|When Walter Paepcke and Friedl Pfeifer
wandered into Aspen in the mid-1940s, the town was barely more than a
green patch on a map. The boom of mining was a distant echo, and what was
left of the early town had become a sleepy agricultural and ranching
community. That quickly changed when Pfeifer, a veteran of the military
ski unit, 10th Mountain Division, transformed the face of Aspen Mountain
(Ajax) into a world-class ski area. In the meantime, Paepcke was conjuring
the 'Aspen Idea,' a utopic vision that would create a setting for high
culture in the Rocky Mountains. A place where great thinkers could
congregate, rejuvenate and trade ideas like baseball cards. Paepcke,
however, only saw the beginnings of his ambitions take shape (he passed
away in the early 1960s). But under Pfeifers watchful eye, Aspen has
become a celebrated, albeit quirky, resort town with a brain.
Today, Aspen is not only a bit off center, it is in a world all its own. Tucked away at the southeast end of the Roaring Fork Valley, surrounded by the towering Elk Mountains, Collegiate Peaks and White River National Forest, Aspen even feels far away. Maybe that is why the characters that make up the population are so diverse and interesting. Or maybe it is because of a common love for skiing that you can enter a coffee shop on Hopkins Avenue and hear 'Hey, Dude? in just about every accent. Aspen is one of the few places you can see dot.com billionaires and hard-core snowboarders both decked out in the latest baggy and saggy street fashions. Where breakfast might mean miners and ranchers sitting down to a slab of meat, while tree huggers with hefty bank accounts ponder over what to put sprouts on, and the learned sort try to break down the chemical compounds of an organic muffin. Then there is the fur coat crowd shopping at Gucci, while a cowboy picks out a new Stetson and a belt buckle the size of Denver. It is a town of anomalous diversity, a town of lofty erudition and extreme spot.
The rich and famous see Aspen as a playground. They flock to the resort, and multitudes of star struck tourists fly in behind them hoping to catch a quick glimpse of a celebrity. But if you can't wait and are dying to see someone famous, just head up Ajax Mountain and check out the shrines to Jerry Garcia, Elvis, and Marilyn Monroe. If you cannot find the shrines, just look towards Red Mountain (south) and you can see where all of the celebrities live. Mammoth mansions litter the mountainside, many which sit empty a good portion of the year and are probably as large as the town of Aspen itself. Perhaps the most famous spread is the Peak House, which sits near the summit of Red Mountain. The house sprawls some 23,000 feet and is worth a tidy $27 million. But if you would rather just rent the place for a month, it will set you back $200,000. One night will only cost you $17,500.
But although the beautiful people propel Aspens celebrity status, it is the community of locals, and the perfect mix of sport and culture that make the small town worth visiting. But, Aspen is not without its problems. Commercial development and sprawl plague are issues of constant concern. Traffic congestion stifles the roads during peak seasons. Almost 70 percent of the workforce cannot live within the city limits due to a serve lack of affordable housing. Housing prices hover around two millions dollars a home, many relatively small. But Aspen is working hard to tackle these problems, while trying to keep the 'Aspen Idea' strong, with a viable interaction between the towns dueling personalities as a community and a resort.
A Guide to the Neighborhoods
The town of Aspen consists of three basic areas: a downtown squeezed between two residential neighborhoods, the West End and the East End. But the truth is that on a clear day, you can easily see one end of town from the other. It is that small, but packed into this area is a town reveling with activity ranging from haute couture shopping and elite, fine dining to hiking, biking and skiing.
The West End is a quiet residential nook peppered with authentic Victorian homes. Walking through the streets, with Shadow Mountain looming in the background, you would never know that you were in a ritzy ski town. The locals are neighborly, the dogs perusing the streets are friendly and the tourists are absent, making you feel as if you might actually belong there. You may even get the urge to dab in some local tongue and throw out a 'Good morning neighbor dude, sick po on Ajax, eh? Makes you stoked.' But then again, you don't want to look like a 'poseur.' Besides, Ajax is the only one of the four area mountains that still prohibits snowboarders. So you will have to practice the snowboard lexicon elsewhere.
Along with the residential homes, you'll find a good number of the area hotels and condos scattered about the West End, especially on Main Street.
The lower West End is where Walter Paepcke laid a literal foundation to the 'Aspen Idea' with the construction of the Aspen Meadows Comference Center and Hotel(The), which houses the Aspen Institute. This forty-acre spread is also home to the famous Music Tent, the Aspen Center for Physics, the Harris Concert Hall and the Paepcke Auditorium. And if you fancy a bit of Bauhaus architecture, you will see plenty of long horizontal structures scattered about the landscape.
