Long before Bogner beauties were shooting off bottles of Cristal on the deck Aspen Highlands' Cloud Nine and hip hop artists wandered Hopkins Avenue in full-length furs, Aspen was the ultimate town for ski bums. They moved into tiny Victorians, trimmed secret lines in the woods, laid claim to spots where the beers were cheap and the bison burgers unbeatable.
The good news: that side of Aspen is still there for the finding. You can still get fresh tracks, ski for free, drink good $5 wine, and get a $45 massage. Here's our insider's guide to living large like a local in Aspen.
1. Get Fresh Tracks
The X Games are going on, it’s a powder day (24 inches have fallen in 48 hours) and we’re late. Schools are closed. The line at the Silver Queen gondola started filling up at 7:45. On the advice of a friend who has lived there for 20 years, we skip the Silver Queen gondola and head to Lift 1A. The line there is, in the words of one liftie, “the longest I’ve seen in years.” The good news? That is not long. By 10am we have had three untracked runs down some of the mountain’s steeper terrain like Silver Queen, the Dumps, and some sweet little shots through the trees.
“The other great place locals go to get freshies,” says Kim Smith, who has taught snowboarding in Aspen for more than a decade, “is Tiehack at the Buttermilk. “You can do laps on the backside there all morning and not cross tracks.”
Last, if you’re ready to earn those turns, hang out at the top of Aspen Highlands and convince a ski patroller to let you know when the vast, open terrain of Highlands Bowl is set to open and if the cat is running (which will take you up the first incline to the Bowl’s edge). But be ready for a stampede to follow.
2. Ski for Free
If you walk up to the lift ticket window, expect to pay $139 for a lift ticket. If you book ahead for a single day, it’s $89, and the more days you book, the more discounts you get. But there are ways to get even better deals. For instance, starting March 1, if you book lodging and rental equipment through Aspen Snowmass online, kids 7-12 get a free ticket for every rental day.
Another option: bring (or rent) a pair of cross country skis and head out on the nearly 60 miles of free Nordic trails—maybe even ski through a ghost town in nearby Ashcroft. Of course, you can book a cross-country ski trip out to beautiful Pine Creek Cookhouse for a lunch, featuring Colorado elk bratwurst. Or you can go the cheaper route: ski the Rio Grande Trail to Woody Creek Tavern, the dive bar gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson made famous, for chicken flautas and a margarita.
3. Eat Like a Star, For Less
Marco Chingolani is a co-owner of the always-popular après-ski bar Justice Snow’s , located in one of Aspen’s most historic buildings, The Wheeler Opera House. Ask him where else to eat out and he’ll rattle off a list of the usual suspects: Cache Cache for fine dining, Matsuhisu, Kenichi or the new Maru for Japanese, Rustique for country French. But if you ask him where he goes to eat, he gives a slow smile and says “Happy Hour.”
If you’re coming off the slopes, don’t head home, head out. Happy hour chicken wings at the local favorite watering hole Zane’s are 50 cents and cheese fondue at BBs is $10. Before 6 pm you can get a cheesy, smoky onion soup at Rustique Bistro’s bar for $9, a glass of decent house red for $5 and a happy hour menu of small plates (think truffle fries and wild boar soppresata) that’s about 40% off what the dinner menu costs.
“I always try to meet people after skiing at Limelight’s lobby,” says Meaghan Lynch, who works for the Aspen Skiing Company. The hotel’s spacious lobby features a fireplace, comfy couches, and serves $10 pizzas and perhaps the cheapest beer in town during the 3 pm to 7 pm happy hour: $2 Bud drafts and $4 for premium brands.
And for the best people watching in town, head to the Hotel Jerome’s remodeled back room, The Living Room. Order a drink and tapas, sink back into the couch by the fire, and watch the parade of supermodels and starlets.
4. Hang Out at A Hut
Imagine getting a log cabin for you and a group of friends high on a mountain just outside of Aspen, with fresh tracks right out your door and killer views… for as little as $33 per person per night. Yes, there’s a catch: you have to reserve well in advance, bring your own food and sleeping bags, and skin up to get there. But in this case, it pays off to plan ahead. Aspen has three mountain huts (Benedict huts, McNamara hut and Margy’s are part of the 10th Mountain Division hut system) within striking distance, and when town gets crowded, locals head for these hilltop retreats for an unrivaled ski trip experience.
5. Shop the Thrift Shops
“I know women who come to Aspen from Telluride to shop here,” says Peggy Amory, a well-dressed skier who has lived here for nearly four decades. She’s not talking about the Louis Vuitton or Theory boutiques here, but The Thrift Shop . Though there are several consignment shops in town, the Thrift Shop, which opened its doors in 1949, has a strong following among locals.
All items (skis, apparel, games, outdoor gear) are donated and profits go to local charities. All the workers are volunteers. The selection (more Patagonia than Prada) is hit or miss, and the hours are 10 am to 3 pm. But if you are searching for a retro onesie or need another pair of mittens, this is a good place to start. And if you are looking for Prada (or Lanvin) try Suzie’s LTD (open 7 days a week) or Amber’s Uptown Consignment for brand name bling and clothing.
6. Wind Down
Though Aspen may be one of the priciest ski towns around, it’s actually one of the best places to get a good, affordable massage. The Aspen Massage Institute trains therapists and if you are willing to be a guinea pig, you can sign up for an hour session for $45 with a student, $65 with a newly certified therapist, or $125 with an instructor. Your body will thank you.