For as long as I can remember, I wanted to live in a ski
town. I pictured an idyllic, sparkly place outlined in
Christmas lights year-round, somewhere with a great
bookstore and powerful coffee, no dress code, and healthy
people with fantastic mountain-climbing legs. Instead I
ended up spending my twenties and thirties in Manhattan,
working as a wedding reporter at the New York
Times, often eating three consecutive meals at my
computer. My legs were not fantastic.
Then, in 2001, my husband, an architect and builder, got a
job offer in Aspen, Colorado. In about a week we dug out
our skis and mountain bikes; enrolled our sons, Will, now
11, and Charlie, 7, in Aspen schools; and found a little
yellow house with such a good view of Aspen Mountain we can
watch the Sno-Cats grooming the slopes at night, their
headlights slowly traveling up and down like sleepy
Aspen has been the best blind date our family ever had. The
town is even more beguiling than any of us imagined, full
of Victorian cottages from its silver-mining days, and
classic Western red-brick buildings that glow pinkish at
sunset. Everywhere you look, you see mountains—some
craggy and unapproachable; others balding, ruddy, and
desert-like; the most dramatic ones as scary-big as tidal
waves. But Aspen isn't only beautiful; it's a brainy town,
too. There are always museum-show openings, operas, physics
lectures on the latest black hole discoveries, Save Tibet
festivals, and just-back slide shows on climbing Mount
Everest. It's also a privileged enclave—onetime
hardware stores and sawdusty bars are now Prada and Louis
Vuitton outposts. I've walked by people on the sidewalk
wearing such enormous fur coats, I felt as if I'd just been
through a car wash.
But more than anything, Aspen is a town of athletes and
adventurers. The local chefs, bookstore clerks, dental
hygienists, baristas, and school-kids are die-hard rock
climbers, kayakers, long-distance runners, and dirt bikers.
When I first moved here, I got passed on hiking trails by
unicyclists, pedaling uphill and over boulders and tree
roots, looking to me like lost circus performers.
Another thing about Aspen locals: their favorite season is
summer. That's when the gates to the wilderness reopen and
ski clothes get marked down 80 percent (prices for hotel
rooms drop, too). Day after day, the sky is Tiffany
ring–box blue and bug-free. Paragliders twirl above
the peaks. Mountain bikers ride through Aspen forests and
fields of wildflowers up to their waists—a better
feeling, many say, than skiing deep powder. And the Aspen
Times and Aspen Daily News, the best sources for all of
these goings-on, both expand like bread in the oven. Come
for a vacation—and check out my family's legs.
Lay of the Land
Downtown Aspen is like a tiny Manhattan, designed on a
grid. You cannot get lost for long. From Main Street,
everything is within walking distance—hotels,
restaurants, playgrounds, Carl's Pharmacy, trailheads, the
Music Festival tent, the Aspen Center for Environmental
Studies, and the historic West End, a neighborhood of
brightly colored Victorian houses. On the south side of
town, there's Aspen Mountain, a.k.a. Ajax, its chartreuse
slopes contrasting with the dark green forest. (For a
gorgeous view, and lunch at the Sun Deck restaurant, you
can take the gondola to the top year-round.) On the north
side of town, there's Red Mountain, a steep hill covered
with 20,000-square-foot mansions belonging to business
tycoons like Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com and Leslie Wexner of the
Limited stores (note the outbuildings for housing wine and
art collections—and staff). For a more hip and humble
environment, follow Route 82 out of town to the ex-mining
communities of Basalt, El Jebel, and Carbondale. They're
where the regular people live.
The elevation of Aspen is 8,000-plus feet, and being up
that high can do weird things to you. Beware of strange
dreams, and sometimes even headaches and chest pains, on
your first night. Drink lots of water, eat fruit, and lay
low at the start.
The Aspen Idea
TAKE YOUR DAILY HIKE Two of my family's
favorite walks are the Braille Trail, an aromatic 1.25-mile
roped loop designed for blind trekkers (we close our eyes
or squint as we go), and the Grottoes, home to ice caves,
barreling waterfalls, and a campground (we haven't yet
spent the night, but we've built campfires in the daytime).
Get outfitted at the UTE Mountaineer, which has maps, nutrition bars, hiking shoes, and the
crucial book, Aspen Snowmass Trails: A Hiking Trail
Guide, by Warren Ohlrich. 308 S. Mill St.;
GO BIKING The town's bike paths are
incredibly extensive—you can ride to church; to the
Aspen Recreation Center; to the nearby town of Snowmass,
which has more mountain biking on the ski slopes; even to
the airport. For rentals, go to Ajax Bike &
Sport (635 Hyman St.; 970/925-7662; www.ajaxbikeandsport.com), where the
staff all have shaved heads—better aerodynamics. The
most family-friendly outing is on the Rio Grande Trail.
