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All you imaginedAll you imagined

Aspen, ColoradoAspen, Colorado

Aspen, Colorado. It’s everything you might imagine and yet so much more. This world-class skiing mecca also boasts an opera house and music festival, yet retains plenty of its old cowboy character. Best of all, there’s a great airport just three miles northwest of town.

  • Aspen, Colorado, where you can ski right into town. Silver prospectors first struck it rich here in 1879, attracting investors like Jerome Wheeler, one-time president of Macy’s. By 1893, Aspen had swelled to 12,000 residents. But when the U.S. reverted to a gold standard, Aspen evolved into a ranching and farming community. In 1947, Aspen Mountain opened, featuring the world’s largest ski lift. Subsequently, the development of the neighboring mountains of Buttermilk, Aspen Highlands, and Snowmass cemented Aspen’s reputation as a world-class modern ski resort. Yet Aspen’s history remains evident in its Victorian architecture and historic buildings, including the Hotel Jerome and the Wheeler Opera House. Photo by Jeremy Swanson courtesy The Little Nell.
  • There’s nothing like perfect corduroy on an early winter morning. Photo courtesy Aspen Snowmass.
  • In December 2017 Snowmass unveiled its newest attraction, the Breathtaker Alpine Coaster. Riders wind their way through over a mile of forest on an elevated track at speeds of up to 28 mph. Located adjacent to the Elk Camp Restaurant, riders and passengers can experience the thrilling ride during the day, plus at night during Ullr Nights festivities (Friday nights in peak winter season) and on special holidays. Ullr is the Norse god of snow. Photo courtesy Aspen Snowmass.
  • At Cloud Nine Alpine Bistro on Aspen Highlands, they usually start popping the corks around 1 p.m. Considering the often sun-soaked view from the patio, why not? Some days the vibe here is more raucous than others, but one thing is always certain: afternoons at Cloud Nine are always a good time. Photo courtesy Aspen Snowmass.
  • Aspen’s iconic J-Bar (short for “Jerome Bar”), with its lively yet casual atmosphere, has been an Aspen social hot spot for a century. In the 1920s and 30s, parched miners would mosey in to the J-Bar for an Aspen Crud (a milkshake with bourbon), the famed Prohibition-era spiked drink that is still on the menu. During breaks from training for WWII, the heroes of the 10th Mountain Division made the trek down from Camp Hale to revel at the J-Bar. Celebrities like Gary Cooper and John Wayne saddled up for a cocktail while on vacation in Aspen, and the late Hunter S. Thompson used the J-Bar as his de facto office when working on stories for Rolling Stone. Photo courtesy Hotel Jerome.
  • Concerts big and small take place with regularity in Aspen. Photo courtesy Aspen Snowmass.
  • For four years, the World Snow Polo Championships have been held in Aspen, on the snow-covered rugby field at Rio Grande Park. This winter version of the “sport of kings” was first played in 1985 in St. Moritz. The field is smaller than a normal polo field and the ball is larger and lighter than a regulation polo ball, made of red vinyl so it can be easily seen on the snow. Photo courtesy Aspen Valley Polo Club.
  • Take a snowmobile tour into the White River National Forest. Several tours are available; the Maroon Bells Tour will take you to Maroon Lake at the base of the world famous Maroon Bells, North America’s most photographed peaks, where you can take gorgeous photos and warm up with hot cocoa. You’ll also learn about the history of the Maroon Creek Valley and explore miles of groomed trails through thick aspen groves and through wide meadows. Photo courtesy T-Lazy-7 Ranch.
  • T-Lazy-7 Ranch works with fly-fishing guides from The Little Nell Adventure Center, who provide top-of-the-line gear and take you to secluded beaver ponds that are home to trophy-sized rainbow and cutthroat trout. Photo courtesy T-Lazy-7 Ranch.
  • Hop on a sleigh ride with Maroon Bells Outfitters. In summer, they’ll take you horseback riding through the beautiful mountain country around Aspen. Photo courtesy Maroon Bells Outfitters.
  • Go for a summertime horseback ride, dinner included, with Maroon Bells Outfitters, and this might be your dinner. Photo courtesy Maroon Bells Outfitters.
  • The trees are lit for Christmas at The Little Nell. Photo by Jeremy Swanson courtesy The Little Nell.
  • The beautiful St. Regis Aspen, backed by Aspen Mountain. Photo courtesy St. Regis.
  • The Hotel Jerome’s delightful Living Room. Photo courtesy Hotel Jerome.
  • The friendly folks at Hotel Jerome are always ready to welcome you and your well-behaved pooch. Photo courtesy Hotel Jerome.

Our first flight to Aspen occurred on a beautiful day in 1996. After beginning an IFR approach at 13,700 feet msl and passing through a very thin layer, we were cleared for the visual. All went well, but after seeing how the mountains encroach from the west on short final, we made a mental note not to fly here in lousy weather or at night. Even on the visual approach to Runway 15 you’ll be descending rather steeply below mountain peaks before you are able to see the airport.

