As the plane dipped onto the Aspen runway a few days ago, I had the odd sensation that it had been raining yellow. The aspen trees blanketing the mountains weren’t a subtle gold, as fall foliage in my home in the east is, but a pop-art hue, brazen as a freshly painted yellow line on a newly paved road. This, I thought, must surely be the area’s most exquisite time of year: its secret season. Secret, because whoever talks about autumn in Aspen? Secret, because whoever dares talk about a “value vacation” in this stratospherically priced enclave?
I’m about to do both, and give you ten good reasons to go now.
1. A fall getaway is roughly half of what it would be in either summer or winter, and a third of what it would be at Christmastime. The same room I stayed in for $415 overlooking the pool at Aspen’s pride and joy, The Little Nell –more on that shortly–with a gas fireplace, wide-screen tv, king-size bed and as much comfort as a person could ask for, is $660 in summer ($710 during the Food and Wine Festival and over July 4th); and $995 in the winter ($1,210 at Christmas). That room drops to $340 next week. If that’s too dear, then look at Hearthstone House, a Frank Lloyd Wright-esque hotel in the center of town, which is $139 a night (versus $279 in midwinter). And the Hotel Lenado is $145 a night, a steal from its $435 midwinter price.
2. Biking and hiking in the 60- to 65- degree daytime weather are sublime. It’s sunny 90 percent of the time in October, traffic is minimal, the roaring herds of Harleys are mercifully gone, and you barely need a layer of fleece during the day. (At night, in time for sleeping, the temps drop into the 30s) Whereas some say it’s too hot for biking in the summer, and too cold for hiking in the winter, both men and women– thermally incompatible even at the best of times– find they’re both equally comfortable in the fall. Go fly-fishing, paragliding, horseback riding, running, rollerblading–most any outdoor activity you can think of right now except surfing (and a few intrepid locals are even trying that, now, on the Roaring Fork River).
3. Flights into and out of Aspen are most reliable in the fall. In summer, thunderstorms and other meteorological mayhem mean a frequent weight restriction on planes so that they can gain altitude quickly, so getting into and out of the valley becomes iffy (or you can get in, but your luggage won’t). And in winter, as everyone knows, flights in and out are iffier still.
4. Even the finest restaurants have prix fixe menus and other specials now: Matsuhisa, the Nobu of the West–hardly known for its economical sushi–offers a lounge menu upstairs where some sushi is $10 instead of, oh, $99. (Dress code for men right now: Designer jeans, button-down shirts with colored materials peeking through the collar and cuffs, Ted Baker style, untucked. And loafers. For women, well, you already know the code; just clue in your companion.) The stores are having great sales. Two well-known jewelry stores, one featuring Navajo jewelry, were offering 70 percent off. The yoga studio “02” has special rates for Fall visitors–$45 for a five-punch ticket rather than $85.
5. The feeling of relaxation, of contentment, that permeates this usually high-energy, high-profile, high-altitude, high-maintenance town is the essence of Aspen’s secret season. You get a taste of the real Aspen, the ambiance locals like to talk about, the feeling they had when they first came here and couldn’t bear the idea of ever leaving. As the locals kick back and resume such off-season traditions as stopping their cars in the middle of the road to talk with friends, traffic be damned, you happily wait (if you’re the traffic). (Honking is bad form in Aspen, anyway.) “This is how it used to be,” a resident since 1978 sighs as I stroll into the glamorous store where she works and find her looking out the window. “All pleasure and no pressure.”
6. The Saturday morning Farmer’s Market, usually as jammed as the gondola line on a powder morning, is now wide open and easy to walk through; you can talk to the vendors as you fill your basket with fresh, local produce, cheeses, breads, honeys, charcuterie, chilis, fruits and cider, for a ready-made picnic at the Maroon Bells, one of the most magnificent hiking areas in the entire valley.
7. You can actually get to Maroon Bells by car if you want to. In the summer, you have to take a bus from the Aspen Highlands base village up the eight miles of road to the impossibly beautiful Maroon Lake and the trails that lead deep into the Elk Mountains. In winter, unless you want to snowmobile there, you can’t get there at all. (Photo by Dalma Heyn)
8. You can get a table at Woody Creek Tavern (where Hunter Thompson, famously, hung out and where margaritas famously flow freely) at lunchtime–and even find a parking space. Too, you can get back to Aspen without worrying about the conflict (in winter) between the number of margaritas you’ve had and the ice on McClain Flats; or (in summer), pedaling your bike unsteadily up the Rio Grande bike path back to town along with hordes of other margarita-infused bikers.
9. Don’t bother kenneling your dog; bring him along. Calling Aspen dog-friendly is like calling California wine-friendly, but The Little Nell is way friendlier. There, he will be treated as well as you are, if that’s possible. (Actually, it is: Organic treats for specially designed doggie hikes; custom pet food menus ordered from room service–everything but a massage.) And he can even ride the gondola. Call The Nell for its “Petiquette” details–. (Always call the reservations office, for yourself as well as your pet, for special rates, since they’re not all posted the net. You want to check for the 3rd-night-free and even 4th-night-free specials.)
A friend who lives in the valley nearby points out that the breathtaking colors of the aspens and century-old cottonwoods are a result of the unusually bountiful supply of water that nourishes the land all around Aspen: The Roaring Fork River, Capitol Creek, Woody Creek and Hunter Creek all come rushing down to quench what, in another area this high up, would show sad signs of thirst. Here, it is surprisingly lush. Another Aspen secret.
10. And the final secret is this: I didn’t mention skiing once.