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 fireflies.
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.; 970/925-2849; www.utemountaineer.com.
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 flight.
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 or lesson.
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.; 970/923-4544; www.blazingadventures.com.
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.; 970/925-3254; www.aspenmusicfestival.com
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.; 970/544-4100; www.aspenrecreation.com
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; www.snowbird.com; doubles from $169), a condo hotel at the base.
The town's namesake mega-resort (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; www.fourseasons.com; doubles from $495) or the Woodrun Lodge (866/905-4607; 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 (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; 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; 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; 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; www.hotellenado.com; doubles from $260.
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; 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 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 four $40.
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 four $30.
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 four $60.
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 $240.
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 $12.
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 St.; 970/925-3273.
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. —L.S.B.