July 6, 2022

Why You Should Go to Aspen In the Summer

I first experienced summer in Aspen 25 years ago, when I attended the wedding of two…

Why You Should Go to Aspen In the Summer

I first experienced summer in Aspen 25 years ago, when I attended the wedding of two close friends. I landed on a picture-perfect day. Without snow, the red-clay cliffs and forested peaks of Colorado’s Elk Mountains, a sub-range of the Rockies, looked improbably close to the airport. A cerulean sky, dazzling sunshine, warm, dry air: these reliable conditions have drawn nature lovers to the Roaring Fork Valley ever since the boom times of silver mining in the late 19th century.

But as anyone who has spent time in the Rockies knows, there’s no such thing as reliable mountain weather. After dropping off my luggage at a B&B in town (a charming Victorian that has since been transformed into the private home of Laurene Powell Jobs), I joined my friends for a bike ride to inaugurate their wedding weekend. We set off on one of Aspen’s classic cycling routes, a seven-mile ascent of the Maroon Bells, a pair of jagged, purple-hued peaks, via a barely populated road ablaze with wildflowers. By the time we crested the top, however, gray clouds had consumed the bright sky. It began to snow, hard. My descent, in a sleeveless jersey and shorts, was memorably miserable. But it only took a long hot shower to restore my high spirits — because I find it impossible not to have high spirits in this good-time town.

Last August, I returned to Aspen. Everything seemed both the same and altogether different. Walk down Main Street and you’re still as likely to see a rancher in cowboy boots filling up his pickup truck as an L.A. actress in high heels getting out of a Rolls-Royce SUV. And the town’s setting remains every bit as beguiling as I remembered. One of the best things about Aspen is that the great outdoors isn’t a car ride away, but right in front of your nose — something that resonated deeply with pent-up travelers during the pandemic. You can experience the natural world robustly (as I did all those years ago) or gently, by taking a meandering walk along the Rio Grande Trail, which is popular with runners, cyclists, and dog walkers, into the undulating foothills that surround Aspen. (The path extends for 42 miles, all the way to the town of Glenwood Springs.)

Aspen might be the most accessible mountain getaway in the world. The airport is three miles away, and the central shopping and dining district is contained within a pert five-block grid. Almost anything you’d want to do — from taking a hike at dawn to attending a concert at dusk — is within walking distance of the best hotels.

What struck me as new was a street scene reminiscent of New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, buzzing with an urbane, black-clad coterie of artists and collectors. Aspen has always been known for its luxury shopping (Valentino, Loro Piana, Prada, Moncler), but lately, more than a dozen world-class pop-up galleries have made their mark. Last summer, London’s White Cube set up shop in a 19th-century brick building, pairing works by artists such as Isamu Noguchi and Antony Gormley. Lehmann Maupin partnered with Carpenters Workshop, sharing a second-floor space where paintings and sculptures were juxtaposed with singular furnishings. The Paris-based Almine Rech gallery featured a series of engrossing exhibitions — including paintings by Wes Lang and Nathaniel Mary Quinn — inside a gleaming space next to the Aspen Art Museum.

More permanently, a set of sculptural beams, painted in the primary colors of the Bauhaus, has been erected on the campus of the storied Aspen Institute, which has addressed global issues since 1949 by hosting forums for world leaders, innovators, and economic experts. The installation heralds the debut, this summer, of the Resnick Center for Herbert Bayer Studies, an exhibition space and educational center named for the Bauhaus artist who played an integral role in Aspen’s emergence as an arts and design mecca.

Walking into an opening at White Cube on my first evening in town, I watched as visitors holding wine glasses circulated through the narrow three-room space. The gallery had brought its A-game to Aspen, thoughtfully grouping the works of diverse artists addressing political themes, from the ravages of war to geographic displacement. A trio of dramatic large-scale works by Anselm Kiefer filled the front room, followed by a series of mixed-media installations by Theaster Gates. I overheard a number of people asking the gallery staff for prices, but by then, almost everything had been sold.

The next night, more than 500 people convened in a large tent for the Aspen Art Museum’s annual ArtCrush gala, the city’s first major event since the pandemic began. Inside, an enormous table had been set up with hundreds of bottles of wine, many of them rare, for an open tasting. Painter Mary Weatherford was honored with the Aspen Award for Art, which recognizes exemplary contemporary artists. And a silent auction of works by such talents as Mary Corse, Rita Ackermann, and Precious Okoyomon raised close to $4 million to support the museum, which has occupied a wood-screened concrete box conceived by Pritzker Prize–winning Japanese architect Shigeru Ban since 2014.

