My first introduction to my future summer home in the tiny hamlet of Aspen was a blind approach to Aspen/Pitkin County Airport’s runway 15. Flying on the other side of a small mountain range, I could not see the landing strip. To further complicate matters, Aspen tower required prior landing experience on the 8000-foot runway at the lofty altitude of 7,680 feet. At high altitudes, pilot errors multiply quickly. If you approach too fast, your aircraft seemingly floats down the 8000-foot runway. Approach too slow, your aircraft drops like a stone.
It is easy to understand Aspen tower’s requirement of prior experience with the relatively short strip at altitude. I was prepared for the tower’s request and the challenge of 7,680 feet of elevation as I had a veteran flight instructor sitting in the right seat coaching me. He had the requisite landings necessary to meet the tower’s mandate. He told me what to expect before it happened. Focusing on the task of a smooth landing, I didn’t get to fully enjoy the gorgeous scenery pictured above. I vectored from the other side of the small range of peaks at the bottom of the frame. For reference, the town of Aspen is through the valley on the top left of the picture.
Thus began my many summers and falls spent soaking up the sun and clear mountain air of Aspen. Below is the town as the sun begins to set in the winter months.
Aspen, the county seat of Pitkin County, is a resort and former mining town in the mountains of Colorado. The town was founded by miners in 1879 and originally named Ute City, after the Ute Indians who inhabited the area. The name Aspen was chosen in 1880 because of the abundance of Aspen trees. Aspen boomed as a silver mining town. A nugget weighing 2060 pounds of 93% pure silver was found in the Smuggler Mine. Aspen had grown and prospered building schools, banks, churches, and an opera house, with a population of 15,000 when silver was demonetized in 1893. From there, the population crashed to around 700 in 1930.
Jerome B. Wheeler, a partner in Macy's Department Store in New York City, built the Wheeler Opera House and the Hotel Jerome. By the middle of the 1930s, ski enthusiasts saw Aspen as a possible ski resort. After a brief pause for World War II, the rest is history.
My family stayed as guests of the St Regis hotel. The picture-postcard view of the front of the hotel in the winter is below.
As you can readily see, we enjoyed the best accommodations while being treated superbly by a wonderful staff. Below is a shot of our living room. A combination of rustic charm and old-world elegance. An avid reader, I rarely wanted to leave the room’s comforts.
Though poshly surrendered to our lovely indoor space, we were almost always outdoors. The quaint streets and epic beauty demanded our attention. My morning runs finished with freshly ground & brewed coffee made the early hours of my everyday very grand indeed.
Paradise Bakery was my “go-to” stop at daybreak. A couple of hours later, my family would be my second indulgence of the day through Paradise’s freshly baked goods.
The deep sunrise queue for the steaming java gave us time to study the delicious offerings. We never left with just coffee. And, our kids relished the opportunity to stare into the glass display case with its wonderland of delightful choices. I am surprised I didn’t gain weight constantly nibbling the baked treats.
Beyond our daily walks, as we took in the sights and sounds of the valley, a favorite of our kids was spending time at the Aspen Skatepark. (see below) The cool thing about being young is the boundless energy and the ability to shake off the bumps and bruises delivered by the many spills, as they attempted ridiculous stunts and tricks.
For the adults, adventure became as life-altering as you desired. Rafting, hiking, and flights into the mountain passes were available. My jolt of adrenaline was to paraglide off a 9,000-foot cliff and ride the thermals up to over 14,000 feet. As a pilot and parachutist, the idea behind paragliding was aerodynamically simple enough. However, the kick start into flight gave me pause.
With my chute deployed behind me, my flight instructor and I would literally run full speed off the cliff’s edge. In theory, the deployed chute would minimize our drop as it caught air quickly. We would ride the air heating on the sun-soaked side of the mountain to new heights. In theory.
In practice, running off the side of a cliff is not my first choice. It’s an irrational move challenging your brain’s fight or flight hardwiring meant for survival. But given that the tandem in front of me did not plunge to their deaths, I followed suit. The deployed parachute behind us provided the lift of a wing. After an initial stomach-churning drop, we caught wind and rose into the crystal blue sky making circle after circle into the thermals. The ride and the views were spectacular. Part amusement park rollercoaster and wind tunnel, you and your pilot are tethered suspended above the most awesome views of the Rocky mountains imaginable. Aspen paragliding gave my daughter, Morgan, and me a once-in-a-lifetime thrill ride. They are true professionals. You’re safe in their capable hands.
I can’t finish my small sketch of the Aspen lifestyle without discussing Aspen as a foodie’s paradise. We were regulars at venues from Mcdonald’s on Mill Street which is now permanently closed to the chic sushi bar of Matsuhisa-Aspen, part of Nobu Matsuhisa’s empire. Pizza, Asian fusion, barbeque, French or comfort food, Aspen has it all.
As sushi fanatics, we also dined at Kenichi two or three times a week. Opened in 1991, Kenichi Aspen provided the town with a new local hot spot “to see and be seen”. Kenichi continues to delight with the freshest sushi, nightly chef specials, and a hot kitchen pumping out the best flavors. The sushi chefs are extraordinary. A devilish good 2009 remodel created a uniquely hip and alluring dining environment for Aspen locals and vacationers alike.
Did I forget to mention the shopping? Gucci, Ralph Lauren, Kith, Louis Vuitton, Prada, and many more. Several city blocks of little shops with the finest things within money’s reach.
In the end, our time in Aspen delivered a magical departure from our everyday. Our own Rocky Mountain high lay paradoxically buried deep in an enclave of Rodeo Drive luxury and high-end spa extravagance. Nothing in Aspen is cheap. But the memories are priceless.
Until next time. Travel safe.