You don’t have to ski to fall in love with Aspen. With mountains carpeted in wildflowers in the spring and practically glowing gold in the fall, some would argue (including yours truly) that the off-season is even better than the winter.
The high season in these Colorado peaks can get dizzyingly high with ritzy crowds and lavish expenses. Throughout the coldest months, “Billionaire Mountain” fills up with fancy apres-ski parties and Jeff Bezos-level celebrities. And summer brings the renowned Food & Wine festival and the chefy throngs.
But the low season brings you back down to the valley. In spring and autumn, Aspen returns to its local, small-town vibes that remind us the lofty destination has fewer than 8,000 residences. Big name art exhibits, hot air balloon rides, literary competitions, and four main mountains crisscrossed with trails sustain the locals throughout the rest of the year.
Either way, whether you want to go all out with fancy hotels and restaurants or get earthy with arts and hiking, Aspen is truly a year-round outdoor playground no matter the season.
Jet your way to the top
To get to Aspen, many drive four hours from the airport in Denver or take a scenic shuttle or bus over mountain passes. But you could skip all the inbetween and fly directly to Aspen’s smaller, pricier airport. You could also do as some of the locals do and fly private with a new, semi-private airline called Aero, which launched in 2020 and offers direct flights from LA in a snazzy, all-black luxury jet.
Downtown Aspen is only a few blocks long, so you can pretty much walk everywhere. Many of the hotels offer complimentary car services like The St. Regis Aspen Resort, where you can reserve a BMW X7 for up to four hours to explore the surrounding areas. There is also a free Aspen shuttle called the RFTA, which takes you to neighboring ski towns like Snowmass and Buttermilk Mountain.
During the peak winter season, hotel cars and rideshare services are limited (and hard to snag), so the Downtowner app will be your best friend. The free app is a service similar to Uber and Lyft that offers complimentary rides within the town; just make sure to tip your driver in cash.
Where to stay in Aspen
For prime location at the base of the mountain, consider the upscale chic resort The Little Nell, or try W Aspen, one of Aspen’s newer hotels. Hotel Jerome, Auberge Resorts Collection is a historic landmark in town with a buzzing apres-ski scene and a famous $28 burger.
If you prefer the coziness of a home, VRBO also offers well-equipped condos in the heart of downtown Aspen that are within walking distance to the gondola, like this 3-bedroom condo or this 1,200 square-foot apartment.
Traveling with a posse? The Aspen Street Lodge is a new, ultra-luxurious property that sleeps up to 32 guests and is only available for a full-buyout.
Dine with top chefs
Hailing from NY, Sushi Nakazawa is known for its omakase sushi, where all 20 courses are decided by the chef rather than the diner. If you opt for a la carte, the zuke king salmon oshizushi might be the best piece of nigiri you’ll ever have. Pro-tip: Ask for the special, which is a smaller version of the omakase menu for $100.
For the ultimate daytime party scene (read: champagne showers) Cloud Nine Alpine Bistro is the place to be. The alpine bistro is situated at the top of the mountain, so it’s a ski-in, ski-out only restaurant. For more casual fare, Clark’s is the go-to spot for seafood with $4 oysters and $5 oyster shooters at happy hour, as well as a stellar crudo plate.
Aspen’s only microbrewery, Aspen Brewing Company, is where you’ll find the best craft beer in town. But if you prefer your alcohol in grape form, The Wine Bar at The Little Nell (formerly Chair 9) offers a special Coravin Wine tasting menu. A sommelier will guide you through a blind tasting of rare wines paired with cheese and a charcuterie platter that’s almost too pretty to eat.
Summer brings the annual Food & Wine Classic to Aspen with Top Chefs and culinary stars like Guy Fieri and Martha Stewart hosting events and cooking seminars all weekend long (and lots of booze). It turns out endless pours of wine make those mountains look even lovelier. In 2022, the festival will return June 17 to 19, and hotels get booked solid months in advance, so plan early. Actually, you should start planning now.
Breathe in the thin refreshing alpine air
You can get your bunny hills, greens, blues, and triple diamond trails on Aspen’s four major ski mountains: Aspen Highlands, Snowmass, Buttermilk, and Aspen Mountain (also known as Ajax).
If you’re not into skiing but still want to experience outdoor Aspen in the winter, you could explore the Colorado backcountry with a Krabloonik Dog Sled Tour, where riders get pulled by 8-10 Alaskan Husky sled dogs through quieter snowscapes.
During the rest of the year, hiking or mountain biking will lead you into the gorgeous peaks surrounding the city. Maroon Bells is the most popular hiking trail in Aspen, and one of the most photographed mountains in North America. These twin peaks require a parking and shuttle reservation, unless you’re riding a bike. Alternatively, Smugglers Mountain offers an easy hike, while the more advanced Ute Trail traces a steep, 6.2-mile path once used by indigenous peoples for hunting.
But that’s just scratching the surface of the incredible trails and things to see near Aspen: Check out out full hiking guide to the Aspen area.
Catch some art, music, or a local festival
The Aspen Art Museum is worth visiting for the architecture alone. The building seems to sit inside a lattice box, looking like a giant woven basket that allows light to percolate through. And though you could gaze at the outside of the building for a while, going inside gets even better. Turns out all those celebrity regulars contribute to funding some big art exhibits, including an Andy Warhol collection to debut in December.
Twice a year, Aspen puts on the JAS Aspen Snowmass Festival, once in June and again on Labor Day weekend. What started as a jazz fest now hosts an array of musicians like recent headliners Jimmy Buffett and Sheryl Crow. Meanwhile, the intimate Belly Up is one of the best places to hear live music in Aspen. It’s welcomed notable names like Leon Bridges, Kygo, and Fitz and the Tantrums.
Other notable events in town are Aspen Words, a six-day celebration for bookworms and wordsmiths; the X Games on January 21-23, 2022; and the Hot Air Balloon Festival in September, which takes place in nearby Snowmass.