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Aspen is a mountain town, and for most folks its biggest attraction is the great outdoors. In winter, that means skiing or snowboarding over four separate downhill areas. Together, they serve up more than 5,000 snow-smothered acres of delightful descents. Beyond the lifts, Aspen is rife with snowshoe and cross-country ski trails, both groomed and ungroomed. For those not into self propulsion, there's also dog sledding and snowmobiling available. When the flakes melt, the local love of the outdoors only escalates. Summer visitors come to go hiking, camping, backpacking, birding, rock climbing, peak bagging, paragliding, ballooning, rafting, kayaking, fly fishing, lake fishing, road biking, mountain biking, horseback riding, hot springing and skinny dipping. If it can be done outdoors, it's probably available around Aspen. There are, however, some local attractions you should absolutely not miss on your visit. Some are in town. Others lie a short distance away, sometimes accessible by public transportation. A few require longer drives and time commitments. All are well worth the effort.
Neighborhood: Independence Pass Foundation
Colorado Highway 82 over Independence Pass is one of the most-famous pieces of pavement in the state. Road signs advise that vehicles over 35-feet long are prohibited, and for good reason. It may be wide lower down, but up top in spots, road width narrows to about a lane-and-a-half with tight turns and no shoulders. In typical Colorado fashion, guardrails are seldom seen, making this a white-knuckler for the acrophobic. The abandoned mining camp of Independence sits near timberline. Stop and stroll around. A short distance beyond, the road reaches its Continental Divide apex on the highest paved pass in the country. Views in every direction inspire gape-mouth awes. If time permits, descend to Leadville and grab a burrito at one of its Mexican restaurants (Casa Blanca at 118 E. 2nd St. is best). It takes about an hour to reach the pass and another hour reach Leadville. The road over Independence Pass is closed in winter.
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Neighborhood: Aspen Highlands
This pair of peaks poke up like Siamese-twin pyramids at the end of an open valley 11 miles southwest of Aspen. Because they are two of the most-photographed mountains in the country, even if you've never been here before, they'll feel like old friends the first time you sight the summits. Auto access is limited in summer, but RFTA buses from the Aspen Highlands parking lot access the area. Tickets run $6 for adults, $4 for children and seniors. After Labor Day weekend, buses run only Friday through Sunday. In winter, when the road lies buried by snow, Aspen's iconic peaks can still be best seen from the Loge Peak warming hut at Aspen Highlands.
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Aspen's Five Star Adventures offer daily summer driving tours past 75 homes owned by stars such as Jack Nicholson, Kevin Costner, Leonardo DiCaprio and Oprah plus CEOs, sports stars and more. Many of these properties would sell for $5-120 million. The only upscale enclave they don't visit is Starwood. Remember that old John Denver song, “Starwood in Aspen”? The singer forgot to mention that his "sweet Rocky Mountain paradise" is in Aspen's utmost upscale gated community. In addition to the primo properties, the tour includes a drive-by history of the town. Transport comes in SUVs or minivans. The two-hour tour costs $89 per person with a minimum of two and a maximum of six participants per ride.
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This historic village beside the Crystal River was originally built as a company town for coal miners. Today, its unpretentious studios, galleries, shops and restaurants offer a peaceful escape into a browser's enclave of artful serenity. To get there, head west on Colorado Highway 82 and, at Carbondale, about 30 miles down valley from Aspen, turn south onto Colorado Highway 133. Eighteen miles later, look for the turnoff to Redstone. In town, home-owned businesses line the street, all providing ample excuses to plop down a credit card. At the south end stands the Redstone Inn, a 35-room, rustically elegant hotel built in what was once an old coal miners' dormitory. Even if you're not staying there, you need to come in and look around. Redstone Castle, where the millionaire coal baron lived, stands nearby. Weekend tours of his 42-room, Tudor-style mansion cost $15. Although best seen in summer, many Redstone businesses are open year-round.
