Pitkin County was under very strict Covid-19 restrictions before and during our arrival. All visitors were required to sign an affidavit confirming that they have been tested negative for the virus within 72 hours of arrival. There were warnings of checkpoints that would ask visitors to show their test results and affidavit receipt. Anyone violating this policy would be subject to a $5,000 penalty and a quarantine period of ten days. Most restaurants were open for takeout only. For a moment, we considered canceling our travels to the area but are so happy we complied with the rules and came over for a wonderful time.
There are four main mountains in the area: Aspen Highlands, Aspen Mountain, Buttermilk, and Snowmass. The latter is the most popular mountain, crowd-wise, and the largest one as well. If you're coming to the area and seek to ski/snowboard the largest terrain, away from the hustle and bustle of Aspen, you'd be happiest in Snowmass Village. If you're looking for solid slopes but want to be close to a thriving nightlife, rows of high-end shops, and have endless fine dining options at your doorstep, you'd probably prefer staying in downtown Aspen. The good news is, they're only 20 minutes away from each other, and it's a scenic drive between the two, so you should check out the one you aren't planted in.
The TEN Best Things to do While in Snowmass/Aspen:
1. Shred Those Snowmass Slopes
Snowmass Ski Resort offers 3,500 skiable acres of perfect powder. It also boasts 94 trails for all levels, several high-speed gondolas and lifts, and most importantly the second-longest continuous vertical drop in the USA (Snow King winning for first place) on a massive 14,000-foot mountain. On a clear day, the views at the summit are epic.
2. Stroll Through Snowmass Village
Snowmass Village is quite large compared to others and offers a ton of activities from live ice sculpting to nightly light shows, smores by the fire, tubing, its own ice-skating rink, live music, several restaurants and bars, and many shops. You can travel from the lower base to the upper base via a quick gondola ride, both parts of the village will meet your shopping and dining needs. It is a lively and fun ski village with lots to enjoy and discover. On a personal note, I have avoided gondolas my entire life (I don't ski) because of my fear of heights. I'll always remember Snowmass as a place I conquered this fear and zipped up and down the mountain confidently.
3. Excercise at an Awesome Recreational Center
The Snowmass Village Recreation Center is an amazing facility with outdoor heated pools, an impressive indoor basketball court, a fully equipped gym, and an abundant fitness class schedule. We enrolled in their Body Pump, HIIT, and TRX/Kettle Bell classes which all gave us a super workout leaving us sore before we made it back to our car. Their daily rate is a steal at $15 which will grant you access to all its offerings.
4. Submit to the Most Sensational Scoop You Have EVER Had
Sundae, an artisanal ice-cream shop in Snowmass Village's lower base, seriously makes the most incredible ice-cream. On our first visit, we bought a pint of their salted cookies & cream flavor and almost cried when we took our last bite. We went back for three more pints of this heavenly flavor and added butter pecan and malted chocolate chip to our tasting repertoires. Unanimously we all agree that we have never indulged on such decadently creamy ice-cream. You will love the friendly service, adorable space, and super creamy flavors that will knock your socks off. Don't even try to resist the calories. Surrender to this divine experience.
5. Saunter the Sidewalks of Downtown Aspen
This small town has big appeal and wonderfully captures a city feel amid the Rocky Mountains. Known for its shopping as much as its snow, Aspen houses high-end retailers like Prada, Ralph Lauren, and Armani. There are over two hundred shops to explore comprised of galleries, jewelry shops, artistically curated furnishing stores for the home, retail therapy made of designer duds to classy consignments to western wear, and of course, a plethora of ski clothing lines that you'll wish you could fill your closet with. It would take a few days just to hit the endless options of shops or you can just enjoy the eye candy like I did by soaking in the architecture, beautifully decorated storefronts, mountain views at every corner, and the lovely lighting throughout the streets as the sun retreats. Since we visited off-season and while the county imposed many Covid restrictions, Aspen was quiet and less scene-y than it is known to be. If you can, now is a great time to stop by and enjoy all the magical qualities of the town without having to share them with many others.
