Sari Anne Tuschman—Those who know Aspen well can often be heard saying what has become the town’s unofficial mantra: “You come for the winter and stay for the summer.” That may be hard to believe, considering the Aspen/Snowmass area boasts four mountains (Aspen Mountain, Snowmass, Aspen Highlands, and Buttermilk), world-class skiing and snowboarding, and a thriving après-ski scene, but all of that still comes in second (albeit a close second) to what the short and sweet summer months offer: countless outdoor activities, music festivals, lecture series, delicious outdoor dining, and so much more. Read on for the 10 reasons Aspen is better in the summer.
The great outdoors is a wonderful place to take in a concert or dockside tuba practice. (Photo: Aspen Music Festival/Instagram)
The Aspen Music Festival and School: Considered one of the premier classical music festivals in the country, the Aspen Music Festival and School —founded in 1949 — leads more than 600 students to migrate to the mountains for a summer of classes led by leaders of the industry. The eight-week summer schedule includes more than 300 performances (orchestra, chamber music, opera, master classes, and more) by visiting legends, including Joshua Bell, David Finckel, Wu Han, and many others, as well as numerous impromptu student concerts around town. Pack a bottle (or two) of vino and find a spot on the grass outside the Benedict Music Tent for the popular 4 p.m. Aspen Festival Orchestra concert every Sunday afternoon.
Settle in for a cozy dinner on the deck at Cache Cache. (Photo: Cache Cache)
The outdoor dining: There’s no question that Aspen boasts exceptional dining, especially for a town of only a few blocks. Once the warm weather hits, most of those delicious eateries set up tables outside, adding delightful fresh mountain air to an already superior culinary experience. Indulge in escargot and superb steak on Cache Cache’s deck, which adjoins Campo di Fiori’s outdoor area, where guests eat the Frutti di Mare seafood salad and Linguini Diavolo with lobster. Grab a craft beer at the outside bar at Hops Culture on the Hyman Avenue Mall, where several restaurants have outdoor tables set up on the brick promenade, including Ellina and Zocalito. Other options include the patio at Jimmy’s Bodega, where you would be in remiss not to order the crab cakes, and Ajax Tavern, with its prime location at the base of Aspen Mountain.
Work up a sweat on one of Aspen’s many trails. (Photo: Jeremy Ridge/Flickr)
The hiking and biking: It’s no surprise that Aspen is a virtual playground for outdoor activities, but the summer offers so many options it can be tough to choose which one to do. Considering its location — nestled in the Elk Mountain range — the offerings for hiking and mountain biking are plentiful. The adventurous can bike the single-track Government Trail from Snowmass to Buttermilk. If you’re more about a need for speed, many of the on-mountain bike trails can be accessed by the lifts, meaning you get a ride up for an adventure on the way down.
Those looking for a more relaxed route can do a road ride up Castle Creek Road to the ghost town of Ashcroft, or head 10 miles up Maroon Creek Road to be rewarded by the gorgeous Maroon Bells.
The Hunter Creek Trail can be accessed right out of town and is a great option for those on foot or two wheels. If you make the grueling trek to the 11,212-foot peak of Aspen Mountain on foot, you can rest easy knowing there is a gondola waiting to take you down (your knees will thank you).
Pack a sandwich and plenty of water, and make the several-hour walk to American Lake or Cathedral Lake, both located just outside of town — the lakes make a great place to enjoy your lunch while you take in the awe-inspiring views.
From leisurely walks ideal for Instagram snaps to serious, sweat-inducing workouts, Aspen has a hiking or biking excursion just waiting for you. aspensnowmass.com
The vibrant colors of Aspen in the summer. (Photo: iStock)
The scenery: OK, this one may be obvious, but if you’ve only experienced Aspen during the winter months (which can sometimes start in October and end in May), you know how beautiful it looks when it’s covered in white, but seeing it in the summer is a whole other experience. If the ski season has been a good one, that moisture translates to the most verdant summer you can imagine, the mountains turning a shade of green so deep and bright it feels as if you are living in a Disney movie. The jagged peaks take on a completely new life in the summer, and are even more imposing and dramatic once they’ve shed their blanket of snow.