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Aspen is one of those wealthy sort of towns where you expect to see art sold in galleries and hung in million-dollar homes. The community also sports a top-notch art museum featuring rotating exhibits of international contemporary works. The scope seems to far exceed what one would expect from a community of only 6,000 people, but hey, this is Aspen. Best of all, the museum is free, thanks to generous donors. Located on Mill Street near the Aspen Brewing Company and Clark's Market, it's definitely worth a stop. Open Tuesday-Saturday 10AM-6PM, Sunday noon-6PM and Thursday 10AM-7PM.
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Neighborhood: Glenwood Springs
A far-less-strenuous way to soak in hot water is to visit Glenwood Hot Springs, located 41 miles down Roaring Fork Valley near the junction of Colorado Highway 82 and Interstate 70. Open year-round, more than a million gallons of 90-degree liquid fill a swimming pool that's longer than a football field and almost as wide. World's largest hot springs-fed pool, town promoters claim. On a summer's day, the family-friendly premises are packed with kids whose screaming exuberance suggests everyone's having fun. Come early or late in the day if you crave quiet. Beside the main pool sits a much smaller 104-degree "therapy pool" used by adults seeking to soak in calmer surroundings. In winter, the pool remains open, and it's decidedly less crowded. Nearby, the Yampah Vapor Caves allow guests to swelter in the steamy confines of a natural underground sauna.
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No trip to Aspen is complete without getting at least one birds-eye view of the countryside. Aspen Paragliding offers three or four launches daily, weather permitting. After a briefing, you strap into a harness with an instructor behind. If the winds are right, launching is a breeze. If not, a short trot down a ski run may be needed. On a good day, you'll rise with the thermals reaching altitudes as high as 18,000-feet in that clear, blue Aspen sky. The entire experience lasts about two hours and costs $225. And don't think you're too old or young to do this. Previous participants have been as young as three and as old as 95.
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Neighborhood: White River National Forest, Aspen-Sopris Ranger District
Pools of earth-heated water lie at the edge of timberline, 12,000 feet high in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness area south of Aspen. Soaking temperatures hover at a near-perfect 102+ degrees. Flowers blossom in the nearby tundra, sky-scraping peaks rise on either side of the valley, and the emerald-green forest you just hiked through drops below. It's a perfect place to simmer with new-found friends. All wilderness hikes should have such a soothing ending, especially those that require an 18-mile round-trip slog with a 2,000-foot elevation gain. The strenuousness of the hike might explain why most visitors to Conundrum lighten their loads by not carrying or wearing swimsuits. While the super-fit can do the hike both ways in one day, the usual way to visit Conundrum is to backpack in and spend a night or two in one of the designated campsites. Plan this as a summer and early fall trip. The approach to the springs is a deadly avalanche hazard in winter.
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Aspen Music Festival
If you're visiting Aspen in mid-summer, be sure to catch at least one performance of the Aspen Music Festival and School. The classical program dates back to 1949, when town honchos realized they needed something to attract summer visitors. The festival and school, which features symphony, chamber music, opera and more, runs annually from early July through late August. Venues vary from campus structures to churches and concert halls. If possible, catch a performance at the Benedict Music Tent, a 2,000+ seat facility that combines the openness of a tent with the acoustics of a concert hall. Some events are free or cheap. Others cost up to $75 or more. Generally, only operas and special events sell out in advance with tickets to other performances usually available on the day of the show. Seats are reserved, however, so for best views, go online and buy early.
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The easy-to-reach ghost town of Ashcroft lies at pavement's end on Castle Creek Road, a dozen miles south of town. In its glory days, Ashcroft was a rival to Aspen, but when rails arrived in the big town, Ashcroft pretty much folded. Take a walk around the site's wooden buildings and try to imagine what life would have been like here a century ago. The Pine Creek Cookhouse lies nearby, offering lunches and dinners almost year-round. During the snow season, 28 kilometers of groomed trails beckon cross-country skiers, with equipment rental available onsite. In the summer, a gravel road continues on, accessing trails to backcountry lakes and summits, including 14,265-foot Castle Peak. Depending on how far you want to drive, high clearance and 4x4 will eventually be needed. Castle Creek Road is the third exit in the Colorado Highway 82 roundabout on the east side of Aspen.
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