Twenty reasons to visit Aspen

There's plenty to satisfy those who hunger for action, ideas and food, Andrew Taylor finds.

1 What goes up ...

Aspen might be at a giddy altitude of 2400 metres, but it is dwarfed by the towering peaks of the Rockies, including thickly forested Aspen Mountain. Fitness fanatics can walk or run to the top of the mountain, which the locals call Ajax, for stunning views of the surrounding peaks. Or save your legs and ride the Silver Queen Gondola, which takes you to the top of the 3417-metre peak in 18 minutes. Work up a sweat hiking, hula-hooping, playing frisbee golf or knock out a few downward dogs with a mountain-top yoga class.

2 ... must come down

Four mountains — Aspen, Snowmass, Highlands and Buttermilk — attract thrill seekers eager to hurl themselves downhill on skis and snowboards in winter. But there are many more ways to hotfoot down the slopes in summer. The ski runs at Snowmass are transformed into gravity cycling trails, with hairpin bends, jumps and obstacles to shake your mettle and bike suspension. Early mornings are when paragliders run off the edge of Aspen Mountain and hot-air balloons drift across the Roaring Fork Valley.

3 Aspen trees

A distinctive feature of Aspen, these trees tend to grow in groves, parented by a single seedling. Their slender white trunks are dotted with black knots that look like eyes, while the tear-shaped leaves flicker in the faintest breeze, sounding like sighs as you hike through groves of them. In autumn, the leaves turn a brilliant yellow and the John Denver Sanctuary on the banks of the Roaring Fork River is one of the best spots to marvel at Colorado gold.

4 Celebrity

Songs such as Aspenglow and Starwood in Aspen attest to John Denver's love of Aspen. Many other celebrities have called the mountain town one of their homes, too. A stroll through Aspen's West End will take you past Jack Nicholson's house (curtains are open when he's in town) and the house where Charlie Sheen was arrested for assaulting his wife Brooke Mueller on Christmas Day 2009.


5 Hunter S. Thompson

Walk or cycle the Rio Grande Trail to Woody Creek Tavern, a favourite watering hole of Hunter S. Thompson, who shot himself at his nearby Owl Farm in February 2005. Thompson ran for sheriff of Pitkin County in 1970 on a platform of decriminalising drugs and turning streets into grassy pedestrian malls. His first article for Rolling Stone magazine, "The Battle of Aspen", charted his ultimately unsuccessful election campaign.

6 Bright sparks

Anxious to show it has brains as well as brawn, the Aspen Ideas Festival provides the intellectual antidote to all that outdoors activity. Held every year since 2005, the festival features seminars and debates from leading thinkers and experts, such as Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates, on a bewildering array of subjects. It's far from boring. The festival in 2012 tackled topics ranging from ending poverty to the effect of therapy on kids.

7 The Aspen idea

The Aspen idea, Walter Paepcke said, was to create a place where man "can profit by healthy, physical recreation, with facilities at hand for his enjoyment of art, music and education". Beginning in 1949 with a three-week celebration of Goethe, Paepcke and his wife, Elizabeth, created institutions, such as the Aspen Institute and the Aspen Music Festival and School (and funded a renovation of the Wheeler Opera House), that were dedicated to Aspen's intellectual climate. Paepcke Park celebrates their role in Aspen's history.

8 Wheeler Opera House

The Aspen Daily Times declared the Wheeler Opera House "a perfect bijou of a theatre" when it opened in April 1889. Opening-night show was the comic opera The King's Fool, featuring a troupe of Viennese lady sword fighters. With a chandelier of 36 electric lights, seats with storage racks for men's hats and scented satin programs, the theatre built by Jerome Wheeler brought sophistication to the silver-mining boom town. Burnt down twice and neglected when the silver boom went bust, the Opera House continues to host concerts, comedy shows, operas and movie screenings.

9 Snowmass Rodeo

Never antagonise a bull. But if you do, try to stay on for eight seconds with one hand in the air. Bull riding is one of the highlights of the Snowmass Rodeo, held every Wednesday night from June 12 to August 28 at the Snowmass Rodeo Grounds. Cowboys and cowgirls also show their skills in events such as bareback bronc riding and barrel racing. Mutton bustin' is designed for under-age cowboys to try to stay on the back of a sheep for as long as they can.

10 Local brews

Stay hydrated with a glass of Independence Pass ale, Ajax Pilsner or any of the other beers made by the Aspen Brewing Company. Colorado boasts more than 100 microbreweries and Aspen's local producer has five different beers on tap, plus another two winter brews — Pyramid Peak Porter and Midnight Mine Imperial Stout. The brewery on East Hopkins Avenue also hosts regular tours (including bicycle tours), live music and Tappin' Tuesday, when you can taste craft beers such as Habanero Pilsner or spiced Blonde.

