Affordable Aspen? – just head down Valley

By | Category: Travel destinations
mountains at Aspen

Aspen doesn’t mean you have to be a millionaire to ski here © Mark Rush Photography

Aspen in Colorado is home to movie stars, oil sheiks and hedge fund big boys, and shops like Prada, Louis Vuitton and Gucci cater to those-who- don’t-need-to-check-price-tags. Aspen reigns high on many lists – the ski area attracting the most celebrities, top mountain resort to see and be seen, and, as one of the most expensive towns in the nation. To live here, the median home price is $877,000 and 40 percent of all homes owned are worth over $1 million.

But don’t let all that deter you from a visit to this beautiful four-season destination. You CAN visit Aspen even if you are not a one-percenter!

Granted, you probably won’t be staying IN Aspen itself – but rather, in the surrounding, scenic Roaring Fork Valley. Why spend hundreds of dollars when you can be just a short drive from the glitz and status of Aspen for so much less?  Who knows – there is so much to do, see and explore (and feast upon!) in the affordable “down-valley” towns of Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs that visitors might not ever get to “up-valley” Aspen at all.

Relaxing before a massage in the exquisitely adorned spa at the True Nature Healing Arts Center in Carbondale, Colorado, it seemed incongruous that less than an hour away was Aspen, the center of uber-wealth and luxury of the Rocky Mountains. True Nature, a oasis-like sanctuary offering yoga, an Ayurvedic spa, a high-prana living-foods kitchen and an eco-friendly boutique, ,is  surrounded by a tranquil peace garden off the main street of delightful Carbondale, a town replete with old hippies and sophisticates alike, with everyone in between as well.

Aspen landscape in summer

and this is what the landscape looks like in late spring, summer and early autumn. © Mark Rush Photography

Roaring Fork Transit Authority (RFTA) bus stops are everywhere. These comfortable, heated buses run year-round and many people don’t even use or need cars while here – after all, the RFTA’s routes are expansive, going to all four of the Aspen ski areas, to the towns of Carbondale, El Jebel , etc. and even to Glenwood Springs. The fee to Aspen, Snowmass and just about everywhere in the Valley is between free and US$5, (seniors 65+ are always free) and the full schedule, discount offers and routes are online.

What to do in the winter: There is a wealth of recreational activities in the Roaring Fork Valley, but in the wintertime, many will opt for the world-renowned skiing here.

Downhill skiing is pricey (US$139) at all four Aspen mountains (Aspen, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk and Snowmass,) but lower-prices are available for savvy early and late season visitors. Typically, mid April features a 25 percent off regular advance purchase pricing, for 2016, $10 per day saved on 2-3 day tickets, $20 per day for 4+ days, and $30 per day for at least seven days.)

Do take advantage of free coffee at the base of all Aspen areas every morning from opening to about eleven, and at Aspen Highlands each Wednesday, there are free muffins, hot dogs and parking! Buttermilk always has free parking, and from there, there are free shuttles to the other three areas.

A less expensive option is about an hour from Aspen, at Sunlight Mountain in Glenwood Springs. This small resort, with a nice assortment of slopes and a cozy feel, charges an average of just US$45 for lift tickets. Most families take advantage of Glenwood’s unique Ski, Swim and Stay package – ski or ride at Sunlight Mountain Resort, swim at the historic Glenwood Hot Springs Pool, and stay in Glenwood Springs in a package deal that starts at US$99 per person. Kids 12 and under receive a free lift ticket with the purchase of an adult full-day lift ticket when you stay at one of the participating hotels. (Offer not valid during holiday season.)  And after skiing, what could be more blissful than an afternoon or evening soak in hot springs pools? (read on for more on this)

image of Glenwwod Springs resort at night

Glenwood Springs resort. Image © Glenwood Springs

Nordic, or cross-country skiing, is free in Aspen. The Aspen Cross Country Center is the only full service cross country ski and snowshoe center in town, located on more than 60 kilometers of trails at the Aspen Golf Course, and in the center of the Aspen/Snowmass Nordic Trail System.

Rental downhill and cross country ski equipment is a bargain at the Basalt Bike & Ski shop. The shop charges $35 a day for a regular ski package (including helmet,) $50 for a demo package, while cross country skiers will be set back just $20. At the major Aspen ski areas, downhill rental packages are typically $50+, cross country starts at $25. Best of all, Basalt Bike & Ski provides FREE ski concierge service to and from the Element. What a pleasure it was to have my skis handed to me upon leaving for the slopes, rather than dragging them to and from the car each day! The very customer-service oriented shop offers a wide range of road, mountain, and hybrid bicycles pending on weather conditions.

