Aspen's big shoulder season

Traveling to Aspen during the off-season can provide a unique experience, as writer Andrea Sachs discovered when she visited the area.
By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 1, 2010; 1:39 PM

Aspen is decompressing, before it starts all over again.

During shoulder season, the siesta between the onslaughts of summer and winter sports enthusiasts, the Colorado mountain reclaims its natural self. For two months, the town slows down, the crowds thin out and the landscape displays a mashup of green grasses, golden aspen leaves and snow-white mountaintops.

"In the off-season, what I treasure is the stillness. It's not the hustle and bustle of the high seasons," said Paul MacFarlane, an Aspen resident who refers to this time as Jaywalk Season. "It's the big exhale."

Traveling during the off-season - typically mid-September to pre-Thanksgiving and again in late spring - opens up experiences that are rare during busier times. Beaches and mountain trails regain their personal space. Hotels and restaurants offer special rates and menus. On-street parking becomes available. Stores discount clothes. And locals, now out of the weeds, surface with smiles on their faces. (The potential downsides: iffy weather, reduced business hours and limited diversions.)

"Leisure travel has peaks and valleys," said Ike Anand, director of airline analytics at Expedia, "and there is a big valley between Sept. 15 and Nov. 15."

By definition, shoulder season is the transitional period between high and low times (or in anatomical terms: head, shoulder, arm). For instance, Bermuda and Nantucket - lovely in summer, less so in winter. But the term can also refer to the bridge that connects two popular seasons: For example, Colorado draws hikers, rafters and campers in the warm months, and skiers, snowboarders and snowmen in the wintertime. That leaves the gap weeks to fringe travelers.

"The prices are dropping all over, not just airlines but also hotels and packages," said AAA spokesman John Townsend. "This a great time to travel. The weather is not extreme, and you will have the place all to yourself."

If I wanted some alone time with the mountain, I had to go now.

The 10th Mountain Division Huts offer one of the more communal adventures in Colorado. For social and survivalist reasons, you must lose your fears of snoring among strangers and wearing long underwear in public.

The backcountry trail honors the U.S. Army soldiers who prepared for World War II battle in the Alps by training in the Rockies. Nearly 30 huts, many with youth-hostel-like arrangements, spring up along the Aspen-Vail-Leadville route, providing hikers and skiers with a nest for the night.

The huts book up fast during high season. Winter is already filling up, with many cabins hanging "no vacancy" signs, and summer reservations opened up on Friday. But three days before arriving in Colorado recently, I had little competition and more options than I could lay my head on.

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