The Perfect Year-Round Family Vacation Guide to Aspen

The first time my family and I spent a winter week in Snowmass/Aspen, we all fell in love. “It’s so gorgeous and unspoiled!” I marveled constantly as I had mistakingly expected the famous town to be more built up. Instead, the entire week we oooooohed and aaaahed at every turn, delighting in the scenic landscape, dense forests, breathtaking snowy peaks and expansive skies that surrounded us.

As parents, we loved sharing Aspen’s rich history with our kids: the mining roots, the story of boom town to bust and back again.  We were taken with the town’s charming combination of Victorian, Bauhaus and contemporary mountain architecture. As skiers, we were thrilled that we had a choice of not one, but four, different exceptional ski mountains—all on one lift ticket. Aspen seemed to have the ability to be so many things—cultural hub with a rich music and art scene, foodie town with amazing restaurants, and most importantly an idyllic outdoor mecca. 

We have returned often in the winter, but each time when we tell a local how much we love the snowy season the answer is always: “It’s even better in the summer, and really incredible in the fall.” This year, we finally made it back in early September, getting a taste of both seasons and, finding out that yes they were right, the warmer months offer even more to do for families and an entirely new way to enjoy the town. From little ones to teens, there are activities to keep all ages thoroughly engaged all year. Here's the only family vacation guide to Aspen you need, no matter when you visit. 

DO

Summer

Maroon Bells Guide & Outfitters

For over 75 years, these spectacular guides have been leading horseback riding adventures through the White River National Forest and Maroon Bells area. Thanks to experienced guides with a knack for matching kids to their perfect horse, plus the option to take short and easy scenic trails, this is a perfect starting point for newbies. Families with beginners ages seven and up, can opt for one hour trips through beautiful trails surrounded by Aspen trees. More adventurous groups can book a ½ day or all-day lunch ride exploring more terrain and views of Maroon Bells. 

Blazing Adventures 

This Aspen treasure is your one-stop shop for guided family adventures. An absolutely fantastic group of guides lead kayak, SUP, hiking, biking, rafting, and Jeeping tours throughout the Valley. Don’t miss the fantastic Whitewater Rafting trips. The Shoshone section of the Colorado River works for families with kids of all ages. Younger kids can skip the Class III rapids at the beginning of the run, and hop on board a mile later for the calmer, but still exciting river journey. A fantastic way to spend an afternoon and take in the beauty of the region. Blazing adventures offers seven different rafting trips for all levels. Daredevils with kids 16 and older won’t want to miss the famous Slaughterhouse trip for the ultimate whitewater experience. 

Lost Forest

Adventurers and thrill seekers will love this extensive challenge course set in the trees that includes rappels, ziplines, swinging bridges, rope ladders, and log pathways high above the ground. Five different courses, each with about 10 obstacles, get progressively tougher with the entire experience clocking in at around two hours. The Lost Forest is best for kids who are excited for a challenge and taller than 48-inches. Younger kids can enjoy a mini obstacle course and outdoor rope spider web climbing gym.  

Maroon Bells Hike

It doesn’t get more gorgeous than the jagged Maroon Bells peaks and crystal clear Maroon Lake. Even better, it doesn’t require a challenging hike to take it all in, making it an amazing outing for all ages. Take the public bus from Aspen Highlands (cars are prohibited during the day) for a twenty minute ride to the White River National Forest Maroon Bells Park. A short walk will take you to the lake which features benches and the Instagram-ready backdrop. Think tall grasses, wildflowers, Aspen trees, and a lake that offers a mirror reflection of the peaks above. Families with elderly relatives or small babies can hang out there and take the view. Those who want to hike, you will find five trails ranging from 1.5 to 13 miles round trip.  The Scenic Trail is a very easy mile and a half loop that works for even little kids. Maroon Bells road is open May through October. Hikers are welcome in the winter but are on their own for the six mile trek up and back. Go on a weekday to avoid the crowds. 

Winter

Photo by Dan Bayer

Cross Country Skiing

The Aspen Nordic Trail System offers more than 60 miles of free, groomed cross-country ski trails between Aspen Snowmass and Basalt. From easy open trails on both the Snowmass and Aspen golf courses to trails that straddle the Rio Grande. Ute Mountaineer rents equipment through both the Aspen and Snowmass cross-country center.  

Downhill Skiing

Aspen Mountain

With steep drops, narrow trails, and over 50 percent expert terrain, Aspen Mountain (called Ajax by locals) is best for confident skiers. Start mid-mountain at Bonnie’s for pancakes and hit Ajax tavern for the après ski scene.  

Aspen Highlands

Ask any local to reveal their favorite mountain and Aspen Highlands is often the winner. Less crowded than Ajax, Highlands offers gorgeous terrain and the most double-black-diamond trails of Aspen’s four mountains. For a party that starts at lunch, head to Cloud 9 Bistro located mid-mountain. 

Snowmass

Featuring 3,332 acres of skiable terrain (seven times the size of Ajax), Snowmass is known for its excellent ski school, wide, intermediate cruising trails, and challenging expert slopes. Don’t miss Sam’s Smokehouse on the mountain for barbeque and incredible views.  

