Culture / Travel

An Insider’s Guide to Aspen — Mike Kaplan of Aspen Skiing Company on the Surprising Philosophical, Cultural, and Activist Dimensions of His Celebrated Hometown

Beloved Haunts and Under-the-Radar Treasures

BY As told to Catherine D. Anspon // 02.13.23

For nearly two decades, Aspen Skiing Company president and CEO Mike Kaplan has reigned as the man at the pinnacle of Aspen (he recently announced he will step down in the spring of 2023). His company is the town’s largest employer, which also owns the iconic Little Nell and sister hotels Limelight, as well as AspenX, which offers bespoke ski rental, fashion, and adventures. Beyond the glittering lifestyle before and après ski, Kaplan charts the surprising spiritual, cultural, philosophical, and activist dimensions of his celebrated hometown. This is his guide to the top of Aspen.


Takashi Murakami lift ticket, Aspen Skiing Company
Takashi Murakami lift ticket, Aspen Skiing Company.

Art In Unexpected Places

It really started with our Aspen Art Museum partnership. Heidi Zuckerman, who was the executive director at that time, came to us almost 20 years ago. She said, “You guys have these lift tickets, and you have the traditional pretty picture on them. I think it’s a canvas — let’s put art on there.” We’ve been doing that ever since. Most people get a lift ticket, barely look at it, put it on, and later put it in their pocket. But having art on that ticket sends this message: “Oh, I’m skiing, but I’m looking at art.”

And Aspen has always been about this concept of not only skiing but renewing the mind, body, and spirit, and engaging the soul and with — as post-war Aspen developer Walter Paepcke said — “the things that make us human and life worth living.” So hopefully through skiing, we bring that ethic and that vision to life. And it starts with the lift ticket.

aspen art museum at night
The Aspen Art Museum at night.

Aspen Art Museum

The design by architect Shigeru Ban should be on a bucket list. The architect said you’re to experience it like you do the ski mountain. So, climb all the way up the stairs to the top, and then come down. Because, first of all, the roof deck is phenomenal with breathtaking views.

aspen holidays at night
Aspen after dark during the holiday season.

Aspen Main Street

The streets are spectacular. There are no cars on a couple of them, and your kids can roam around, with a free bus everywhere. You jump on the bus and you go to Snowmass or to Buttermilk — it’s pretty awesome. So, walking around is a great thing to do. And we’ve got a ton of galleries now.

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Activism Aspen

Aspen Institute is a think tank, a place where people come to learn and share their best thinking. There’s a lecture series at Paepcke Auditorium, which is next to the music tent. I went last week to hear Reinhold Messner speak — one of the most accomplished climbers in the history of climbing, the first one to climb Everest without oxygen. There’s somebody like that every week.

Aspen Institute Festival
Aspen Ideas Festival

Big Ideas

Aspen Ideas Festival, usually the last week in June leading up to the Fourth of July, offers two weeks of the hottest topics for society today. It’s a bit like going back to college — and, of course, it’s Aspen. It’s beautiful, and the people walking around are generally curious and engaged and trying to understand what’s going on in the world these days and what they might do to help make it better.

Anderson Arts Ranch
Creating at Anderson Arts Ranch.

Be a Creator

Anderson Ranch Arts Center is cool because you can go there and find your inner artist. It’s a summer thing. Take classes in ceramics, painting, and all the different practices.

 Mike Kaplan aspen
Drinking and dining at Aspen Ski Company

Food Paradise

We’re pretty proud of our food scene. So, maybe food is art around here. Cache Cache is the longest standing, a French bistro. It’s sort of the quintessential Aspen dinner setting. We go to Ajax Tavern a lot. It’s part of Aspen Skiing Company, with the best burger and fries, a great deck, and a good sort of American tavern scene. Betula is modern American food, and Casa Tua is classic Italian.

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