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Aspen is among the most popular ski destinations in the entire West. Nestled high in the Elk Mountains branch of the Rockies, Aspen and its sister town of Snowmass Village service four major ski areas, the highest concentration anywhere in Colorado. The surrounding peaks are some of Colorado’s most picturesque and provide a massive playground for both winter and summer activities.

There’s no lack of things to do in Aspen, either. Visitors can take tours of historic landmarks such as the Wheeler Opera House or the Hotel Jerome and shop at trendy outlets or smaller local stores. A selection of art galleries, a theater and a concert hall are available for those seeking culture. The town of Aspen also plays host to a number of festivals, workshops and competitions during the year, meaning something is nearly always going on.

The mountains above Aspen take on a blue tint when seen from a distance
The mountains above Aspen take on a blue tint when seen from a distance

Introduction

When Walter Paepcke and Friedl Pfeifer wandered into Aspen in the 1940’s, the town was barely green patch on a map. The boom of mining was in the distant past and what was left of the early town had become a sleepy agricultural and ranching community. This changed when Pfeifer, transformed the face of Aspen Mountain (Ajax) into a world-class ski area. In the meantime, Paepcke was conjuring the Aspen Idea, a vision of utopia creating a setting for high culture in the Rocky Mountains. A place where great thinkers could congregate, rejuvenate and trade ideas. Under Pfeifer’s watchful eye, Aspen became a celebrated, albeit quirky, resort town with a brain. Today, Aspen is in a world all its own. Tucked away at the southeast end of the Roaring Fork Valley, surrounded by the towering Elk Mountains, Collegiate Peaks and White River National Forest, Aspen feels far away. Maybe that is part of the reason the population is so diverse and interesting. Aspen is one of the few places you can see billionaires and hard-core snowboarders both decked out in the latest fashions. Aspen is a town of great diversity, a town of sophistication and extreme sport.

Aspen as a playground for the rich and famous. They flock to the resort and multitudes of star struck tourists follow them trying to catch a glimpse of celebrity. Mammoth mansions litter the mountainside, many of these sit empty most of the year. The most famous mansion is probably the Peak House, sitting near the summit of Red Mountain. With over 23,000 square feet, you can rent the house for $200,000 per month.

 View of ESPN's Aspen Winter X-Games in 2004
View of ESPN's Aspen Winter X-Games in 2004

But although the beautiful people propel Aspen’s celebrity status, it is the community of locals, and the perfect mix of sport and culture that make the small town worth visiting. Aspen is not without its problems. Commercial development and urban sprawl are issues of constant concern. Traffic congestion clogs roads during peak seasons. Almost 70 percent of the workforce cannot live within the city limits due to lack of affordable housing. Housing prices hover around two-million dollars a home and these are relatively small. Aspen is working hard to tackle these problems, while trying to keep the Aspen Idea strong, balancing the dueling personalities of a community and a resort.

History & Culture

Aspen was not always a quirky town with posh eateries and hotels, multi-million dollar homes, and fur-clad celebrities on skis. This winter hub for the rich and famous and a world-class skiing destination was once the summer hunting grounds of the Ute Indian tribe. Archeologists have found evidence of an ancient people that wandered the Roaring Fork Valley some 8,000 years ago. By time Colorado became a state in 1876, the rush for gold and silver was in full swing. Mining settlements littered the high country, as prospectors pried their fortunes from the rock with an undying urgency. At the time, Leadville was the state’s second largest city next to Denver. The settlement, tucked away on the east side of the Continental Divide, had some of the deepest veins of silver ever found. But it was not until 1879, when a few miners crossed Independence Pass and ventured into the Ute’s hunting ground, that they reached the mother lode.

Mountain goats are just a few of the animals seen here.
Mountain goats are just a few of the animals seen here.

The prospectors discovered so much ore in the area that silver was literally pouring out of the ground. The prospectors set up camp and named it Ute City, which was ironic considering they would eventually push the tribe out of the valley. In 1881, the city changed its name to Aspen.

Mining camps popped up everywhere but Aspen benefited from more than just mining. Two railroads utilized the town as a hub. By the late 1880’s, Aspen’s population was more than 12,000. The town had an opera house, six newspapers, a red light district, three banks, a host of churches and a hospital. At that point, close to a million dollars worth of silver and one of the biggest nuggets ever (weighing in at 2,200 pounds) had been extracted.

