One Perfect Day in Aspen, Colorado: Maroon Bells, Walking Tour, and Independence Pass

Aspen Colorado Travel Guide: Maroon Bells, Independence Pass, and More

Aspen, Colorado, is a beautiful city located high in the mountains of Colorado. It’s a four-season town that’s just as great in the summer as it is in the winter!

If you’re visiting Aspen for the first time, you might be looking for a quick and easy way to see the best of Aspen and the surrounding area.

With one day in Aspen, you can see the spectacular Maroon Bells mountain peaks, explore Aspen’s artistic downtown, ride the ski gondola to the top of Aspen Mountain, wander through the John Denver Sanctuary, and explore nature and historical sites along Independence Pass.

We (Matt & Cheryl) did this exact game plan on our second visit to Aspen, and we loved it! Keep on reading for the details.

About Aspen, Colorado

aerial shot of aspen colorado

Aspen, Colorado, nestled at the top of the Rocky Mountains, is a picturesque town with a vibrant atmosphere.

Aspen was once a mining town but, like many Colorado towns, transitioned to a ski town after World War II. This provides an interesting blend of historical and modern architecture to explore and enjoy.

Aspen offers many year-round activities. In the winter, skiers and snowboarders flock to its world-class resorts, where pristine slopes and breathtaking views await.

But Aspen is not just a winter wonderland. As the snow melts, the town transforms into a haven for hiking, mountain biking, fishing, and other outdoor adventures. The scenic trails, crystal-clear rivers, and expansive wilderness provide endless opportunities to connect with nature and embrace the serenity of the mountains.

Beyond its outdoor appeal, Aspen exudes a charming blend of history, culture, and arts. It offers Victorian-era architecture, museums and art galleries, music festivals and theater performances, and exquisite dining experiences.

Maroon Bells

maroon bells peaks

The number one attraction in Aspen in the summer is Maroon Bells, beautiful mountain peaks located in a pristine valley with lakes, wildflowers, and views of the Bells.

Maroon Bells is very popular, and there are some important things you need to know before you go. Here’s how to visit Maroon Bells.

Get a Reservation Online for Parking OR the Shuttle

aspen highlands visitor center
Aspen Highlands Visitor Center

You’ll need a reservation to visit Maroon Bells. They have two kinds of reservations: a parking reservation and a shuttle reservation.

Parking at Maroon Bells is extremely limited, so the parking reservations go quickly.

Therefore, plan on getting a shuttle reservation. If you obtain a shuttle reservation, you’ll need to pay to park at Aspen Highlands Resort (located on the same road as Maroon Bells, but about 20 minutes away). The shuttle departs from Aspen Highlands.

Alternatively, you can park in downtown Aspen for much cheaper and take a free bus to Aspen Highlands Resort.

The reservation system seems to change each year, so just make sure to check out the official Aspen Chamber website for the details and to obtain your reservations.

Understand the Maroon Bells Trail Options

Map of trails in Maroon Bells Valley

There are multiple trails leading around the Maroon Bells Valley, so it’s a good idea to understand your options before going.

Wheelchair-Accessible Viewpoints

People walking on trail to lake in maroon Bells valley

Once the shuttle drops you off, you’ll have a short 450-foot walk along a wheelchair-accessible trail to where you can see the valley. If all you do is sit at this overlook for 30 minutes, enjoying the views, you’ll have a great experience! But the paved trail continues to the lake below for about another 500 feet, where you can enjoy lakeside views of the valley.

Scenic Loop Trail

maroon bells with bridge in front

If you want to do a little more hiking, continue along the lake further into the valley on the Scenic Loop Trail, which is a 1.5-mile loop. This loop crosses two bridges, wraps around another small pond, and travels through aspen trees and wildflowers.

While this trail isn’t that difficult, there are sections along the trail where rocks jut out of the ground, making it more difficult for those who are not sure-footed.

Pro Tip: Dogs are NOT allowed on this trail.

Crater Lake Trail

For the more adventurous, connect to the Crater Lake Trail, which leads further into the valley to Crater Lake. This trail is extremely rocky and uneven, with steep sections. We have not done this trail yet; we skipped it again because we wanted to see more of Aspen.

Amenities at Maroon Bells

There is a small visitor center upon arrival, and ranger programs are offered at various times.

Restrooms and water are available at Maroon Bells.

Bringing Dogs

Dogs are allowed on most of the trails at Maroon Bells, but they must be leashed. However, they are NOT allowed on the Scenic Loop Trail due to other wildlife in the valley.

As always, make sure to clean up after your dog!

Is Maroon Bells Worth Visiting?

We’ve visited Maroon Bells twice, and we love it. However, the shuttle passes were $16 per person the last time we visited (2023), and they were extremely hot inside. They offer free wifi but no air conditioning – our kids kept saying they should have saved the money on the wifi so they could pay for A/C.

Parking at Aspen Highlands cost us $28. It was $7 per hour, and although we only visited Maroon Bells for two hours, we had to arrive quite early so we didn’t miss our shuttle, and our parking time spilled over into the fourth hour.

