After I graduated high school, my parents and younger siblings moved from Los Angeles to Aspen. I stayed behind to attend University in California. During class, I daydreamed of pine forests and snowcapped mountains, doodling such scenery beside my lecture notes. After two years, I decided to take a gap year to work and live with my folks in Aspen. When I stepped off the plane, I realized immediately that Aspen was the real-life version of my fantasies.
During my elementary school years, my education was that of travel, as my parents took me along with them on their many adventures. And of course, as it goes with frequent-flyers, the travels continued into my adolescence and adulthood. By now, I have seen Switzerland, France, Italy, Germany, Netherlands, British Columbia, Mexico, Jamaica, Hawaii... Yet, something in the magic of that little town 8,000 feet towards the sky has brought me to the conclusion that Aspen is, in fact, my favorite place in the whole world.
Having lived there for a little under a year and visited countless times since then, I have decided to share a travel guide based on my own experiences and familiarities. In this guide, you will find my recommendations of what to do, see, eat, buy, and wear when you visit this sweet little haven nested in the high Rockies.
WINTER - ACADEMY SCREENINGS // SPRING - ASPEN SHORTSFEST
Between December 21st and January 1st, be among the first to screen films campaigning for Academy Award consideration during Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings events. Aspen Film is a group founded in 1979 dedicated to giving anyone the opportunity to indulge in the art of film.
Whether you’re a passionate cinephile or simply looking for an activity after a day of skiing/boarding, attend the Academy Screenings by purchase of single ticket or a general pass.
The Academy Screenings are among the many annual events hosted by Aspen Film. Film Education events are also available to those looking to broaden their understanding of the artform, most of which are free of charge. My personal favorite is the Aspen Shortsfest, occurring in March. This unique series of events hosts filmmakers from around the world, most of whom attend the showings of their short films and interact with the audience afterwards... An intimate experience that will surely satisfy anyone interested in global culture and the intricate craft of film.
The drive to Maroon Bells is a scenic experience in itself. A 20-30 minute journey from town, the road will take you through forests of Aspen trees, hillsides of pines, and fields of lush green. On more than one occasion I have seen Elk and Deer having their breakfast or dinner in the grass beside the road, especially in the late afternoon or early morning.
You will only be able to drive up the road to Maroon Bells between 5:00 pm and 8:00 am. Any other time of day, catch the shuttle bus from the base of the road for $8. If you choose to drive yourself, you’ll pay a $10 fee at the ranger station. There are also campsites along the river worth checking out if that’s something you’d be interested in!
*Note: If you get a 3-day pass for the Gondola in Aspen, they will provide you with a pass for a free ride on the bus to Maroon Bells.
When you arrive at the parking lot, you can already see the Maroon Bells peaks in all their glory. You’ll be standing between a majestic mountainside blanketed with pine forests and a wonderland of Aspen trees that climb up to striking red-sand mountains, with the subtle white noise of the rushing river to your left.
This breathtaking spot is accessible to anyone (Handicap accessible). If you are feeling altitude sickness or simply prefer a minimally-exerting activity, slowly stroll down the path along the small two-toned lake and feast your eyes on the postcard-esque beauty around you. The peaks, over 14,000 feet high, are visible and stunning at any point in the journey, so the hike is not necessary if you’d rather just take it all in without moving. I enjoy spending the day by the lake with a picnic blanket and a book.
If you find yourself feeling energized and excited to explore, take any of the three hiking paths. A mere 20 minutes of cardio and you’re at yet another lake among pin-drop silence.
I recommend this spot for anyone who appreciates beauty, the peace of nature, and striking scenery. Surrounded by seemingly endless National forest land, high up in the Rockies, you’ll be no less than blissful.
YEAR-ROUND - SILVER QUEEN GONDOLA
The Silver Queen Gondola is a must. The 18 minute lift to the top of Aspen Mountain floats over intertwining ski runs, overlooking the town of Aspen towards the bottom and miles of soaring Rocky Mountains the entire way up. A suitable adventure for any season, the Gondola is pet and family friendly.
In snowy Winter, ski or snowboard down the mountain once you reach the top. Beforehand, enjoy a coffee, glass of wine, or hot meal at the Elk Camp restaurant overlooking the majestic view.
In Spring, Summer or Autumn, listen to live music or attend a free yoga class overlooking that same view. My favorite thing to do is ride up the Gondola on Summer Sundays for live bluegrass bands and then follow the hiking paths along the top of the mountain. Amidst wild high altitude flower fields and soaring pines, all worries dissolve into irrelevance!
A collection of other activities are available at the top of Ajax. During sunny seasons, such activities include disc golf, guided naturalist hikes, lawn games (croquet, giant chess/checkers, etc.), a climbing wall, eurobungy, and more. A great place to spend the day with the family, your sweetheart, or yourself. Spend an hour or spend the whole day!