Once the Sherman Silver Act was history and silver was demonetized in 1893, the fortune seekers vanished. The area’s settlements soon stood empty, most of them ultimately crumbled and disappeared. The remnants several of these settlements are now ghost towns and remain popular tourist stops. Aspen survived, but the population dwindled, bottoming out around 700 people in the 1930’s.

In 1935, a group of investors came to the Roaring Fork Valley looking for a location to build a ski area to compete with European resorts. Andre Roch had the task of creating the ski area. But after constructing a lodge, boat tow, and initial slope, World War II ended hope of completion.

The 10th Mountain Division, a military ski unit stationed outside of Leadville continued skiing Aspen Mountain. When the war ended, a few in the division returned to Aspen. The most prominent of these was Friedl Pfeifer. Pfeifer, who purchased mining claims and surface rights to the area, partnered with Walter Paepcke to transform Aspen from a mining town. Paepcke sought to create the “Aspen Idea.” His vision of a cultural Utopia, a place where great thinkers could meet and share ideas, a place where people could travel to renew the spirit and rejuvenate the mind.

A lone doe peers out from among the quaking asp trees the town is named for.
A lone doe peers out from among the quaking asp trees the town is named for.

Pfeifer just wanted a ski area and watched with pride as the first skiers were carried up the slopes for Aspen Mountain’s official opening in the winter of 1947.

Two years later, Paepcke conceived the Goethe Bicentennial Convocation, where Dr. Albert Schweitzer and others put Aspen on the intellectual map. This event lead to programs in music, theater, art and dance, including the Aspen Musical Festival. Paepcke also hired Bauhaus architect Herbert Bayer to leave a visual impression on the town. Bayer, along with Fredric Benedict, designed the Aspen Institute and Aspen Meadows Conference Center. Bayer also restored existing structures like the Wheeler Opera House.

In 1950, the ski area hosted a downhill championship that attrached the best skiers around. This event established Aspen as a world-class ski destination and the stage was set for Aspen’s conversion from a mining hub to an elite center of art and sport.

In 1958, Pheifer went on to construct slopes at neighboring Buttermilk Mountain, while Whipple Van Ness Jones carved the trails for Aspen Highlands. From this point, an avalanche of development spread across the valley.

The Aspen Ski Corporation took over management of Aspen Mountain, Highlands Mountain and Buttermilk and built Snowmass in 1967 to complete the four-mountain resort. The 1970’s and 1980’s brought pedestrian malls, posh restaurants, five-star hotels and mansions. And the celebrities followed, solidifying Aspen as an aprs ski wonderland.

Aspen Mountain Ajax to the locals recently celebrated 50 years, reminding everyone just how far a town will go for the love of a sport. And through all the glitz and glamour, the Aspen Idea, is still at the heart of the town.

Getting There

Aspen is about 220 miles west of Denver via Interstate 70 to Glenwood Springs and then Highway 82 south to the center of downtown. Many visitors opt to fly into Denver International Airport, rent a car, and drive up to Aspen. The drive is long but passes some extraordinary terrain, including the Front Range Mountains, the Gore Range, Battlement Mesa, and Glenwood Canyon. Watch out in the winter though. During bad conditions this four-hour drive can easily turn into eight hours of terror. During summer you can save 30 minutes on the drive from Denver by wandering over Independence Pass. Independence Pass is only open during summer and is one of the highest paved roads in North America. The views are stunning, especially during late July when the wildflowers are blooming. If you fear heights, however, you may want to reconsider this route for many of the hairpin turns on the pass are narrow and are bordered by sheer drop-offs.

Several airlines fly into Aspen’s Pitkin County Airport.

Weather

The high altitudes at Aspen mean cool nights year-round and strong sunshine in summer. Short afternoon rain showers are not uncommon during warm summer days. Winter nights can be bitter cold but the days are usually close to freezing, or even higher.

One of the many hiking trails leading to the lovely alpine meadows and lakes
One of the many hiking trails leading to the lovely alpine meadows and lakes

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