So with a family of six, we ended up paying $124 to visit Maroon Bells, which was quite a bit for essentially a one-mile hike in the mountains.

I would still recommend it to you – Maroon Bells is gorgeous (like a mini Glacier National Park). And if you can get a parking pass instead of a shuttle pass, it’s a no-brainer to visit this gorgeous valley. But if you’re irked by the cost, I’ll give you permission to skip Maroon Bells – you can still have a great time in Aspen and there’s plenty of gorgeous mountain scenery in Colorado to check out, including the free Grottos (see below).

A Walking Tour of Aspen, Colorado

The best way to explore Aspen, Colorado, is on foot! I’ve created my own walking tour of Aspen for you to use when you visit.

Paid Walking Tours

I love walking tours, and there are plenty of paid tour guides to choose from in Aspen. Here are a few places to look:

  • Aspen Historical Society. They offer a variety of tours around the town. Most are around $25 to $35.
  • Get Your Guide. There are a few walking tours of the town here, including the Ghost-Themed Tour (why are these always so popular? LOL).

Audio Tours

I’m always on the lookout for audio tours because they’re cheaper than regular tours. However, as of this writing, I couldn’t find any audio tours of the town. Maybe I’ll have to create my own. 🙂

My Free Walking Tour

Here’s the game plan I created and followed to get to some of the best historical buildings, see Downtown Aspen, and walk along the Roaring Fork River.

The whole walking tour is only about 1 mile and should take around an hour or more (including stops), with an optional side trip at the end.

Stop 1: Park at the Rio Grande Parking Lot

You won’t find any free parking in the expensive town of Aspen. You can find paid streetside parking or just grab a spot in the Rio Grande Parking Lot, where we’ll start our loop. The Rio Grande only charges about $2 per hour.

You can do this loop in either direction, but we went straight into town first.

Stop 2: Hotel Jerome

hotel jerome exterior

Hotel Jerome is known as the “Crown Jewel of Aspen.” It is a historic landmark in Aspen, Colorado, and an iconic destination. Originally built in 1889 during the town’s silver mining boom, the hotel has been meticulously restored while retaining its rich heritage.

lounge at the hotel jerome

The Hotel Jerome was constructed by Jerome Wheeler, an early investor in Aspen who built several important buildings in town.

Today, it will cost you between $1500-$8000 per night to stay at the Hotel Jerome!

But you don’t need to stay there to enjoy a slice of the rich life. Walk into the hotel to check out its fancy lobby, adorned with antique furnishings, stuffed animals, rich woodwork, and a welcoming fireplace.

chocolate pastry

The hotel has several upscale dining options ($$$$), but we enjoyed going into the Felix Roasting Co., just a quick right-hand turn after entering the lobby. It had some of the most delicious pastries we’ve ever had, including this insanely delicious chocolate pistachio pastry.

For a more eclectic experience, try stopping by Carl’s Pharmacy, which is on the same block as the Hotel Jerome, just down Main Street.

Stop 3: Wheeler Opera House

wheeler opera house
By Daniel Case – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The Wheeler Opera House, a treasured landmark in Aspen, Colorado, is a cultural gem that has played a significant role in the town’s history since its construction in 1889. This building was also constructed by Jerome Wheeler.

The Wheeler Opera House has hosted a wide range of performances, including live theater, musical concerts, comedy shows, film screenings, and more. The venue’s historic charm is evident as soon as you step through its doors, with its beautifully restored ornate decorations.

There are a few businesses located inside this historic building, including the Aspen Public House restaurant on the corner. To get into the theater, you need to walk past the restaurant onto Hyman Avenue.

The Opera House’s hours and showtimes vary. Be aware that they offer free tours of the theater occasionally. See the Wheeler Opera House website.

Stop 4: Splash Pad & Hyman Avenue

public area with people sitting on benches

If you have kids, here’s a chance to let them play in the splash pad, which is kitty-corner to the Wheeler Opera House. This general area is a pedestrian-only area and is often used for street art and gatherings.

This walking tour takes you down pedestrian-only Hyman Avenue, where there are benches underneath trees where you can sip a drink or eat a treat while taking a break and enjoying the Aspen scene.

Stop 5: Galena Street & More

Head south on Galena Street. This entire district is full of shops, restaurants, and art galleries.

As you head towards the Silver Queen Gondola, don’t feel you must stay on Galena Street. Just explore to your heart’s content! Most of this area is closed off to vehicles, and Wagner Park is also nearby, which might be a nice little detour.

Stop 6: Silver Queen Gondola

gondola rising over the city
By Rhododendrites – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

The Silver Queen Gondola is a ski lift that departs right from town, whisking you to the top of Aspen Mountain.

In the summer, the gondola costs about $35 per person (kids 6 & under are free).

At the top, you’ll have many activities to enjoy:

  • Views of the Roaring Fork Valley
  • The world’s highest official disc golf course
  • yoga
  • kids’ activities
  • Sunday Bluegrass Concerts
  • Bike or hike among the mountain wildflowers
  • Eat lunch with spectacular views at the Sundeck.

