Aspen 411

34 Questions You've Always Wanted to Ask About Aspen

Including everything you're too embarrassed to bring up and what locals hear the most.

By Amanda Rae February 18, 2017 Published in the Midwinter/Spring 2017 issue of Aspen Sojourner

1. Why doesn’t Aspen look like it does in Dumb and Dumber?

Blame the Farrelly brothers for this cinematic sleight of hand. No part of the quotable 1994 comedy starring Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels was filmed in “a little place called Aspen.” Instead, Breckenridge and Park City were used as stand-ins for our downtown. Other Colorado locations: the historic Stanley Hotel in Estes Park (the inspiration for Stephen King’s The Shining) became the posh “Danbury Hotel,” and Mary Swanson’s ski date/snowball fight with Harry (Daniels) was shot at Copper Mountain.

2. Is it true that Little Nell was a prostitute from Aspen’s mining era?

Contrary to popular belief, the Aspen Mountain mining claim that lends its name to the luxury hotel at its base today was inspired by a main character in Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop, says Aspen Historical Society archivist Anna Scott. “Many of the claims were laid before we even had a group of women who played that role here,” she adds.

3. Why is town's oldest operating restaurant (established in 1892) named after an onion?

According to Aspen Historical Society records, when Johnny Litchfield purchased the restaurant—originally known as the Brick Saloon and then as Tim Kelleher’s Saloon Lunches and Beer, Wines—in 1946, he renamed it the Red Onion. Though original blueprints indicate that Litchfield intended to call it the Silver Queen, a visitor’s remark about its certain charm changed his mind—in those days a “red onion” was slang for something quirky or unusual.

4. Must I take this shot?

Yep. And, according to local legend, those who dare decline a shotski will be cursed by Ullr.

5. What do you have to do to get arrested around here?

It’s a valid inquiry—given the town’s tradition of community policing, Aspenites have long regarded local police as trustworthy peace officers more than uber-vigilant enforcers. “We lean toward education and use enforcement when necessary,” says Aspen Police Department Sergeant Rick Magnuson, a 20-year department veteran. “We try to be compassionate and understanding if someone’s having a bad day.” That said, public safety threats—DUI, domestic violence, bar fights—and felony offenses (“phishing schemes, semi-sophisticated financial crimes”) are met without tolerance. “If you’re endangering the public, we have zero discretion,” Magnuson explains. “But if someone steals your bike, we don’t always make an arrest. Sometimes you just want your bike back.” And for a surefire way to get arrested, see question #28.

6. When will it snow?

“It’s coming … gonna snow like crazy in February, March, April, right through May. Snow’s coming tomorrow night, and there are two or three storms next week.”—Ryan Boudreau, cofounder of, which recently launched a mobile app for iPhone and Android

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7. Where can I get a bite to eat after 2 a.m.?

If New York Pizza isn’t still slingin’ slices—it’s worth checking, on peak winter weekends, especially—the last frontier is Local’s Corner (the convenience store at the Shell gas station on Main Street), open 24-7.

8. Where do all the dogs go at night?

For as dog-friendly a town as Aspen is, housing is notoriously pet prohibitive, making it a mystery to some as to where all those cute golden retrievers, Bernese mountain dogs, and doodles actually live. Yet Aspen Animal Shelter founder and director Seth Sachson—who lived in his car for four months in 1992 when he failed to secure a rental that allowed dogs—believes Aspen’s perceived lack of pet-friendly housing is exaggerated. “There’s plenty of housing for dogs,” he says.

Aspen Pitkin County Housing Authority (APCHA) Deputy Director Cindy Christensen admits that the availability of APCHA’s 3,000-some deed-restricted employee units may seem scarce for humans, while clarifying that the agency doesn’t set the rules regarding pet ownership at any of those properties. “We enforce no-pet regulations for the 357 properties we manage at Truscott [with the exception of a few pet-friendly buildings], Aspen Country Inn, Smuggler, and Marolt,” she adds. “If someone wants an animal badly enough, they’ll get approval” for a service- or comfort-animal exemption. Ultimately, notes Sachson, it’s up to developers to modify outdated rules based on demand. “We’re a vocal community,” he says. “We write letters to the editor. We speak up.”

