The ski town lives up to its rep as a place where high gloss and mountain majesty meet
Despite its remote mountain-shrouded location, Aspen is hardly a backwater. In the 1940s, Chicago businessman Walter Paepcke launched a campaign to turn this busted silver mining outpost into the Athens of the Rockies. Today his Aspen Institute is an international think tank, the Aspen Music Festival and School hosts violinists Midori and Joshua Bell, couture designer Dennis Basso opened his first boutique on the main drag, and private jet traffic at Aspen airport equals all flights at San Diego. It’s big-city glamour set within a charmingly compact six square blocks downtown. There’s enough going on that you could almost forget about the four ski areas nearby. But why would you want to do that?
Wake up among Mad Men neutrals at the modernist Little Nell ($700-$4,500), and you’re 15 steps from the Silver Queen Gondola at Aspen Mountain, the area’s original ski resort. Accessible with the same lift ticket as the three outlying mountains, it’s known for its steep groomed slopes and down-home breakfasts at Bonnie’s, a mid-mountain restaurant that specializesin oatmeal pancakes and apple strudel. Or graze the spread—complimentary for guests—at the Limelight Hotel ($240-$2,000), where the tab and the contemporary digs are a notch or two below the Little Nell’s but gondola access is still a short stroll away. Also close by: the transit station and its fleet of free shuttles that can take you to theneighboring resorts. Buttermilk appeals to hucksters (its terrain park hosts the ESPN Winter X Games in January). Snowmass features a palatial children’s center and broad intermediate runs. And the Highland Bowl at Aspen Highlands is a proving ground for hard-core typeswho compare uphill-hiking times and downhill laps. You can talk up your exploits, or at least hear others do as much, at Highlands’ Cloud Nine Alpine Bistro, a mid-mountain party hub where tables for midday fondue are reserved weeks in advance and the south-facing deck is thronged with revelers popping champagne and boogie-ing in ski boots.
While the slopes are world-famous here, there are other ways to play in the snow, there are other ways to play in the snow. SunDog Athletics owner Erik Skarvan can get you acquainted with snow-biking. Pedaling a rig equipped with extrawide tires, cruise the snowflake-laden road to Maroon Lake and its panoramic views of the 14,000-foot peaks known as the Maroon Bells. If that sounds like too much work, walk the Rio Grande Bike Path back in town to the John Denver Sanctuary, a riverside park that commemorates Aspen’s best-known resident with stone monoliths displaying the country singer’s lyrics. There’s still rancor among residents over the 2014 redo of the Aspen Art Museum, a lattice-covered rectangle designed by Shigeru Ban that stands out from the business district’s low-rise Victorian-era masonry buildings. But with works by Alan Shields, John Outterbridge, Shinique Smith, and the like, its exhibitions are inarguably impressive. Noteworthy names fill the racks at Amber’s Uptown Consignment, a reseller for mid-tier designers and couture. It’s among the hefty supply of boutiques—including Rag and Bone, Prada, Moncler and Gucci—that line the heated sidewalks, but there’s just one spa: Remède at the St. Regis Aspen Resort, which features a waterfall-fed pool, steam caves, and an oxygen lounge. After a session, snack on charcuterie at Meat and Cheese, a buzzing farm-to-table restaurant and grocery. Or curl up on a leather sofa at the Hotel Jerome, where a recent renovation turned the 1880s lobby, J-Bar, and Prospect restaurant into a mix of old-fashioned elegance and modern masculinity.
Aspen only gets livelier when the sun goes down. It’s not all partying, either. You can catch chamber music and solo recitals at Harris Concert Hall, the Zen-like winter home of the Aspen Music Festival. There are also lectures and film fest screenings at the 1889 Wheeler Opera House. For a different kind of night, start with a cocktail at Justice Snow’s. At nearby Zocalito Latin Bistro, chef Michael Beary imports rare Oaxacan chiles for his authentic moles and rellenos. The eclectic Chefs Club highlights dishes from Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs list, while Belly Up, an intimate underground nightclub, hosts acts such as Buckethead, Chris Cornell, and Michael Franti. It’s tiny but renowned—just like Aspen.
Eight miles from Aspen, Woody Creek Tavern is the log-walled dive bar where gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson out-boozed everyone—and received Johnny Depp’s personal entreaty for the role of Raoul Duke in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Order tamales, check out the Thompson memorabilia papering the walls, and add your Polaroid selfie to the gallery of past guests.
Getting there: United, American, and Delta offer two-hour nonstop flights from LAX to Aspen airport (ASE).
Peak time: Christmas and Presidents’ Day are mobbed, while mid-March through April has the best deals (and snow coverage). Aspen often extends its season on select April weekends.
Weather report: January temperatures average 22.5 degrees, but high-elevation sunshine (Aspen sits at 7,908 feet) can make days feel warmer than that.