For more information about the Gondola and the activities you can do, see the Aspen Chamber website.

Pro Tip: Many Colorado mountain towns have their own ski lifts or gondolas. If you’re visiting several Colorado towns on a road trip (for example, Glenwood Springs, Vail, or Breckenridge), we suggest choosing one or maybe two gondola rides. Do a little research to find out which one is best for you.

Stop 7: Aspen Art Museum (Free)

aspen art museum display

Now make your way to the Aspen Art Museum. This unique building offers 4 floors of free art exhibits.

This is abstract art, which isn’t for everyone (including us). We really didn’t understand much of what we were looking at.

But hey, it is FREE, and it might generate some discussion among your travel group, or at least give you a little peek inside the uber-wealthy world of Aspen.

You can also visit the rooftop, where you’ll find good views of Aspen as well as the Rooftop Cafe. Here you can relax on some outside couches — if you are able to feel comfortable in such an upscale environment. 🙂

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Stop 8: Herron Park

river and park area

Now make your way across Main Street and over the river to Herron Park.

This is a delightful little park where you’ll find a playground for the kids, a small beach to play in the river, an open grass area for the dog, and some benches to sit by the river.

We really enjoyed putting our feet in the water and watching our kids play in the river.

Stop 9: Rio Grande River Trail

From the park, continue on the walking trail over the bridge. It will follow along the Roaring Fork River, where you’ll see some beautiful parks and homes on the way.

Stop 10: John Denver Sanctuary

john denver sanctuary trees and river

On the Rio Grande Trail, you’ll see a sign indicating the John Denver Sanctuary, which is on your right. Turn on the path, and meander through the sanctuary. It’s small and you can’t get lost, but if you’d like, take a picture of the sanctuary map before entering.

The John Denver Sanctuary is a lovely tribute to the beloved singer-songwriter, John Denver, who lived in Aspen and was killed in a plane crash in 1997. Upon his death, the city decided to create this sanctuary to honor his legacy.

The sanctuary features winding paths, tranquil gardens, and large boulders inscribed with Denver’s lyrics and quotes. As you explore the sanctuary, you’ll be serenaded by the gentle flow of the Roaring Fork River, enhancing the peaceful ambiance. It’s a place for reflection, where fans of John Denver and nature lovers alike can find solace and inspiration.

Stop 11: Aspen Chamber Visitor Center

With time and interest, you can continue across the bridge to the visitor center, where you can ask them any questions you might have, and obtain pamphlets and maps that might help you in your travels.

When you’re finished, you can head back to the Rio Grande Parking lot!

Optional Side Trip

Map showing directions to Wheeler/Stallard Museum

If you’re up for more walking or even a nice little drive, take a side trip to the Wheeler/Stallard Museum.

This will add about a mile of walking to get there and back, but it will take you through the Victorian West Side of Town, where you’ll find beautiful homes and meticulously-maintained yards.

The Wheeler/Stallard Museum was Jerome Wheeler’s home. You already saw the two hotels that are named after him, now you can see his charming home if you’d like.

We just drove through this area, exploring the cute neighborhood before heading to the Grottos.

Grottos Trail & Picnic Site

couple in front of cascade

Finally, drive about 20 minutes south of Aspen on Hwy 82 to the Grottos Trail and Picnic Site. The drive provides terrific scenery en route to some interesting caves and cascades to explore.

At the Grottos, you can go left before crossing the bridge to a wonderful view of the Roaring Fork River as it cascades down the rocks. There is a picnic table here – perhaps the best picnic spot we’ve ever seen!

But crossing over the bridge will provide you with a closer view of the river, as well as the grotto ice caves that you can climb in to explore. The entire trail is maybe half a mile, with a few steep sections. It is not wheelchair accessible.

Pro Tip: we visited this in June and there was too much snow in the ice caves for us to explore them. In general, visiting Colorado from July through September when the snow has had time to melt provides the best experience.

Independence Pass

independence pass aspen

If you’re up for more driving, continue south on Hwy 82. This road is called the Top of the Rockies Scenic Byway. It’s also known as Independence Pass, though technically the pass is at the top of this drive.

From Aspen, it’s 45 minutes to get to Independence Pass, the summit of the road. From there, you can return to Aspen or continue driving another 30 minutes into Twin Lakes, and another 15 minutes into Leadville, the highest city in the United States.

pathway at top of independence pass

This drive will take you through a picturesque valley before ascending on a long incline that is quite similar to the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park.

At the top, you’ll be over 12,000 feet above sea level. This is above the tree line – you’re in the land of Tundra way up here! There are some viewpoints and a short trail at the top of the road.

Independence Ghost Town

independence ghost town

On the way up the road, you’ll see a ghost town called Independence Ghost Town. Stop at the roadside pull out, and take a short walk among the buildings in this gorgeous section of the valley. There is also a picnic table next to the river here – another incredible place for a picnic.

Even if you’re not into ghost towns, the views of the valley alone are worth the short walk.



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