Just east of Aspen Meadows (The) is the Hallam Lake Nature Preserve, home to the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies. This is a great place to spend a few hours relaxing in the summer.
Ski Magazine consistently dubs downtown Aspen as the après ski capitol of North America, and it doesn't take long to see why. The Cooper Avenue, Hyman Avenue and Mill Street Pedestrian malls act as the centerpiece of the area. Each of the tree-lined streets features old Victorian buildings and winding brick mixed-retail units filled with hip shops, eclectic dining and cool local pubs. But the malls are just the beginning. From Main Street to Durant Avenue, the selection of places to eat, sleep, shop, drink, dance, tune your skis, rent a bike and check out art are seemingly endless. The ski slopes of Ajax Mountain serve as the scenic background to downtown.
The Roaring Fork River splits the East End, and so many trees spread across the residental neighborhood, you get the feeling you have stumbled into a forest. If you are looking to get away from the hubbub of downtown, you can wander the streets of the East End for a bit of peace and quiet. Of course, after a long day on the slopes, you might want to check out the Aspen Club & Spa.
Although Snowmass Village has only been around since 1968 and is purely a 'built from scratch ski resort,' the town has almost 2,000 year round condo dwellers. And who wouldn't want to wake up every morning and look out at the towering peaks of Mt. Daly and Snowmass Peak. To walk out the door and have ski slopes at your footsteps.
Snowmass (the largest of the four ski mountains) struggled for years to break out of Aspens shadow and establish its own identity. But eventually the massive resort went its own way. The village became the mountain of choice for summer festivals, including the renowned Jazz Aspen. A major conference center added a bit of a business draw to the resort setting. Developers carved out a wealth of cross-country ski routes to compliment the more than 60 miles of downhill trails and added a fancy golf course within walking distance of the village.
Roaring Fork Valley
When you leave Aspen and head west into the Roaring Fork Valley, you literally step into a time when horses ruled the west and ranching was the way of life. But the cowboys and ranchers are slowly facing the effects of development, as small towns like Basalt become targets of commercialism.
Many visitors to Aspen opt to spend time in the valley, especially in the summer, to get a true feel of the mountains. Plus, fishermen from around the world test their fly fishing skills on the waters of the Frying Pan and Roaring Fork Rivers.
If you venture into towns like Basalt, Carbondale, Old Snowmass, El Jebel, expect to find a low-key, local atmosphere, and most of Aspens work force. Perhaps the most eccentric of the area towns is Woody Creek. The town is famous for one of its residents, writer, activist and general oddball, Hunter S. Thompson. You can spot him on occasion enjoying one of many beers at the Woody Creek Tavern. Or just pick up a local paper and read about all his antics, from accidentally shooting his assistant to fighting against the evils of local mining.
Getting to and Getting Around Aspen
Aspen is about 220 miles west of Denver (a four hour drive on a good day) via Interstate 70 to Glenwood Springs, and Highway 82 south from there takes you to the center of downtown. Many visitors opt to fly into Denver International Airport (DIA), rent a car, and drive up to Aspen. The drive is a bit long, but passes some extraordinary terrain, including the Front Range Mountains, the Gore Range, Battlement Mesa, and Glenwood Canyon. Watch out in the winter though. The four-hour drive could easily turn into eight hours of terror.
United Express operates six daily flights to Aspens Pitkin County Airport (Sardy Field). America West and Northwest Airlines also service Sardy Field.
Aspen is also easily accessible from the Eagle County Airport. Just 70 miles to the east, the airport offers service from a number of major airlines, including United, American, Continental, Northwest, America West, and Delta.
Once you in Aspen, if you have a car ditch it at the hotel and forget about it. Aspen is so small it is easy to get around on foot. Plus, the traffic and parking problems will only give you a headache, and Aspen is all about kicking back and relaxing. If you need to head over to another mountain or Snowmass, just hop on a free shuttle of take the RFTA (Roaring Fork Transit Authority, bus. If you're in downtown Aspen, just head over to the Rubey Park Transportation Center and catch a ride anywhere in the valley. Fares range from $3 to $6 to head Downvalley. If you just need to get across town, the fare is free on the shuttle.
During the summer try to bring your bike along or simply rent one at a local shop. Biking is by far the best way to get around town. Plus, it is the locals preferred method of transportation. From downtown, you have easy access to Independence Pass (a severe hill, but it is paved), Snowmass Village, and even Maroon Bells.
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