7. Dine, Dine, & Dine
The food scene in Aspen's area is intense with more fine dining options backed by noteworthy chefs than you can dream of. If you're traveling into the area while Pitkin county is under code red you'll soon learn that only the very few restaurants that have outdoor space are open for dining. Of the ones that are open for dining you'll find that they're capitalizing on Covid and offering ridiculously expensive dining packages that seemed to not only repel my family as their fancy igloos and newly built interior decorated outdoor spaces sat empty. Although Aspen is known for its A-list clientele, they didn't seem to either be around or willing to splurge on a $250- $500 reservation fee plus food minimum requirements. Bummer, as my readers know, we are big foodies and would have loved to support and experience some of the well-known establishments. It was difficult to find reputable restaurants that were open for outdoor service without trying to force-feed extra costs down our throats. With much research and tastings I have highlighted our best meals in Aspen that did not require any reservation fees or food cost minimums.
Woody Creek Tavern, in Woody Creek, is a Colorado institution and worth the 15-minute drive outside of either Aspen or Snowmass. During non-Covid days celebrities and locals flock to this iconic former-post-office-turned-restaurant to get their booze and burritos on. The interior space is plastered with pictures of patrons getting plastered (pun intended) under the disco ball along with autographed photos of faces like Johnny Depp and Pippa Middleton who are big fans of the place. The food is nothing worth writing home about. You'll munch on a basic Tex-Mex kind of meal. But don't come here for the food. Instead come for the great vibes, electric energy, and friendly service. Since indoor dining is not currently permitted in Pitkin County this is a great spot for outdoor dining in their spacious and colorful patio. Make sure to come before 2:00 pm while the sunlight pours on their front deck keeping you nice and warm along with the space heaters. Once this pesty virus goes away, head over after sunset and get ready for a great night surrounded by the company of the smiling strangers all over the walls.
A meal at Prospect at Hotel Jerome is a memorable experience. The hotel is an Aspen icon that has been around since 1889. It has consistently remained the social hub of Aspen until current Covid days where indoor dining is not permitted leaving its beautifully decorated lobby, lounge, and restaurants barren and empty. You'll be immediately mesmerized as you enter the cozy space with the dramatic atrium welcoming you into a hypnotic trance that will continue to follow you as you roam the property. This place is gorgeous. Luckily, they have an outdoor terrace that is currently open and ready to serve perfectly prepared dishes. For those who want a more luxurious experience, the restaurant has two igloos set up with a heater, rug, leather chairs, and blankets that are available for rent. We went for breakfast and had the most inspiring toast trio plate consisting of a salmon toast with herbed cream cheese, an avocado toast with a poached egg, and a hummus and strawberry jam toast topped with fresh strawberries and hazelnuts. Edible flowers decorated each slice loaded with fantastic flavors. The flight of toasts is truly an extraordinary experience! The service is impeccable at Hotel Jerome with no detail overlooked. Even my cappuccino arrived with the latte art of a smiling sun. This place will make you happy.
The bakery sells out of many of their delicious pastries by 9:30 am so make sure to get to this local favorite early for your coffee fix and to stock up on freshly baked goods. I loved their creative takes on croissants with flavors like blueberry cheesecake, apple crisp, and even savory ones with cheese and spinach. They also serve gelato and breakfast bites like their well-loved breakfast burritos.
Both locals and tourists love this lively American fare joint in the heart of downtown. In fact, it's rated number one on Tripadvisor's "best restaurants in Aspen" list. I loved the environment. Seated outside you'll have the perfect vantage point to people watch while the ski runs on the mountain and the colorful sunsets paint the horizon. The small menu has some delicious salad options, sandwiches and curried deviled eggs that are actually really good. Take note though, our appetizers and main course came out at the same exact time. This was obviously disappointing and cramped our table. When we asked why everything was served together, we were told that the kitchen likes to get everything out as fast as possible. Hmmmm... For the atmosphere and solid food, I recommend a visit here but make sure that you stress that the kitchen holds off on bringing out your entrees until you have enjoyed your appetizers.
Lastly, I have put a lot of thought into whether I should share our experience at Toro in The Viceroy Snowmass. I want to keep a positive tone in my posts and only feature the places I do recommend. Since this is a popular spot I feel compelled to warn you to stay away. When we arrived, the ambience was promising. There was a tent beautifully decorated with rugs, lighting, and blankets in a well-heated space alongside the hotel's outdoor pool. As soon as we sat, everything went downhill. My red wine came out freezing cold since it was served from the outdoor bar (hey, just warn people that their $20 glass of red will be frigid). The meals weren't timed correctly leaving some of us waiting over 30 minutes for our dish while everyone else completed theirs. The food is eh and no effort is put into the presentation (thus, I will not include any photographs of our meal). For their price point, I'd stay away despite the cute decor in their tents.
