Adventures in Aspen, Colorado

Star gazing in Aspen

The slopes of Aspen, Colorado are famed for winter sports, but when summer arrives a world of opportunity opens up for those seeking wonder in the wilderness

Think of Aspen, Colorado and you’re almost certain to conjure up images of luxury skiing holidays. The slopes around this former silver-mining boomtown in the Rocky Mountains are held in such high regard that they have been chosen to host the Ski World Cup Finals, which are taking place here in March. But you don’t need to be a winter sports aficionado to draw adrenaline, adventure and wonder from these hills – indeed some would argue the fun really starts when the snow melts.

As Director stepped onto the tarmac and into a warm July night at Aspen-Pitkin County airport, earthy forest aromas filled the air and the mountains loomed – barely perceptible against the clouded night sky framing them. Our destination was Snowmass Village, six miles to the west, gateway to the largest of the four skiing terrains in the Aspen area and, in the summer, a base for those seeking alternative modes of exhilaration and invigoration at high altitude.

This is also the spot where, in 2010, a bulldozer driver working on a reservoir project inadvertently uncovered the remains of a juvenile mammoth – a huge paleontological excavation followed, uncovering more than 30,000 bones of ice age animals including mastodons, ground sloths and giant bison. A visit to the excellent Ice Age Discovery Center, open daily from 10am, is a great way to start your visit and gain appreciation of what might be hidden beneath your feet as you explore the mountains.

While the preferred method of descending the slopes in winter is on two skis, in summer it’s two wheels. Director spent a day riding with pro mountain biker Tyler Lindsay from the Snowmass Bike Park. Equipped with a specially modified Giant Glory mountain bike – worth over $4,000 (£3,250) and designed with forks angled for downhill riding – we donned reassuringly sturdy body armour and headed for the Elk Park gondola to be whisked upslope.

For unseasoned riders the first stop is the intermediary Skills Park, where Lindsay coaches you through dummy versions of obstacles you’ll encounter higher up – from jaw-juddering ‘rock gardens’ to pulse-racing ‘berms’ of tacky mud. Then you can continue up the mountain ready for the descent. Snowmass Bike Park has almost 3,000 vertical feet of purpose-built downhill trails, including the legendary 3.2-mile Valhalla track – one for GoPro-wearing advanced riders. We tackled the beginner’s Verde trail, a longer ride mixing white-knuckle adrenaline with gentle sections where you can absorb incredible views and spot foraging elks that would otherwise pass in a brown blur.

Mountains in Aspen

Maroon Bells, the most photographed peaks in Aspen

Take me to the river

The next morning we took a hike to Maroon Bells, a pair of snow-capped peaks rising to a neck-craning 14,163ft above sea level – the most photographed mountains in Colorado. Arrive early to catch that perfect snap of the peaks reflected in Maroon Lake, as this is one of the most popular attractions in the region. Myriad walking trails begin here, however, and you can soon lose the crowds again – though ominous signs warn you to keep a respectfully watchful eye for other morning roamers, including black bears and moose.

This area is also home to the Roaring Fork river – a waterway as boisterous as its name suggests. Our second afternoon of thrill-seeking began with an invigorating session of white-water rafting with Blazing Adventures, whose quip-happy guides will supply everything you need and, most importantly, encourage you to soak up the scenery as much as the water as you hurtle downstream. Pausing in the occasional calm stretch to watch a bald eagle take flight with a huge fish in its talons, while the hot sun quickly dries you off, you’ll feel as gleefully far from your inbox as you’ve ever been.

If rumbustious rapids aren’t your thing, however, try stand-up paddleboarding instead. While experts say it draws together the skills of Nordic skiing, surfing and kayaking, beginners will be pleasantly surprised at how swiftly they can find themselves confidently upright and paddling downstream – taking in more views and watching for wildlife as they go. Coach Charlie MacArthur of the Aspen Kayak Academy will lead beginners to a Fork tributary to hone their skills – but expect to stop at a beach to learn how to kick your board into the stream and mount it with a running jump. Safe to say, non-waterproof tech should be left safely at home.

Later on, when skies are clear, the wonder moves to a different scale. The Little Nell Hotel in Aspen town offers private stargazing tours. You’ll bundle into an open-topped Jeep at sunset, snuggle under the blankets provided and take the twisting, turning drive to the very summit of the mountain. By the time you get there, far from light pollution, the most staggering view of the Milky Way will have revealed itself. As the Nell’s ‘adventure concierge’ lays a table of hot drinks and snacks, the accompanying astronomer hands out binoculars and uses a laser pointer to highlight stars and planets, sharing an encyclopaedic knowledge of the vast sky.

Should you need a break from the wilderness adventures, Aspen has plenty more to offer – from a trip to the Powers Art Center to see the work of iconic American pop artist Jasper Johns, to taking in a show at Theatre Aspen. Excellent restaurants abound here too including Eight K at the Viceroy hotel with its lovely views and even lovelier ribs, to Wild Fig in the centre of town with its laid-back Mediterranean vibe. For a boozier way to get to know the town, book a pub crawl with the Aspen Historical Society – taking you to old silver mining-era haunts for a dram and finishing, tipsily, at the historic – and some say, haunted – Hotel Jerome. A mountain of ways to recharge for another energetic day on those famous slopes. 

View the Aspen gallery (click to enlarge)

Scott Dunn offers seven-night Aspen and Snowmass itineraries from £2,525 per person, including accommodation for two, BA flights and private airport transfers.

For a clip of stargazing with Little Nell visit

About author

Chris Maxwell

Chris Maxwell

Director’s editor spent nine years interviewing TV and film stars for Sky before joining the IoD in 2011 and turning the microphone on Britain’s business leaders. Since then he’s grilled everyone from Boris to Branson and, away from work, maintains an unhealthy obsession with lower league football.

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