You might not want or need a rental car, as most hotels provide complimentary airport van service. If you stay in downtown Aspen or nearby Snowmass Village, you can walk to slopes, restaurants, and bars. There is also a free ski bus that shuttles skiers between the four ski areas.

A jet descends steeply to land on Aspen’s Runway 15, the typical approach here. Part of the reason why Aspen’s minimums are so high (all over 2,000 feet agl) is that you’ll need to dogleg visually a bit around terrain that juts out from the west on short final. In addition, terrain rises steeply just south of the airport, making last-minute go-arounds somewhat hazardous. That’s why the missed approach starts well over a mile before the runway. Photo by Daniel Betts via Flickr.

For great skiing, you might go after the holidays, when it’s not as crowded and more snow has accumulated. And you’ll have no shortage of slopes to choose from! One lift ticket lets you play on all four Aspen-Snowmass resort mountains. Aspen Mountain rises right above downtown and offers the greatest proportion of expert terrain. Local favorite Aspen Highlands Mountain has intermediate, expert, and backcountry terrain. Beginners and families often prefer Buttermilk Mountain, closest to the airport, which also hosts the ESPN Winter X Games at the end of January. Snowmass Mountain has the most acreage and trails, with something for every skier, from double-black diamonds to long, relaxing runs and beginner hills. Purchasing lift tickets at least a week in advance and for multiple days saves money.

Aspen’s après-ski scene is recognized by Conde Nast Traveler magazine as the best in North America. You don’t even have to leave the slopes: The Oasis is a pop-up champagne bar towed around the slopes by snowcat, while the Cloud Nine Alpine Bistro can be found at the top of its namesake chairlift. Or just stroll downtown, where restaurants and bars begin to rev up around 4 p.m. J-Bar at the Hotel Jerome is the Aspen tradition for après-ski drinks, but don’t forget Ajax Tavern at the base of Aspen Mountain (truffle fries, please), Chair 9 at the Little Nell, and Elk Camp or Lynn Britt Cabin at Snowmass.

Whenever possible, takeoffs are made from Runway 33. You don’t need a jet of course but you do need ample horsepower to fly here safely: The passes, if you’re flying visually, are around 12,000 feet msl, while some nearby MEAs are as high as 16,500 feet. In summer, density altitude must be accounted for. On the ground at Aspen, our 210 looked pretty insignificant compared with the long line of Gulfstreams and other large bizjets. But the folks at the FBO treated us just fine. Colorado Dept. of Transportation photo by Shahn Sederberg.

Skiing and nightlife are Aspen’s biggest claims to fame, but, have you heard about the snow polo? Each year in mid-December, the St. Regis, nestled right at the base of Aspen Mountain, hosts the snow polo world championships. Spectator attire tends toward Armani, cashmere, and fur. If that’s not your speed, you could try a snowmobile tour through the White River Forest with T-Lazy-7. See the iconic Maroon Bells (recently protected from a proposed dam project!), weave through an aspen forest, or head up to a mountain cabin for lunch.

In summer, you can spend the day fly-fishing the T-Lazy-7 Ranch private beaver ponds with the Little Nell Adventure Center or ride horses through the high country with Maroon Bells Outfitters. Many other outdoor activities are possible, depending on the season, including cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, hiking, dog sledding, hot air ballooning, concerts, and mountain-side yoga. Some hotels offer discounts spring to fall. Any time of year, shopping, even window shopping or browsing the art galleries, is superlative in Aspen. I love the thrift and consignment shops, where well-to-do visitors sometimes drop off their barely worn ski clothes, rather than schlep them home.

Book accommodations well in advance and if the sky is the limit, choose the Forbes 5-star and AAA 5-Diamond Little Nell Hotel, right at the base of the Silver Queen Gondola. It’s like the finest European chalet with exceptional service. Not to be outdone, the St. Regis offers a superlative spa, complimentary Lexus shuttle, and luxurious rooms at the base of Aspen Mountain. Pets are welcome here, as they are at the historic Hotel Jerome, built in 1889 and beautifully restored, with superb spa, furnishings, and leather-lined elevator. We always enjoy Aspen at downtown’s very affordable St. Moritz Lodge & Condominiums, which even offer complimentary breakfast and afternoon snacks. For ultimate convenience, especially for families, ski-in/ski-out at the Snowmass Mountain Chalet, also with complimentary breakfast, wintertime soup lunch, and airport shuttle.

Sure, you can spend a lot here, but Aspen is accessible even to those on a smaller budget. So if your airplane can handle the heights, fly in to this little slice of heaven in the Rockies.

Summer and fall around Aspen are great for hiking. By late September the aspen trees turn portions of the landscape bright yellow. Photo courtesy Aspen Chamber of Commerce.

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Crista Worthy

Crista V. Worthy

Crista V. Worthy has been flying around the United States with her pilot-husband Fred and their children since 1995, and writing about fun places to fly since 2006. She has single-engine land and sea ratings. Her favorite places to explore are the backcountry strips of Idaho and Utah's red rock country. She currently lives in Idaho and serves as editor of The Flyline, the monthly publication of the Idaho Aviation Association.
Topics: US Travel

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