Paved, and wide enough for tricyclists, Burleys, and tandem
bikes, it follows the Roaring Fork River from Aspen's West
End to Woody Creek, a neighborhood six miles away, and
beyond. Stop for burgers, burritos, and Shirley Temples at
the Woody Creek Tavern, where Hunter S.
Thompson and his shotgun once hung out. 2 Woody Creek
Plaza; 970/923-4585; lunch for four $35.
TRY PARAGLIDING (OR JUST WATCH) To join
all of those pterodactyls whirling around in the sky, you
have to take a running leap off the top of Aspen Mountain.
Aspen Expeditions and Paragliding offers tandem flights for
children as young as three, if you can believe it. The
little passenger is strapped into the instructor's
harness—a Baby Björn moment. The best place to
watch the hypnotizing action is the North Star Nature
Preserve on Route 82, where there's a landing site and
hand-hewn wooden benches. Bring breakfast. On calm
mornings, it's as busy as O'Hare Airport. 426 Spring
St.; 970/925-7625; www.aspenexpeditions.com; $195 per
LEARN TO KAYAK When you watch kayakers
from afar, they look so peaceful and centered. Well, when
my sons and I first tried, it was nothing like that. We
went to the calmest, prettiest spot we could find on the
Roaring Fork River, where it meanders through the North
Star Nature Preserve. There, side by side, we spun in
circles, completely out of control. Finally, we decided to
drop our oars and float along like leaves, eating
chocolate-chip cookies and looking up at red-tailed hawks
gliding overhead. There's every kind of kayaking water you
can imagine around Aspen, from glassy ponds to thunderous
rivers. Call the Aspen Kayak School (315 Oak Lane; 970/925-4433; www.aspenkayak.com) to arrange a rental
RIDE THE RAPIDS All over town you see
yellow and blue jeeps and buses full of families wearing
life jackets, heading off to ride the wilder sections of
the Roaring Fork River with guides from Blazing Adventures.
The gentlest float is from Carbondale to Glenwood Springs,
45 minutes down valley from Aspen. 407 East Hyman Ave.;
EXPLORE TWO MINES The silver miners
arrived here in the late 19th century, many of them
traversing the mountain passes on foot—or snowshoes.
Today, you can tour two old mines. At Smuggler
Mine, in Smuggler Mountain, you put on a hard hat
and walk down into a maze of tunnels, a cross between going
into a haunted house and spelunking. At the
Compromise Mine, on Aspen Mountain, you
ride an electric mine locomotive 2,000 feet underground.
Expect a lot of darkness, dirt, and fun. For
reservations at both mines, call 970/925-2049.
SADDLE UP Snowmass Trails leads half-day horseback rides from Snowmass Village to
Maroon Valley. You walk (or trot) across wildflower
meadows, past creeks with beaver dams the size of teepees,
into evergreen forests—where it feels as if the
air-conditioning just got turned on. Look up at the Maroon
Bells, a mountain range that resembles upside-down purple
bells. 970/922-6600; www.aspenwilderness.com; $165 per person.
CRASH THE MUSIC FESTIVAL Come late June,
young star violinists and oboists from all over the country
start appearing on street corners, using their instrument
cases as tip containers. They're students at the Aspen
Music School, which runs in tandem with the renowned
Aspen Music Festival. All summer, the
festival's schedule is packed with guitar workshops,
classes on Beethoven sonatas, and intriguing only-in-Aspen
performances such as "An Evening of Words and Music" with
columnist Thomas L. Friedman and violinist Cho-Liang Lin.
Most events take place in the West End, in a sprawling
white tent—seen from afar, it has the unworldly look
of a UFO with a fantastic soundtrack. It's a local
tradition to picnic in the meadow surrounding the tent and
listen to concerts for free. 2 Music School Rd.;
SPLASH WITH THE NATIVES The Aspen
Recreation Center, or ARC, is a huge indoor homage
to the town's antsy spirit, with two gleaming
pools—one is for laps and one is a lazy river for
floating amid palm-tree-shaped fountains. Also here: a
year-round skating rink, a rock climbing wall, a game room,
a computer center, a summer camp, and daily babysitting
from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. 861 Maroon Creek Rd.;
PRACTICE ASANAS TOGETHER The classes fill
up at 02 Aspen (500 W. Main St.;
970/925-4002; www.02aspen.com), a pretty
honeysuckle-yellow yoga studio with massage, pedicure, and
waxing rooms upstairs and a selection of the ultimate yoga
gear downstairs.Although there are no kids' classes,
private family sessions are available.