9. Prada, Gucci, Louis Vuitton … Aspen retail is way out of my budget! Aside from Carl’s Pharmacy, where do locals shop?

The Thrift Shop of Aspen, which hawks everything from brand-new designer duds to gently used kitchenware to holiday décor on the cheap—not to mention the vintage onesies that locals don for ski area closing-day parties. Call it feel-good spending: founded in 1949, the nonprofit donates about $600,000 annually to more than 200 Roaring Fork Valley organizations and student scholarships. Sorting through literal mountains of donations is no small feat. “It takes an army—9 to 10 ladies per day,” says Carolyn Moore, who has volunteered in the shop every other Thursday for 44 years. She’s seen it all—wedding dresses and wooden airplane propellers included.

10. Who's suing whom?

“They’re CEOs and captains of industry. Here, you’re dealing with them on personal stuff [like] two square feet [of property] or a fence line.” —David Kelly, construction/real estate litigation attorney

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 11. Do private jets take priority over commercial flights at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport (a.k.a. Sardy Field)?

“There is no substantiation whatsoever to the rumor and, to our knowledge, never has been,” says Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Allen Kenitzer. “It’s an urban legend that just won’t die.” Furthermore, “Aspen’s ratio of business/private aircraft to scheduled commercial traffic during the winter ski season is about five-to-one. All aircraft, regardless of type or classification, are handled on a first-come, first-served basis by the FAA Air Traffic Control System. Likewise, all aircraft share equitably in the distribution of delays.” Surrounded by mountainous terrain with an approximate field elevation of 8,000 feet, the single-runway, opposite-direction airport is “one of the most unique airport operations in the entire US,” Kenitzer adds. 

12. SOS! How do I get out of here if my flight is canceled?

First, relax—then consider options. Try to rebook a flight out of Eagle or Grand Junction airports, about an hour-and-a-half and a two-hour drive, respectively, in clear weather. Rent a car at the Aspen airport or hire a shuttle service to get there—of about two dozen providers, at least three have large fleets. Alternatively, make the four-hour drive to Denver. Single-day economy car rentals begin at about $179 with a one-way drop-off; a private driver could top $500 (round-trip payment required). Uber will run $250 to $350 and up—but only a couple of drivers may be available at any given time. Amtrak stops in Glenwood Springs and runs to Denver’s Union Station ($85 one way; 6.5 hours), where you can catch a light-rail train to Denver International Airport. As a last resort, hitch a ride with a local or hang out here until flights are rescheduled—there are worse places than Aspen to be stranded, after all.

13. Where did I lose my keys, wallet, sunglasses, or bicycle?

After retracing your steps, head to the Aspen police station (506 E. Main St., below the courthouse). If your property isn’t in the office’s lost-and-found box by now, just wait longer. Hundreds of items end up here every year, including an impressive collection of vehicle key fobs and sunglasses. But hurry—unclaimed items make finders into keepers after 60 days.

14. Where’s the party (wink, wink)?

“Go hang out in the bathroom of a nightclub—two guys coming out of a stall together are not helping each other wipe.”—Andy McInally, bartender, 39 Degrees Lounge at Sky Hotel

15. Is Snowmass worth the journey?

Absolutely, despite the fact that many Aspenites are loath to travel past the roundabout for a day of skiing—they don’t know what they’re missing. Not only does Snowmass boast more terrain—96 trails serviced by 20 lifts on 3,332 skiable acres—than Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, and Buttermilk combined, but Colorado’s second-largest ski area offers some of the most lift-served vertical (4,406 feet) in the country. Best of all, you’d never know it by looking at (the lack of) lift lines. “There are only two people per acre on Snowmass—it’s so uncrowded,” claims Snowmass Tourism Marketing Director Virginia McNellis.

Whether you enjoy wide-open groomers, tree skiing, cliff jumps, or multiple terrain parks and pipes, Snowmass is your Graceland. That variety extends to dining, too, with 37 restaurants, including eight on-mountain (bonus: the majority offer children’s menus). In addition to ski and snowboard classes, the Treehouse Kids Adventure Center offers at least two après activities per day, many of them free. And if shuttling back and forth to Aspen via free buses seems like too much of a slog, book a room—95 percent of Snowmass lodging is slopeside.

16. Do those altitude pills at the register really work?

Possibly. “Over-the-counter altitude medications generally contain NSAIDs [nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs], often combined with caffeine, and there is research showing effectiveness against acute mountain sickness [AMS],” says Scott Gallagher, an Aspen Valley Hospital ER doc and resident expert on altitude issues. “In my opinion, they work only for the most mild AMS symptoms,” which may include nausea, headache, shortness of breath, insomnia, and fatigue. Hydration and rest are the best means to recovery. Whatever you do, Gallagher says, “steer clear of over-the-counter oxygen canisters that offer very temporary exposure”—they’re cheap substitutes for more effective oxygen concentrator machines.