Make sure to make your way to the Maroon Bells during your stay, and you’ll quickly understand why they are supposedly the most photographed mountains in North America (a tough figure to prove, but we’ll go with it). The best part? You can almost always still see snow-capped peaks in the distance, a constant reminder of just how special (and short) Aspen’s summer is. (Side note: Just think how much more pronounced all the colors and stunning scenery has become since it became legal to buy marijuana in Colorado at the beginning of last year).aspenchamber.org
The water sports: Yes, Colorado is landlocked, so this one may be a little unexpected but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Aspen is located at the confluence of the Roaring Fork River with Maroon Creek, Castle Creek, and Hunter Creek. All of that means white-water rafting aplenty (from easy-breezy, scenic floats to equal-parts-terrifying-and-thrilling Class V-rapids), tons of options for kayakers (reference the aforementioned rapids), unrivaled fly-fishing (think A River Runs Through It ) and even SUP (yes, stand-up paddling, believe it or not), which can be done at Northstar Preserve, located just east of Aspen on the Roaring Fork. Who says you need an ocean? aspenkayakschool.com;blazingadventures.com
(Photo: Jazz Aspen Snowmass/Facebook)
The music scene: There is an almost constant soundtrack to an Aspen summer, one of varying beats and genres. There is the aforementioned Aspen Music Festival and School and its array of classical music concerts, but that only begins to tell the story. Jazz Aspen Snowmass (JAS) — celebrating its 25th anniversary season — throws the summer’s two biggest music festivals, one in June and one on Labor Day. This year’s headliners for the end-of-summer bash include Hozier, The Fray, Lenny Kravitz, and No Doubt.
JAS also partners with the Town of Snowmass Village (just outside of Aspen) for a free concert series that puts music on the mountain every Thursday. Attendees pack a picnic and set up shop on the ski hill to listen to a diverse array of bands play against the breathtaking backdrop of the Rocky Mountains.
And Belly Up — Aspen’s premiere venue, located in the center of town — offers a jam-packed music roster of incredible acts ranging from up-and-comers to legends.
The route: If you’ve ever flown into Aspen, you know the descent into Sardy Field airport can be a slightly tenuous one — that is, if you make it at all, given the often difficult weather conditions. Of course, you can fly into Denver and drive the four hours to Aspen during the snowy months, but Vail Pass along the way is prone to closures. All of that is to say the actual process of getting to Aspen when it’s warm is one more point on the “pro” side of the argument in summer’s favor. Specifically, Independence Pass — the white-knuckled, switchback-laden mountain road that winds its way from the mining town of Leadville to Aspen — makes the trip from the Mile High City to Aspen about 40 minutes shorter and definitely more of an adventure, but it doesn’t open until around Memorial Day. The views are spectacular (thanks to steep drop-offs, we recommend only the passenger do the gawking), and there are hikes, rock-climbing routes, and even the tiny town of Twin Lakes to experience along the way. Stop and take a picture at the 12,095-foot summit atop the Continental Divide.
Hilary Clinton spoke at the Aspen Ideas Festival. (Photo: Aspen Ideas Festival)
The Aspen Institute: There are few towns as small and remote as Aspen that have the same magnitude of powerful and renowned leaders wandering through it. That is largely in part to The Aspen Institute, the D.C.-based, nonpartisan educational and policy-studies organization (read: think tank) led by best-selling biographer and former Time managing editor Walter Isaacson. The Institute — as it is primarily known among locals — essentially relocates to Aspen for the summer months, bringing with it an array of lectures and events that stimulate both the brain and the soul. The Aspen Ideas Festival — arguably the country’s premier public gathering of world leaders from several disciplines— takes place each summer, hosting some 200 deep discussions and panels (this year’s concludes on July 4). One hour you could be listening to Hollywood super-writer Aaron Sorkin talk about the tenants of creating a character and the next be listening to New York Times columnist David Brooks discuss religion, and then hear New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu confront the issue of violence in our cities. The Ideas Festival is the Institute’s premier summer event, but thanks to the organization’s presence in town, any given day could bring a lecture by a game-changing tech entrepreneur, world leader, major philanthropist, or Pulitzer Prize winner.
The newly opened Aspen Art Museum. (Photo: Aspen Art Museum)
The art scene: Once the summer hits, a who’s who of the contemporary art world descends on Aspen — and with good reason. The streets are filled with galleries — among them the widely respected Baldwin Gallery, which has been showcasing internationally renowned artists since the mid ’90s.
Opened last year, the new building of the Aspen Art Museum — designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Shigeru Ban — was a game-changer for the town in terms of the amount and magnitude of exhibits it could present. As a non-collecting contemporary art institution, it has earned a reputation for featuring on-the-verge artists and thought-provoking shows. Once you’ve walked the several floors of the museum, take in views of Aspen Mountain and grab a bite on its rooftop café.
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Afterward, make the journey to Snowmass, where the beautiful Anderson Ranch Arts Center offers its Summer Series, which consists of lectures with art-world heavyweights such as Frank Stella and Hank Willis Thomas and collectors Jennifer and David Stockman. Who says you need a city for a serious culture scene?
Purple sunset over Independence Pass. (Photo: iStock)
The sunset: Pretty much wherever you watch the sunset in Aspen will be spectacular — it’s hard not to be in awe of the way the bright colors take over the sky as they sink into the mountainous horizon. But even better than that is how late it comes during the summer (around 9 p.m.), which means you can do several of the above in one day and maximize just how amazing — and fleeting— Aspen’s summer really is.
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