Aspen’s abundance of warm-weather pursuits piques passions, from extreme outdoor adventure to cultural pursuits, from Colorado’s best fly fishing, to indulgent spa offerings. Whether experiencing the rapids of the Roaring Fork River (running directly through the center of Aspen), to scaling the rock walls up Independence Pass, or biking on picturesque trails, there’s an activity for everyone to savor Aspen’s stunning mountain scenery and “the good life.”
But I like planning ahead, for my favorite time in the mountains. And Aspen in autumn, as a world-class year-round destination, elevates fall far beyond mere leaf-peeping, with festivals, cultural events, outdoor activities, lodging specials and dining deals. A great Rocky Mountain getaway.
Like summer, autumn is filled with bluebird skies and warm days for hikes and bike rides, raft trips and paragliding adventures, and even lazy mornings perusing the ever-expanding Saturday Market. And because fall in Aspen is still a bit of a secret, favorite trails and stretches of river are even less populated than summer. For those looking for a slightly less adventurous escape, sunset alfresco dining with brilliant fall foliage backdrops abound at dozens of restaurants on Aspen’s walking malls and Restaurant Row. Or gallery-hop at the nearly 40 galleries that call the downtown core home. And Aspen’s shopping scene becomes even more accessible with shoulder-season deals.
Explore the golden aspens on two wheels with a road bike up to the Maroon Bells or an adrenaline-pumping mountain bike ride on one of the dozens of mountain biking trails designed for beginners to advanced; by car with a trek up and over 12,096-foot Independence Pass; by air with a hot air balloon ride or paragliding off the summit of Aspen Mountain; and by water while stand-up paddle boarding or kayaking along the Roaring Fork River.
Prices in the fall are considerably more reasonable than summer, with lodging options ranging from $89 in one of Aspen’s more affordable lodges; two-bedroom suites (that sleeps up to six) starting at $329; up to more luxurious rooms in Aspen’s premier hotels. To reserve a room, visit Stay Aspen Snowmass, Aspen’s central reservations agency.
Below are 10 exceptional ways to experience Aspen’s vibrant autumn glory:
1. Sneak Peek. Aspen Film’s centerpiece event takes place Sept. 26 – Oct. 1. Filmfest emphasizes independent productions from around the world in an intimate scale. Screenings include new releases, acclaimed documentaries, and favorites from the festival circuit. Special programs include tributes to distinguished artists, with past honorees including Anton Yelchin, Julie Christie, Harrison Ford, Rob Reiner, Sydney Pollack, Bob Rafelson, Michael Douglas, Anjelica Huston and William H. Macy. (www.aspenfilm.org; 970.925.6882)
2. Cycle City. Aspen is a biking town. From meandering riverside trails and serene road riding up to the Maroon Bells (one of the world’s most photographed peaks) to some of the region’s most extreme mountain biking, Aspen has a bit for every level or rider. Aspen’s bike shops can provide local knowledge, equipment and guided tours. (www.blazingadventures.com; 970-923-4544; www.utecitycycles.com; 970.920.3325).
3. Aspen by Air. Fall colors will never look the same after paragliding over the town of Aspen. Aspen Expeditions’ tandem guides take you to the top of Aspen Mountain to take flight and enjoy the adrenaline rush. (www.aspenparagliding.com; 970.925.6975). Or experience the peace and serenity of a sunrise hot air balloon ride, followed by a celebratory champagne toast upon your descent with Above it All Balloon Company. (www.aboveitallballoon.com; 970.963.6148)
4. Natural-ly Aspen. Visit the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (ACES) on the Hallam Lake Reserve. Take in the autumn hues with the family while learning more about the native trees, birds, and animals that thrive in the high-alpine environment. ACES also hosts affordable private guided hikes. (www.aspennature.org; 970.925.5756)
5. Race to the Finish. Named by Trail Runner as one of “America’s 14 most scenic races”, the Vasque Golden Leaf Half Marathon on Sept. 21 is a race like no other. It gains 970 feet in elevation on a narrow, winding single-track before peaking out at 9,400 feet above sea level. (www.goldenleafrace.com; (970.925.2849)
6. Reach the Peak. Favorite fall hikes in Aspen include Grizzly Peak, Cathedral Lake, American Lake and the Hunter Creek Trail. If feeling ambitious, take a guided trek up one of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks. For gear, maps and guides visit the Ute Mountaineer or Aspen Expeditions. (www.utemountaineer.com; 970.925.2849; www.aspenexpeditions.com; 970.925.7625)
7. More Cheese, Please. The third annual Mac and Cheese Festival returns to Aspen’s “Restaurant Row” (East Hopkins Avenue between Mill and Monarch Streets) on Saturday, Sept. 7. The local competition serves up samples from top Aspen and Roaring Fork Valley restaurants. Last year’s competition served variations of duck confit, lobster, pork belly, truffle and more. (Aspen Mac and Cheese Fest, 970.429.2078)
8. Rugby Rumble. Rugby players square off each fall in Aspen competing in the annual Rugger Fest. The full-contact championship match features teams from around the country. This year Rugger Fest celebrates its 46th year with the competition set for September 12-15. (aspenrugby.com; 970.948.0141)
9. Refresh. Running June 15 through October 12, the Aspen Saturday Market offers a bounty of Colorado’s produce, meats, artisan items and wares, as well as live entertainment and fun for the family. (Aspen Farmer’s Market; 970.429.2687)
10. Get Out There. Enjoy the autumn hues and views on the Roaring Fork and Colorado River with the Aspen Kayak Academy team. This family activity is available to participants ages 12 and up who are able to swim. Try the alternative and get an incredible core workout with stand up paddling. (www.aspenkayakacademy.com; 970.925.4433)
For more information, a complete calendar of events, or to book an Aspen vacation, visit www.aspenchamber.org, or call 800-670-0788.