Aspen J-Bar

Best Things to Do in Aspen

BY Bailey Berg | January 1, 2022

Welcome to Fifty Grande’s Best of the U.S. Bucket List series.. This is your one-stop travel guide to the best, most unique and quintessential experiences of a city, state or event. Want to know how to “do” Aspen, Colorado? We’ve got you covered. Curated by experts, vetted by in-the-know locals, this is all you need to have the best trip ever. If we’ve written a Bucket List, we recommend you go. If it’s on this list, it’s the best the city has to offer right now. Consider this your one-stop answer to “What are the best things to do in Aspen?”

Nestled in a valley carved by a tributary of the Colorado River, at the base of a celestially dazzling mountain range known for its impressive powder, Aspen is a world unto its own. While putting turns in on world-class runs is arguably the biggest draw, you certainly don’t have to be a skier or snowboarder to enjoy Aspen. You can still participate in the legendary apres-ski scene, dine at a bevy of dynamic restaurants, people-watch at colorful watering holes, poke around the high-fashion shops and lounge aroundathe many fireplaces. Considering this year is the 75th anniversary of Aspen Snowmass ski resort’s opening, there’s even more reason to visit this season, with more events, parties and (perhaps most importantly) heavily discounted cocktails at on-mountain bars and restaurants.

Aspen, it should be noted, is considered the playground for the rich and famous, so that dizziness you feel might have less to do with the altitude and more to do with the atmospheric prices. Don’t let that deter you, though. There’s plenty to do in Aspen no matter your budget. Read on for our tips on where to eat, drink, play and stay.

YOU’RE HERE FOR THE MOUNTAINS

From hiking trails to triple diamond ski and snowboarding runs, what often brings outsiders to Aspen is its position within the Rocky Mountains. Though the area is popular, here you can still find a slice of nature to have all to yourself. 

Aspen Snowmass
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Panoramic view of Snowmass Village, with skiers skiing at the Aspen Snowmass ski resort in the foreground and the Rocky Mountains of Colorado in the background, on a partly cloudy winter day.

Aspen Snowmass

Snowmass Ski Resort, Carriage Way, Snowmass Village, CO, USA

If it’s winter and you’re in the pursuit of fresh powder, you’re going to find it here. Aspen Snowmass ski resort isn’t just one mountain, it’s four, with more than 5,500 acres for shredding across the bunch. Aspen Mountain (a.k.a. Ajax), is the only one directly in downtown Aspen, and it offers intermediate terrain. The others, all slightly outside of town, but connected by a free bus system, are Buttermilk (good for beginners), Highlands (expert-level runs) and Snowmass (the most family-friendly choice with the most varied terrain). If you’re here in the summer you can also catch a lift up Aspen and Snowmass for hiking, mountain biking and frequent concerts. 

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Independence Pass
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Independence Pass scenic byway highway 82 rocky mountain high angle view of switchback on road in Colorado autumn at continental divide. Photo by Shutterstock.

Independence Pass

Independence Pass, Colorado, USA

One of the most scenic drives in the West, Independence Pass connects Aspen with Twin Lakes. At the highest point drivers are at 12,095 feet, and from the pull-out there you can see myriad other peaks, dense forests of aspens, alpine lakes and the other drivers white-knuckling many the hairpin turns of the pass. 

Note: Independence Pass closes during the winter season. The steep, serpentine road is too treacherous to attempt when the conditions are icy. 

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Maroon Bells
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Maroon Bells morning sunrise reflection with sunlight on peak in Aspen, Colorado rocky mountain and autumn yellow foliage view and winter snow frozen lake. Photo by Shutterstock.

Maroon Bells

199 Prospector Road, Aspen, Colorado, USA

Said to be the most photographed peaks in North America, the pyramid-shaped twin mountains of North Maroon Peak and Maroon Peak are best shot just after sunrise, when the two fourteeners are cast in a brilliant pink and orange light. If you stand at the far end of the lake, it’s possible to capture their reflection in the water. However, don’t fill up your memory card here — there are a handful of great hikes spidering out from the Visitor Center that deserve time and space too. 

