Adventure Guide 2013: Aspen

If you’ve ever yearned to visit Aspen, this is the time. Aspen is hot right now, fresh off the X Games, because it’s just opened its first sidecountry terrain (see below). The revamped Limelight Hotel is also making headlines for having the coolest après ski spot in town. If you crave adventure and think Aspen is out of your budget, time to reconsider: the hardcore outdoor opps are boundless, regardless of season.

Aspen’s got some of the best downhill skiing, lift-accessed extreme terrain, and parks-and-pipes in the country, even if lift prices are stiff. The key is to cash in on the incredible hotel/ski packages on offer at places like the Limelight or The Little Nell, or bunk at some of the surprising budget options in the area.

New this year is sidecountry terrain at Snowmass. The Burnt Mountain Expansion has added on 230 acres, bringing total skiable acreage to 3,362 – making it the second largest ski area in the state. The Roaring Fork Valley, which includes all four mountains of Aspen/Snowmass (Aspen, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk, and Snowmass – the latter has a whopping 21 lifts), has some of Colorado’s best scenery, as well as a free, 60-mile Nordic trail system. You can also cross-country ski 18 miles down-valley, from Aspen to Basalt on the Rio Grande Trail (take the bus back if you’re tired).

If adventure is your thing, however, you’re going to want to head into the backcountry. Get your adrenaline pumping by mountaineering, ice-climbing (beginners can try this sport out at a waterfall just 10 minutes from downtown Aspen), or skiing/riding in the Maroon Bells Wilderness. For an overnight trip, cross-country ski to one of the historic 10th Mountain Division Huts (some are even accessible via chairlift, although they’re still in what’s considered backcountry).

If you’re in need of a not-too-tame recovery day, try taking a Snowcat Dinner Ride, or take a horse-drawn sleigh out to Pine Creek Cookhouse.

Hotels

Limelight Hotel: Formerly known as Limelight Lodge, Aspen’s sweetest, sleekest remodel, completed in 2010, this boutique property is just yards from the slopes. Sunny, spacious rooms are tasteful and subdued to better let the mountain take center stage.
The lobby, however, is the newest hot spot in town. Guests can avail themselves of the all-inclusive breakfast (think smoked salmon, waffles, and housemade granola), but après-ski locals, guests, and tourists alike descend for Aspen’s longest happy hour (3-7 p.m.), which includes free cookies and other snacks, $10 pizzas, drink specials and live music. Pet-friendly, wheelchair accessible, and kitchenette rooms available. From $285.
limelighthotel.com 335 S. Monarch Street

St. Moritz Lodge: Even if you’re not on a budget (but, let’s face it, all those toys cost a fortune, and you’re not planning to spend much time in your room, now are you?), this classic ski chalet is a cheerful slice of ’70s kitsch. With clean, bright rooms ranging from dorms to private rooms with or without shared bath or kitchenettes, the St. Moritz is the best deal in the Valley, and beloved for its friendly, homey atmosphere and plentiful free Continental breakfasts. And while you’ll definitely find the expected international backpackers and their ilk, the majority of the clientele is more aging ski bum and bohemian ski bunny. This is Aspen, after all. From $44.
stmoritzlodge.com 334 W. Hyman Avenue

Aspenalt Lodge, Basalt: If you have a car or don’t mind taking the shuttle, one of the Roaring Fork Valley’s best-kept secrets is this no-frills hotel located right on the Frying Pan River (there’s an outdoor hot tub, too). Basalt is a sweet little town, and one of the Valley’s most desirable (and tourist-free) places to live, thanks to the multitude of outdoorsy activities out the back door. The lodge is 20 minutes down-valley from Aspen; the RFTA transit stop is one block away and costs four dollars, one-way. From $99.
aspenalt.com 157 Basalt Center Circle, Basalt

Eat and Drink

Louis’ Swiss Bakery: Aspenites all know and love this old-school-style bakery, tucked within the ABC (Aspen Business Center) across from the airport. Swiss immigrant/skilled baker/rancher Felix Tornare turns out buttery pastry and the best meat pies (made with his grass-finished beef) on this side of the UK. The breakfast burritos are also the bomb, and provide all the fuel you need for a day on the slopes.
No website, closed Sundays; 400 Aspen Airport Business Center

