To experience a Rocky Mountain summer is to understand why so many people come here to visit and end up staying for the rest of their lives. Hiking trails take you to the mouths of the rivers that keep Colorado and the West thriving, though you can also hop in a raft and experience the turbulence of the Rocky’s melted snowpack firsthand. Hiking and mountain biking are popular among both visitors and locals, as is road biking through the stunningly beautiful Roaring Fork Valley.
Maroon Bells Scenic Loop Trail — The Maroon Bells are said to be the most-photographed peaks in Colorado, and you probably won’t be able to resist snapping a photo the second you pull into the parking lot. Take the bus from the Aspen Highlands parking garage. Driving to the trailhead is often impossible as this is among the most-visited parts of the state. The good news is that most visitors don’t venture past the viewpoint near the parking area, and by heading out on the 1.9-mile loop hike near Snowmass Village, you’ll leave the majority of the crowd behind. The hike is generally open mid-May through September.
Smuggler Mountain — Smuggler Mountain is the town’s most accessible trail system, with trailheads visible within a five-minute drive of downtown Aspen. The lower trails are busy with trail runners, day hikers, and tourists, but the further you’re willing to push it, the more rewarding the views and less-crowded the trails. Once you pass the Hunter Creek Cutoff and reach Overlook, 10th Mountain Trail, or Tootsie Roll, views of the surrounding peaks are nearly all yours.
Grottos Trail — For an easy day hike just outside of town, Grottos Trail offers incredible views on Independence Pass. At a little more than a half-mile, it’s also far easier than hiking the nearby 14,440-foot Mt. Elbert, the tallest mountain in Colorado, or other giants you’ll see in the area including Ouray and Twining Peaks.
Sunnyside Trail — Once you’ve experienced Smuggler Mountain and are ready to step it up a notch, the 11-mile Sunnyside Trail is the next step in Aspen’s glory hikes. This one takes you past gorgeous wildflowers and wildlife, including deer and potentially elk, with stunning views back towards Aspen Mountain and Highlands. To get to the trailhead, follow Cemetery Lane for about 1.5 miles after turning off Highway 82 just outside of Aspen proper.
Conundrum Creek Trail — Conundrum Creek is the holy grail of Aspen hikes, an 18-mile one-way journey to a relaxing hot spring surrounded by lush scenery and jagged peaks. Allow eight hours on the way in and six on the way out, with an overnight stay. The prize is Conundrum Hot Springs, among the most beautiful backcountry springs in Colorado. A permit is required for camping, and advance booking is necessary, so reserve on recreation.gov.
Maroon Creek Road — Perhaps the best way to see the Maroon Bells is to bike Maroon Creek Road. The epic view at the top is that much more rewarding when you’ve earned it after an 11-mile uphill climb. And the return 11 miles are much easier on the legs. This route is also one of the most beautiful in the early fall when the foliage is out in full force.
Rio Grande Trail to Woody Creek — The Rio Grande Trail is a 42-mile, mostly paved, and sometimes crushed-gravel path from Aspen to Glenwood Springs that serves as both a multi-use recreation trail and a way for bikers to get their exercise without riding on the side of the busy highway. The portion to Woody Creek is paved and runs creekside past flowers and neighborhoods that, while beautiful, can create a bit of envy at one’s inability to shell out $5 million for a second home.
Independence Pass — The Aspen area’s most famous road ride is over Independence Pass, a grueling 40-mile climb-and-descent trip that can be as hard on your bike as it is on your body. Start early, pulling out of town on Highway 82 with the rising sun, and pack plenty of water and food. This ride is popular, so the earlier you hit the road, the more peaceful it will be.
Sky Mountain Park — Aspen’s premier trail system for mountain bikers offers a collection of shorter trails under three miles in addition to the legendary Snowmass Loop, a 24-mile trip. The park is best accessed from Buttermilk Ski Area or Snowmass Village Town Park, down below the Snowmass ski area. Expect to climb before you descend, with plenty of switchbacks keeping the views interesting throughout.
Snowmass Bike Park — On Snowmass Mountain, the Snowmass Bike Park takes bikers up the Elk Champ Chairlift and gondola and down 3,000 vertical feet of perfectly groomed trails. There are options from beginners to pros, so be careful about choosing a trail that suits your ability. Otherwise, you may find yourself cruising with confidence until a massive jump or berm appears out of nowhere. The park is open from mid-June to early November.
Hunter Valley Trail — If you hike Smuggler Mountain, you’ll likely see mountain bikes en route, as well. You can bike Smuggler, as well as the nearby Hunter Valley Trail, among the most popular mountain bike trails in the Aspen area. This ride through the Hunter-Fryingpan Wilderness is seven miles and relatively challenging but not overly technical. Keep the ride going by connecting to the Smuggler trail system.
Aspen Whitewater Rafting — Unless you’re a certified guide with your own boat, the best way to get on the water is with a licensed outfitter. They’ll provide everything you need for a successful trip, including paddles, life jackets, and usually a nice snack. Aspen Whitewater Rafting offers Roaring Fork Valley’s most popular rafting trips, including Slaughterhouse Falls, for the best price among the area’s top guides. Granted, it only beats out competitors by $10 or less. But if you’re with a group, those few bucks compounded really start to add up. Plan to spend about $100 per person for most trips.
Blazing Adventures — Charging $110 for the Slaughterhouse Falls trip, Blazing Adventures isn’t the cheapest option. But the benefit of booking with them is that they are a full-service tour provider, extending to land-based tours like bike trips and dinner excursions. There’s nothing quite like showing up to your second tour of a trip already knowing a few people. They also offer customized trips that let you combine activities and get more specific on what you’re looking for, for those wanting both guidance and an against-the-grain experience.
Colorado Whitewater Rafting — If you drove into Aspen from Denver, you passed through Glenwood Canyon, undoubtedly one of the most beautiful parts of the state. Colorado Whitewater Rafting gives you the option of getting on the Colorado River as it passes through the canyon and hitting the famous Shoshone Rapids. Also, by getting out of Aspen, you’re primed to spend nearly 40 percent less on a half-day rafting excursion.
Other summer activities
On-mountain activities — Aspen Mountain, or Ajax as you may hear longtime locals call it, runs the gondola throughout the summer for scenic hikes, rides, and even a mountaintop yoga session. Other summer activities include zip-lining at a family adventure park at Snowmass called the Lost Forest and Breathtaker, the modern incarnation of the alpine slide. It’s been modified — that is, optimized for less risk of injury as you’re no longer flying down a cement barrel on a two-wheeled go-kart — and is now known as an alpine coaster. You can also hit one or both of the two 18-hole disc golf courses at Snowmass.