Its rep as America’s top ski town is no joke, but Aspen actually hits its peak under the summer sun. Alex Pasquariello has your guide to packing in the town’s best shopping, fishing, hiking, dining and drinking in one perfect long weekend
With direct flights from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas and Chicago and easy connections from the East Coast via Chicago or Denver, you can be in Aspen and brunching on the sun-soaked patio at Peach’s Corner Café by 10:00 am if you take the first flight out of the big city. Charge up for the day with a cup of Joe and Peach’s signature Open Face: toast slathered with peach butter and piled high with a poached egg, applewood-smoked bacon, arugula, tomato and shaved parm. While you’re at it, have a glass of water or three — you’re now sitting pretty at just under 8,000 feet where each breath delivers about 25 percent less oxygen than at sea level. Taking the time to acclimatize, including hydrating, is crucial to avoid weekend-ruining altitude sickness.
Start the weekend activities off with a little boutique hopping. If you’re lacking appropriate outdoor gear, the place to pick up lightweight raingear, a fleece pullover, hiking boots and more is Ute Mountaineer. For your evening pursuits, you can go designer with duds from Distractions or dude it up with cowboy boots and denim at Kemo Sabe. Wander into Two Old Hippies for rock n’ roll memorabilia and a selection of handcrafted guitars or pop into Paige Gamble to pick up an alligator tote or painted python clutch.
Drop your bags back at your hotel and grab a WE-Cycle bike (Aspen’s brand new bike share system — there are stations all over downtown) for the short pedal over to the Benedict Music Tent where the Aspen Chamber Symphony performs every Friday at 6 p.m. through August 9th as part of the annual Aspen Music Festival and School. After the show cruise back downtown for craft cocktails and dinner at Justice Snow’s, a speakeasy-slash-restaurant in the historic Wheeler Opera House. Start with “Lead Libation Liaison” Joshua-Peter Smith’s Don’t Drink the Water cocktail — Breckenridge bourbon, St. Germaine, rose water and Angostura bitters — and don’t miss the grilled rainbow trout.
For fly-fishing hit the Roaring Fork River, a tributary of the Colorado River that thunders off of Independence Pass through town and down the bucolic mountain valley. Designated a Gold Medal Trout Stream by the Colorado Department of Wildlife, this river is legendary for it’s brawny trout fed by one of the best mayfly populations in the West and made strong by swift currents year-round. The river meanders some 70 miles growing from a high meadow stream into roaring freestone river perfect for floating with the guides of The Little Nell’s Adventure Shop. The Nell’s expert fishermen can take you to private still-water spots and even fly you in a chopper to cast in completely untouched water, but our guided trip of choice is The Whiskey Fly Experience combining two of our favorite things. Spend the day on the lower Roaring Fork casting double dries from the bow of a drift boat — if that doesn’t work for you, tie on a wooly booger and fast strip the trout out from under those river rocks. After pulling out of the river your guide takes you to the new Woody Creek Distillery for a tour and tasting of Colorado’s finest small-batch, organic whiskey, vodka and brandy. Next, roll back into Aspen for a Whiskey Pairing Dinner at The Little Nell’s new restaurant, element 47 pairing Chef Robert McCormick’s farm-fresh fare like Colorado lamb loin with braised belly and snap peas with perfect cocktails.
Today you go higher, taking on 14,265-foot Castle Peak with rock and ice guides of Aspen Expeditions. This is the highest mountain in the Elk Range and the 12th tallest in the state, but it’s actually considered the easiest 14er to summit in the Elk, making it perfect for fit flatlanders. Starting from the ghost town of Ashcroft ascend by 4x4 up an old mining road over Castle Creek to the foot of the abandoned Montezuma Mine before the climb begins in earnest. Scramble over talus and scree fields to the Montezuma Glacier for a snow climb with your guide to the peak’s northeast ridge. From here it’s a non-technical but heart-pounding ascent over and around loose rockbands to the top. The views from the summit are spectacular, so save plenty of room on your memory card for panoramics of Maroon Bells, Pyramid Peak and Conundrum Peak from above. Summiting this 14er also helps you learn one of the most important lessons in mountain climbing: The summit is only halfway there. Save plenty of energy and focus for the hike down the peak.
Back in town by the mid-afternoon, hightail it to the Auberge Spa at Hotel Jerome for healing and rejuvenation. The oldest hotel in Aspen was recently revamped by Auberge Resorts and acclaimed designer Todd-Avery Lenahan — the history-chic interiors sparkle, but the real gem of the new Jerome is the intimate spa. Start with the Arnica & Birch Massage to heal lingering muscle pain and inflammation with the traditional remedy plants of the Ute Indians and then move on to the High Alpine Oxygen Facial to repair sun and wind damage suffered while floating the Roaring Fork and climbing Castle Peak.
Refreshed and relaxed, it’s time to celebrate today’s accomplishment on the town. Start off hyperlocal at Aspen Brewing Company’s Tasting Room and toast the day away over pints of appropriately titled Independence Pass Ale, Pyramid Peak Porter and Conundrum Red Ale. From there, take the night international with sushi dinner at the legendary Matsuhisa Aspen where the fish is flown in fresh daily. Chef Nobu Matsuhisa’s empire has grown worldwide, but A-listers and Olympic skiers alike swear that this is the best sushi outside of Tokyo, New York and L.A. Forget about trying to pick the best off of the mouth-watering menu and leave the decisions in the chef’s hands with the Omakase Tasting Menu, sure to include delicacies like sea bass with truffles, yellowtail jalapeno and softshell crab with black bean sauce.