Aspen, Colo., conjures images of luxury and uber-wealth. Movie stars, oil sheiks and hedge-fund big boys have homes here, and Prada, Louis Vuitton and Gucci cater to those who don't need to check price tags.
Aspen reigns high on many lists — the ski area attracting the most celebrities, the top mountain resort to see and be seen, and one of the most expensive towns in the nation. To live here, as Discover.com notes, the median home price is $877,000 and more than 40 percent of homes owned are worth over $1 million.
However, don't let all that deter you from a visit to this beautiful four-season destination. You can enjoy Aspen even if you are not a one-percenter.
Granted, you probably won't be staying in Aspen proper, but rather in the surrounding, scenic Roaring Fork Valley. Why spend $400-plus per night on a hotel when you can spend $170 or so and be just a short drive from the glitz and status of Aspen?
There is so much to do, see and explore (and feast upon!) in the affordable "down-valley" towns of Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs that visitors might not ever get to "up-valley" Aspen.
The just-opened Element by Westin hotel in Basalt is 18 miles from Aspen, and only 20 minutes by car. The Element is an environmentally designated property, with plenty of natural wood, earth tones, expansive spaces and modern, European-sleek decor.
The hotel features 113 rooms, many of which are ample, family-friendly suites. All have kitchenettes, and there is a complimentary hot breakfast buffet along with a cocktail and appetizer bar Monday through Thursday.
It was a pleasure to stroll from the hotel to the Scandinavian-like Willits Town Center, a well-designed, pedestrian-friendly mixed-use community of boutiques, restaurants, offices and residences, flanked by a Whole Foods market. Conveniently, it's a short walk to the Rio Grande Trail, a popular 42-mile multi-use trail that travels much of the region.
A Roaring Fork Transit Authority (RFTA) stop is just in front of the Element. These comfortable, heated buses run year-round, and many folks don't even use or need cars while here — after all, the RFTA's routes are expansive, going to all four of the Aspen ski areas; to the towns of Carbondale, El Jebel, etc.; and even to Glenwood Springs.
The fee to Aspen, Snowmass and just about everywhere in the valley is between free and $5 (seniors 65-plus are always free), and the full schedule, discount offers and routes are online.
There is a wealth of recreational activities in the Roaring Fork Valley, but in the wintertime, many will opt for the world-renowned skiing here.
Downhill skiing is pricey ($139) at all four Aspen mountains (Aspen, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk and Snowmass), but lower prices are available for savvy early- and late-season visitors.
Typically, mid-April features 25 percent off regular advance purchase pricing; for 2016, that's $10 per day saved on two- to three- day tickets, $20 per day for four-plus days, and $30 per day for at least seven days; www.aspensnowmass.com.
Do take advantage of free coffee at the base of all Aspen areas every morning from opening to about 11, and at Aspen Highlands each Wednesday there are free muffins, hot dogs and parking. Buttermilk always has free parking, and there are free shuttles to the other three areas from there.
A less-expensive option is about an hour from Aspen, at Sunlight Mountain in Glenwood Springs. This small resort, with a nice assortment of slopes and a cozy feel, charges an average of $45 for lift tickets.
Many families take advantage of Glenwood's Ski, Swim, Stay package — ski or ride at Sunlight Mountain Resort, swim at the historic Glenwood Hot Springs Pool, and stay in Glenwood Springs in a package deal that starts at $99 per person.
Kids 12 and under receive a free lift ticket with the purchase of an adult full-day lift ticket when you stay at one of the participating hotels (offer not valid during holiday season). And after skiing, what could be more blissful than an afternoon or evening soak in hot-springs pools?
Nordic, or cross-country, skiing is free in Aspen. The Aspen Cross Country Center is located on more than 60 kilometers of trails at the Aspen Golf Course, and in the center of the Aspen Snowmass Nordic Trail System.
Rental for downhill and cross-country ski equipment is a bargain at the Basalt Bike & Ski shop, a five-minute stroll from the Element Basalt. The shop charges $35 a day for a regular ski package, $50 for a demo package, while cross-country skiers will be set back just $20.
At the major Aspen ski areas, downhill rental packages are typically $50 and up; cross-country starts at $25. Best of all, Basalt Bike & Ski provides free ski concierge service to and from the Element. What a pleasure it was to have my skis handed to me upon leaving for the slopes, rather than dragging them to and from the car each day.
The very customer-service-oriented shop offers a wide range of road, mountain and hybrid bicycles depending on weather conditions.
