11 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do in Aspen, CO
When it comes to the great Colorado ski towns, Aspen is usually at the top of the list. It is not difficult to see why. The historic former mining town has blossomed into one of the most high-end, charming, visually stunning small towns in America, as well as one of the best places to visit in Colorado. And it has some of the most lauded ski slopes on the planet.
As you can imagine, the best things to do in Aspen typically take place outside. This is true in winter and summer. That's because Aspen is surrounded by four skiable mountains, all enveloped by the White River National Forest. You can catch a scenic gondola right from the heart of downtown that will take you up to the top of Ajax Mountain – in any season – for the world's best skiing and hiking.
If you prefer to stay closer to base camp, Aspen itself is steeped in mining history. The architecture of the buildings tells the story. Within these historic facades now live high-end restaurants, boutiques, and art galleries. Aspen also has some of the top hotels in Colorado, as well.
Whether you're interested in a quiet walk in the park, or one of the most extreme ski runs in the world, Aspen has an adventure to match. Get ready to discover the best attractions and things to do in Aspen with our comprehensive list.
1. Browse Downtown Aspen
It does not get more vibrant than downtown Aspen. No matter the time of year, this Colorado Rocky hot spot is one of the best places to see and be seen in the entire state. Typically the town is home to only 7,000 residents, but that number changes dramatically during winter and summer, when the historic streets flood with adventurers and lovers of good food, shopping, and entertainment.
Downtown Aspen is where you'll find everything from designer labels to local boutiques. Chic hotels, restaurants, art galleries, bakeries, and more flank the brick sidewalks. Downtown Aspen is also where you will be able to catch the Silver Queen Gondola to ride up to the top of Ajax Peak. Stop at Ajax Tavern right at the entrance to the gondola to enjoy an al fresco lunch at the base of the mountain.
You'll also find the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, which is where visitors and locals can go to learn about the environment of the area. Arrange for a custom tour, or simply drop by to learn about how we as travelers can be more environmentally responsible.
2. Ski Aspen Snowmass
For such a small Colorado town, Aspen packs a punch in the winter sports department, particularly skiing. That's because Aspen is within a short distance to not one, but four skiable mountains. Come winter time, you'll be sharing the lift line with some of the world's most enthusiastic and discerning skiers.
The Aspen Snowmass area has four ski areas, with more than 5,300 acres of mountain terrain to tackle. Aspen Mountain, also known as Ajax, is the most famous mountain and is the one you can access directly from downtown via the Silver Queen Gondola.
Then you've got the Aspen Highlands, home to the Highland Bowl. This basin has double black-diamond terrain that is only accessible via a hike. The remoteness of the bowl means that you'll be skiing with the world's best, and that this area is not meant for newbies.
For newbies, Buttermilk Mountain is the peak to visit, which is known for hosting the Winter X Games and also as one of the best mountains to sharpen your skills on. It has a kids' area known as Panda Peak, too.
Finally you have Snowmass, which alone has 3,300 acres and the highest vertical rise in the state at 4,400 feet.
Read More: Top-Rated Ski Resorts in Colorado
3. Hike to the Maroon Bells
If there is one iconic image of Aspen, it is probably of the Maroon Bells. You'll know it when you see it – a mirror-like lake that reflects the images of two snowcapped peaks named Maroon Peak and North Maroon Peak.
Maroon Bells is a landmark of Colorado, and Aspen in particular, just 10 miles from the small ski village up Maroon Creek Road. The two 14ers (what Colorado calls its peaks that crest 14,000 feet) are among the most beautiful peaks in the entire Rocky Mountains, and a must for any avid hiker or nature enthusiast visiting the White River National Forest.
The area has a few hiking options, depending on how much time you have. The Maroon Lake Scenic Trail is an easy one-mile loop, while the Crater Lake Trail is 3.6 miles and has the best views of the lake. Camping is popular in this part of Colorado, too, or you can opt for one of the many five-star resorts within Aspen or Snowmass.
Keep in mind that access to the Maroon Bells is restricted in the summer and fall. Reservations are required, and access is only available by bus.
4. Drive Independence Pass
The main artery through Colorado is I-70. That is the road that will get you going where you need to go in the quickest amount of time. But if you're looking to take the scenic route, then you'll want to drive over Independence Pass. It's a historic mountain pass that leads straight into Aspen, and is one of the best drives you can take in Colorado.
Part of Colorado State Highway 82, Independence Pass leads up and over the Continental Divide over Leadville and down into Aspen. The summit peaks at more than 12,000 feet, and the entire route is 32 miles. The switchback route opens out to remarkable views over the mountains, through groves of aspen trees, and down over the Roaring Fork River.
Independence Pass is strewn with trailheads, as well, which run the gamut from easy to difficult, depending on what you feel like tackling. Campsites pepper Highway 82, as well, or you can return back to Aspen to stay in one of its many gorgeous boutique hotels.
5. Visit the John Denver Sanctuary
In the center of Aspen's downtown sits this green oasis that exists as a quiet break from the swirling activity around it. The John Denver Sanctuary, named for the American singer who penned Rocky Mountain High, is next to the Rio Grande Park, near the Roaring Fork River. It is a beloved location for tourists and residents to stop for a moment and breathe.