The Meatball Shack: Since opening last June, this casual eatery and bar has been drawing crowds because it’s a hell of a bargain. Two heaping plates of delicious pasta (with meatballs, of course) and drinks will set you back just $50, and in Aspen, that’s not too shabby for a meal at a place with cloth napkins. Service is warm, the drinks are strong, and daily specials run the gamut from ribeye steak to sandwiches.
themeatballshack.com 312 S. Mill Street

Ajax Tavern: Located on the upper deck of The Little Nell Hotel, and steps from the Gondola, this is the spot to scope celebs if you care about that kind of thing. More important, it’s got a killer view, and the best après ski deal in town: a juicy burger served with Ajax’s famously addictive fries and a beer for just $15.
ajaxtavernaspen.com 685 E. Durant Avenue

Chefs Club: Aspen’s packed with great restaurants, but if you want to go big, this innovative, 8-month-old restaurant in the St. Regis Hotel is the place to do it. The menu changes seasonally, and is designed by a rotating cast of former Food & Wine Best New Chefs (Aspen is home to the famous FOOD & WINE Classic, held every June). Whether you order a la carte or spring for the tasting menu, be prepared to dine very well. If nothing else, have a drink; top mixologist Jim Meehan of New York’s PDT designs the seasonal cocktail menu, and you won’t be disappointed.
chefsclubaspen.com 315 E. Dean Street

Like most Colorado ski towns, you don’t need a car in Aspen. Most accommodations are walking distance to the slopes, or provide free shuttle service; the town transportation center at the base of the mountain makes getting out of Aspen-proper easy. RFTA transit runs the length of the entire Roaring Fork Valley, from Aspen to Glenwood Springs.
Aspen/Pitkin County Airport has daily non-stop flights from Los Angeles, Dallas, Denver and Chicago. From Denver International Airport, it’s approximately a 3.5-hour drive to Glenwood Springs on I-70; Colorado Mountain Express also provides round-trip transportation from DIA.

Adventure Tip

Best get up before the sun if you want to be the first to carve tracks in the backcountry; you’re going to have competition in this neck of the woods. Remember, safety first: never head out without telling someone where you’re headed (ideally, take a buddy with you), and carry an avalanche beacon, probe and shovel.

[Photo credit: Flickr user a4gpa]

Gunnison’s Wanderlust Hostel Offers $35 Crested Butte Lift Tickets

skiingWhile I was enjoying a few days of Nordic (read: free) activities in Crested Butte last week, a local let me in on a secret. “You can get deals on lift tickets everywhere. You just need to know where to look.” And then she passed on some intel to me.

In that spirit, I’d like to present to you what is perhaps the most insane ski deal I’ve ever come across. Gunnison’s groovy Wanderlust Hostel is offering up $35 lift tickets with a one-night stay.

Located just 30 miles down-valley from Crested Butte, Gunnison is still very much the old-school ranching community it’s always been. Sure, they have a coffee house and some good restaurants now, but it’s still rural Colorado, albeit just outside one of the state’s most enchanting and authentic ski towns.

Wanderlust, which is owned by outdoor guide Amy Stevens and her cat Porkchop (don’t laugh; he’s kind of a badass, and even has his own blog), is the anti-hosteler’s hostel. It’s spotless, homey, peaceful, full of funky style, and caters to outdoorsy folks of all ages (for photos, click here). If the pursuit of powder (or, in summer, slab climbing, fly-fishing, trail-riding, or mountain biking) is more important to you than thread-count, you’ll appreciate Wanderlust.

There are private and shared rooms starting at just $23/night, and a family room that sleeps up to six. You can spend your time off the slopes curled up next to the fireplace, or cooking in the spacious hostel kitchen. No car? There’s a free shuttle to Crested Butte running eight times a day, just a half-block away.

[Photo credit: Tom Stillo]

Ski Free In Aspen With Killer Hotel Deals

aspenThink you can’t afford Aspen? Think again. Two of the most elite hotels in town are offering can’t-miss winter season packages that include free ski passes.

Did I stutter? Nope. It’s part of a “ski free” promotion designed to draw visitors back to the Rockies after last year’s notoriously dry winter. Happily, this year looks good, as I can attest from an Aspen visit earlier in the week, and the town is buzzing with holiday festivities.

Local favorite The Little Nell is offering two separate packages for skiers. “Ski Free” gives guests who stay three nights or longer up to two free lift tickets (by comparison, a two-day, seven-day advance purchase adult pass will run you $202, high season) per day. The “Ultimate Ski Free” package: Stay four nights, and ski gratis at all four mountains of Aspen/Snowmass (Aspen, Aspen Highlands, Snowmass, and Buttermilk), on top-of-the-line demo equipment. A full-day private lesson is also included.

