3 Unforgettable Summer Days in Aspen

Summer in Aspen is all about moonlight views of Maroon Bells, getting outdoors in the fresh mountain air, eating great food, and John Denver.

221 E Main St, Aspen, CO 81611, USA
Housed in a Victorian home in the center of town, Explore Booksellers is an Aspen institution. Inside, books on business, history, art, travel, and more are crammed into every corner, with an entire room dedicated to children’s literature. The shop also stocks numerous regional titles as well as cards, journals, and gifts and regularly hosts events with local and visiting authors. When you’ve finished shopping, grab lunch on the second floor, where Pyramid Bistro serves healthy, veggie-forward fare.
Ute Avenue
I wouldn’t recommend doing the Ute Trail hike on your first day in Aspen, especially if you come from sea level, but it is definitely a must see. Known as one of the harder hikes in Aspen, it is short but sweet. You traverse up the side of Aspen Mountain on steep switchbacks and just when you think you can’t do one more switchback and your lungs are about to burst you come to a precipice with one of the best views of the town of Aspen. It should take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour to get to this point. From here you can keep hiking to the top of Aspen Mountain and take the Silver Queen Gondola down, which is about another hour and 30 minutes, or trek down the way you came on the Ute Trail.
Rio Grande Trail
My morning routine in Aspen always starts with a run along the Rio Grande Trail. The trail is easily accessed from downtown and stretches 41 miles between Aspen and Glenwood Springs with an elevation change of 2,120 feet. It used to be an old railroad corridor before it was converted into a mostly paved trail for cyclists in 2008. I start my run in Aspen and run out and back for about six miles. That stretch of the trail takes you past the Aspen Art Museum (which is moving locations in 2014), the John Denver Sanctuary, and stunning homes nestled along the river and up in the mountains. In July and August the wildflowers pop with color and if you leave early enough there’s a good chance you’ll spot deer, chipmunks, and other wildlife.
221 E Main St, Aspen, CO 81611, USA
Located above Explore Booksellers off of Main Street, Pyramid Bistro is Aspen‘s first restaurant serving sustainable food with integrity. Martin, the head chef and owner, prides himself on preparing the freshest food from raw, nutrition-dense ingredients. This is the optimal place to eat if you are gluten-free or vegetarian. You can’t go wrong with one of their amazing salads, delectable stir fries, or house specials like Indian Spiced Red Lentil “Gallette” or Caraway Dusted Petaluma Duck Breast. Dining in a historical Victorian House only enhances the experience.
303 E Main St, Aspen, CO 81611, USA
Matsuhisa, a Nobu restaurant, doesn’t disappoint. The restaurant is split into two levels. The menu upstairs is much cheaper than down and the two atmospheres drastically differ. The downstairs is more of a fine dining swanky experience where a reservation is recommended because they are always busy. There is a bar and a sushi bar downstairs that you can try your luck with getting a seat or you can go upstairs where it is first come first serve as well. Upstairs boasts a livelier lounge atmosphere with the majority of the seating at high tables. There are a few traditional tables but not many. The one thing that remains the same both upstairs and down is the quality of food. Like any other Nobu restaurant they only serve the best.
2001, 675 E Durant Ave, Aspen, CO 81611, USA
After a long day of hiking, biking, running, and rafting my body usually craves something healthy but also satisfying. I found my perfect summer dish at Element 47, the newly remodeled restaurant at the Little Nell. Don’t be fooled by the simple name on the menu. Element 47’s Spring Vegetable Salad pays homage to the famous French chef Michel Bras who is known for his mastery of vegetables. At Element 47, chef Robert McCormick artfully prepares an assortment of 20 to 30 locally sourced, seasonal vegetables on the plate creating a vibrant dish that offers a surprising pop of flavors and textures with each bite. It’s the type of dish I could order every night without ever getting bored.
Willow Lake, Colorado 81611, USA
Most people that backpack in the Maroon Bells Wilderness Area usually either go over West Maroon Pass to Crested Butte or go over Buckskin Pass and camp at Snowmass Lake. A lesser known lake is Willow Lake. With fewer visitors, this is a secluded backpacking trip where the lake feels like it is all yours. You still get the great views of the Maroon Bells because you are in the same area without the crowds of people. Head as if you were going to go to Buckskin Pass and when the path forks with signage toward Buckskin pass to the left, bear right and continue hiking. You could do this as a long day hike for the ambitious.
Smuggler Mine, Colorado 81611, USA
Aspen’s history runs deep with silver mining. People came to Aspen in the 1800’s in the hopes of getting rich by finding the mother load of silver nuggets. Scattered across the mountain sides are mining shafts so be careful where you step. For a peek back in history there are the Smuggler Mine tours. Put a helmet on and tunnel through the underground passage ways with Jay the tour guide that has been working at the mines since the 70’s. He is a wealth of information about the mining industry back in the day, the geology of the area and the history about Smuggler Mine itself. The mines claim to fame was that one of the largest pure silver nuggets was found in the mine and it weighted nearly a ton. This is a truly experiential tour with an educational component. Walking through these mine shafts in the depths of the mountain you get a glimpse of the conditions that miners worked under all those years ago. It is not for those that get claustrophobic.
