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Affordable Aspen Is Actually Called Carbondale

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Mount Sopris is a 25-minute drive from Carbondale, an affordable and fun alternative to Aspen.

Photo by Kristi Biokhin/Shutterstock

Mount Sopris is a 25-minute drive from Carbondale, an affordable and fun alternative to Aspen.

This Colorado charmer packs in plenty of appeal—restaurants, galleries, museums, hot springs, spas, and easy access to the slopes—all with lodging priced at a fraction of the cost of an Aspen-based vacation.

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Carbondale is located only 30 miles west of Aspen but feels a world apart. Once viewed as a sleepy bedroom community for staffers of Aspen’s glammy ski resorts, the charming western town has come into its own in recent years.

Nestled at the foot of Mount Sopris, deep in the Rockies, Carbondale is home to nearly 7,000 residents. It’s a curious mix, too, with generations of ranchers, potato farmers, and coal miners who were joined by free-wheeling hippies in the 1970s. That merging spawned a motley but creative populace interested in everything from organic farming and solar energy to music, art, and food.

Travel Gear and Gadgets AFAR Staffers Don’t Leave Home Without

The Carbondale of today is packed with restaurants and galleries; slightly further afield are hot springs and world-class art museums. If you’re turned off by the see-and-be-seen peacockery and astronomical pricing of Aspen, it’s high time you got to know its chiller, more down-to-earth sister.

Things to do in Carbondale

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Carbondale is one of the stops along the year-old Colorado Creative Corridor, a 331-mile route linking five artsy small towns. Each has been designated by the state as a “creative district,” so it makes sense to start your exploration in the galleries. Carbondale Clay Center has been getting locals fired up about pottery since 1997; R2 Gallery at the Launchpad showcases pieces by multimedia artists hailing from the broader Roaring Fork Valley. The 15,000-square-foot Powers Art Center is a must-see for fans of Jasper Johns’s works on paper and Takashi Nakazato’s ceramics. If you aren’t familiar with either artist’s work, go anyway: The Hiroshi Nanamori–designed architecture, complete with a reflecting pool set against knockout mountains, is worth the trip.

R2 Gallery is open weekdays from 9-5 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m.-2 p.m.

Although many visitors flock to the trio of natural, tiered hot springs at Avalanche Ranch in nearby Redstone or the clothing-optional Penny Hot Springs, accessible via Highway 133, a less crowded and more rewarding option is spending a languorous morning at True Nature Healing Arts. Carbondale’s new chakra-aligning, spirit-healing retreat and meditation center features a state-of-the-art ceremonial kiva, five-element peace garden, outdoor labyrinth and reflexology path, an Ayurvedic-leaning kitchen and tea lounge, and what might be the best-curated spa boutique in America. Even the antique decor—sourced from India, Morocco, and Bali—is a breath of fresh air.

Behind the soul escape are co-owners Eaden and Deva Shantay. The couple has pumped an enormous amount of energy and resources into growing True Nature. When the expansion is complete, the center will take up a full block and include a biodynamic vegetable garden, newly planted trees, and an even busier event calendar—stacked with yoga classes, gong baths, and chanting sessions.

At Avalanche Ranch, three natural hot springs keep visitors toasty on winter days.

In winter, skiing is the sport of choice, and convenient public buses between Carbondale and Aspen make commuting to the resorts a cinch. Get a route pass between the cities for as little as $6 or a 30-day zone pass that allows unlimited rides. The Carbondale Circulator is free and can drop you off at the station you need to get the Aspen bus.

What to eat and drink in Carbondale

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At breakfast, try simple duck eggs or toast with milk and honey from Silo, a locavore-minded café hidden in a nondescript office park. Good coffee, too. For something more filling, dig into a Santiago Skillet (hashbrowns, eggs, black beans, chicken, corn, and green chilies) at the always bumping Village Smithy or hop on social media to track the whereabouts of the seasonal Biscuit Truck, which specializes in big, buttery, gut-buster biscuits dripping in gravy and served with a side of cheesy grits.

Around lunchtime, sample one of the health-minded dishes (cold kimchi noodles, sushi salad) from the Beat, a newer vegetarian and vegan eatery housed in a renovated Victorian cottage. After December 6, stop by the pop-up Landmark Café at the Way Home to see what regional ingredients are currently inspiring the chef.

The team from Marble Distilling Company uses sustainable practices to distill its spirits.

Spacious and welcoming, Bonfire Coffee is the best spot to refuel or catch up on your email. And for dinner, there is no shortage of tempting options, from Austrian forager Andreas Fischbacher’s rustic Italian home-cooking at Allegria to fresh sashimi or rich curries from Izakaya, a more casual offshoot of Aspen’s glitzy Kenichi.

Refined cocktails await at Marble Distilling Company, a nearly five-year-old distillery that makes its small-batch spirits (vodka, gin, whiskey, and various liqueurs) with Colorado-grown grains and spring water from the Crystal River. Or close out the night with Slaughterhouse lagers at Batch, the two-year-old taproom from the beloved Roaring Fork Beer Company.

Where to shop in Carbondale

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R2 Gallery has a sweet little gift shop, good for scouting jewelry, candles, and books, while the aforementioned spa boutique at True Nature takes the top prize for its well-edited selection of indie-cool perfumes, incense, and healing crystals. Lastly, don’t miss the nature-worshipping goodies at Osmia Organics. Black clay and pumpkin facial soaps and nourishing lip balms infused with Colorado-grown lavender make ideal gifts for the folks back home (and yourself).

The Way Home has two rooms available to book.

Where to stay in Carbondale

For those looking to book an Airbnb, Carbondale’s offerings are much more affordable compared to Aspen, which can cost five or even seven times more on average for a three-day trip in the winter months. The Way Home books two handsome suites for overnight stays. Between the cozy designer textiles and Aesop bath products, you may never want to leave. And The Distillery Inn is uniquely located inside Marble Distilling’s working distillery, where five luxury suites are available in downtown Carbondale.

>> Next: 10 Best Places to Go in December 2019

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