There’s much more to do than skiing in Aspen

Michael Muckian, Contributing writer

The mountain view behind Ashcroft — the Colorado ghost town 10 miles south of Aspen — was spectacular on a sun-drenched January morning.

The Rockies sprawled majestically in the distance. Cross-country skiers traversed groomed trails in the morning light.

However, the magnificent scenery did little to help those who hadn’t been on skis for decades. Skiing, it seems, doesn’t come back to you like riding a bicycle.

So, I schussed, I slipped and I sat.

Popping off my skis, I stepped off the side of the trail and wound up waist-deep in unpacked powder. I was done for the day — at least on the slopes.

Fortunately, Aspen offers a wealth of activities and diversions from skiing in the winter season. Tourism is at its height and it’s not unusual to rub shoulders with Hollywood glitterati. Go armed with a credit card — or three — and you’re ready for action both indoors and out.

Staying outdoors

This time of year, the five slopes that make the Aspen area a world-class skiing and snowboarding destination close at around 4 p.m., leaving ample time for other activities. For those tired of skiing and snowboarding, there are other winter activities, including snowshoeing, snowmobiling and even year-round fly fishing in some the Rockies’ best trout streams.

Or for a real Colorado adventure, you might give ice-climbing a try. Aspen Expeditions hosts tours that include climbing a frozen waterfall. Climbs are rated from beginner to advanced, and trained and certified guides can help newbies master the “two-tool” technique to make their way up icy monoliths. Advanced climbers can tackle the popular ice routes near the McClure Pass at the head of the Crystal River Valley, outside of Redstone, Colorado, or master the classic Vail ice trails. (970-975-7625 or aspenexpeditions.com/collections/ice-climbing.)

Fat biking — you guessed it, biking with fat, studded tires — takes cyclists on snow-covered routes throughout the former silver mining town, into the Roaring Fork Valley and down groomed trails on some of the area’s most popular ski hills. Ute City Cycles (231 E. Main St., 970-920-3325), Aspen’s largest bike dealer, organizes weekly rides. Other popular vendors include Replay Sports (465 N. Mill St., 970-925-2483) and Stapleton Ski & Snowboard Rentals (430 S. Spring St., 970-925-9169.)

Heading indoors

As a winter playground for the rich and richer, Aspen has plenty of chi-chi shops to separate visitors from a portion of their fortunes. Christian Dior, Fendi, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Prada and Ralph Lauren have shops sandwiched among retailers selling T-shirts and western gear. Need a pair of Jimmy Choo cowboy boots or a squash-blossom necklace for that special Aspen party? You’re bound to find them.

But locals and insiders know the places to shop are consignment stores, where last season’s designer cast-offs are this season’s bargains. Try Suzy’s Ltd. (600 E. Main St., 970-920-2376), a consignment shop featuring racks of designer clothing, shoes and ski wear. The Thrift Shop of Aspen (422 E. Hopkins Ave., 907-925-3121), the town’s oldest and largest resale shop, accepts all sorts of donated goods. Sales fund local charities and other causes.

Aspen also has a thriving art scene, and the first stop for art lovers is the Aspen Art Museum (637 E. Hyman Ave., 970-925-8050.) Established in 1979, the museum moved into its current splashy digs — designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Shigeru Ban — in 2014. As a non-collecting art institution, the museum has the space and opportunity to exhibit some of the newest and most important evolutions in contemporary art, as well as immersive activities and thought-provoking art experiences. Visit aspenartmuseum.org for a list of exhibitions. Admission is free.

Next to the museum is Gonzo Gallery (425 E. Hyman Ave., 970-510-0656), offering funkier work from the likes of Beat author William S. Burroughs, illustrator Ralph Steadman and gonzo journalist Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, whose “shotgun” self-portraits foreshadow the unfortunate 2005 demise of the Roaring Fork Valley’s most famous resident.

Eating and drinking

Of course, the true activity that occupies everyone’s off-the-slopes experience is the pursuit of sustenance or happy hour.

Thompson hung out at the Woody Creek Tavern (2858 Upper River Road, Woody Creek, 970-923-4585) where burgers and beverages are dominated by the Thompson memorabilia lining the walls. It’s a must-visit for fans of his work.

Woody Creek is about 20 miles up-valley, making it a bit far for many après skiers. The historic Hotel Jerome (330 E. Main St., 855-331-7213) is another Thompson favorite and conveniently located blocks from the foot of Aspen Mountain. The J Bar offers $6 Colorado beers, as well as custom cocktails, priced $12–$20. Prices at the hotel’s Prospect Restaurant include a $59 cioppino with seared Spanish turbot and $65 14-ounce ribeye with Yukon Gold potatoes.

We chose to spend our food and beverage funds at Justice Snow’s Restaurant & Bar (328 E. Hyman Ave., 970-429-8192), part of the historic Wheeler Opera House building that retains much of its Victorian charm. The menu is more reasonably priced and includes the tasty Devils on Horseback ($6) — three medjool dates wrapped in smoked bacon with chevre and fennel.

We also visited Hops Culture (414 E. Hyman Ave., 970-925-2677), a downstairs gastro pub offering 200 craft beers and ciders from around the world. Surprisingly, there were no Wisconsin beers on the list. But a knowledgeable local told us Hops Culture was a new establishment, so we’ll give them a little time to come around.