Buttermilk

The home of the Winter X Games features seven terrain parks, making it a mecca for freestyle skiers. Aspen’s smallest mountain (with 21 miles of trails) is also excellent for beginners and families, with 35 percent of the mountain devoted to easy trails. 

Year-Round

Rio Grande Trail

This wide paved trail extends for 42 miles from Aspen to Glenwood Springs. Set alongside the Rio Grande river, the route takes you over idyllic footbridges, stunning forests, sweepin fields, wildflowers, meadows, hills, and gorgeous houses. The trail offers year-round adventure for bikers, horseback riders, runners, scooters, hikers, and dogs. Adventurous families can bike nine miles down to Woody Creek Tavern for lunch. A must-stop along the trail is the John Denver Sanctuary, featuring quotes from his songs etched in rocks, pretty streams, walking paths, plenty of blooms and spots to (naturally) feel that Rocky Mountain High. 

Breathtaker Alpine Coaster

Zip through a mile of forest, surrounded by tall pines, at up to 28 miles per hour on this wonderful new alpine coaster located steps away from the top of the Elk Gondola on Snowmass mountain. While the ten-minute ride provides enough zing for thrill-seekers, the two-person ride also works for parents of young children thanks to a hand-held break that lets you control your own speed. The coaster is open during Snowmass mountain’s summer and winter seasons. 

Aspen Art Museum

Pritzker Prize–winning architect Shigeru Ban designed the 33,000-square-foot space to echo skiing, so be sure to head upstairs and start at the top. The free museum offers guided tours and art studio hours for kids ages 6 to 11. The center of the vibrant Aspen art scene, the museum features established and emerging contemporary artists. 

STAY

The Little Nell

With the only ski-in/ski-out location in Aspen, incredibly spacious guest rooms by top designers Alexandra Champalimaud and Holly Hunt, and the “Beyond Luxury” service that aims to make all your vacation dreams come true—this 5 star hotel has earned its reputation as the ultimate Aspen hotel. 

However, as posh as it is, it’s also a hotel that caters beautifully to families. A favorite with the under seven set are the teepees set up in guest rooms upon request, for the length of your stay. They come complete with stuffed animals, pillows, and a choice of games, providing little ones with their own magical little oasis. Other family friendly perks? A mini bar where everything from Oreos to Kind bars are included in the price of your stay, First Tracks access to Aspen mountain an hour before it officially opens, plus a lovely outdoor pool and hot tub open all year.  Owned by Aspen Ski Co. the hotel offers guests incredible exclusive outings, including summer off-road tours and stargazing with an expert guide and winter untracked powder skiing on the backside of Aspen mountain with Powder Cat tours. 

The Limelight Snowmass

The new Limelight in Snowmass is absolutely the best hotel for families on the mountain. The open concept lobby/restaurant/game room/courtyard design is designed with active families in mind. Kids will love the ability to pop from dinner to the game room to the amazing outdoor courtyard set up with pogo sticks, soccer balls, and hula hoops. In the winter, the courtyard becomes an ice skating rink. Another perk kids will love is the 55-foot climbing wall run by Aspen Skiing Company and free to hotel guests. Two large pools set up off the courtyard, keep all the main hotel activities on one level, making it easy for families to keep an eye on multiple children who want to try a variety of activities. In the winter, the hotel is ski in/ski out and it boasts one of the most central locations on the mountain, walking distance from shops and restaurants. The bright cheery room design, plus the friendly and accommodating staff, make this new addition to the hotel scene a standout lodging option. 

EAT

Pine Creek Cookhouse

In order to dine at this remote, log-cabin restaurant, you must hike, snowshoe, cross-country ski, or ride in a horse-driven sleigh amid the spectacularly beautiful, unspoiled wilderness in the Elk Mountains. It’s one of the most gorgeous backdrops in the Aspen area and absolutely worth the trek for a fabulous meal. 

SO Café

This light-filled, airy cafe on the top floor of the Shigeru Ban–designed Aspen Art Museum offers impressive views of town and the surrounding mountains. The quiet lunch spot serves up local fare  that changes weekly. 

CP Burger: The Aspen dining scene is amazing if you are a foodie, but for kids and families who want a quick, reasonably-priced on-the-go meal the options are limited. Enter CP Burger, which features amazing shakes, burgers, and plant-based options too. A Putt Putt course right outside makes it a great place to spend an evening. 

White House Tavern: Always bustling and insanely delicious, this Aspen staple in a historic building is a must-visit. Don’t’ miss the crispy chicken sandwich and the Golf Coast Style fish sandwich. 

Prospect at Hotel Jerome

It just doesn’t get better than spending a long warm weather afternoon or evening outside in the Hotel Jerome courtyard at Prospect with a stunning view of Aspen mountain above. Indoors, on a colder night, the leather chairs make Prospect a cozy, chic spot for a meal. Food is spectacular, with an added bonus of creative and healthy kids meal offerings.

By Sarah Bliss