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.
History of AspenAspen wasn't always a quirky town peppered with posh eateries and hotels, multi-million dollar homes, and fur clad celebrities on skis. What is now the winter hub for the rich and famous, and destination for extreme recreation, was once the summer hunting home of the Ute tribe. Archeologists have even found evidence deep in the dirt of an Ancient people that wandered about the Roaring Fork Valley some 8,000 years ago. But the only thing the distant people, the Utes, and the whos who shooting down the slopes have in common is a preference for animal fur.
By time Colorado achieved statehood in 1876, the rush for gold and silver was in full swing. Mining settlements littered the high country, as prospectors pried their fortunes from the rock with an undying urgency. At the time, Leadville (still the highest town in North America at 10,430 feet above sea level) was the states second largest city next to Denver. The settlement, tucked away on the east side of the Continental Divide, had some of the deepest veins of silver ever found. But it wasn't until 1879, when a few silver seekers surmounted the divide at what is now Independence Pass and ventured into the Utes hunting ground, that a pick struck the mother lode.
The prospectors discovered so many ores in the area that the ground was literally spitting silver. So they quickly set up camp under the name Ute City, which was ironic considering they ultimately pushed the tribe out of the valley. The citys name was later changed to Aspen.
Mining camps popped up everywhere west of the divide and took names like Ashcroft and Independence. But Aspen benefited from more than just mining. Two railroads utilized the town as a hub. Plus, outside investments from the likes of Macys president Jerome Wheeler and lawyer David Hyman helped build a solid industrial infrastructure and urban framework.
By the late 1880s, Aspens population topped 12,000. The town now had an opera house, six newspapers, a red light district, three banks, a host of churches and a hospital. At that point, close to a million dollars worth of silver and one of the biggest nuggets ever (weighing in at 2,200 pounds) had been extracted from the area mines.
Once the Sherman Silver Act was history and silver was demonetized in 1893, the fortune seekers vanished. The area settlements stood empty and dilapidated. Most of them ultimately crumbled and disappeared. The remnants of Independence and Ashcroft are now ghost towns and remain popular tourist stops. Aspen survived, but the population dwindled, bottoming out at around 700 people in the1930s, and consisted mostly of farmers and ranchers. Of course, the locals today would love the population to linger around 1,000.
In 1935, a group of international investors came to the Roaring Fork Valley looking for an ideal location to build a ski area on par with the European resorts. Andre Roch, a renowned Swiss outdoorsman, had the task of creating the ski area. But after constructing a lodge, boat tow, and initial slope, World War II ended any hope of completion.
The 10th Mountain Division, a military ski unit stationed at a camp outside of Leadville entranced by the powder, continued skiing Aspen Mountain. Once the war ended, a few in the division returned to Aspen. The most prominent of these soldiers was an Austrian named Friedl Pfeifer. Pfeifer, who purchased a number of the mining claims and some of the surface rights to the area, partnered with Walter Paepcke, a wealthy industrialist, to transform Aspen from a mining town. Paepcke sought to create the 'Aspen Idea.' He wanted the town to be a cultural Utopia, a place where great thinkers could assemble and share ideas, a place where people could travel to renew the spirit and rejuvenate the mind.
Pfeifer just wanted a ski area and watched with pride as the longest chair lift (Lift-1) in the world, at the time, escorted the first skiers up the slopes for Aspen Mountains official opening in the winter of 1947.
Two years later, Paepcke conceived the Goethe Bicentennial Convocation, where Dr. Albert Schweitzer and other distinguished minds put Aspen on the intellectual map. This event spawned a number of programs in music, theater, art and dance, including the Aspen Music Festival and School. Paepcke also hired Bauhaus architect Herbert Bayer to leave a visual impression on the town. Bayer, along with Fredric Benedict, designed the Aspen Institute and Aspen Meadows Conference Center, which acted as the grounds for Paepckes intellectual powwows. Bayer also restored such existing structures as the Wheeler Opera House.
In 1950, the ski area, still in infancy, hosted a prestigious downhill championship, attracting the best skiers around. This event (the first of its kind in the states) established Aspen as a world-class ski destination. The stage was set for Aspens final conversion from a mining hub to an elite center of art and sport.
In 1958, Pheifer went on to construct slopes at neighboring Buttermilk Mountain, while Whipple Van Ness Jones carved the trials of Aspen Highlands. From this point an avalanche of development spread across the valley as investors sought to make Aspen a year round setting. A golf course popped up and condominiums became the preferred choice of housing.
The Aspen Ski Corporation, which took over management of both Aspen Mountain and Buttermilk, built Snowmass in 1967 to complete the four-mountain resort. Snowmass featured more than 50 miles of trails and a $6.50 lift ticket.
The 1970s and 1980s brought about the quaint pedestrian malls. Posh restaurants, five-star hotels, mansions, and, of course, celebrities followed, solidifying Aspen as an après ski wonderland.
The town John Denver put into song has come along way from its mining heydays (although it is still as rich). The population now hovers around 6,000. Issues of growth have forced locals to take extreme measures to preserve the sanctity of the Victorian small town. Commercialization is rampant and high monthly rents, especially in the downtown vicinity, are more than most peoples annual salary. Condos sprawl along the four mountains and many of the mammoth mansions littering Red Mountain and the upper West End sit empty a good deal of the year. But, unlike many other Colorado resorts, Aspen maintains a small town charm and ambiance. The locals are exceptionally friendly and strive great lengths to take away any preconceived pretensions associated with the town. Sure, the stars go there to ski. Kevin Costner, Jimmy Buffet, Michael Jordan and both of Donald Trumps ex-wives are just a few that frequent the town. But under a mass of stylish skiwear, they look like anyone else, so going on a star search is at best a tasking endeavor.
Aspen Mountain (known as Ajax in local tongue) recently celebrated 50 years, reminding everyone just how far a town will go for the love of a sport. And though all the glitz and glamour, the 'Aspen Idea,' is still at the heart of the town.
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