Surrounded by the White River National Forest, Aspen has been an artistic and intellectual enclave since well before it gained notoriety as a skiing mecca. The town was founded after miners discovered silver in the area, then experienced an economic depression and massive population decrease before the new ski resorts helped it to regain popularity in the early part of the 19th century. Located in the central Rockies of Colorado, Aspen has a year-round population of just under 7,000 that explodes to nearly 30,000 during the winter high season, although numerous leaf-peepers come in fall to watch the eponymous aspens turn from green to golden.
Today, it’s said that famous people come to Aspen to feel normal, and normal people come to feel famous. Long beloved for its natural beauty, Aspen combines a small-town vibe with unparalleled affluence. Organizations such as the Aspen Institute and Aspen Music Festival and School preserve the town’s tradition of fostering ideas and the arts, which are celebrated in annual events such as the Aspen Ideas Festival. Former resident John Denver lauded the landscape in several of his songs, including “Rocky Mountain High,” and Hunter S. Thompson welcomed many a famous friend at the bar in the historic Hotel Jerome.
Outdoor activities reign supreme, with more biking and hiking trails than can be explored in a single visit, and numerous water activities on the area’s four rivers. In winter, ski resorts such as Snowmass—the second largest ski area in the country—and Buttermilk offer slopes for all ski levels. The twin peaks of Maroon Bells, believed to be one of the country’s most photographed sights, are surrounded by picturesque hiking trails. Local acts and prominent artists grace the stage of the historic Wheeler Opera House, while the gourmet Aspen Food and Wine Classic is the crème de la crème of food festivals.
The whole of downtown Aspen, with its numerous upscale boutiques and restaurants, can be explored in a day, although working your way through the numerous galleries and Aspen Art Museum can take considerably longer. Several celebrities now reside in the Victorian houses of the West End neighborhood, and Snowmass Village’s many restaurants and cultural activities cater to non-skiing visitors as well as those seeking the finest in après-ski relaxation. Nearby, the once bustling Ashcroft is now a ghost town with several historic buildings still intact, and the bedroom community of Carbondale offers a more low-key mountain-town experience, as well as hot springs, horseback riding, and rafting and kayaking on the Crystal River and Roaring Fork.