We all know that for a genuinely small town—6,000 residents, with a downtown core not much larger than the Galleria—Aspen has a lot to offer wintering visitors. But it’s news to some that Aspen is just as alive in the summer months, when ski mountains turn into hiking trails, roads are clear for bikers and motorcyclists, restaurants open their patios and decks, and cultural opportunities are found around every corner. As John Evatz, a Houston resident who returns each summer to this old mining town in the Colorado Rockies, puts it, “Whatever you’re into, if it’s not in Aspen during the summer, it probably doesn’t exist.”
Whatever their interests, from the Aspen Music Festival to Anderson Ranch Arts Center to the Aspen Institute’s Ideas Festival, there is one thing about Colorado in summer that nearly all Houstonians applaud: it isn’t Houston. Aspen is an escape from heat, traffic, and the general city craziness.
“It’s like going to another planet,” says Houston-based philanthropist and author Lisa Holthouse, who has owned a house along Maroon Creek, just outside downtown Aspen, for eight years. “It’s so slow, you find you spend amazing time with family and friends. It’s all about healthy living—long hikes, bike rides, picnics. The minute my kids get out of school, that’s where we head, to recharge my batteries.”
There is, though, one thing Houston and Aspen have in common: Houstonians. “You walk through Aspen, you see people you know on every street corner,” Holthouse says.
Here’s what’s on their to-do list once they arrive.
“Music. I’m passionate about music,” says Bayou City photographer Kathryn Rabinow, who has lived part-time in Aspen for 25 years. Rabinow’s go-to concerts are the Aspen Music Festival’s Sunday-afternoon orchestral performances at the Music Tent in the picturesque West End neighborhood, an Aspen tradition for more than 60 years. “Being in the Tent, especially when there’s a thunderstorm, you have nature playing and music playing,” she says. “And the first few Sundays, it’s like going back to summer camp. You see everyone, and they’re all so excited to see each other. You don’t get that anywhere else.”
Cindy Gracely, who brings her event planning business to Aspen each summer, is a fan of Jazz Aspen Snowmass’s Labor Day Festival, a three-day bash of rock, funk, world, and soul music in a park in Snowmass Village. “The music, the venue—it’s a really well done event,” she says.
Also of top quality is Belly Up, recently named by Rolling Stone as one of the country’s top nightclubs. The 450-capacity club in downtown Aspen has a summer featuring Kenny Loggins, Chris Isaak, and Lukas Nelson, the fast-rising son of Texas icon Willie Nelson.
And then there is the stage at Theatre Aspen, which puts on musicals, comedies, and drama in an intimate tent in newly landscaped Rio Grande Park. Holthouse brings her younger son to the annual children’s production, such as this year’s musical, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Also for family outings, Holthouse heads to Snowmass for the weekly rodeo.
For visual arts, there is the cutting-edge Aspen Art Museum, and Snowmass’s Anderson Ranch, where visitors can mingle with resident artists, visit their studios, and even take a class. Rabinow likes the Baldwin Gallery, where she finds the biggest names in contemporary art but also a low-key atmosphere.
“I’m spoiled—in Houston, we have fabulous galleries,” she says. “But at Baldwin, it doesn’t seem to matter what you look like or who you’re masquerading as. They’re interested in you and treat you well.”
It’s no surprise that Houstonians spend much of their Aspen time outdoors. Gracely first came to Aspen to train as a cyclist for the 1996 Olympic trials, and she hasn’t stopped pedaling around town ever since. On her mountain bike, she heads to Four Corners or the Buttermilk Ski Area. She rides her road bike to the serene St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass or up Maroon Creek Road to the peaks of the Maroon Bells. “It’s beautiful the entire way. And when you get to the top—omigosh! And September, that’s the most beautiful time,” she says.
Evatz prefers a different means of locomotion and a different but equally spectacular route. He gathers a group to climb up Independence Pass on motorcycles.
“There’s something magical about Independence Pass. You really are on top of the world,” he says. “You make lots of stops along the way to take in the views. And Leadville, on the other side, is a unique place.”
Hiking trails abound in and around Aspen. The Rio Grande is a flat trail along the Roaring Fork River. Holthouse prefers to get her heart pounding with day-long hikes up to Cathedral or American Lake, or, if she has visitors, the shorter loop up Smuggler Mountain, through the Hunter Creek Valley and back into town.
She has discovered the perfect way to combine two favorite activities: biking and dining. After riding the eight miles to the iconic Woody Creek Tavern, she’ll eat a slow lunch on the patio, then mosey back to Aspen.
The restaurant hotspot for Houstonians is Cache Cache, an institution of French cuisine. “You can go at six, sit at the bar, have an appetizer, and catch up on everyone who walks in,” Evatz says. He also loves the scene on the Ajax Tavern patio, at the foot of Aspen Mountain. “It’s incredible to sit there with a glass of champagne, a really tranquil setting.”
Matsuhisa is a must for sushi. “That’s our first stop in town,” Holthouse says. Her next, when she’s got the kids settled for the night, is the bar at Campo di Fiori.
Rabinow is impressed with two newer dining spots: Bangkok Happy Bowl, which serves Thai dishes, and BB’s Kitchen, where she orders pretzel bread and roast chicken breast. “The kinds of things real Aspen women don’t eat,” she jokes.
For a more communal culinary experience, there’s the Food & Wine Classic in mid-June. “But I can only do one day of all-day drinking. Otherwise I’m paralyzed,” Holthouse says.
Luckily, there are plenty of places to crash during a bout of day drinking-induced paralysis. John Evatz stays at the boutique Residence Hotel, but he is impressed with the recent makeover of the historic Hotel Jerome on Main Street. “They maintained the integrity of the building, the history,” he says. “But it’s very au courant, a chic Western feel.”