470 Rio Grande Pl, Aspen, CO 81611, USA
“I am a song, I live to be sung, I sing with all my heart!” Pay your respects to the man who penned “Rocky Mountain High” and spent a lot of time in Colorado. The John Denver Sanctuary is a quiet cluster of carved boulders and monuments, located along the Roaring Fork River, near the Aspen Art Museum. Many of the singer’s famous lyrics are carved into the stone, which you can read as you listen to the creak rush by. Fans gather at the sanctuary every year on October 12, the anniversary of Denver’s death (Denver died in 1997, in a plane crash off the coast of California).
W Hyman Ave, Aspen, CO 81611, USA
On the walking mall, on the corner of Hyman Avenue and Mill Street, there is a dancing water fountain where the children endlessly play in the symphonic pattern of the water spraying into the air. The fountain was created in 1979 by a local sculptor and computer genius who programmed the fountain to dance in different patterns. Test your skills and see if you can cross the entire fountain without getting wet or get some balloons and place them on the water rising. For the kids, I recommend either bringing a bathing suit or an extra set of clothes because they are not leaving dry.
433 East Durant Avenue
Located across the street from Ruby Park Bus Station, CP Burger is the ultimate family destination. They serve burgers, hot dogs, milkshakes and soft serve ice cream. For those that are gluten free they have my favorite, the ahi burger wrapped in lettuce instead of a bun. I am sure the gluten-free option of a lettuce wrap is available for any of their burgers or hot dogs. Place your order and when it is ready they will call the name of the famous person, like Marilyn Monroe, that appears on your receipt. Like a 50’s diner, the food is served on a red cafeteria tray but believe me it doesn’t taste like cafeteria food. It is delicious! Burgers with a special sauce and spiked milkshakes for adults. While munching on your food occupy the kids with a game of mini-golf in the summer or ice skating in the winter, operated by CP Burger.
110 E Hallam St #118, Aspen, CO 81611, USA
Down the hallway of an old elementary school is an unexpected art exhibit featuring local talent. Every couple months it changes themes and one month it highlights the youth of the Roaring Fork Valley from kindergarten to high school. There have been exhibits on texture that showcased quilts and tapestries and exhibits that tell a story through a series of pieces. It is quite special to see the talent that lives in the area.
Maroon-Snowmass Trail, Aspen, CO 81611, USA
Aspen is a playground for the active traveler. No matter how many times I visit, I always set aside time to bike to Maroon Bells. Rent a bike from the Hub, a cycling store in town, and be sure to bring a water bottle and even some snacks for energy. The 11-mile ride from downtown will have your quads (and lungs) burning as you slowly make your way uphill. The steady climb makes about a 1,630-foot elevation gain. The views at the top are worth your efforts. The Maroon Bells and Maroon Lake are one of the most photographed areas in North America. On a sunny day the lake takes on magical turquoise and green hues. Relief comes on the ride back to town, which is all an easy coast downhill. Couch potatoes can opt to take a bus to the top.
355 S Monarch St, Aspen, CO 81611, USA
The Limelight has a storied past. The property was originally the Ski and Spur Bar, serving outlaws and skiers. In the 1950s, new owners dubbed it “the Limelite,” and it became a popular nightclub. In 2005, a brand-new lodge went up on the site, and in 2008 the Limelight received a makeover ushering it into eco-chic modernity. Rooms come in a range of styles, from dog-friendly one-bedrooms to two-bedroom suites with full kitchens and dining rooms. All rooms have balconies to take in mountain views. The Lounge has become an après hangout and is known for its great beer selection and for hosting local bands Thursday through Monday nights. The hot tub is the perfect spot to relax after a day of hiking or skiing, while the rooftop terrace is a private oasis to take in mountain views. Travelers who want to get a local’s perspective of Aspen will love the hotel’s complimentary activities.
675 E Durant Ave, Aspen, CO 81611, USA
The Little Nell exudes understated mountain-town luxury. This five-star property has Aspen’s most coveted location, set at the base of Aspen Mountain, just steps from the Silver Queen Gondola. Interior designer Holly Hunt refreshed the rooms with a stylish yet cozy new look in 2012. The Nell is all about options and offers a range of accommodations, including residences. All come with gas log fireplaces, and most have private balconies. The service is what sets the Nell apart. A team of ski concierges can help with everything from boot warming to tune-ups; in summer, the team connects guests with top guides for fly-fishing, mountain biking, and hiking. Ajax Tavern is the place to be for après-ski, and it’s the ultimate spot to people watch during the annual Aspen Food & Wine Classic. Even pets get VIP service and amenities such as puppy jet-lag kits and epicurean dog treats.
More from AFAR
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
AFAR Journeys
Journeys: Europe
Journeys: Europe
Journeys: Europe
Journeys: Europe
Journeys: United States
Journeys: Sports + Adventure