11 Belly Up

Join farmer John, easily recognisable in shorts, sandals and a flowing grey beard, and dance up a storm at Belly Up Aspen. The live-music venue hosts more than 300 gigs a year and attracts a phenomenal array of musical talent, from Ben Harper and B.B. King to Snoop Dogg and ZZ Top. There are also bar stools and tables on the tier above the dance floor for punters too shy to dance. Because it's the US, you'll be asked for ID regardless of your age and probably shouted drinks once people hear your accent.

12 Splash out

During summer, the Roaring Fork River, which meanders through Aspen to the Colorado River at Glenwood Springs, fills with snow melt and is ideal for fishing, kayaking, rafting or stand-up paddling. It's harder than it looks but will give you washboard abs, if Charlie from the Aspen Kayak Academy is any indication. The surging white water of the Colorado River, framed by towering cliffs, is a rafter's paradise but beware of submerged rocks and the guide's odd sense of humour. If you prefer serenity, try paddleboard yoga at Ruedi Reservoir.

13 Maroon Bells

It's easy to see why Maroon Bells are North America's most photographed peaks. The two mountains rise more than 4000 metres above sea level and are composed of mudstone, which gives the peaks their distinctive shade. A steady line of cyclists can be seen during the summer months attempting the climb the scenic Maroon Creek Road, which is closed to vehicles. The less energetic can ride the bus to the stunning Maroon Lake and join treks led by volunteer guides around the valley floor.

14 Peep show

Queueing for a toilet is never fun but a wall of peepholes revealing saucy black-and-white film reels at Justice Snow's bar in the Wheeler Opera House will keep you occupied while you're waiting to powder your nose. At the bar, you will be entertained by Bobby Burns, Uncle Vanya and their fellow pre-Prohibition-era cocktails created by the wonderfully titled libation liaison and cocktail mechanic Joshua-Peter Smith. Named after a late-19th-century justice of the peace, Justice Snow's also serves up Colorado culinary favourites — ribs, lamb and bass.

15 Carbondale

The Roaring Fork Valley is dotted with unique towns and one of the best is Carbondale. An ideal base for adventure activities, the town has great restaurants and hip bars that are as good as any in Aspen but without the pretension and price. Carbondale won the Colorado 2012 Governor's Arts Award and its energetic arts scene features regular gigs at Steve's Guitars, performances by the Thunder River Theatre Company and shows at PAC3 performing-arts space.

16 Mammoth finds

Bulldozer driver Jesse Steele made one of the most astonishing Ice Age fossil finds in North America when he uncovered the bones of a 43,500-year-old mammoth just outside Snowmass Village in October 2010. Six months later, more than 4500 fossils were unearthed at Ziegler Reservoir. The bones are being cleaned up at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science but the story of the fossil find is told at the Snowmass Ice Age Discovery Centre, through videos, displays and a half-size wooden mammoth.

17 Artistic licence

Admire Monika Sosnowska's Stairway sculpture and Kathrin Sonntag's intricately composed photographs, two of the exhibits in the Aspen Art Museum's current contemporary art exhibitions. Or, if you think you can do better, enrol in a course at the Anderson Ranch Arts Centre. A summer camp for adults, Anderson Ranch offers more than 150 workshops each summer in painting, pottery, photography and woodworking. There's also a kids' program and live-in artists.

18 Gastronomic mountains

Forget apple pie — there's nothing more American than a huge plate of ribs, and few are tastier than the ale-braised beer short ribs served at Ute City Bar and Grill. Chef Peter Coyne slow-cooks his bones for 15 hours in 90 Shilling dark ale. Or eat your own body weight at Steak House No.316, where chef Kathleen Crook dishes up hearty steaks in a restaurant designed to resemble a 1920s boudoir. Aspen was the first US city to adopt Meatless Mondays, led by the Pyramid Bistro's chef Martin Oswald, who dishes up vegetarian, vegan, macrobiotic and raw-food meals at his restaurant above Explore Booksellers on East Main Street.

19 Benedict Music Tent

Its acoustics are surprisingly good, but it's the delicate sails of the 2000-seat Benedict Music Tent that make it as memorable as the Sydney Opera House. Designed by architect Harry Teague and opened in 2000, the tent hosts concerts throughout summer for the Aspen Music Festival. Inside is an amphitheatre big enough for an orchestra, while louvres can be opened to allow a gentle mountain breeze to waft in, and patrons on the Listening Lawn outside to spread out a picnic rug, among groves of Aspen trees, and enjoy the concert for nothing.

20 Puppy love

Man's best friend is often given a warm welcome in Aspen. There are pet-friendly hiking trails and the Colorado law that forbids animals in places where food is served and prepared does not seem to apply to the pampered pets that holiday in Aspen. The Saint Regis Resort, Hotel Aspen and Hotel Jerome welcome guests with dogs, while the Little Nell provides a Puppy Jet Lag Kit to assist your pooch to cope with the high altitude. Happily, Aspen's footpaths and lawns are free of unpleasant surprises.

The writer was a guest of Aspen Chamber Resort Association, Snowmass Tourism and Virgin Australia.