Aspen. Winter fun for skiers and nonskiers alike

ASPEN is a kaleidoscope of ever-changing vistas. Summer is lush with greenery, wildflowers - and athletes hiking, biking, playing tennis, riding horseback, and river-rafting. This is also the season when dance festivals and symphony, jazz, and operatic concerts by celebrated artists attract many visitors.

Fall shimmers with golden, quivering aspen leaves. This is the time for jeep tours into the high country to revel in autumn gold contrasted with unbelievably blue skies.

Winter is the most dazzling season of all. From Thanksgiving to early April, Aspen is a skier's paradise, offering a choice of four snow-covered mountains served by a multitude of lifts. There are steep, plunging slots for experts, hideaways with waist-deep fluff for powder hounds, mogul fields or manicured slopes for average skiers, easy tracks for beginners, and even separate kindergarten areas for tiny tots.

Cross-country skiers can stride along 40 miles of free, groomed trails. Hardy backpackers can arrange unlimited treks with overnight stops in a system of huts in the wilderness. At night, even the inexperienced can don skinny skis and hats equipped with miners' lamps to slide along an easy trail through the woods to Pine Creek Cookhouse in Ashcroft, where a delicious dinner is served.

Nonskiers need never have a dull moment in Aspen, either. Winter visitors can take an old-fashioned sleigh ride behind horses festooned with jingling bells. The sleighs carry passengers down streets where pastel-painted Victorian houses are embellished with gingerbread designs.

One can also go on an invigorating two-hour dog sled ride pulled by a team of 13 huskies, ride a snowmobile through Maroon Creek Valley, or visit the ghost towns of Ashcroft and Independence. Ice skating, guided snowshoe tours, and indoor tennis are also available.

Other entertainments include a tour of the historic Smuggler Mine, which in 1894 produced the largest silver nugget ever found - 2,060 pounds. A ride on the Silver Queen Gondola ($12 for adults, $8 for children under 12) lifts visitors to the top of Aspen Mountain (3,267 vertical feet in 13 minutes). There one can enjoy lunch on the sun deck while taking in the panoramic view of the Elk Mountain Range, or go even higher in a hot-air balloon for a bird's-eye view of unmatchable scenery.

Although free buses run frequently to all parts of town as well as to the ski slopes, Aspen is an ideal town for walking. There's a map in the free Aspen Flyer to use as a guide.

A good place to start your exploration is at the Wheeler Opera House, where tours are given. Then stroll through Aspen's three-block pedestrian mall, where you'll find enticing shops, art galleries, and tempting restaurants offering gastronomic delights ranging from tacos to elegant French cuisine.

It's best to allow at least an hour for the Aspen Art Museum, on the banks of the Roaring Fork River. Then, on Main Street, stop in the beautifully renovated Hotel Jerome, which was the town's social center during the silver boom days. Eventually you'll want to move on for a closer look at the stately Victorian homes on Bleecker Street, ending up, perhaps, at the Aspen Historical Society in a red brick mansion at 620 West Bleecker (open 1-4 p.m. daily).

The more than 100 restaurants here offer delightful diversity. And the Crystal Palace and Grand Finale dinner theaters serve up good food accompanied by sparkling revues performed by the talented waiters and waitresses. In addition to several cinemas showing the latest movies, there are repertory theater presentations and special events at the Wheeler Opera House. And the town's nightclubs feature jazz, country, and rock bands.

Prices in Aspen can be as awe-inspiring as the work of the local craftsmen and internationally known designers in ceramics, glass, metal, jewelry, and hand-painted fabrics displayed in stores here. Even gas and food are expensive. Old-timers make weekly excursions down-valley to Glenwood Springs to stock up on gas and groceries.

But ski costs are competitive. For the '87-88 ski season, a one-day lift ticket for Aspen Mountain costs $35 ($6 more than last year). Daily lift tickets for Buttermilk and Snowmass Mountains run $32. Children under 12 pay half price, and coupon books can help save, too. Those under 12 pay half price. Savings from $3 to $5 per day are possible by purchasing coupon books. Lift tickets at Highlands mountain have been kept to $30 per day, and they offer significant savings through their special family plan. All rates are lower from Nov. 26 to Dec. 18, Jan. 2 to 29, and April 2 to 10. Senior skiers, 70 or older, ski free at Buttermilk and Highlands all season.

If you go

Although some guests pay as much as $600 per night for one elegant bedroom, very good double rooms are available at prices ranging from $60 to $220 a night, with breakfast often included.

For more information, contact Aspen Central Reservations at 800-262-7736. Early reservations are recommended.

Most visitors fly to Denver or Grand Junction en route to Aspen. In December and January, Aspen Airport may be closed temporarily because of storms, and ground transportation is more dependable.

Beginning Dec. 17, United Airlines will offer a limited number of nonstop flights directly to Aspen from Chicago's Midway Airport; Dallas; Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Long Beach, Calif. (Rifle and Grand Junction will serve as alternative airports in bad weather.) For details, contact United at 800-241-6522.

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