Aspen for All Seasons

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To most Americans, glamorous Aspen, Colorado, is known for prices higher than the 14,000-foot peaks that surround it. But in fact, some of Aspen's very best attractions are free of charge: hiking and live music in summer, cross-country skiing in winter. Furthermore, quiet arrangements and discreet discounts are mumbled under the breath of just about everyone you meet. Here are a few ways you can enjoy the nation's priciest mountains for a sensible sum.

Key budget decision

As with most things, timing is everything. You can cut your lodging costs 20 to 60 percent or more by avoiding both the holiday season (mid-December to early January) and winter in general (Thanksgiving through the end of March). Summer (June, July, and August) sees 25 to 40 percent off holiday rates; autumn (September through November) finds prices less than half the high-season tag and the mountains at their prettiest.

The least expensive visits are from tour operators that combine airfare, hotel, and activities. "You'll always do better with a five-night, midweek package," says Dana Flach, vice president of operations at Daman-Nelson Travel (800/321-2754, skirun.com), a big California wholesaler. For January stays, she offers "Affordable Aspen," consisting of round-trip airfare to Aspen, hotel with breakfast for five nights, four days' lift tickets, and an apres-ski party each night for $789 per person from Los Angeles, $810 from Chicago, $879 from Atlanta, and $890 from New York. For the autumn months, her best-selling "Aspen Gold" includes airfare and five nights' lodging for $530 from Los Angeles, $550 from Chicago, $620 from Atlanta, and $630 from New York.

Unless you buy a package, flying directly into Aspen can be costly. But you may be able to get to nearby Denver cheaply (using one of the big airfare search engines) and then rent a car in Denver from a variety of rental firms for a four- or five-hour drive through glorious countryside to Aspen. Thrifty (800/847-4389, thrifty.com), for example, charges about $160 for the week. If you drive, get a parking permit from your hotel and leave the auto in its lot-street parking is pricey in Aspen.

Once in Aspen, you can walk just about anywhere in town. For speedier locomotion, bring a bike or rent one from Ajax Bike and Sports (635 E. Hyman Ave., 970/925-7662) for $25 per 24-hour period, including helmet and lock. The town is very bicycle friendly.

Buses in Aspen are free. But it costs $2 to use the bike rack on the front of the bus and $1 if you want Dial-a-Ride front-door pickup service in the Mountain Valley neighborhood. Otherwise, the Roaring Fork Transit Authority (RFTA) boasts you can reach all points in Aspen using the bus system-for nothing. RFTA's Rubey Park Transportation Center (Durant Ave., between Galena and Mill Sts., 970/925-8484, rfta.com) is right downtown, just one block from the Silver Queen Gondola. Most routes leave from there, and schedules are posted. In winter, they have racks mounted on vehicles to carry skis.

Before you leave home, be sure to print coupons good for 10 to 20 percent off on activities, lodging, and more from conciergeguide.com. Also, Aspen merchants hate to admit it, but they're willing to "deal" to fill up a snowmobile tour or rent those last spaces on a white-water rafting trip.

Lodging

Aspen's Central Reservations (888/649-5982, stayaspensnowmass.com) has a "virtual hostel" Web page showing last-minute specials on hotels and condos for two weeks from the date you log on. For example, the Prospector Luxury Condominiums (301 E. Hyman Ave., 800/522-4525) recently advertised units for $75 per night on the virtual hostel page. The normal published rates for the same units are $150 in the autumn and as high as $375 during the holiday season.

If you're willing to share a dorm room with strangers and use a bathroom down the hall, you can sleep within walking distance of the Aspen Mountain chair lifts during peak holiday season for as little as $44 per night. The St. Moritz Lodge Hostel (334 W. Hyman Ave., 800/817-2069, stmoritzlodge.com) isn't fancy, but it is clean and well appointed, and rates are even lower in spring, summer, and fall.

During the warmer months, your least expensive option is camping just outside of Aspen in one of four Forest Service campgrounds that charge $15 per site per night, plus a reservation fee of $9 (there is a five-day-stay limit). All are within six miles of Aspen, and three can be reached by riding the free bus system. Each site has a picnic table, fire grate, and nearby drinking water and pit toilets. Most supply a spectacular view of the high peaks. Reserve at least four days in advance online at reserveusa.com or by calling 877/444-6777. The campgrounds are closed in the winter.

Eats

Aspen's fresh air and dazzling views make it hard to go inside to eat. So why do it? Grab all you need for a picnic from the City Market (711 E. Cooper Ave., 970/925-2590). Then save a bundle by enjoying your bagels and yogurt or turkey on rye four blocks away at the marble-slab picnic tables near the Roaring Fork River in Herron Park. In the evening, pick up steaks and charcoal at a grocery store and head to any White River National Forest picnic site for your own sunset dinner at a fraction of the cost in town. Equally pretty-and free-are the tables and fire grills along Castle Creek in the historic ghost town of Ashcroft, nine miles south of Aspen. Don't want to cook? Little Ollie's Chinese Restaurant (308 S. Hunter St., 970/544-9888) will pack you up some yummy moo shu pork for $9.95. Or pick up a $3 slice of New York Pizza (409 E. Hyman Ave., 970/920-3088) to go, a meal in and of itself.