Driving down Main Street, you’ll pass what looks like a cute little Victorian-inspired house. Step inside, and you’ll find yourself in a cozy wonderland of books: Explore Booksellers. A regular spot for readings from well-respected authors who come through town, Explore is more than just a bookstore… Walk up the stairs to the second floor and find a sweet little restaurant with indoor and patio seating under tall pine trees and fast-passing Aspen clouds.
When eating at Pyramid Bistro, you are supporting your physical health with nutrient-dense ingredients as well as mental health with indulgence in flavor! Inspired by the Nutritarian food pyramid created by Joel Fuhrman, MD, which places foods that are most nutrient-dense with the lowest calorie count at the base of the pyramid, Dr. Fuhrman has claimed Pyramid Bistro as the first Nutritarian restaurant in history. When you eat food from this establishment, you are consuming the highest count of micronutrients per calorie. While vegetables are the basis of this way of eating, the Bistro also serves fish and meat dishes that are prepared in a way that utilizes the maximum amount of nutrients possible. So carnivores: don’t be repelled!
Nutrition aside, Pyramid Bistro’s dishes are rich with flavor. Created by globally admired Chef Martin Oswald, the Bistro’s Menu provides a diverse assortment of tasty options suitable for a variety of palates. When I eat here, I order two dishes to be shared with whoever I am dining with. Doing this is a must, as every item I have tried has been amazing so it is impossible to settle with just one!
WHAT TO ORDER:
Summer Tomato Salad - Basil, Feta Cheese, Green Beans, Watermelon, Nicoise Olives, Mint, Arugula ($15)
Personally, I tend to avoid salads with fruit, as the sweet seems to clash with the savory in my mouth. However, the watermelon in this colorful salad pairs so well with the mint and feta, it all ties together excellently! The perfect choice if you’re looking for something light and fresh.
Lemongrass Tofu Stir-Fry - Forbidden Rice, Broccoli, Rainbow Peppers, Cilantro, Lemongrass Tamari ($15)
Not your typical stir-fry, this dish avoids over-saturation of oils and salt without sacrificing sublime flavor. The tofu, forbidden rice, broccoli and peppers make for a filling yet bloat-free lunch, and the lemongrass tamari is a delightful accent.
Drink-wise, they offer a great variety of bio-dynamic wines, as well as beers and sake. I personally enjoy their Chai Latte ($6). I order mine to be made with almond milk (+ $.75), however they can do soy or cow’s milk as well.
After a long day of energy-exerting activities in this high-altitude town, your body will be craving nutrients and your tastebuds will be craving fulfillment. Give your body what it wants, anything on this menu will do the trick!
PITKIN COUNTY DRY GOODS
Opened in 1969, Pitkin County Dry Goods is a longtime local’s favorite. Whether you’re seeking an outfit for a casual daytime stroll through town, a cozy sweater for a sunset bike ride along the river, or an elegant dress for an evening of fine dining, swing by Pitkin County Dry Goods. For men, you’ll find items from John Varvatos, Rag & Bone, and more. For women, your options include Elizabeth and James, Helmut Lang, and Vince.
Their accessory selection is notable, particularly jewelery, with a wide variety of necklaces, bracelets, rings and earrings. Whether you’re looking for a chunky turquoise piece to go with your mountain-woman wardrobe or a delicate gold ring to accent your summer dress, Pitkin County Dry Goods is the place to shop.
P.S. Shhh…Local’s Secret! If you’re a sale-seeker, come by this shop in February or August for gratuitous discounts during their end of season sales!
DRESSED BY MONA MOORE
MORNING STROLL / HIKE
Surrounded by vivid, breathtaking scenery, you’re going to want to look as good as the view! When you wake up, before the wining and dining begins, take a crisp morning stroll or a nice mellow hike dressed for the occasion.
AFTERNOON AT THE PARK
One thing Aspen is not lacking are parks. For how tiny the town is, they’ve managed to squeeze in a park at almost every corner, complete with lush grass and flowers galore! With all the events you’ll attend, from live music to film screenings, take a break in-between for a picnic at the park. Pick up some pastries at Main Street Bakery & Cafe and walk across the street to Paepcke Park, surrounded by majestic pines and complete with a romantic rotunda that lights up at night. If you want to get away from the hustle and bustle of street noise--which is relatively quiet in Aspen anyways--head down to the river and have your picnic at the John Denver Sanctuary, surrounded by a diverse palette of colorful flowers.
Regardless of season, high altitude climate stays on the cold side once the sun goes down. If your Aspen adventure takes place in the Winter, wear this outfit under your puffy snow gear. Once you enter the restaurant or bar, leave it all behind at coat check and strut your stuff!