Because it’s so popular, reservations are required for parking at the trailhead. However, if you don’t score one of the coveted few spaces, you can take the shuttle, which runs every 15 minutes from Aspen Highlands, or cycle your way there. 

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Aspen Center for Environmental Studies
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Aspen Center for Environmental Studies

Aspen Center for Environmental Studies

100 Puppy Smith St, Aspen, CO, USA

This free 25-acre wildlife sanctuary on the shores of the Roaring Fork River has some of the best trails in the Hunter Creek Valley. The Aspen Center established the area with a goal of conservation, so there’s frequently naturalist guides leading hikes and snowshoe tours. There are also raptor (eagles and owls) demonstrations and programs for kiddos.

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BUT ALSO THE APRES SCENE

Aspen’s apres-ski and nightlife scene are legendary. The spectrum ranges from people dancing on tables in their ski boots and sports bras to sipping $300-per-ounce whiskies. That’s all to say: Whatever your flavor, you’ll find it here.  

Belly Up Aspen
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Belly Up Aspen

Belly Up Aspen

450 S Galena St, Aspen, CO, USA

One of the best places to catch a live show in Aspen, this intimate (read: absolutely tiny) club has seen the likes of Twenty One Pilots, K’naan, The Beach Boys, and Diplo.

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Aspen Brewing Co.
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Aspen Brewing Co.

Aspen Brewing Co.

121 S Galena St, Aspen, CO, USA

Whether it’s 70 degrees and bluebird or dumping snow, it’s always a good time to visit Aspen’s lone brewery. Be sure to ask for a flight — it comes on what can only be described as a mini shot ski board. Their semi-covered patio is also dog-friendly. 

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J-Bar
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J-Bar

J-Bar

330 E Main St, Aspen, CO, USA

Once upon a time, cowboys rode their horses directly into this saloon housed in the historic Hotel Jerome. While it does have a bit of a Wild West vibe, today it attracts a more well-heeled crowd with its extensive whiskey wall, craft cocktail menu and $28 burger.

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EXPERIENCE LOCAL FESTIVALS AND EVENTS

One tell-tale sign that there’s a festival happening this weekend in Aspen? The private jet parking lot at the airport will be full. If you want to see and be seen, Aspen’s festivals are the place to do that. 

Glasses of wine on bartender counter in restaurant. Photo by Shutterstock.
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Glasses of wine on bartender counter in restaurant. Photo by Shutterstock.

Aspen Food & Wine Classic

419 S Mill St, Aspen, CO, USA

Considering it’s the country’s most premier gastronomic festival, the Aspen Food & Wine Classic (which will be held June 17-19 in 2022) often sells out months ahead of time. The three-day festival sees cooking demonstrations with celebrity chefs like Martha Stewart and Andrew Zimmern, endless wine pours and the kind of opulent revelry that only Aspen can bring. If you go, remember to pace yourself — this is a marathon weekend of chomping and chugging.

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X-games Los Angeles- July 29, 2010.
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X-games Los Angeles- July 29, 2010. Photo by Shutterstock.

X Games

Buttermilk Ski Resort, Colorado 82, Aspen, CO, USA

For three days each January (21-23 in 2022), some of the best winter skiers and snowboarders from around the world descend on Aspen to compete in this extreme athletic competition. Everything from the superpipe to slopestyle takes place on Buttermilk Mountain and is open to the public. 

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UNLIKE OTHER MOUNTAIN TOWNS, YOU'RE HERE FOR FOOD

Usually, mountain towns, particularly those that are a challenge to visit, aren’t known for a robust culinary scene. Aspen is the exception. Here you’ll find everything from falafel stands and smoothie shops to farm-to-table gastro pubs and restaurants with 20-course plated dinners. Many of the eateries are on the smaller side, so it’s a good idea to get a reservation ahead of time, particularly if it’s a popular spot. 