17. Will Base Village ever be finished?

At long last, it appears so. Aspen Skiing Company, KSL Capital Partners, and East West Partners assumed ownership from developer Related at the end of 2016 and progress is in sight. Spring construction plans—stalled since the Viceroy Snowmass was completed circa 2008—include a new pedestrian plaza, groundbreaking for another Limelight Hotel, and a community facility building at the Base Village entrance on Wood Road that might house an Ice Age museum. Want to know the latest? Ask the guys at the Snowmass Conoco—they’ve got front-row seats to the action.

18. Why does it seem like nobody knows how to cross the street?

It seems to happen every year—straight-and-narrow-seeming folks come to Aspen and walk willy-nilly through the downtown core, as if they’re in Disneyland and not subject to traditional rules of the road. Yet the bellmen at the Hotel Jerome, who stand guard on Main Street and see the most egregious examples of pedestrian entitlement, are quick to surmise that the worst offenders—surprise!—aren’t tourists. One explanation: urban protocol is easy to ignore in a remote mountain town, where consequences are lower. Nonetheless, skittish drivers would do well to slow down (or hop on the bus), while walkers should keep a brisk pace, use crosswalk signals, and attempt to make eye contact with lead-footed SUV pilots. As for Aspen motorists … that’s another question.

19. You don't have anything* do you?

*Might pertain to: drugs, disease, spouse, kids, a restraining order, gripes about “the good old days,” or something else entirely. Proceed with caution. — Asked often of many locals, especially late-night in bars and clubs

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20. Where do I smoke this joint I just bought?

What—you’ve never heard of edibles? OK, OK, we understand: options are few. Public spaces (hotels, rental properties, parks, trails, streets) are all off-limits regarding cannabis consumption for the foreseeable future. Either befriend a local who’s down to host a toke session, find a shady balcony, or venture deep into the woods and hope to not get caught. Be cool and be discreet.

21. Do I have to ask to light up in the gondola?

Of course not—go ahead and flaunt bad manners if that’s your style. However, you are required by Colorado law to offer your cabinmates a hit when you spark it.

22. Can I take the gondola to the Maroon Bells?

“Stop at Highlands first to see if it’s running.”—Ryan Sterling, bartender, J-Bar at the Hotel Jerome

23. What’s the tip on a $1,000 bottle of wine?

If you have to ask … maybe you should stick to beer. Seriously, though, 18 to 20 percent is standard. “There’s no law that requires you must tip,” says Carlton McCoy, a master sommelier and wine director at The Little Nell. “That said, if you feel that both your server and your wine team have offered exceptional service, it’s appropriate to stick with this percentage range to show your appreciation.”

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24. Is it true that Cloud Nine Alpine Bistro boasts the world’s largest Veuve Clicquot account?

In case you haven’t heard, Aspen Highlands’ mid-mountain eatery has recently gained notoriety for its raucous party vibe, where Champagne is sprayed in amounts to rival a baseball locker room. “It is the largest account in North America; it’s not uncommon to go through [double-digit] cases in a day,” says General Manager Tommy Tollesson. If you’d rather not act like a mom gone wild or leave drenched in Cloud Nine’s official “entry-level Champagne,” Tollesson adds, reserve a table for the first lunch seating at noon (or sit in the renovated side room, a dedicated geyser-free zone). “There’s still loud music and people dancing [on chairs] but no Champagne spray. People need to remember we are, first and foremost, a restaurant.”

25. Where can I see celebrities?

If you’re the kind of person who would ask, then surely you don’t mind forking over a C-note for an unofficial Aspen Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous tour? (Taxi drivers and real estate agents make the best guides—ask around.) Otherwise, troll obvious joints—hotel restaurants; Carl’s Pharmacy; Pine Creek Cookhouse or Woody Creek Tavern at lunch; the Aspen Institute during Aspen Ideas Festival; the Caribou Club or Aspen Mountain Club, if you’re allowed in—or consult all-knowing Terry Butler at the Residence Hotel. On the slopes, you’re most apt to see a celeb at gentle Buttermilk. But unless you spy an athlete during X Games or the upcoming World Cup Finals, no selfie requests. Stars are Aspen people, too!

