Skiers and riders lining up for the free shuttle in Aspen. (Photo: AP)
Let’s play a word association game. “Aspen.” You’re probably thinking, “I can’t afford Prada/don’t wear fur/wish I could afford to ski there.”
Guess what? Aspen isn’t just for couture-wearing socialites and Botox-happy celebs. Real people live here, and even broke folks like me enjoy the multitude of outdoor adventures this historic mining-turned-ski-town has to offer. Right now, as ski season winds down and spring break visitors arrive, is the best time for tight-budgeted snow sport enthusiasts to visit because there are killer deals to be had on everything from accommodations to dining.
Lift tickets? Not so much, but there are package deals that provide hefty discounts. There are also plenty of free activities for skiers and riders, as well as those who prefer to spend their time off the slopes.
Here’s how to do Aspen on the cheap, spring break style (minus the wet T-shirt contests and projectile vomiting … this is still Aspen, after all). And remember: No matter how minuscule your budget, the scenery is always gratis.
It’s always free to look at Aspen’s breathtaking ski slopes. (Photo: AP)
Unbeknownst to many, Aspen has two hostel-style lodges that offer dorms and single/double rooms with shared or private baths. My longtime fave is the St. Moritz Lodge, a few blocks from the town core. Low-season dorm beds start at $59, and you’ll also find friendly staff, eclectic guests (expect everything from octogenarian Euro ski bums who have been visiting for decades to cash-savvy couples), free continental breakfasts and après-ski snacks, and clean, comfortable rooms. Best lodging deal in town, hands-down.
Mountain Chalet Aspen has been owned and operated by the same family since 1954. It’s one of the last of its kind — a groovy original Swiss-style ski lodge — and while it’s seen better days, it’s got character. Accommodations range from basic dorms to the likes of the Chamonix Deluxe room, which boasts a king bed, private bath, and obligatory antlers on the walls. All rooms include breakfast, plus hot tub, sauna, and steam room access. Bonus: It’s less than a five-minute walk to the gondola with your ski boots on. From $89.
If you’ve got the ducats for more style, the sweetest digs in town — with the best late-season deals — is the Limelight Hotel. Located a block from the slopes, this offbeat, 126-room property is also the local’s fave for après-ski deals (hello, $10 wood-fired pizzas and $10 Colorado craft whiskey flights, and free live music). There’s also the bomb, all-inclusive breakfast buffet, featuring house-made granola as well as a hot line. (Tip: Pad your pocket with a bagel with lox or cold cuts for later, but just remember, you didn’t get that idea from me.) Rooms are airy, contemporary mountain-chic, many with fireplaces.
The Limelight is currently offering a Spring Escape package (subject to availability): Buy a minimum of two days and score 50 percent off lift tickets, rentals, and lodging, as well as 10 percent off lessons. (You must book seven days in advance of your arrival date; valid April 6-19.) This deal is good for all four of Aspen’s ski areas: Snowmass, Highlands, Aspen Mountain, and Buttermilk.
Eating and drinking
Tourists and second homeowners throw down megabucks for fancy dinners; locals know where to get great eats for less than the cost of a tank of gas (or, say, two Big Mac Extra Value meals at Aspen’s token McDonald’s). That said, come April 1, many fine-dining restaurants (check out spots like Ajax Tavern, Creperie du Village, and Rustique) offer killer deals; check with your concierge or scan the local paper for ads.
There is almost always free coffee somewhere on the mountain. (Photo: AP)
Annette’s Mountain Bake Shop makes NYC-worthy bagels, Kouign-amann, and other goodness for breakfast and lunch. The sandwiches are insane; try the juicy, house-made roast beef, meatball, or caponata, or first-rate soups, salads, and off-menu delights like pissaladiere; cash only. You can also find tasty muffins at Peach’s Corner Café, and I love the hangover-crushing breakfast sammie from Main Street Bakery (get it to go, or expect to wait for a table). A five-spot will get you a locally made croissant with house-made jam at So, the peaceful indoor café on the roof of the Aspen Art Museum. Skiers at Aspen Mountain should make their first run straight to Bonnie’s for oatmeal pancakes or apple dumplings smothered in real whipped cream.
