what else?) boards, fresh salads, sandwiches, flaky biscuits, and kombucha on draft. (Photo via Lesley Chen)
Ajax Tavern: Located at the base of Aspen Mountain next to the gondola, Ajax Tavern is a hotspot for après-ski during the winter, when people come in and buy Champagne by the bottle. The large outdoor patio is great in the summer for casual dining (get the truffle fries), people-watching, and soaking up some sun.
La Crêperie du Village: Walking into La Crêperie is like stepping inside a cozy French bistro filled with farm-style wood furniture, fur throws, and vintage-style art. The restaurant is primarily candlelit, so as you wait for your eyes to adjust, go ahead and enjoy a bottle of wine and savor the rich fondue, both cheese and chocolate.
The White House Tavern: The White House Tavern is located inside one of Aspen’s oldest structures, a historic white Carpenter Gothic style house built in 1883. Inside the rustic chic space, you’ll find a menu full of modern comfort food, like crispy chicken sandwiches and creamed corn, and classic cocktails.
Cache Cache: Cache Cache has retained its stellar reputation in the Aspen fine dining scene for over 25 years, a testament to how good the French food is. There’s also an extensive wine list to pair along with the seasonal menu.
Matsuhisa: Renowned sushi chef Nobu Matsuhisa’s Aspen venue is housed in an assuming blue Victorian, but don’t let appearances deceive you: The fresh sushi, especially the omakase tasting menu, is standout.
Mi Chola: Dining at Mi Chola always feels like a party, thanks to the raucous ambiance and fun space decorated with huge murals and colorful Dia de los Muertos skulls. The tequila menu is almost as long as the food menu, which includes Mexican fare like street tacos, chimichangas, and burritos.
Aspen Art Museum: The Aspen Art Museum features a rotating collection of contemporary art in an impressively modern space. The minimalist three-story structure, a striking contrast to the small houses and brick buildings that make up most of downtown Aspen, was designed by Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architect Shigeru Ban. Ban’s previous work has been in environmentally friendly and humanitarian architecture, such as emergency shelters for the Rwanda refugee crisis and in the aftermath of the Kobe earthquake. The building is designed to blend indoors and outdoors, with wood and glass structures allowing natural light to flood into the space, and the rooftop cafe, SO, has some of the city’s best views of the mountains. Admission is free. (Photo via Lesley Chen)
Shopping: There’s an Aspen outpost for every high-end designer store you could imagine — from Lululemon to Louis Vuitton, it’s like Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive or New York’s 5th Avenue all within a few blocks’ radius. Amid the quaint storefronts, you’ll also find a number of hidden gems such as family-owned clothing boutique Pitkin County Dry Goods, which will help outfit you in true, luxe ski-town style; Gorsuch, the cozy lifestyle brand synonymous with every ski town; and Kemo Sabe, an Aspen institution filled with cowboy hats and boots, turquoise jewelry, leather goods, and plenty of Western charm.
Hiking: The mountains in and near Aspen are a nature-lover’s dream. You can take the Silver Queen Gondola to the 12,000-foot peak of Aspen Mountain to take in views, have lunch at the slopeside restaurant Sundeck, or explore a number of hiking trails. If you want the challenge of hiking up the mountain, the popular Ute Trail (switchbacks included) will let you earn your vistas. You can also stop by the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (ACES) and sign up for one of their guided tours.
About 10 miles west of Aspen, you’ll find the spectacular 14,000 foot Maroon Bells. Even if you haven’t been to or heard of the Bells, you’ve likely seen them, as they are among the most photographed peaks in the US. They reportedly get their distinctive maroon color from the aging of hematite, and sit next to a basin created by Ice Age glaciers. A little further out and less crowded than the Bells is Cathedral Lake, a challenging hike that starts at around 9,500 feet and climbs to 12,000. But the lush aspen groves and jagged cathedral-like cliffs may distract you long enough to forget about your shortness of breath. (Photo via Getty)
Biking: If wheels are more your speed, you’ll find plenty of biking options, road or mountain. Pick up a ride at one of the rental companies like Aspen Bike Rentals or Four Mountain Sports, and either cruise through town or head to the paved path along the scenic Rio Grande River, which is laid-back enough to allow for photo and picnic breaks. For the more adventurous, nearby Snowmass has mountain biking trails for every level.
Fly Fishing: Aspen has world-class fly fishing, and the Roaring Fork Valley is home to a number of Gold Medal Waters, a designation from the Colorado Wildlife Commission regarding the big supply of large trout. Guided tours are available with Aspen Outfitting Company or Aspen Fly Fishing, who will help fit you with waders, teach you how to read the water, and show you how to cast a fly.
Festivals and Special Events: Summer in Aspen is host to numerous special events that appeal to every type of interest. The annual Food & Wine Classic in mid-June brings foodies, chefs, and wine experts from all over the world for a series of tastings and demos. The Aspen Ideas Festival in June is a gathering of leaders in business, politics, science, and the arts to share ideas and spark conversation. And for music lovers, there is the Aspen Music Festival and School, which offers over 400 classical music events from June-August, and Jazz Aspen Snowmass, an open-air music festival over Labor Day weekend celebrating R&B, blues, and soul music. In downtown Aspen, the Belly Up is an intimate live music venue with performances year-round.
Just outside Aspen
Vail: A few hours outside of Aspen is its sister ski town Vail, and the two have somewhat of a sibling rivalry. While both have great hotels, restaurants, and activities, the main difference is that Vail is a resort town built around a ski mountain, whereas Aspen was a former mining town around which a ski resort was built. As a result, walking through downtown Vail feels like walking through the streets of an idyllic Disneyland-like Bavarian village (in the best of ways). While there, grab a bite at Sweet Basil, which has been dishing out delicious modern American food for 40 years, or Fitz Bar and Restaurant, which serves elevated comfort food with a view. Like Aspen, Vail has accommodations for every type of traveler: from privately owned condos at the sprawling and conveniently located Manor Vail Lodge, a Destination Hotel; to the recently renovated and rebranded trendy Hotel Talisa (where they have daily Champagne sabering); to the Four Seasons, whose 14,000-square-foot spa makes up for its further distance from the mountain. (Photo via bauhaus1000/Getty)
Red Rocks: The open-air amphitheater inside the 738-acre Red Rocks Park is one of the best venues in the world to hear live music. It took hundreds of millions of years for the acoustically perfect amphitheater to be formed (the walls contain records dating back to the Jurassic Period), and everyone from The Grateful Dead to U2 has jammed there.
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Lesley Chen is a California native who writes about travel, health/fitness, and other lifestyle topics. She has a serious case of RBF and exercises mainly to balance out an aggressive candy addiction.