Aspen: The higher life 

click to enlarge The Maroon Bells, a mammoth brick-colored range that looms over the alpine lakes and hiking trails, is a beautiful sight. - ARI BURACK/SPECIAL TO THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Ari Burack/Special to the S.F. Examiner
  • The Maroon Bells, a mammoth brick-colored range that looms over the alpine lakes and hiking trails, is a beautiful sight.
Back when journalist Hunter S. Thompson was blowing things up and running for sheriff, the forested peaks of Aspen, Colo., might have been a different place.

Now this picturesque Rocky Mountain ski town is largely a playground for billionaires and celebrities. Get past that, though, and you will find that it’s more about being outside and playing hard — even when the snow has melted — and it has a certain independent strain of thinking with a dash of counter-culture, where many have welcomed the newest legal Rocky Mountain high with open lungs.

click to enlarge A forest shrine to Hunter S. Thompson. - ARI BURACK/SPECIAL TO THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Ari Burack/Special to the S.F. Examiner
  • A forest shrine to Hunter S. Thompson.
It might be feet-deep in snow right now, but it will mostly be gone by summer. Downtown Aspen feels a bit surreal. Maybe it’s the seasonal nature of a resort town, its hotel staff with Australian accents, or its manicured streets and pedicured matrons. On one of the main drags, there are shops hawking seemingly everything — furs, overpriced art, even “testosterone”-laced men’s products.

But just when you want to write off the place as a cultural wasteland, everything changes.

It is a summer night. You just left a hipstery, Western-themed artisanal cocktail bar occupied only by sheltered-looking 20-somethings and affluent 60-somethings. You are concerned it might actually be a prop from a Hollywood set and are teetering on the edge of dismissing the entire town. That is when a group of earnest young music students sets up shop on a busy corner and a crowd gathers to hear open-air Mozart.

This is a regular thing in Aspen.

And despite the extreme wealth, liberal Aspen has a history of resisting development. There are no skyscrapers, and chain stores are few and far between. There are, of course, ridiculously expensive homes to go along with high-end restaurants, art galleries, museums and talented live musical acts, both known and unknown.

click to enlarge Silverpeak marijuana dispensary in Aspen. - ARI BURACK/SPECIAL TO THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Ari Burack/Special to the S.F. Examiner
  • Silverpeak marijuana dispensary in Aspen.
One of the more intriguing attractions for some travelers now is Colorado’s exploding marijuana industry. Newly legalized (at the state level, anyway) dispensaries abound in Aspen, attracting all kinds of interested parties.

At midday, a wide-eyed older couple wanders with seeming trepidation inside one downtown purveyor — Silverpeak, Aspen’s first, which opened for business in March 2014 — chatting in hushed tones. Inside are lavish glass display cases touting various strains of locally-grown marijuana, both smokeable and edible. And the friendly, knowledgeable staff are eager to assist.

Pausing at the entrance, the man whispers to the doorman, “Is curiosity allowed?” This, according to employees, is a common occurrence.


If the surrounding hills and mountains are not gorgeous enough by themselves, they are worth a visit just to escape the cognitive dissonance of downtown Aspen. And go you should. It seems that if there is something universal, it is that everyone here loves the outdoors. Hiking, biking, running, skiing and snowshoeing — all ages are out there.

A few miles from town lies one of the most photographed vistas in the Rockies: the Maroon Bells. Mammoth spires the color of brick loom over alpine lakes on the hiking trail, which winds through aspen groves, over pockets of snow and ice-cold streams, even in summer, and finally up to a rugged pass at 12,500 feet in elevation. It is breathtaking, especially for those not accustomed to the altitude. The descent passes through fields of wildflowers.

click to enlarge Woody Creek Tavern - ARI BURACK/SPECIAL TO THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Ari Burack/Special to the S.F. Examiner
  • Woody Creek Tavern
A day out hiking, or biking hard, through forested trails at the popular Snowmass mountain resort, can be happily rounded out at the Woody Creek Tavern, a local hangout that once was a favorite of the journalist Thompson. It is a no-frills beer and margarita Mexican joint down the road from Aspen. The outside is a log cabin; the inside is festooned with a dizzying array of lights and photos under a silvery ceiling. However, under a light drizzle one early afternoon, no one was raving fanatically about Nixon. Those days, and characters, are long gone.

Yet back up in the mountains, just off an unmarked trail known only to locals, is a shrine to Thompson and his brilliant, iconoclastic and troubled quasi-journalistic legacy. The glade of spruce and aspen trees, clothed in old photos and hand-written quotations from the gonzo sage, their limbs draped with megaphones, old ski boots, empty liquor bottles and American flags, is apparently a regular haunt for a few of his most devoted fans.


A worthwhile side trip is the neighboring town of Crested Butte. Aspen’s quirkier, low-key cousin that’s warm and welcoming, received unexpected national publicity last year for allowing a major beer company to take over the town for a weekend of crass commercialism — to the scorn of some townspeople.

Many residents clearly came to Crested Butte to get away from all that, some of them are creative folk and free thinkers, others are attracted by the skiing and outdoor sports. Along the central avenue, local artists have fashioned intricate benches combining wooden slats and metalwork, in between historic structures built in the town’s mining days. Buses have been hand-painted and transformed into free public transit between the town and the adjoining ski area of Mt. Crested Butte.

click to enlarge A bench in Crested Butte. - ARI BURACK/SPECIAL TO THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Ari Burack/Special to the S.F. Examiner
  • A bench in Crested Butte.
You can score a surprisingly good New York-style bagel with lox at Izzy’s just off the main drag, or an inventive tapas-style dinner at the packed Sunflower restaurant. A tiny museum celebrates the town’s more modern history as one of the birthplaces of mountain biking. On a nearby green, a silvery, life-size sculpture of a medieval knight battles a dragon.

Whatever this vision may have once represented, there are likely many more skirmishes to be fought, as the forces of growth meet the great and free outdoors.

Ari Burack is a freelance writer who also blogs at


Aspen, Colo.

- Snowmass: One of the most well-known ski resorts in the Aspen area also has more than 50 miles of mountain biking trails in the summer that are accessed by chairlift and gondola, including a new beginner’s trail. White River National Forest, 9 miles from downtown Aspen.

- West Maroon Pass hike: This popular but difficult hike covers about 13 miles from Aspen to Crested Butte and includes dramatic views of the Maroon Bells, waterfalls, alpine lakes and wildflowers, and ascends to 12,500 feet.

- Smuggler Mountain hike: A much easier, and shorter at 1.5 miles, hike up a dirt road from downtown Aspen. It offers beautiful views of the downtown area from a viewing area at the top.

- The Little Nell: Modern, comfortable luxury accommodations, designed with an art lover’s flair, in downtown Aspen. Try the gondola ride up Aspen Mountain right next door. Summer rates range from $425 to $925. 675 E. Durant Ave., Aspen.

- Sky Hotel: A more affordable option with a prime location in downtown Aspen. Hipster chic meets ski resort design at this Kimpton property. Rooms from $189. 709 E. Durant Ave., Aspen.

- The Nordic Inn: A friendly, charming atmosphere at this historic inn a short ride from downtown Crested Butte. Rooms $249 to $385; promotional rates are often available. 14 Treasury Road, Crested Butte.

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Ari Burack

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