1 EAT/ DRINK
There's no more infamous on-mountain restaurant. Book a 2pm sitting any day of the week during winter at this Tyrolean-styled log cabin at the top of the Aspen Highlands and watch the champagne fly. After lunch, the music's turned up and Aspen's most beautiful people dance on tables and spray bottles of French champagne (from $130 a bottle). There's no better party in town.
It's the most famous in-bounds back country ski challenge on Earth. Ride the chairlift to the top of Aspen Highlands and hike for 45 minutes along a ridgeline to the top of Highlands Bowl. A stiff breeze may well try to blow you right off the mountain, but the rewards up top are worth the effort. There's powder skiing to be had all across the bowl, with some pitches reaching 45 degrees, though don't be put off: intermediate skiers and boarders can find easier ways to get down.
Beat the rest (not that it's ever crowded in Aspen outside main holidays) to the freshly groomed slopes by booking a First Tracks ski tour on Aspen Mountain. Assemble at 8am (lifts open at 9am) and join a group riding the fresh groomed corduroy slopes right to the bottom of the Silver Queen Gondola. You'll have time for a heavenly ride down noone else on the mountain. Then stop for pancakes up high on the mountain at local favourite, Bonnie's.
WOODY CREEK TAVERN
OK, so it's on every tourist itinerary these days, but why not? Try Colorado's best margaritas at the bar writer Hunter S. Thompson made famous. Fifteen minutes outside Aspen, it's still a simple country bar where you can order cheap Mexican food. Locals tell stories about Johnny Depp passing out drunk in Thompson's pick-up truck outside the bar while researching the movie of Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas.
UNDER A FULL MOON
Wait until the moon's full then join the devoted hiking their way up Aspen Mountain or up the Tiehack ski area on Buttermilk Mountain, with just the groomers for company. You'll be surprised how bright it is as you make your way down the only-just-groomed pistes all the way to town, or to the bottom of Buttermilk.
At the base of the Silver Queen Gondola, there's no better place to spot for stars, although the Ajax Tavern is much more than just a celeb hang-out. On a sunny day gather here for drinks at tables looking up at Aspen Mountain. You can sit and enjoy a three-course lunch, or grab the Ajax's renowned truffle fries and a cold beer and take part in one of Aspen's most celebrated and cherished daily habits.
ASPEN HISTORICAL SOCIETY
Check out artefacts from the quirky history of Aspen. It'll cost you only $6 to look back on the history of this fascinating Colorado mountain town. Current exhibition Bests, Firsts and Worsts – Aspen In Objects – includes 90 artefacts, from a chunk of the biggest silver nugget mined in the US to Steve Jobs' mouse from the 1983 International Design Conference in Aspen.
While Aspen earns maximum credibility for its expert ski terrain across four ski mountains on the one lift ticket, what often goes unreported is that Aspen has one of the best ski mountains in the US for beginners. Buttermilk is Aspen's park and halfpipe mecca, but it's also ideal for beginners with two designated learn-to-ski areas, Assay Hill and Fanny Hill. Because intermediates and experts all race to ski Aspen's more challenging mountains, Buttermilk provides ideal easy sloping, wide open, empty terrain for beginners.
While it's easy to walk around Aspen's compact, historical CBD and catch free buses to its ski mountains, it's worth leaving town for a day to see how the locals live down valley in Basalt. Take a drive to this pretty 114-year-old community of 2500 and lunch at the Riverside Grill overlooking fishermen casting for trout on the Frying Pan River, which flows past the bar and through town. It's also a wholefoods mecca.
ASPEN ART MUSEUM
How many ski towns have a four-storey, 3000-square-metre art museum featuring the works of some of the planet's most innovative artists in a building designed by one of the world's leading architects? Suck up some art culture at the art museum in Aspen's main street with its eight exhibition and six gallery spaces beneath a rooftop sculpture garden overlooking Aspen Mountain.