Warm weather options: When ski season ends, the region offers a dizzying array of outdoor concerts and performances, many of them free, as well as biking on the Rio Grande Trail, fly-fishing (available for stalwart souls in the winter as well,) golf, tennis and always, free hiking and exploring.

The acclaimed Aspen Art Museum is always free for everyone (closed Mondays,) while Anderson Ranch, an arts school with accommodations onsite, has free lectures twice a week throughout the summer as well as other public events at no charge. The Aspen Institute, a world-famous think tank and research center, features free lectures once monthly, all summer long, as well as $20 lectures more frequently.

All year, Glenwood Springs, one of Colorado’s pleasantly non-tourist trap, authentic mountain towns welcomes visitors to its naturally heated mineral water Hot Springs Pool, open since the late 1800’s but expertly maintained and restored. The world’s largest hot springs pools, the main pool (a football field in length) is kept at a balmy 90-93 degree temperature while the therapy pool is kept at 104 degrees. An all day pass is just $15.75, and the pools are open daily from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. in summer. The on-premises Spa of the Rockies is a full-service spa with an extensive menu.

Glenwood Springs was named the Most Fun Town in America by Rand McNally & USA Today’s 2011 Best of the Road Rally. A good part of that moniker has to do with the Glenwood Caverns and Historic Fairy Caves, which was also termed “One of the Top 10 Places to Go Underground” by USA Today. Newly opened last summer, Iron Mountain Hot Springs, set alongside the Colorado River, has 16 small, naturally shaped pools filled with thermal mineral waters that range in temperature from 99 to 108°F. The views include the Colorado River as it winds through the valley, Iron Mountain, Red Mountain, the Flat Tops and the twin peaks of majestic almost 13,000 foot Mt. Sopris.

Done with outdoor activities?  A lazy day option might be a visit to a one of the area’s two micro distilleries, and both offer free tours upon request.

overhead shot of Glenwood Springs

Glenwood Springs. Image © Glenwood Springs

The eclectic, artsy town of Carbondale is home to the swank, modernist, dog-friendly Marble Distillery Inn, less than a year old. This friends-and-family owned and operated business is not only an onsite distillery, but a five-room inn as well (sleep above the stills!) with luxurious, high-end rooms (averaging about $225 per night, higher during holidays) offering spectacular views of white-capped Mount Sopris. The Distillery’s tasting room serves up cocktails made of their small batch Marble Vodka (uniquely filtered by crushed white marble from the nearby quarry in Marble, Colorado,) Gingercello, Gingercello Reserve, Moonlight EXpresso coffee liqueur, and soon, whiskey in barrels.  On a recent visit, we sat and sipped contentedly while an edgy fashion show on premises was ending and a comedy show was about to begin..

The Marble Distillery is just steps from top-notch restaurants, a movie theater, and the delightful True Nature Healing Arts, an exquisitely decorated holistic center encompassing an outdoor peace garden, yoga studio, petit spa, retail boutique and a living foods kitchen. A drop-in yoga class is $18, while one-hour massages start at $108.

Woody Creek Distillers, in the town center of Basalt, hand bottles and crafts its products, and serves them up in a very popular tasting room that attracts folks from Aspen and all over the Valley. Woody Creek has won an impressive array of awards in its short three-year existence. This state-of-the-art, farm to bottle distillery features the stellar Woody Creek vodka, made from local potatoes, rye, gin and a reserve vodka.

panoramic view of mountains near Aspenn

the views are recommended any time of the year. © Mark Rush Photography

While golfing in Aspen can be out of reach for the non country club set, there is the Iron Bridge Golf Club. This 18-hole alpine semi-private course, designed by Arthur Hills and refined by Tom Lehman, charges just US$59-$99 for daily fees to the public, including cart fees. The exceptionally beautiful course is just west of Glenwood Springs and is open from April to October. For non-golfers, the Grill is open to the public and features very reasonably priced dinner specials and a tasty a la carte Sunday brunch.

The Roaring Fork Valley is much more than the outskirts of Aspen – indeed, it is an ever-evolving destination of its own. But for those who want to see and experience the charms of Aspen, why not visit , enjoy, but save  some big bucks and stay down Valley? Your wallet will thank you!






#1, 2, 10, 11, and 12 are all by Mark Rush Photography. #4, 5 and 6 Marble Distillery Inn,  #9 Iron Bridge Golf Club, #3, 7 and 8 Glenwood Hot Springs Pool





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