Within the park is the famous Song Garden, which highlights many of John Denver's most famous lyrics by having them carved into boulders and placed to represent the circle of life. In the middle of the circle is a Colorado blue spruce, meant to represent the spirit of the late folk singer.
Every October, the sanctuary hosts a celebration to pay tribute to the late artist. The event features musical performances, readings, festivities, and other ways to highlight the life and career of the artist who felt so at home in Aspen.
Address: 470 Rio Grande Pl, Aspen, Colorado
6. Walk the Maroon Lake Scenic Trail
You do not have to be a mountaineering champion to get the best views of the Maroon Bells or Maroon Lake. The Maroon Lake Scenic Trail is one of the best things to do in Aspen, and it is perfect for hikers of all levels.
The two-mile trail is an easy loop that starts off Maroon Creek Road and is one of the most incredible ways to experience this part of Colorado. The year-round trail is by far one of the best in Colorado.
The trail goes along the lake, following the creek that flows into it. From this trail, you will be able to access many of the other more challenging trails, like Crater Lake, East Maroon Trail, or the Willow Lake Trail.
7. Ride the Silver Queen Gondola
No matter the season, you can get the perfect lay of the land with a trip up the mountain in the Silver Queen Gondola. The peak of the mountain sits at about 11,000 feet, and whether skiing in the winter, hiking in the spring and summer, or peeping at the leaves in the fall, the gondola has spectacular views to carry you all the way.
The entire trip is 2.5 miles from the base to the top of the mountain. Once you reach the summit, the mountain opens up to outdoor dining, hiking trails, and, depending on the season, entertainment like live music. This is also the gateway to many of the hiking trails in the area.
8. Adventure at the T-Lazy-7 Ranch
Not far from the Maroon Bells, tucked in the Maroon Creek Valley, is the T-Lazy-7 Ranch – a veritable outdoor playground for all types of adventure activities. Whether it's snowmobiling in winter; horseback riding; fly fishing; or checking out a real-life, working ranch, T-Lazy-7 is a wonderful way to spend the day when visiting Aspen.
In existence for 80 years, the ranch raises beef, eggs, and honey. They also feature cabin rentals, as well as long-term housing if you're looking for a change of pace. But more than anything, the ranch is known for its activities.
Snowmobiling is one of the top draws to visit the ranch. They offer several types of snowmobile tour packages, some of which include lunch. No matter which trail you choose, you'll have gorgeous mountain scenery as you set off into the White River National Forest.
In the summer, the ranch becomes a home base for horseback riding and fly fishing.
Address: 3129 Maroon Creek Road, Aspen, Colorado
9. Hike the Many Trails
You can't mention winter skiing without talking about hiking. We already covered the Maroon Bells, but Aspen has so many other wonderful trails to explore. When the winter wonderland melts away, Aspen's forests and meadows unfold with lush greenery and brilliant wildflowers, all with the backdrop of the epic Colorado Rockies.
The Rio Grande Trail is one of the best hikes in Aspen, easily accessed from the post office downtown. The trail is a doozy at a whopping 42 miles; it climbs up into the mountains and links Aspen with Glenwood Springs. The trail itself isn't particularly challenging, but its length can certainly make it a multi-day adventure with an ever-changing backdrop.
For something much, much shorter, consider the Grottos Trail, which is only a half-a-mile loop trail that has a beautiful, babbling waterfall and is easy for any skill level.
10. Explore Ashcroft Ghost Town
A quick drive up Castle Creek Road will take travelers back in time from modern day Aspen to the historic, eerie Ashcroft Ghost Town. The historic silver mining town, founded in the 1880s, was a thriving mining community until it rapidly shut down and became abandoned, leaving the area frozen in time.
By 1883, Ashcroft had a population of 2,000 people, as well as many businesses and facilities. But the mines depleted as quickly as the town was built, and by 1885, only 100 summer residents remained.
Today visitors to Ashcroft can explore what was left behind, including a saloon and post office, the Bird House Hotel, and some other structures. Guided sightseeing tours are available, as are photographs and signs that tell the story of the rise and fall of historic Ashcroft.
11. Drive Castle Creek Road
Colorado has dozens of scenic drives and byways that crisscross over its epic peaks, valleys, and canyons. Castle Creek Road, also known as County Road 15, is one of them, and it transverse the gorgeous Elk Range not far from Aspen.
As mentioned, Castle Creek Road will be the road you take from Aspen to Ashcroft, so while you're headed to the Ghost Town, you can cross another item off your list and enjoy the drive. The road has many opportunities to pull over and drink in the views.
The seasonal road is only open from mid-May until the end of October, but along the way, you'll find numerous opportunities to stop and hike. If your car is up for the challenge, an unpaved road branches off and zigzags to the top of Taylor Peak, which towers nearly 12,000 feet above sea level.
The entire drive is 13 miles and features a few steep grades and hairpin turns. It is one of the most beautiful drives in Colorado.