ASPEN, Colo. - The name itself sounds like skis cutting through fresh powder - Asss-pen - and conjures images of Oprah sightings and reversible mink coats.
But there's another season in Aspen. Though this resort city snuggled in the heart of the Colorado Rockies is perhaps most closely associated with alpine skiing, over-the-top decadence, and celebrity parties, from May through October its mountain trails and trout streams beckon.
"When I first moved here in the 1980s, no one hung out in Aspen once ski season ended," says Kurt Fehrenbach, a Connecticut native who works at a bike rental shop in town and leads cycling tours. "It was like, last one off the slopes, turn out the lights. Now it seems like half the people who are here during the winter stay for the rest of the year. People are finding out how much there is to do besides skiing."
Unlike many resort havens, Aspen is a fully functioning city, not just a tourist destination. Along with T-shirt shops and ice cream parlors, it has all the amenities that a family could require: pharmacies, bookstores, banks, and two supermarkets. So budget-conscious families don't need to pay hotel gift-shop prices every time they need sunscreen or a quart of milk.
Nearly everyone in Aspen starts the weekend at the farmers market, which runs Saturdays from 8 a.m.-3 p.m. through October. On four blocks in the center of town, vendors offer fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses, herbs, flowers, freshly popped kettle corn, and baked goods, along with handmade children's clothing, jewelry, and artifacts of all kinds. Stock up on peaches, peppers, and bagels.
Kick off your explorations with a view of the city and outlying countryside as you ascend Aspen Mountain in the Silver Queen Gondola (available daily until Labor Day, then weekends only). The 20-minute ride offers a panorama of the Elk Mountain Range. At the top, you'll find refreshments along with outdoor games and activities geared toward children, including a climbing wall, Euro-bungee trampoline jumping - in which children are suspended in harnesses over trampolines for super high jumps and flips - and Frisbee golf. Naturalist guides offer free tours of the summit.
If your group includes avid hikers, have them get an early start up Aspen Mountain via the Ute Trail. It's a strenuous climb that takes about three hours after which they can meet you at the top. The gondola ride down is free.
Use your first couple of days to do in-town activities as you adjust to the altitude; Aspen perches at 8,000 feet, and sea-level bodies need time to get used to the thin air.
If you want to give the children a taste of nature before you hit the trails, visit the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, which offers free lectures, demonstrations, walks, and exhibits highlighting plants and animals native to the Rockies.
To learn more about the region's history as a mining area, visit the Holden/Marolt Mining & Ranching Museum. Or you might consider a mine tour, which will take you 1,200 feet into the heart of a mountain where 19th-century workers toiled for rich rewards of ore and silver.
Once you've taken a few days to acclimate, it's time for more aerobic recreation. Bike rentals are available everywhere, and Aspen has a comprehensive network of paved trails. If you are towing small children in trailers and want something easy, head out west of town through the Marolt Open Space and on to the Aspen Golf Course, stopping for lunch at Shlomo's on the Green before looping back along Cemetery Lane. The paved paths that wind along the roadways surrounding town are safe and easy and give you a good overview of the area.
For a longer, scenic ride that won't overwhelm the average cyclist, pick up the Rio Grande Trail at its starting point at Herron Park. Meander along the paved section that takes you through the John Denver Sanctuary and past the Aspen Art Museum. After a couple of miles, you'll reach Henry Stein Park, where the pavement ends. Head west along the pathway (still called the Rio Grande Trail) and continue alongside the Roaring Fork River, with spectacular canyon views, and then through more desertlike, sagebrush-dotted landscapes. After eight miles, you'll reach Woody Creek Tavern, where you can enjoy a hearty Tex-Mex dish or a hamburger and pay tribute to the tavern's most famous denizen, the late Hunter S. Thompson. Work off lunch with the ride back or hop on the city bus (all of which have bike racks) that stops at the tavern.
If "riding" to you means four legs rather than two wheels, numerous stables offer trail rides for horsemen and women of all abilities.
Ready for some breathtaking mountain peaks? Head out to Maroon Lake at the foot of the Maroon Bells. (Through Labor Day, the road to Maroon Lake is accessible only by bus; in September and October you can drive there directly.) These snow-streaked mountains may look familiar; the Bells are among the most photographed in the world. Take in the scenery with a stroll around the lake, or, if you're looking for more of a challenge, follow the well-marked trail to Crater Lake. The uphill walk takes about 45 minutes, and the views at the lake are spectacular.
After a day or two of hiking and biking, adults and kids alike may be pleading for an easier sport. Hop on a free city bus or drive 10 minutes out of town to the Aspen Recreation Center. This four-year-old facility features a 32-foot-high climbing wall, a professional-size skating rink, and an enormous shallow kiddie pool that encompasses a "lazy river" area, several whirlpools, and a two-story spiral slide.
With its emphasis on outdoor activity, Aspen is a place to work up an appetite, and there are numerous inexpensive and family-friendly dining options. The Hickory House features barbecued ribs and other "cowboy" food. Brunelleschi's has gourmet pizza of all kinds, and its children's menu includes a make-your-own-pizza option. Mezzaluna Aspen has more upscale Italian food, while Su Casa and La Cantina feature the tastes of Mexico and the Southwest.
Even more inexpensive and casual dining can be found at places like The Big Wrap, Main Street Bakery & Cafe, or Jour de Fête. Of course, with the abundance of world-class gourmet dining in town at restaurants like The Wild Fig, Montagna, Olives Aspen, and Pinons, it's definitely worthwhile to go out without the children at least one night.
The risk you take if you visit Aspen off-season is that a taste of its delights in the fall might only whet your appetite to return in the winter. But if you do, you might learn that it is the off-season visitors, not the skiers, who have discovered the truly glorious side of Aspen.
Nancy Shohet West, a freelance writer in Carlisle, can be reached at NancySWest@hughes.net.