8. Meditate with the Lyrics of John Denver's Music
Head over to The John Denver Sanctuary to pay tribute to an American legend in a serene park setting along the Roaring Fork River. There are stones scattered through the Song Garden that feature Denver's lyrics into native river boulders. It is also his final resting place and burial site.
I was especially moved by the lyrics in Poems, Prayers, and Promises. Please take a minute to read through them. And then imagine reading them under the bluest skies, along a streaming river, with mountains encircling you.
I've been lately thinking about my life's time All the things I've done, how it's been And I can't help believing in my own mind I know I'm gonna hate to see it end I've seen a lot of sunshine, slept out in the rain Spent a night or two all on my own I've known my lady's pleasures, had myself some friends And spent a night or two in my own home I have to say it now, it's been a good life, all in all It's really fine to have a chance to hang around And lie there by the fire and watch the evening tire While all my friends and my old lady sit and pass the pipe around
Talk of poems and prayers and promises and things that we believe in How sweet it is to love someone, how right it is to care How long it's been since yesterday and what about tomorrow? What about our dreams and all the memories we share? The days they pass so quickly now, nights are seldom long Time around me whispers when it's cold The changes somehow frighten me, still, I have to smile It turns me on to think of growing old For though my life's been good to me there's still so much to do So many things my mind's never known I'd like to raise a family, I'd like to sail away And dance across the mountains on the moon, yes I would I have to say it now, it's been a good life, all in all It's really fine to have the chance to hang around And lie there by the fire and watch the evening tire While all my friends and my old lady, sit and watch the sun go down
There is a special, spiritual effect in this sanctuary. As I was hugged by the mountain ranges, enveloped by the heartfelt lyrics, and dazed by the dance of the nearby river, I found myself reminded again of life's fragility and how grateful I am to have been in the arms of nature for the past few months. Visit the sanctuary for inspiration, contemplation, meditation, and connection to all that is there for us to take inorder to transform into the best humans possible.
9. Take a Hike
There is an infinite number of hikes you can enjoy while in the area. Each one offers its own spectacular connection to nature along with varying difficulty levels and trail lengths. Some of the most popular in the area are The Rio Grande Trail, Smuggler Mountain Trail, Maroon Bells Scenic Trail (closed during winter), and The Ute Trail. There are dozens more to choose from but these were on my list after researching the ones that were easy to moderately difficult while yielding breathtaking views.
The Rio Grande Trail, pictured below, is a 42-mile trail that leads into New Mexico. If you're like me and prefer a shorter hike just hop on the path and turn around when you've had enough. I can only attest to the first couple of miles on the trail which was flat, easy, and hung along the Roaring Fork River. This is a wonderful trail for all ages and hiking levels.
10. Get Cozy with Ghosts
Aspen is full of history dating back to the 1800s with the Ute Indians to the silver miners that arrived in 1879. Along with a rich history and buildings that still stand comes a dark past and whispers from the ghosts that still lurk in the valley and in downtown Aspen. Dean's Aspen Walking Tour will give you interesting insights into the town's history along with firsthand accounts of ghost sightings. For all you skeptics, all I can say is that at the end of the tour when Dean read a list of miner's names who died in the valley behind us I suddenly felt a push and fell flat on the ground. I was so stunned as was my family and the other couple on our tour. I have no idea what happened but I literally was standing and the next thing you know I was on the ground.
The Red Onion, a local tavern, pictured below, has stood erect since 1892. This is one of the several standing buildings that have a ghostly past. From tales of serial killers to a wet little boy visiting haunted hotel rooms, this tour will give you goosies.
Aspen/Snowmass is a wonderful year-round destination jam-packed with history, nature, countless activities for all seasons, shopping, delicious dining, and gorgeous sunsets. If you can, get here off-season when there are fewer crowds although peak-season will bring you lots of fun too while you rub elbows with folks from all over the world that come here to savor all this tantalizing town has to offer.