If it is too chilly-or snowy-to eat outside, Aspen offers several reasonably priced restaurants. In a sea of fancy eateries, Boogie's Diner (534 E. Cooper Ave., 970/925-6610) is a safe haven of regular food at regular prices. A burger costs $7.50; a Monster Mash Meat Loaf-the most expensive item on the menu-goes for $8.95. Not far away, the Red Onion (420 E. Cooper Ave., 970/925-9043) is an Aspen institution that has been feeding folks for over 110 years with lunch specials like a big, hot turkey sandwich for $6.50. You'll find Mexican food as good as any in Colorado at The Cantina (411 E. Main St., 970/925-3663). The portions are huge, and their chile rellenos ($10.95) are light and airy.

Summer in aspen Aspen is surrounded by mountain peaks, crystal-clear rivers, and miles of trails-all waiting to be explored, free of charge.

Grab a map at the local forest service office (806 W. Hallam St., 970/925-3445; $6), the advice of the friendly ranger behind the desk, and a sack lunch. Then take yourself on a fine hike. The same technique works for mountain biking, too. Plus, the guys at the bike rental shop can give you tips on the best rides.

For $5.50 per person, take the Maroon Bells Bus Tour (970/925-8484, rfta.com), which winds through the Maroon Valley and climbs to one of the most photographed sites in Colorado. The 14,000-foot Maroon Bells, so named because of their striking color and shape, loom over an alpine lake that acts as their reflecting pool. Buses arrive and depart every 20 minutes; a bonus is the interpretive talk of the bus driver.

Put your bills back in your wallet and enjoy inexpensive or free programs at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (970/925-5756, aspennature.org). A sample of no-cost events includes close encounters with resident eagles and hawks, 45-minute guided nature walks through the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, and a sunset beaver walk through Hallam Lake Nature Preserve.

The Aspen Music Festival (970/925-3254, aspenmusicfestival.com) is a nine-week, summertime gathering of world-class musicians who perform in over 200 events including opera, chamber music, orchestral concerts, lectures, and children's programs. The Benedict Music Tent holds 2,050 seats and houses several concerts that you can enjoy gratis by sitting just outside on the lawn.

Hear Noble Peace Prize laureates, New York Times columnists, renowned authors, and others hold forth at the Aspen Institute Summer Speaker Series on Tuesday evenings in July and August. The Aspen Institute (800/525-6618, aspeninst.org) presents other events all year long, from gallery exhibits to galas. The Summer Speaker Series and many other happenings are free and open to the public.

Once a world-famous silver-mining town and one of the largest communities in Colorado, Aspen is rich in history. For $10, an escort in Victorian costume will give you a guided walking tour of Aspen's historic and architectural heart. From mid-June through late August, HeritageAspen (970/925-3721, aspenhistory.org) offers this as well as $3 self-guided tours of nearby Ashcroft and Independence Ghost Towns.

Winter in Aspen

With prices for single-day lift tickets nearing $70, downhill skiing and snowboarding in Aspen are not budget activities by any stretch of the imagination-though with an Aspen ticket, at least, you get four mountains for the price of one: Aspen, Aspen Highlands, Snowmass, and Buttermilk. To save some money, buy multiday lift tickets (four or more days) online before December 1 (877/282-7736, aspensnowmass.com) and you'll receive 20 percent off the window price. Similarly, you'll find a 10 percent discount on multiday passes bought seven or more days in advance. (These were on offer this season; check the Web for 2003-04 discounts.)

Feeling a bit lost? Ski "ambassadors" offer mountain tours daily at 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. This is a great, no-cost introduction to the massive ski area, and you might even get some helpful budget tips from a local! If you find you need a break after your screaming powder runs, remember that free coffee is provided at the base of all four mountains, and cider and water can be found gratis at the on-mountain lodges.

Speaking of powder, want to be the first one on the mountain? (Silly question!) Sign up for Aspen's free (with valid lift ticket) First Tracks program the night before and you will join the ski-school pros on the mountain before everyone else gets out of bed. First Tracks is offered every day at Aspen and on Wednesdays and Fridays at Snowmass.

If you prefer cross-country, pay $0 to ski the Aspen/Snowmass Nordic Trail System (970/925-2145, aspennordic.com). Its 60 kilometers of trails start at the ski center at the Aspen Golf Course and roam through surrounding valleys, meadows, and woodlands. It is the largest free, groomed cross-country ski-trail system in North America.

Sadly, Aspen's hype often obscures what really makes it special: its beautiful mountain setting. Take a quiet morning walk on the bricks of the Mill Street Mall and watch the first golden rays touch the top of Aspen Mountain three blocks away. Then fill your lungs with frosty air and know that the best things in life aren't just for big spenders.

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