“The art world coming together in Aspen felt special,” Nicola Lees, the museum’s director, said of the evening. “Aspen is an intimate place, and it was exciting to see collectors and artists sharing ideas and having conversations at a time when people had been missing seeing physical objects.”

The Baldwin Gallery, which showcases contemporary art, opened in 1994, long preceding the current pop-up pack. But it was New York dealer Marianne Boesky who brought serious art-world chops and daring programming to Aspen in 2017, when she opened a space inside a 19th-century cabin transformed into a minimalist temple by architect Annabelle Selldorf. Today, Boesky told me, “everything is on fire in Aspen. People here have time on their hands, they’re in a good mood, and they’re shopping. I know there is a perception of Aspen as a glitzy party place, but it’s actually a community of intelligent lovers of nature.”

What’s especially on fire is development. This past March, a Miami firm paid $76.25 million for a one-acre lot at the base of the ski resort, and an Aman Resort is one of several new properties coming down the pike. Older sites are being bought up for new residences and commercial venues at a breathtaking pace. RH, formerly known as Restoration Hardware, plans to occupy two sites downtown. (One complex is slated to contain the furniture firm’s storefront and a restaurant, while a nearby building will serve as a boutique hotel and spa.) The Limelight Hotel, which has origins dating back to the 1950s, reopened this past winter after a top-to-bottom renovation that gave the 126 guest rooms and public spaces a spare, Scandinavian aesthetic.

For my lodgings, I chose old-school and upscale, spending my first few nights in the historic Hotel Jerome, a grand brick hotel with huge arched windows that was built in the 1880s. Its original owners aimed to emulate a European hotel and attract a year-round clientele. Now operated by Auberge Resorts, it has all the luxuries you’d expect of a modern five-star property, while retaining an Old West atmosphere. To get to my room on the second floor, I had to pass through the Living Room, one of the hotel’s three bars. At noon it was already hopping with people dressed in hiking attire and golf whites. (There are three excellent courses in the area.) My spacious room was outfitted in leather and tartan, and had an enormous four-poster bed. But the best amenity of all was a wall-spanning window that provided a fishbowl view of downtown and the ski trails of Aspen Mountain.

There are many spectacular hiking trails in and around town. I joined a local friend and her yellow Lab, Cinderella, for a trek to American Lake — a popular hike that’s not especially strenuous, yet has spectacular scenery. After a 10-minute drive to the trailhead, we set out under the boughs of towering aspen trees before ascending through open fields of wildflowers. I saw dozens of mushroom varieties, some as large as Frisbees, in colors ranging from pale pink to polka-dot yellow and red. (Not all were poisonous: C. Barclay Dodge, the chef-owner of Aspen’s Bosq restaurant, picked 400 pounds of wild mushrooms, including porcini and chanterelles, from area woods last summer.) My friend and I followed the trail for three miles, to the point where it tops out at an elevation of 11,390 feet at a glacial lake surrounded by barren granite cliffs. The stillness of the setting was momentarily disrupted by our shrieks and whoops as we stripped down and plunged into the icy water.

Aspen’s food scene has always been a cut above that of other American mountain resorts, and pretty much every meal I had was of a high standard, whether it was rabbit confit served on a white tablecloth or guacamole eaten on an outdoor bench. The agricultural fields around Paonia, to the west, supply Aspen restaurants with pristine produce — especially stone fruit, for which the region is famous. The town is also a short flight from California, so it’s easy for restaurants to attract blue-chip chefs. Nobu Matsuhisa chose Aspen as the first outpost of his Matsuhisa brand beyond Beverly Hills; housed in a quaint blue Victorian, it’s a contemporary shrine to sushi that has remained in high demand since it opened in 1998.

Casa D’Angelo opened for business a few days before my arrival last August. The Salerno-born chef, Angelo Elia, owns several southern Italian restaurants of the same name in Florida and the Bahamas. He and his wife, Denise, had always wanted to try their hand in Aspen. Sitting in the soigné white dining room, with its large windows overlooking the lavender-hued mountains, I tried a bright tuna tartare, tumbled with capers, tomato confit, and lemon oil, that perfectly conjured the Mediterranean. A surprising salad of paper-thin peach slices topped with goat-cheese sorbet turned out to be light and refreshing. The diners around me all seemed to be ordering the forearm-size veal chop, but Elia steered me toward “fusilli mamma,” his mother’s recipe, a pasta dish with a simple sauce of fresh tomatoes, basil, and mozzarella. A few nights later, when I found myself craving Elia’s cooking once again, I wasn’t surprised to find Casa D’Angelo fully booked.