FEED YOUR BRAIN There are plenty of
workshops, art shows, and lectures worth dragging your kids
to. Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (100 Puppy Smith St.; 970/925-5756; www.aspennature.org), or ACES, three
blocks from Main Street at the Hallam Lake Nature Preserve,
has eagle demonstrations, sunset beaver walks, and whole
weeks devoted to subjects such as map-reading or the
nighttime adventures of owls. You can explore the woods and
ponds on narrow paths with great views of Aspen Mountain.
While wandering around ACES we've seen a family of bears
and a goose egg that was lying on the trail like a small
ecru football. In Snowmass, the Anderson Ranch Arts
Center (5263 Owl Creek Rd.; 970/923-3181; www.andersonranch.org) is a compound of
wooden buildings that look like Modernist miners' cabins.
Parents and kids, together and separately, can sign up for
workshops on everything from beadwork to digital
photography. The big-name international artists in
residence give free presentations of their work every
Tuesday and Sunday night in the summer. If you really want
to boost your family's I.Q., go to a talk at the
Aspen Center for Physics (1000 N. 3rd
St.; 970/925-2585; www.aspenphy.org), an offshoot of
the famous Aspen Institute. During the weekly summer
lecture series, speakers discuss topics like the earth's
radiation belt and whether there's life on Mars.
How to Get Here
FLY In the summer, you have to go through
Denver and take the small, bumpy half-hour shuttle ride on
United Express. The pilots are friendly daredevils and it's
a lot of scary fun to swoop over the mountaintops. It
definitely puts you into an adventurous, come-what-may
state of mind.
DRIVE The 220-mile, four-hour road trip
from Denver is dizzying at times, but it's also seriously
picturesque. There are two routes, both spectacular. The
Independence Pass road, open only in summer, is more
remote. It takes you through Leadville (which looks like a
movie set for a Western town), then over Independence Pass,
which, at the summit, is wintry year-round. After a
midsummer snowball fight, you start the winding descent
into Aspen. Along the way, watch for the abandoned mining
town of Independence, rock climbers picking their way up
roadside cliffs, forests full of aspen trees; and a large,
pristine log cabin on an enormous lake to your left. That's
Kevin Costner's place. You're getting close.
The other route brings you down Interstate 70, west past
Vail and into Glenwood Canyon, which is like a miniature
Grand Canyon. Big red-rock walls flank the road, and the
gray-green Colorado River travels alongside you like
another passenger. When you come out, you see the hot
springs pool of Glenwood Springs, where you can stop to
steep or swim (there's a variety of temperatures) and also
ride the looping waterslide. After that, you turn onto
Route 82: the jagged, enormous peak in front of you is
Mount Sopris, which has its own climate on top—all
wind and snow and mystery. Now you know why awesome is such
a popular word around here.
Lois Smith Brady writes regularly for the New York
Times Styles section.
More ski towns that are sensational in summer:
Nestled in Little Cottonwood Canyon, 30 minutes from Salt
Lake City, the Snowbird resort keeps families busy, with
tram service to back-country hiking, horseback riding, and
all-terrain-vehicle trails. Stay at the Inn at
Snowbird (801/ 933-2000; "http://www.snowbird.com" target=
"_blank">www.snowbird.com; doubles from $169), a
condo hotel at the base.
The town's namesake mega-resort ( "http://www.whistlerblackcomb.com" target=
"_blank">www.whistlerblackcomb.com) has a
cobblestoned village, bike trails through old-growth
forests, and summer glacier-skiing. Check into the
Four Seasons (604/935-3400; "http://www.fourseasons.com" target=
"_blank">www.fourseasons.com; doubles from $495)
or the Woodrun Lodge (866/905-4607; href="http://www.woodrunlodge.com" target=
"_blank">www.woodrunlodge.com; doubles from $195).
Lake Placid, N.Y.
The spirit of the 1980 Olympics lives on in this lakeside
Adirondack village. Tour the winter complex ( "http://www.orda.org" target=
"_blank">www.orda.org), and consider joining the
day-long camp for kids 10 and up and adults—fly down
the luge track yourself. The Mirror Lake
Inn (518/ 523-2544; "http://www.mirrorlakeinn.com" target=
"_blank">www.mirrorlakeinn.com; doubles from $220)
has family suites and outdoorsy outings.
