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Travel: Aspen

Unlike some Colorado resort towns that feel as if the city itself exists as an afterthought to the resorts that surround it (we’re looking at you, Vail), Aspen feels wholly endemic to the Rocky Mountain State. Equal parts eclectic, high and low brow, and thoroughly original, Aspen is the quintessential mountain retreat, where you can score a $5 microbrew just as easily as you can drop $20 on a cocktail. This is the land that both gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson and the Koch brothers called home, and its origins stretch back to the mining years of the late 1800s.

Part of that charm lies in its relative isolation—it’s at least a three-hour drive through the mountains from Denver (or you could opt for the often-pricey connecting flight). But this labor-intensive approach helps you shift your mentality, and focus on all the fun to be had here.

It may be easier to list the things you can’t do in Aspen (like big wave surfing), rather than offer an encyclopedic profile of the things you can enjoy. Fly-fishing, hiking, rafting, backpacking, trail running, mountain biking—if you can do it on a mountain, Aspen offers several takes on it, from high-octane outings to a lazy meander.

The four fame mountain resorts—Snowmass, Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, and Buttermilk—serve as four different base camps to get into the good stuff, but you can take a nice bite out of the region’s activities with the $29 “Perfect Summer Package.” This deal gives you access to the gondola and on-mountain activities, along with a $10 lunch credit two-for-one pizza at the Limelight, and bus tour of iconic Maroon Bells. Or just dedicate an entire day to exploring Snowmass’ extensive dedicated mountain bike trails or just ride the lift to the summit and wander, getting drunk on the intoxicating, high-alpine views.

In town you can pick up trail maps for the regional hiking and biking routes for a little self-guided exploration. Or hook up with one of the several tour operators for a more high-adrenaline, guided tour of the region.

The profusion of high-end restaurants throughout downtown Aspen makes it easy to bust your vacation budget, often on one seven-course meal. And while we don’t begrudge the gourmand’s impulse to explore—we do suggest that you look beyond Main Street and into the mountains. More specifically, head to Pine Creek Cookhouse. This gourmet restaurant lies nestled at the base of the Elk mountain range, and serves a variety of mountain cuisine in a cozy atmosphere typified by a wood-burning stove and ample views of the surrounding 14,000+-foot peaks. It takes a bit of a drive—and traversing from the parking lot on snowshoes or cross-country skis—to reach the property, but it’s worth the modest effort. And yes, they offer backup transport over the snow, should you eat too much and can’t muster getting back to your car under your own power.

As you would expect in microbrew-rich Colorado, Aspen has a craft brewery. Refreshingly, it’s one of the most low-key spots in downtown, where pint prices hover around $5, and easy-going locals gather to down some truly delicious, high-octane beer. Then you can swing over and saddle up to the J Bar, the watering hole attached to the storied Hotel Jerome—the same place that local “professional drinkers” like Hunter S. Thompson once held court. But if you’re looking for a more rarefied experience, head out of town and take a short drive to Woody Creek Distillery, a relatively new operation that produces some truly spectacular, award-winning vodka. Take a tour, dine on their charcuterie, and enjoy one of the craft cocktails on offer—and buy a bottle to take home while you’re at it.

The Little Nell typifies the best that Aspen lodging has to offer, and rightfully so; it’s the region’s only five-star, five-diamond property. Special packages are available each season, and include such exclusive benefits as biking with world-class cyclists, free ski access to all four mountains, and special spa and bed-and-breakfast packages. Or dive into Aspen’s storied history by bedding down at the Hotel Jerome. Once a hotbed of dirtbag miners (and, later, dirtbag climbers), it’s now a vibrant, eclectically decorated property that feels simultaneously brand new and drawn from the town’s storied origin.

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