Meat & Cheese Restaurant and Farm Shop
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Meat & Cheese Restaurant and Farm Shop

Meat & Cheese Restaurant and Farm Shop

319 E Hopkins Ave, Aspen, CO, USA

Given the name, it should come as no surprise what the signature foodstuffs are at this eatery. Whenever possible, the restaurant tries to source locally and seasonally, though the recipes have a more global bent (one example: bison schnitzel). If you’re on a budget, pop in between 2:30 and 5 p.m. when the cheese and charcuterie boards are a bit cheaper. 

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Casa D’Angelo in Aspen
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Casa D’Angelo in Aspen

Casa D’Angelo

105 S Mill St, Aspen, CO, USA

Though it’s been open less than a year, Casa D’Angelo is already making a name for itself as an authentic Italian restaurant. The wine list is also very extensive, which makes sense considering the owner also has a vineyard in Italy. Given its second-floor patio seating with views of the mountain, it’s a great place for a sundowner. 

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Cloud Nine Alpine Bistro in Aspen
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Cloud Nine Alpine Bistro in Aspen

Cloud Nine Alpine Bistro

76 Boomerang Road Top of the Cloud Nine Lift, Aspen, CO, USA

Considering it’s found at 11,000 feet and occasionally obscured by clouds, this bistro occupying a former ski patrol hut has an appropriate name. The things that happen inside… Well, they may be less appropriate. No matter the time of day, there’s a good chance the patrons will be dancing on tables in varying degrees of undress and spraying mind-bogglingly expensive champagne. Though the floors may be sticky, don’t expect bar food. Menu items include things like lobster and king crab bouillabaisse and rack of lamb.

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Woody Creek Tavern in Aspen
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Woody Creek Tavern in Aspen

Woody Creek Tavern

2858 Upper River Road, Woody Creek, CO, USA

One of the most iconic eateries in the area, Woody Creek Tavern is the place where aging hippies and Aspen socialites converge. Whether that’s because of its dangerously strong margaritas or because it was reportedly the favorite watering hole of Hunter S. Thompson, we’re not sure. With Christmas lights draped across the ceiling, leopard-print bar seats, walls papered with Polaroid photos signed by locals and guests and a taxidermy buffalo head that wears a too-small cowboy hat in the corner, it’s a fun place to hang out and people-watch over a plate of fish tacos. 

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AND WHEN YOU'RE IN THE MOOD TO SPLURGE

We mentioned Aspen gets pricey, right?

WHERE TO STAY IN ASPEN

There’s no shortage of incredible lodging in the Aspen area, from funky bed and breakfasts to over-the-top five-star luxury hotels. Considering Aspen is a playground for the wealthiest among us, expect to pay loftier prices here than other mountain towns (though if you are looking for something cheaper, consider Snowmass Village, just 15 minutes down the road). 

Aspen Meadows Resort
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Aspen Meadows Resort

Aspen Meadows Resort

845 Meadows Road, Aspen, Colorado, USA

This 40-acre property was originally the headquarters of the Aspen Institute, but now it’s a chic, art-forward hotel, with multiple indoor galleries, as well as a massive sculpture collection that’s scattered throughout the grounds. It’s a little outside of the downtown core, but if you’re looking for a less rambunctious getaway, that might be ideal. 

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The Little Nell in Aspen
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The Little Nell in Aspen

The Little Nell

675 E Durant Ave, Aspen, CO, USA

The only true ski-in/ski-out hotel in Aspen, The Little Nell is constantly buzzing with activity. Considering the hotel also holds a handful of restaurants and bars (including a swanky speakeasy hidden behind a bookshelf), it’s something of a meeting place. If you do stay there, expect a room with a fireplace, a balcony overlooking either the town or the mountain and a very well-stocked minibar with free nonalcoholic drinks and snacks. 

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Hotel Jerome in Aspen
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Hotel Jerome in Aspen

Hotel Jerome

330 E Main St, Aspen, CO, USA

The Hotel Jerome has a lot of interesting bragging rights. It’s been open since 1889, was the first hotel in Aspen, was the first west of the Mississippi to have electric lighting and was the campaign headquarters for Hunter S. Thompson during his infamous (failed) run to become the sheriff of Aspen in 1970. The three-story redbrick building has a bit of an eccentric vibe, with taxidermy festooning the walls, ample leather accents and staff dressed in cowboy attire. 

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