OK Aspen, I must confess something to you: I thought you were a snob. I thought I'd feel out of place in the land of billionaires and Burberry. I thought you couldn't compete with the low-key mountain towns near my beloved Front Range, Colorado's most populated area comprising cities along the eastern base of the Rocky Mountains (including my hometown of Longmont, Colo.).
But I was wrong.
You're every bit as charming and welcoming (and dog-friendly) as so many of my favorite ski areas: Copper Mountain, Winter Park and Steamboat Springs. And you're beautiful, even to those of us Coloradoans who are lucky (and jaded) enough to take mountain scenery for granted.
Can we still be friends?
Because, the thing is, my kids love you too. So much so that we'll be back this winter--despite the four-hour-plus drive--and hopefully again next fall to relive the dazzling, autumnal glow of your namesake, the aspen tree.
So let me make it up to you by sharing five highlights that designate you, Aspen, Colo., as one of our family's new fall-foliage favorites.
1. Maroon Bells
I'm embarrassed to admit that on the few occasions I drove through Aspen as a kid, I never made it to these mountains, reputed to be the most photographed in all of Colorado (some allege in all of North America).
Located about 12 miles southwest of Aspen, it's no wonder that these two red-hued "bells"--North and South Maroon Peaks, both fourteeners--are such a draw for visitors.
And in the fall, when resplendent wildflowers lose top billing to the aspen groves, this recreation area lights up in hues of amber and orange, made all the more spectacular by its reflection in Maroon Lake.
To protect the area's ecosystem, however, motorized vehicles are restricted in the summer months through Labor Day--and weekends through September--from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Click here for information on bus tours, hikes and more.
2. The St. Regis Aspen Resort
Honestly, I'm not one to get too excited over hotels, especially fancy ones. But sometimes a girl's gotta splurge, and staying at the St. Regis Aspen Resort is a worthy occasion.
Not only was it exceptional for what you'd expect from this storied institution--stellar service, including access to personal butlers, and deluxe amenities--but also for what I didn't expect: a kid-friendly philosophy.
My boys loved the heated outdoor pool--perched slope-side for prime mountain views--mostly because it was stocked with toy noodles and beach balls. And they loved the idea of roasting s'mores each night at the nearby outdoor fire pits.
Oh, and let's not forget dinner at the hotel's newest restaurant, Trecento Quindici Decano. I'll remember eating yummy Italian food. But my boys will only recall receiving a pre-dinner tray of raw cookie dough and an assortment of trimmings--chocolate chunks, sprinkles and candies--which they artfully "smooshed" together. Then at meal's end--voila!--they had their very own baked masterpiece.
For me, however, the trip's highlight was experiencing a day of recreational firsts--clay-target shooting at a private range and fly fishing--with the hotel's in-house outfitter, Aspen Outfitting Company.
Now don't get me wrong: I love the outdoors. But instead of a die-hard outdoorswoman, I'm more of a "hike all day then shower and dress up" kinda gal. But when in Rome, right?
The fact is, I thought I'd be bored to tears. Wrong again. Not only did I relish the fact that I could actually hit the clay targets with minimal instruction, but I wasn't that afraid of firing a shotgun.
And even more surprising? Later that afternoon, I actually liked what I figured would be among the dullest of pursuits: fly fishing.
As guide Karl Page noted at our site along the Roaring Fork River, "It's not just about the catch, although that can be addictive," he says. "It's warm, it's beautiful, and there's no one here. I do this for the quiet, for the solitude of the river. You feel like you're a million miles away."
Even though my wimpy arms grew tired of the requisite repeated castings, I was mesmerized as I watch Karl take over the fishing rod. I sat amid the calming sounds of the water, surrounded by glowing aspen trees, with nothing to distract me but the bobbing of that tiny fly.
Huh. So this is what all the fuss is about.
3. The Rio Grande Trail
Like so many of our favorite mountain towns, Aspen offers a trail system that's ideal for a family bike ride or walk. A combination of asphalt, concrete and gravel, the Rio Grande Trail runs approximately 42 miles from Aspen to Glenwood Springs along the former route of the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad.
And since we didn't haul our own bikes from home, they came to us via Bike Butlers. An offshoot of Ski Butlers in Aspen and Telluride, this temperate-weather counterpart delivers bikes and helmets to your chosen destination--be it a hotel or trailhead--and picks up your equipment once you're done riding.
Need a popular riding option? Head 15 miles downstream to famed Woody Creek Tavern, where you can sip a few beers before the Butlers shuttle you back to Aspen.
4. Gondola/Ajax Tavern Combo
It's a no-brainer to ride the Silver Queen Gondola to the 11,212-foot summit of Aspen Mountain. A nearly 20-minute ride and more than 3,000-foot ascent to the top, visitors are rewarded with panoramic views of autumnal splendor amid the Elk Mountain Range.
And if you've worked up an appetite, head to the base afterward toward Ajax Tavern, The Little Nell's slope-side eatery. If you're really hungry, try the restaurant's signature Double-Double, featuring "double" the amount of burger and cheese, along with truffle fries. Or simply drink a beer and people-watch from the Tavern's sun-baked patio.
"This is kind of a happening place," says Hotel Manager Jonathan Fillman. Regardless of the time of year, he says, "This is the patio to be on."
5. The Aspen Film Festival
Our fall-foliage bonus was visiting during the town's annual film festival, Aspen Filmfest, now in its 35th year.
Timed purposefully around the local explosion of fall color, we were lucky to see one of its featured movies: "Meet the Patels," a sweet, hilarious documentary starring Ravi Patel (and co-directed by with sister Geeta), an American-born actor who embraces his Indian parents' old-fashioned tradition of arranged marriages. But with a modern twist.
The cherry on top of our fall-fest sundae.