Anaconda, a 1978 sculpture by Bauhaus artist Herbert Bayer, on the grounds of the Aspen Institute. | Credit: Trevor Triano

Even before COVID restrictions sent people flocking to eat under heat lamps, Aspen had a vibrant outdoor dining scene. Over the past two years, restaurateurs have upped their game even more, creating inviting alfresco spaces with distinctive personalities. Duemani’s flower-filled terrace recalls a Venetian trattoria, especially when you’re sampling its excellent crudos. A wooden deck adorned with turquoise chairs gives Meat & Cheese a Venice Beach vibe. Owner Wendy Mitchell has a no-reservations policy, but it was worth the wait to sit outside for a late lunch of Vietnamese noodle salad and vegetarian tacos while the carefree crowd ordered the copious communal boards after which the place is named.

One establishment worth venturing inside, however, is Clark’s, a lively oyster bar with a saloon-like atmosphere that opened in a historic tavern in 2018. Bartenders in jaunty sleeve guards serve up a dozen varieties of oysters, along with caviar from Israel and Poland, a bountiful lobster roll, and shoestring fries that should not be ignored.

My last few days in Aspen were spent ensconced in the understated luxury of The Little Nell, a hotel that, since it opened in 1989, has attracted a glamorous international set that includes celebrities, magnates, and royals. (As I was checking in, members of a Pakistani family draped in elaborately decorated silk saris passed through the lobby on their way to a wedding-rehearsal dinner.)

Situated at the base of the resort’s primary ski lift, the 92-room property was built on the site of a railroad depot for silver miners, and was named for a nearby mining claim. The original hotel had a Swiss Alpine look, but a 2008 renovation by designer Holly Hunt and another by Alexandra Champalimaud in 2017 have made the guest rooms feel luxurious and modern. Two years ago, Spanish design maestro Luis Bustamante transformed the lobby and living room, separating the art-filled spaces with sculptural wood screens that lend them the air of an intimate library.

I was attending a biking clinic hosted by the hotel and led by Christian Vande Velde, a former professional cyclist who is now an analyst for NBC Sports. For the next few days I joined Vande Velde; his wife, Leah; and a group of two dozen other cycling enthusiasts whose abilities ranged from intermediate, like mine, to semiprofessional. The rides into the nearby mountains were communal and convivial. One day we rode west, past vast ranches and farmland; the next we headed to Ashcroft, the ruins of a ghost town at the top of a near-deserted road that followed a creek surrounded by wildflowers. The Little Nell may be elegant but it isn’t the least bit precious — I was one of a number of hotel guests who were dressed in cycling gear, and felt right at home clomping around in my cleated shoes.

I ended my trip with a late lunch on the deck of Woody Creek Tavern, a Wild West relic that in many ways epitomized my experience of Aspen. When a small grocery store on the outskirts of town closed in 1980, a couple of locals transformed it into a dive bar with funky décor — carnival lights, leopard-print upholstery, tchotchkes galore — that would become legendary as the stomping ground of Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson.

Over the past 40 years, Woody Creek Tavern has changed hands a few times without losing an ounce of its eccentric personality. Craig and Samantha Cordts-Pearce, a dynamic couple who own half a dozen Aspen restaurants, bought the place at the tail end of 2020 and opened it the weekend I was in town. The couple installed a state-of-the-art kitchen and brought in the chef from their steak house, No. 316, but otherwise let the tavern be. “We fixed it up without messing it up,” Samantha explained. “You don’t buy the Woody Creek Tavern to change it. We made sure it can last another forty years.”

As I sat on the weathered deck, scooping fresh guacamole onto house-made tortilla chips and watching carloads of hikers and cyclists arrive and wait patiently for tables in the sunshine, I marveled at Aspen’s resilience. No amount of money or influx of development has affected its natural beauty — or its ineffable charm.

Casa D’Angelo: Indulge in lobster cacio e pepe at this elegant Italian restaurant.

Duemani: Aspen’s go-to for crudos, tartares, and seafood platters.

Aspen Art Museum: A world-class collection of contemporary art in a building by Shigeru Ban.

Aspen Institute: Visit the new Resnick Center for Herbert Bayer Studies, an exhibition space named for the Bauhaus artist.

Baldwin Gallery: Mickalene Thomas and other giants of the contemporary art world show here.

A version of this story first appeared in the June 2022 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline High Summer.