It's not unusual to hear the oft quoted Aspen maxim: “I came for the skiing, but I stayed for the summer.” For me that line’s morphed into “I came for the summer, but stayed for the fall."
Most people know Aspen as a celeb-crazed billionaires’ ski resort, which it is; as well as a summer mecca for the arts, it’s that too. During the high season, Aspen can be too busy at times for my taste, with too much traffic heading in and out of town, downtown parking impossible, and that table at Matsuhisa or Cache Cache, forget about it.
But there’s so much more to Aspen, and autumn is the best time to experience all this tiny town has to offer. Of course mountain weather can change in a heartbeat, but in general, the days tend to be sunnier and drier than August, with crisp nights. Fall’s slower, more laid-back pace provides the perfect antidote to the busy summer. By September, town feels like the quaint little place I still remember from my first visits oh so many years ago, and heard about from old timers.
On a budget? There are deals! Many hotel and lodging properties are offering a buy two nights/get the third free, and there’s lots of restaurant specials. It’s my staycation time. Check out the Aspen Chamber for more details.
In fall, Aspen glitters with the gold leaves of the aspens that grow so abundantly here. A member of the poplar family and related to the eastern birch, aspens are some of the most beautiful trees on the planet. When they turn, their colors are so rich that the town seems on fire, from its tree-lined streets to the surrounding slopes. On Aspen Mountain, which rises from the edge of downtown, and the slopes beyond, a light layer of snow often dusts the tops—a beautiful contrast of gold and silver-white.
Road biking is how I go leaf peeping ( there are also lots of pretty mountain bike trails too). I’ll ride up the Maroon Bells—named for their inverted bell shape—surrounded by a blaze of colors. Or I head one valley over to Castle Creek, once the summer ceremonial and hunting grounds of the Ute Native Americans, and spin up its winding 12.5 miles to the former mining town of Ashcroft. (Aspen leaf peeping routes include some history lessons.) Now a National Historic District, it preceded Aspen as a town. Imagine, in this still remote spot, there once stood streets, hotels, saloons, a school, and a church, with about 3,500 residents in its heyday. Despite high hopes, the ore from the mines above was short lived, and the town abandoned for the promise of silver in Aspen.
The switchbacks of Independence Pass (aka Highway 82) provide another golden spectacle. Starting at the floor of the Roaring Fork Valley, the road is a heart-pounding 20-mile climb, with a 4,000-foot elevation gain to the top of the Continental Divide. It's always a challenging climb, and thrilling is the only way to describe the descent back to town.
It’s also a thrilling drive, with a stop to walk around Independence. On the U.S, National Register of Historic Places, the ghost town, so the legend goes, was named for the gold found in the area on July 4,1879; I recently took one of the Aspen Historical Society tours though the restored old general store and other structures. It’s always mind boggling for me to think of the toughness of the 1500-some people who arrived by stagecoach and settled here in the 1880s, at 10,830 feet, with its extreme weather.
Some of my favorite hiking trails are also accessed off the Pass, like the day-long Lost Man Loop. The setting is spectacular. Glaciers shaped the area, just below the Continental Divide, along the upper Roaring Fork River. Or just drive up to the summit, where you can park and walk to a deck and find fabulous views of the Lake Creek Valley. Colorado is famous for its14ers, and here you look out on its highest peak, Mount Elbert, at 14,440, and La Plata , the fifth highest in the state.
No budget concerns? My ultimate for fall adventures is the Little Nell hotel’s eco excursions. Top on my wish list is the Clip in with Christian cycling camp. Cycling gurus Christian Vande Velde, George Hincapie, Craig Lewis, and Gabby Pilote serve as coaches. Held in summer previous years, the camp takes place this year September 25-29. The package includes accommodations at the chic Nell, Aspen’s only five-star property, along with a customized nutrition plan, cool bike apparel, and, you can count on rollicking food and wine experiences with the wine director, Master Somm Carlton McCoy, himself a cyclist. Jeep up to Aspen Mountain’s 11,212 foot summit; trips range from two to six hours. Or be whisked away in a helicopter to fly fish at a private ranch. Its “Walk and Wade” takes you to the Frying Pan river, about 20 miles away, or view the colors from a float down the nearby Lower Roaring Fork River. The Nell guides are known for peppering their outings with good tales and insights too. Hotel guests can also take one of the Audis from the Nell's fleet and chase the colors on their own. And the Nell runs two of town's best restaurants. Through November 23, Ajax Tavern offers a 3 for $37 special for both lunch and dinner; and its fancier Element 47 offers a lunch appetizer and entrée for $20, and at dinner, three courses for $47.
Unlike Aspen’s other shoulder season—muddy spring—Aspen's shops and restaurants are still open. Most days you’ll be able to soak in the sun with rose-fuelled lunches on the patios of Meat and Cheese, White House Tavern, or Jimmy’s Bodega. Downtown Aspen’s beloved Saturday Farmer’s Market continues on through the end of October, with apples, sweet potatoes, chilis, garlic strands, squashes, pumpkins the best finds.
Yes, fall is quieter than summer, but you can still get a culture fix if you want a break from the outdoors. Aspen’s commitment to the arts, and its vast wealth, have no better symbol than the Pritzker Prize-winning Shigeru Ban designed Aspen Art Museum. It’s housed in an ingenious three-story glass-walled building, with a distinctive basket-like wood-clad exterior and wood truss roof—you can’t miss it walking downtown. Head to its rooftop with fantastic views of Aspen Mountain and part of Independence Pass. I like to sit at its SO cafe for a mid-morning cappuccino or light lunch. And visit Anderson Ranch Arts Center, located near the Snowmass ski resort. Housed on a former sheep and cattle ranch are the center’s artists’ studios; it’s quiet this time of year, but in summer it's abuzz with workshops in photography, painting, ceramics. And don’t miss Baldwin Gallery, an established trailblazer for contemporary art, with the big rep as one of best galleries both locally and internationally. At the end of the month the Aspen Film Festival takes place. It’s a local favorite, not a destination event on the caliber of the Telluride or Sundance festivals. But if you’re in town, it’s worthwhile checking out its program.
When the leaves finally peak, and eventually cover the ground, winter’s definitely in the air. I’m already dreaming of skiing, but oh so so happy that I stayed for fabulous fall.
Performance Ski: 614 E Durant Ave
Clothing you can layer, from fleece to light down parkas and all weather windbreakers; sturdy walking shoes; hats with sun protection; a small backpack (Of course, you can find all these items at local shops.)
A first class pair of binoculas and camera