SKY HOTEL'S 39 DEGREES
Think of the coolest après ski scene you could imagine: are there attractive people ordering elaborate cocktails as patrons around them dance to DJs and others recline in hot tubs and heated pools? Well, that's Aspen's best après ski locale – the Sky Hotel's 39 Degrees bar. A minute walk from the Silver Queen Gondola at the bottom of Aspen Mountain, this bar is the very definition of modern swank.
It's the second biggest ski area in the US (more than 1300 hectares) and has the most vertical descent of any ski area in the US, but it's just one of four ski mountains available on the one lift pass at Aspen-Snowmass (and is larger than the other three put together). A 15-minute free bus ride away from the town centre, there are 17 chairlifts to some of the world's best ski runs – where you can ski anything from steep, tight-gladed terrain to wide cruiser runs for the whole family.
ASPEN CENTRE FOR ENVIRONMENTAL STUDIES
Head back to nature just a few blocks off Aspen's main drag. Walk the 750-metre long loop nature trail through woodland, meadows and past ponds where birds, fox, deer and beaver gather. It's free to enter this 10-hectare nature reserve and environmental learning centre; you can bring your lunch down for a picnic on pristine Hallam Lake.
ASPEN'S ENDLESS TRAILS
Give your ski legs a breather by taking one of the many hiking trails that meander through Aspen. There's a walking trail off practically every block that will lead you along the picturesque Roaring Fork River, or out beside the fancy mansions of the West End, or out to hidden valleys on the outskirts of town. There's a trail to suit every hiker or biker.
THE RED ONION
For all its fine eating establishments (there are more 50 restaurants in one small town, some of which are listed in the country's top 100), Aspen could just as easily be defined by its oldest eating establishment, The Red Onion. Since it opened in 1892, The Red Onion has been the locals' favourite. The best buffalo chili in town can be found here – for $7 – while a pint of beer costs $3.50 during daily happy hour (there's two every day). Proof you don't have to spend big to experience the real Aspen.
But, because it's Aspen, may we bring to your attention a restaurant with a bottle of wine you can buy for $US50,000 ($70,000). The Little Nell's Element 47 is no ordinary restaurant. It's rated in America's 100 best wine restaurants, has been awarded world's best wine list and has received a five-star restaurant award from Forbes. It's also produced more master sommeliers than any other regional restaurant in America. For those who like a good wine list, try deciding from 10,000 bottles.
Hunter S. Thompson used the J-Bar as his home away from home and Hollywood legends such as John Wayne loved to drink here, too. There's more history in the J-Bar than a city of museums. Built in the 1880s, the J-Bar was where silver-mine prospectors came to celebrate finding their biggest nuggets. During prohibition years the J-Bar served Aspen Crud, a sly milkshake concoction made with bourbon that's still a favourite today.
THE PINE CREEK COOKHOUSE
Go snow-shoeing or cross-country skiing or take a horse-drawn sleigh past the 1880s silver mining ghost town of Ashcroft to Aspen's best secret dining location. At the base of the Elk mountain ridge, 20 minutes outside Aspen, you'll be served gourmet meals in a historic log cabin nestled underneath a soaring mountain ridge.
10TH MOUNTAIN DIVISION HUT CROSS-COUNTRY SKI TOUR
Plan a cross-country ski tour staying in old log cabins spread throughout Aspen's extensive back country. The 10th Mountain Division hut tour (named in honour of a division of the US Army who trained here during WW2) offers more than 500 kilometres of possible ski touring routes, interspersed with 34 back country huts to stay overnight. A good level of fitness is necessary – most routes require at least 10 kilometres of touring a day.
DOG SLED AT SNOWMASS
Take an hour-long journey along cut trails through the aspens across the Snowmass back country pulled along by 10 Alaskan huskies. These tours are best at twilight to catch the Alpenglow before heading back to Krabloonik's gourmet log cabin restaurant for a three-course dinner.
The writer was a guest of Aspen Snowmass Skiing Company and Travelplan Ski.