When ski season ends, the region offers a variety of outdoor concerts and performances, many of them free, as well as biking on the Rio Grande Trail, fly-fishing (available for stalwart souls in the winter as well), golf, tennis and, always, free hiking and exploring.
The acclaimed Aspen Art Museum is always free (closed Mondays), while Anderson Ranch, an arts school with accommodations on site, has free lectures twice a week throughout the summer as well as other free public events.
The Aspen Institute, a world-famous think tank and research center, features free lectures monthly all summer, as well as $20 lectures more frequently.
Glenwood Springs, one of Colorado's pleasantly authentic mountain towns, welcomes visitors to its naturally heated mineral-water Hot Springs Pool, open since the late 1800s but expertly maintained and restored.
The main pool (a football field in length) is kept at a balmy 90-93 degrees, while the therapy pool is 104 degrees. An all-day pass is $15.75, and the pools are open 9 a.m.-10 p.m. daily, 7:30 a.m.-10 p.m. in summer. The on-premises Spa of the Rockies is a full-service spa with an extensive menu.
Glenwood Springs was named the Most Fun Small Town in America by Rand McNally and USA Today's 2011 Best of the Road Rally. A good part of that moniker has to do with the Glenwood Caverns and Historic Fairy Caves.
Opened last summer, Iron Mountain Hot Springs, set alongside the Colorado River, has 16 small, naturally shaped pools filled with thermal mineral waters. The views include the Colorado River as it winds through the valley, Iron Mountain, Red Mountain, the Flat Tops and the twin peaks of majestic Mount Sopris.
Done with outdoor activities? A lazy-day option might be a visit to one of the area's two microdistilleries, and both offer free tours upon request.
The eclectic, artsy town of Carbondale is home to the swanky, modernist, dog-friendly Marble Distilling Co., less than a year old. This friends-and-family-owned business is not only an on-site distillery, but a five-room inn as well (sleep above the stills!) with high-end rooms (averaging about $225 per night, higher during holidays) offering spectacular views of white-capped Mount Sopris.
The distillery's tasting room serves up cocktails made of its small-batch Marble Vodka (uniquely filtered by crushed white marble from the nearby quarry in Marble), Gingercello, Gingercello Reserve, Moonlight EXpresso coffee liqueur and, soon, whiskey in barrels. On a recent visit, we sat and sipped while an edgy fashion show was ending and a comedy show was about to begin.
The Marble Distillery is just steps from top-notch restaurants, a movie theater and the delightful True Nature Healing Arts, a holistic center encompassing an outdoor peace garden, a yoga studio, a spa, a retail boutique and a high-prana, living foods kitchen. A drop-in yoga class is $18; one-hour massages start at $108.
Woody Creek Distillers, in the town center of Basalt, hand-bottles and -crafts its products, and serves them up in a tasting room that attracts folks from Aspen and all over the valley. Woody Creek has won an impressive list of awards in its three-year existence. This state-of-the-art, farm-to-bottle distillery features the stellar Woody Creek vodka made from local potatoes, rye, gin and a reserve vodka.
While golfing in Aspen can be out of reach for the non-country-club set, there is the Ironbridge Golf Club. This 18-hole alpine semi-private course charges $59-$99 for daily fees to the public, including cart fees.
The exceptionally beautiful course is just west of Glenwood Springs and is open from April to October. For non-golfers, the Grill is open to the public and features reasonably priced dinner specials and a tasty a la carte Sunday brunch.
The Roaring Fork Valley is much more than the outskirts of Aspen — indeed, it is an ever-evolving destination of its own. But for those who want to see and experience the charms of Aspen, why not visit, enjoy, but save some big bucks and stay down-valley? Your wallet will thank you.
If you go
Direct flights from Boise Airport to Denver are offered on several airlines.
Hotels and activities
Element Basalt, 970-340-4040, www.elementbasaltaspen.com.
Marble Distillery Inn, 970-963-7008, www.marbledistilling.com.
Woody Creek Distillers, 970-279-5110, www.woodycreekdistillers.com.
True Nature Healing Arts, 970-963-9900, www.truenaturehealingarts.com.
Ironbridge Golf Club, 970-384-0630, www.ironbridgeclub.com/golf.
Glenwood Hot Springs, 800-537-7946, www.hotspringspool.com.
Iron Mountain Hot Springs, 970-945-4766, www.ironmountainhotsprings.com.
Basalt Bike & Ski, 970-927-3460, www.basaltbikeandski.com.
Roaring Fork Transit Authority, www.rfta.com.