Those in the know hit Meat & Cheese Restaurant & Farm Shop for lunch or dinner. Owned by cheesemaker Wendy Mitchell of Basalt’s award-winning Avalanche Cheese Co., it features affordable “boards” loaded with house-roasted local chicken, porchetta, and potatoes basted in their juices, with a side of dressed greens; you can also get cheese or charcuterie boards featuring daily selections from well-curated charcuterie cases. There are also creative sandwiches and outstanding “world farmhouse cuisine” that will satisfy whatever your jones (even if you haven’t just hit up the dispensary around the corner … which is definitely not cheap). The Meatball Shack is more upscale than it sounds; for under $70 you can have cocktails, linen napkins, and two honkin’ portions of tasty pasta or specials in a stylish setting.
Related: 8 Cheap and Cozy Ski Lodges
The Aspen Dollar Bar, a utilitarian basement space, is friendly, with lethal, well-priced drinks (this is whiskey country; hold off on the foofy orders), and well-executed bar food. Daily specials include chicken pot pie or pulled pork, but serious props to the tender prime rib sammie with house-made fries ($6). No visit to Aspen is complete without a stumble to New York Pizza — even when sober, the giant slices are delish and dirt-cheap, and it’s open until 2 a.m.
Activities and events
Get a dose of culture at the new, free Aspen Art Museum, which has raised international controversy for its uber-contemporary design and … unique … exhibits. There are also lectures from writers in residence and visiting artists, and family programming. On the other end of the spectrum, the Aspen Historical Society offers affordable tours and events from pub crawls and retro-ski fashion shows to ski history outings.
Nordic activities: With the exception of Ashcroft, a nearby National Historic Register ghost town/designated Nordic area that’s privately owned and thus fee-based, Aspen’s 60-plus miles of Nordic trails are free. The Aspen Nordic Center is a convenient place to take a lesson, rent gear (skis or snowshoes), and take some laps, but this time of year, there’s often not enough snow left for Nordic Center skiing. Instead, ski for free up Tiehack or Elk Camp at Snowmass, or to the Sundeck at the top of Aspen Mountain. It’s a crazy-good workout, and the views are amazing.
Ski programs and free on-mountain tours: Some hotels, like the Limelight, offer free, exclusive programs like Last Tracks to guests, but there are also organized events for the public (with valid lift ticket) that enable you to ski with local experts. First Tracks is insanely popular; register up to 24 hours in advance to hit the slopes for first run of the day with Aspen Skiing Co. employees. Aspen Mountain also offers free on-mountain ski tours by the naturalists at the Wapiti Wildlife Center (great for the kids).
Do your research before you go to find the free and cheap Aspen activities. It’s worth it. (Photo: AP)
As the season is winding down, note that all ski area closing day events are free with lift ticket purchase, and guaranteed to provide you with wacked-out, local-style shenanigans in which you can participate (wearing a costume is always appropriate, skiing butt-nekkid not so much, but it happens). Check out Aspen Highlands’ wild party or Snowmass’s infamous Schneetag (skiers/riders propel themselves over ski jumps into a pond on homemade quasi-aircraft); both are on April 12.
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Fat biking: Price for snow country’s hottest sport vary, depending upon whether you do a rental or guided tour/lesson. The latter is highly recommended if you don’t have experience and want to hit some single track or open terrain; it’s still avalanche season, remember. Prices range from $60 for a full-day rental at Stapleton Ski to over $120 for a guided tour at Sun Dog Athletics. Got traction devices for your hiking shoes? Hit Aspen’s impressive trail system for free; there’s no shortage of trailheads in town.
Related: In Aspen Even the Weed is Luxurious
Hit the street: Walking is free, and no visit to Aspen is complete without a stroll to check out the gorgeous Victorian homes, or along the Rio Grande bike path/pedestrian trail for views of the Elk Range and Roaring Fork River. FYI, you don’t need a car in Aspen. The bus to all the ski areas is free and frequent, has loads of stops, and is a handy way to safely handle your après-ski buzz.
Check out our original adventure travel series A Broad Abroad.