26. Why does the fist in Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo logo have two thumbs?

Two words: freak power. “The two thumbs were symbolic of being a freak, being different; the peyote button for power,” says DJ Watkins, author of Freak Power: Hunter S. Thompson’s Campaign for Sheriff (Meat Process Press, 2015). Artist Tom Benton designed the logo for Thompson’s legendary 1970 electoral run. Later on, Taos, New Mexico–based artist Paul Pascarella adapted the symbol to include the word “gonzo” and the sword below it.

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27. What’s the deal with all the seafood-centric restaurants in the middle of the Rockies?

Secluded in the mountains and starved for the beach, Aspenites adore fruits of the sea. That’s why you’ll find no fewer than four sushi restaurants and multiple spots serving sashimi-grade fish and showcasing raw bars. Expanded overnight delivery in the past few years makes sourcing fresh catch a breeze, explains Alton Peacock of Florida-based supplier Wild Fish Direct.

28. What will happen if I try to climb the Aspen Art Museum?

Tempting as it may be to scale the wooden latticework that wraps the building, you’ll be arrested, no questions asked—as 14 wannabe ascenders (as of press time) have learned since the museum opened in August 2014. “It has a very sophisticated video system monitored 24-7,” says the police department’s Rick Magnuson. “The museum always presses charges, and we have a high success rate of catching people—whether you go up one step or 27.” Take it from Snowmass Village resident Drew Barnes, busted on November 8, 2016: “[I was caught in] a matter of minutes,” he laments. Typical punishment for first-time offenders is a $150 fine and a varying amount of community service.

29. Where can I find powder stashes after 2 p.m.?

Perhaps no one knows the ski areas better than the mountain manager at each one, and that includes where to head for late-day freshies. “At Snowmass, you can always count on getting fresh turns over in Burnt Mountain Glades,” says Steve Sewell. On Aspen Mountain, Peter King recommends exploring areas on the lower mountain like Corkscrew, Corkscrew Gully, Super 8, and Norway, as well as lower sections on the Face of Bell, past the last access point for the FIS lift. Buttermilk is a guaranteed sleeper on a powder day, especially the Tiehack side. “After 2 p.m., you can still find powder in the trees in Timber Doodle Glades,” says Susan Cross. And at Aspen Highlands, take Kevin Hagerty’s advice and ride the Thunderbowl chair to Bob’s Glades and Upper Stein, as well as runs off the P-Chutes Road. “You can usually find spots with snow between No Name and Olympic Bowl,” he adds, “as well as stashes up in the G-Zones.”

30. How do I snag a reservation at [insert name of popular restaurant] during peak season?

“Everyone wants to eat at the same five restaurants in the same 10 days between 7:30 and 8 p.m. We try really hard to get a reservation, but I always ask for windows—what’s the earliest you’ll go? The latest?"—Denise England, concierge, Aspen Square Hotel

31. What’s really going to happen if I duck the rope at the resort?

Chances are … chances. At best, you’ll enjoy a pristine, serene backcountry experience and not get caught in an avalanche—Aspen/Snowmass has an open-boundary policy, after all. The catch: Skiers cannot re-enter the mountain through a closed area, so you’re on your own to find your way home. Get busted sneaking beneath a rope within the mountain boundary—say, if Snowmass’s Hanging Valley Wall is closed for avvy control—and expect to have your pass pulled for a period of time determined by a ski patroller or mountain manager based on the severity/danger of the transgression. At worst, you won’t need to worry about lift ticket prices ever again….

32. Will that bear really eat me? Will it break into my car?

The bear most likely won’t eat you—but it will trash your car if it thinks you have so much as a granola bar in the glovebox. Bears are adept at tearing open windows, trash bins, and sliding doors, as evidenced by many of the 204 bear-related incidents reported to the Aspen Police Department through October 2016. This figure pales in comparison to the record-setting 1,040 bear incidents in 2012, when woodland food was scarce. Come face-to-face with a predatory mountain lion, however—area anecdotes suggest a slight uptick in sightings—and you might be a goner.

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33. Does anyone ever look at that GoPro footage, really?

“The problem with GoPros is that consumers or videographers use them as their only camera source,” says Spencer McKnight, cofounder of Aspen 82, a video-production house and TV station. “How long does someone want to see a shaky camera angle skiing powder or mountain biking?” He suggests using a GoPro for select shots: big air or a badass powder turn. “The longer a video, the shorter the attention span,” he says. “Nothing beats a camera on a tripod operated by someone who knows how to use it.”

34. Are there really no friends on a powder day?

No, there aren’t—until you bump into them in the lift line. 


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