The newly revamped, groovilicious Limelight Hotel is doing its own “Ski Free” special, in addition to offering complimentary snowshoes to all guests. The ski package includes up to two free lift tickets per day (good at all four mountains), with a three-night minimum stay, based upon availability; some blackout dates apply.

[Photo credit: Aspen/Snowmass]

Ski Town Holidays: Not Just For Skiers

dogsleddingIt sounds crazy, but not all ski-town tourists are there to downhill ski. In fact, many don’t even know how. I’ll also let you in on a local’s secret: not all permanent residents of ski towns know how to ski, and of those who do, many can’t even afford a season pass.

The fact is, there are now more options than ever for non-skiers and those on a tight budget to engage in other winter sports, if they’re not willing or able to hit the slopes. I know many couples that have differing ideas of a ski vacation: one loves alpine skiing, while the other is happier sitting by a fire drinking hot toddies or shopping. They make it work.

Regardless of your mutual or differing snow-centric passions, ski town holidays can work for everyone. Most resorts now have Nordic centers and outfitters that offer at least some combination of the below list, so there’s no excuse not to get out there this winter.

Nordic/cross-country skiing (free/cheap rentals!)
Snowshoeing (ditto)
Dog sledding (please do your research beforehand, to make sure the business has no animal welfare citings)
Cultural tours
Adaptive sports
Spas
Skjioring (when a skier is pulled by a dog or horse0
Ice-climbing
Hot springs
Sleigh rides
Horseback riding

[Photo credit: Flickr user US Embassy Sweden]

Winter riding at The Home Ranch, in Clark, Colorado (near Steamboat Springs)

Planning An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving Dinner, Portlandia-Style

farmersAbout four years ago, I wrote an Edible Aspen story on Brook LeVan, a farmer friend of mine who lives in western Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley. Brook and his wife, Rose (that’s them, in the photo), raise heritage turkeys, among other things, and part of my assignment was to ask him how to celebrate a locally sourced, cold-climate Thanksgiving.

Brook, whom i’ve since dubbed “The Messiah of the Roaring Fork Foodshed,” embarked on a lively discourse about apple-picking and root vegetable storage. It was inspiring, and sounded like fun … to a food geek like me. But how many urbanites realistically wanted to make their own pumpkin butter, or sausage for stuffing?

Fast-forward to 2011, when a little TV show called “Portlandia” blew up with hilarious, bitingly satirical (and dead-on) skits about farm-to-table dining (Remember Colin the chicken?), mixology, and preserved foods (“We can pickle that!”). Suddenly, being an avid home cook, home brewer, and fermenter of sauerkraut had become part of our cultural zeitgeist.

With that in mind, I’d like to offer up Brook’s lovely ideas for making Thanksgiving not just eco-friendly and delicious, but fun and educational for family and friends. Ideas after the jump.

farmGet an early start on future holiday meal planning, especially if you want to order a heritage turkey – meaning an antique breed raised for flavor, rather than maximum output and yield. If you can’t find a heritage or organic bird, serve a different type of poultry or farmed game bird. The LeVan’s usually sell out of pre-ordered turkeys by July.

If possible, order your bird from a local farm, and make a field trip of picking it up. Maybe you can pick apples or winter squash as well, or purchase eggs, cider, preserves, or homemade bread or stuffing-mix.

Shop your local farmers market, food co-op, or specialty store for locally and/or sustainably-grown ingredients for your holiday table: potatoes, onions, or other root vegetables; winter squash, apples and pears, persimmons, pomegranates, even cheese.

Preserve seasonal foods. Whether it’s a bumper crop of summer peaches or pickled celery root or beets, there’s no end to the type of ingredients you can put up to last throughout the winter. Apple butter, fresh cider (you can often find local distilleries or farms that will press apples for you), poached pears, or pickled radishes all make wonderful additions to the holiday table.

Even if your Thanksgiving shopping consists of nothing more than a trip to a local farm stand or specialty market, it makes a difference, from both a taste and food security standpoint. As Brook said to me back in 2008, “When you make your dinner from all that local, fresh or preserved food, you’re going to put a taste memory in your family. It’s all about the little things we do, as individuals, each day. It’s flavor, and love.”

For more information on the LeVan’s family farm and learning center, Sustainable Settings, click here.

[Photo credits: Sustainable Settings]