Colorado: Aspen on the Cheap!

Ajax ski area from the base of the gondola in downtown Aspen. The town is for more than just the very rich! Kurt Jacobson photos.
Ajax ski area from the base of the gondola in downtown Aspen. Kurt Jacobson photos.

Ritzy Aspen on a Budget, it’s not just for the super rich!

By Kurt Jacobson

Maroon Bells, with jaw-dropping views near Aspen.
Maroon Bells, with jaw-dropping views near Aspen, Colorado.

You might think Aspen is a playground for millionaires and billionaires only, but I can show you it is accessible to most anyone with a love of travel and adventure.

You too could be enjoying a vacation in this Rocky Mountain four season paradise. Just because the town boasts one of the most expensive housing markets in the U.S. doesn’t mean a visit there should be out of reach for a day tripper or vacationer.

Aspen has many free activities, like a stroll in the scenic John Denver Sanctuary, hiking or biking the Rio Grande Trail, or fly fishing in the Roaring Fork River. The ghost town of Ashcroft is just thirty minutes from Aspen offering a free self-guided walking tour of this old west town.

The drive into Aspen in the summer or fall on Independence Pass is a must! This historic pass will deliver jaw-dropping views and if you are lucky some of the local wildlife- maybe a black bear, will show up for a photo.

A drive up to Maroon Bells to see what Eastman Kodak once said was the most photographed place on the planet is a lot of fun for the whole family. Can you say ROADTRIP!?

Even though there are only a few weeks a year you can drive your own car to the Bells, for $10 it is money well spent.

If you secure a camping pass you are allowed to drive up to the Maroon Bells during the vehicle restrictions in summer. The convenient RAFTA Bus goes from downtown Aspen to the Bells parking area and back on a regular summer schedule giving you several hours to customize your time there before grabbing a bus back down the hill.

The Wheeler Opera House in Aspen, in front of the fountains.
The Wheeler Opera House in Aspen, in front of the fountains.

It cost $6 for adults and $4 for children ages 6-16 with children five and under free. Once you arrive at the Maroon Bells parking lot it is a short hike to the lake that will have you in awe of the natural beauty and tall mountains reflected in the clear blue alpine lake.

This is a wonderful spot for a picnic after a moderate hike around the meadow side of the lake.

For the more adventurous hikers, there are several strenuous hikes to be accessed from the parking lot including the Crater Lake Trail which takes about two and a half hours round trip.

Sleeping in Aspen

Lodging doesn’t have to be ultra-expensive in the area. Aspen Snowmass has many reasonable choices in all seasons. In winter the Mountain Chalet offers inexpensive lodging right in the middle of downtown Aspen or chose the Aspen Mt Lodge for your ski trip where a recent search for three nights, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, at the end of March was only $513.  Check this link for more options for hotels in Aspen.

If you stay away from the peak season (holiday periods of winter and summer you might be surprised how affordable lodging is. Eating out doesn’t have to cost an arm-and-a-leg either. With places like the Hickory House, and the Red Onion visitors can eat well for less.

Clarks Market or the newly opened Meat and Cheese restaurant and farm shop offer great picnic supplies. In good weather try the John Denver Sanctuary or Paepcke Park for a one of a kind picnic under stunning blue skies. There are some great happy hour deals in Aspen with my favorite being at The Limelight. A good sized pizza and two beer flights can be had for under $20.

Legal Weed

Dining Alfresco in Aspen. Jason Dewey photo.
Dining Alfresco in Aspen. Jason Dewey photo.

One of the biggest changes to Aspen over the last two decades is the addition of marijuana shops. When Colorado legalized marijuana many towns authorized “pot shops” in their shopping districts.

When I was in Aspen in September of 2014 I saw just one pot shop, but on my most recent trip just five months later there were six in the Aspen area. I gave up marijuana twenty five years ago but that didn’t stop me from poking my head into a shop last September to see and smell their wares.

They had some beautiful buds that looked and smelled great. I was indulged in my request to smell a particular jar of bright green buds. This undoubtedly will bring in some curious tourists just for the experience of smoking legal pot.

Like Amsterdam, someday Colorado is going to be known as a pot enthusiast’s destination, along with traditional tourists it will all become an excellent source of tourism revenues for many years.

Choosing Colorado for the Weed

Rafting on the Roaring Fork. Red Mtn Productions photo.
Rafting on the Roaring Fork. Red Mtn Productions photo.

When I asked Sherry who works the front desk at The Aspen Mountain Lodge, about the impact of legalized pot she said as many as three rooms of their thirty-eight per week were rented to people who chose a Colorado trip over Utah or similar mountain destinations because of legalized pot.

Sherry also sent me a link from the Aspen Times Weekly about the marijuana shops in Aspen. In the article the reporter interviews all six pot shops in town with a series of the same questions. It’s amazing that from nothing there are now six shops that so fundamentally change a societal norm. Still, to most people, it’s ‘meh.’

Billionaire’s Mansions

Rio Grande Trail. Red Mtn Productions photo.
Rio Grande Trail. Red Mtn Productions photo.

Regular people sometimes just shake their heads when they hear about the billionaires who build huge mansions but only use them a few weeks per year.

When I asked a friend of mine about the Saudi Arabian prince who had owned one of the biggest homes. He told me the locals liked the guy as he did a lot for the community by donating to or sponsoring local charities.

Some locals do despise the rich and their mega-mansions because it raises the price of housing, but that is common in most Colorado ski towns like Vail, Telluride, Breckenridge and Steamboat Springs. I find the attitudes of the rich are low key in Aspen compared to Vail where there is a noticeable air of snobbery. Sherry at the Aspen Mountain Lodge told me the rich are just a

Sherry at the Aspen Mountain Lodge told me the rich are just a backdrop and not that big of a deal in town.

Back in the 1980’s I lived and worked several ski areas and saw a new campaign to lure winter tourists to come back in the summer.

No More Slow Summers

This changed the Colorado mountain summer forever. Gone were the slow June days when the locals shared the mountain bliss with just a few tourists.

Now there are festivals and events all summer long with throngs of tourists visiting the mountain towns on any given day.

The Aspen Food and Wine Festival kicks things off in June, and Aspen Snowmass closes out the summer with the big jazz festival.

The famous Aspen Food and Wine festival.
The famous Aspen Food and Wine Festival.

In between are music and sporting events that keep the area buzzing. There is a new spring season promotion in Aspen that will be sure to bring more visitors.

A Fall Visit

My favorite time to visit is in the fall when the town’s namesake tree that paints the mountains with brilliant canvasses of golds, reds and orange colors like no other.

The hiking and mountain biking are at their best during this season with warm dry days and cool clear nights when the stars come out bright and plentiful. There is nothing like a walk in a golden aspen grove on the East Portal Trail on the way to Maroon Bells.

Try laying on your back and wait for the breeze to send a shower of golden leaves fluttering your way against a cobalt blue September sky. The fall is less crowded than summer making for a cheaper and less hectic visit. So what are you waiting for? Now that you know Aspen isn’t just for the rich, book your own trip and live it up in the town made famous by the ultra-wealthy!

Additional Resources:

Aspen Chamber of Commerce article on off-season affordability website

Aspen Times The local paper in Aspen.

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Kurt Jacobson
Kurt Jacobson lives in Baltimore, Maryland, and spent many years as a professional chef. Now he travels the world and shares his stories here and on other travel websites.