Where to Stay
The Little Nell The location—at the
base of Aspen Mountain, surrounded by the shops and
restaurants of downtown—doesn't get any better; the
92 rooms are expensive, but perhaps worth it for the pool
scene alone. From the chaise longues, you can look straight
up at the slopes—or straight across at all sorts of
Beautiful People. The celeb sommelier, Richard Betts, gives
twice-monthly wine-and-cheese tastings. You can hear him
speak poetically of Tuscan reds while your kids perfect
their cannonballs. 675 E. Durant Ave.; 970/920-4600; href="http://www.thelittlenell.com" target=
"_blank">www.thelittlenell.com; doubles from $660.
St. Regis Resort Aspen A red-brick giant,
the 179-room St. Regis is very kid-friendly despite its
polished-brass ambience. There's a new spa, an outdoor pool
with three hot tubs, and a concierge floor of loft-style
rooms ideal for parents and kids. 315 E. Dean St.; 970/
920-3300; "_blank">www.stregis.com; doubles from $495.
Hotel Lenado Designed by local architect
Harry Teague, this inn has a bright industrial look and a
B&B spirit. The theme is wood, with twig couches in the
lobby and log furniture in the bedrooms. 200 S. Aspen
St.; 800/ 321-3457; target="_blank">www.hotellenado.com; doubles from
Sky Hotel While movie producers hole up in
the Little Nell, struggling screenwriters and their
families splurge at this overhauled motel. Picture a woodsy
lounge full of neo-seventies furnishings. There's also a
small, chic pool area. It's a twentysomething scene, but
kids are welcomed. 709 E. Durant Ave.; 800/882-2582; href="http://www.theskyhotel.com" target=
"_blank">www.theskyhotel.com; doubles from $289.
Tip To find the cheapest (and sometimes
most charming) rooms, many in Victorian B&B's such as
the Little Red Ski Haus, go to "http://www.gemofaspen.com" target=
"_blank">www.gemsofaspen.com. Warm-weather rates can
dip below $100 a night.
Where to Eat
Main Street Bakery The draws: glazed
donuts; mountainous servings of eggs, potatoes, and
pancakes; the sunniest, albeit most rickety, outdoor tables
in town. 201 E. Main St.; 970/925-6446; breakfast for
Café Bernard For our favorite
croissants and French toast, drive (or bike) 17 miles down
valley to Basalt. Café Bernard's owners, an
eccentric French chef and his wife, also turn out homemade
apricot and berry jams, Irish oatmeal, and Belgian waffles.
200 Midland Ave., Basalt; 970/927-4292; breakfast for
LUNCH AND DINNER
Ajax Tavern Here's the spot that works for
everyone. It's at the base of Aspen Mountain, with outdoor
tables shaded by bright red umbrellas. The cooking is
Californian-Italian—lots of vegetables; Parmesan in
everything. Also, the hamburgers and french fries are truly
fantastic. 685 E. Durant Ave.; 970/920-9333; lunch for
Matsuhisa This hip, expensive Japanese
restaurant is also kid-friendly—we usually sit at the
sushi bar, and my sons discuss knife techniques with the
chefs. We love the people-watching, the tuna tataki salad,
and the flat- screen videos of surfing and snowboarding.
303 E. Main St.; 970/544-6628; dinner for four
New York Pizza A crazy-busy place, with
red-and- white plastic tablecloths and huge floppy slices.
Clean off outside—there's a sidewalk fountain that
sprays jets of water in impossible-to-predict patterns.
409 E. Hyman Ave.; 970/920-3088; pizza for four
Where to Shop
Short Sport The place for kids' Teva
sandals, Merrills, cool sunglasses, and plastic
saber-toothed tigers. There's also a room full of ski gear
and snow boots, since it does sometimes snow in July.
613 E. Cooper Ave.; 970/920-3195.
Explore Booksellers One of the nicest
bookstores—and vegan cafés—on the
planet. It occupies a little Victorian on Main Street, and
has a children's section with reading nooks. 221 E.
Main St.; 970/925-5336.
Carl's Pharmacy People who actually live
here go to Carl's for everything: toothbrushes, coconut
foot cream, oxygen canisters (to combat altitude sickness),
and vitamin packs. There's also a small grocery, a liquor
store, a great toy section and a fishpond! 306 E. Main
Farmers' Market Beyond Matsuhisa, the best
people-watching takes place downtown on Saturdays, from 8
a.m. to 3 p.m. There's locally grown produce for sale;
kids' gear, from tie-dyed T-shirts to furry purses; and
even an Airstream trailer full of ceramics. My favorite
booth belongs to the Ice Man, who sells his own organic
Italian ices. His two young daughters often help out, and,
like most people in town, they add a little extra for kids.