Skip to main content
Advertising

Originally published Sunday, November 16, 2014 at 6:36 AM

  • Share:
             
  • Comments
  • Print

Search for the shrines if you ski at Aspen

More than 70 informal shrines are tucked into the trees on the slopes of the Aspen, Colo., ski resort. Find shrines dedicated to musicians — from John Denver to Stevie Ray Vaughan — beer and more


Cox Newspapers

If you go

Aspen

Lift tickets

Lift tickets start at $129 per day for adults (discount for multiple days) online in advance and are good at Aspen, Aspen Highlands, Snowmass and Buttermilk. aspensnowmass.com

Aspen shrines

David Wood’s book about the Aspen shrines, “Sanctuaries in the Snow,” is available by sending a $24 payment (shipping included) via PayPal to davidwoodlaw@aol.com. Include name and mailing address. Profits are donated to a local scholarship fund. Learn more about the shrines on Facebook at facebook.com/aspenshrines

Best fancy meal

Element 47 at the Little Nell, where dinner for two will set you back upward of $150.

Best value meal:

The Red Onion, the oldest saloon in town, where you can get burgers, French onion soup or a heaping plate of nachos for about $12.

Best bar:

The J Bar at the Hotel Jerome.

advertising

ASPEN, Colo. -- Stevie Ray Vaughan is hidden somewhere here on Ajax Mountain, and we’re on a mission to find him.

Finally, following directions scrawled onto a scrap of paper, we steer our skis toward a little hollow in a grove of trees. We dip into the hushed alcove and find a single laminated picture of the Texas blues guitarist tacked to the bark of a towering pine.

The Vaughan memorial is one of about 70 shrines that have popped up here in the past 30 years. Some are simple, just a few photos; others are elaborate, with signs and significant objects and, in the case of the Golf Shrine, a bucket of balls, a spare club or two, a “quiet” sign leftover from a tournament and a hidden bottle of whiskey.

The fun comes in finding them. They’re tucked out of sight, off the main ski runs, and some are hard to get to unless you’re an expert skier. There’s a shrine for just about everything, from the Kitty Cat shrine to the Buckaroo shrine, from the Beer shrine to one dedicated to a children’s toy called Pooper Troopers.

Some people know about the John Denver shrine, and we glide into the spot, where wind chimes tinkle and beads dangle from branches. You can practically see the folk singer, wearing a fringed jacket, peering at you through wire-framed glasses.

A fake Stoner Avenue street sign marks the entrance to the Jerry Garcia shrine, where a bouquet of fake red roses, drawings, photos and, sometimes, a few leaves of marijuana are tacked to the trees.

“There are a lot of people who have skied Aspen for years and have never seen one,” says David Wood, a mostly retired attorney who lives in Aspen and has written a book about the shrines. He’s the one who pointed us toward the Vaughan site, which has moved recently from an old miner’s cabin to its new home off Ruthie’s Run. “You can ski down and go right past one and not know it’s there.”

They’re impromptu. They pop up organically, and they’re made with love. And they feature an ever-changing array of memorabilia.

“You look on a map and can’t really find anything,” Wood says. “It’s an interesting phenomenon. The people here in Aspen have felt the need to go off and do this, and (the shrines) last.”

Aspen’s known for plenty besides the shrines, too: Challenging skiing, gorgeous scenery and, yes, excess.

Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson brought his brand of counterculture to town in the 1960s, Denver boosted its popularity after recording a pair of songs about it, and celebrities like Antonio Banderas, Meg Ryan, Jack Nicholson, Mariah Carey and Lance Armstrong have all called it home, at least part time.

Today it supports an upscale shopping district that includes Dior, Louis Vuitton, Prada and Gucci shops, and it’s easy to drop a couple hundred dollars on a meal in the town’s swanky restaurants.

One night, we stopped by the Little Nell, arguably Aspen’s most famous hotel for the rich and famous, and sneaked into the wine cellar, where master sommelier and wine director Carlton McCoy let us peek at the 18,000 bottles of wine stored there. The average customer spends $100 to $300 on a bottle at the hotel’s restaurant, Element 47, though one extravagant couple McCoy told us about recently ordered a $5,000 bottle of Burgundy — and followed it up with a $24,000 bottle.

Mining heritage

But the area’s history centers on mining, and that old-timey character lives on.

In the late 1870s, more than 500 miners lived in cabins and lean-tos actually on the mountain, making their commute to work short and sweet. Others lived in the town of Aspen far below.

During Prohibition, because they couldn’t drink and carouse as they chipped away for silver veins, they ordered up “milkshakes” secretly spiked with bourbon at the Hotel Jerome. Happily for us, the hotel and adjacent J Bar are still hopping today, and you can still order one of those special shakes, called Aspen Crud.

Even if you skip the drink (but why do that?), it’s worth stepping into the Jerome’s lobby, which once doubled as the town’s post office. It’s a splendid mix of luxury and Old West.

After the silver industry faded, the town struck gold with the launch of Aspen’s fledgling ski industry in the 1940s. Local historian Tom Egan toured us around the mountain, pointing out the site of the first ski lift — a single chair with a blanket for draping over your lap — and other highlights. Today, eight lifts, including a heated gondola, whisk skiers and boarders up the mountain, where they can choose from 76 routes down.

Aspen is just one of four ski resorts that operate in the area, and you can ride a free shuttle between all of them. Buttermilk, which caters to beginners, opened in the late 1950s, as did the Highlands, with its more challenging terrain. The sprawling resort of Snowmass began operations in 1967.

But Ajax Mountain at Aspen is an original, a stellar, compact 675 acres packed with glades, bumps and steeps where you can work out all the kinks that come with sitting at a desk all day.

About half the mountain’s runs are marked expert only. The good news if you’ve got skiers of lesser ability in your crew? They can pop over to Buttermilk while you tackle the steeps, and everyone can meet up and swap tales afterward.

Just be sure you tell them about the shrines you uncovered during your explorations.



Four weeks for 99 cents of unlimited digital access to The Seattle Times. Try it now!

Also in Travel & Outdoors

News where, when and how you want it

Email Icon

 Subscribe today!

Subscribe today!

99¢ for four weeks of unlimited digital access.

Advertising

Partner Video

Advertising

The Seattle Times photographs

Seattle space needle and mountains

Purchase The Seattle Times images


Advertising
The Seattle Times

The door is closed, but it's not locked.

Take a minute to subscribe and continue to enjoy The Seattle Times for as little as 99 cents a week.

Subscription options ►

Already a subscriber?

We've got good news for you. Unlimited seattletimes.com content access is included with most subscriptions.

Subscriber login ►
The Seattle Times

To keep reading, you need a subscription upgrade.

We hope you have enjoyed your complimentary access. For unlimited seattletimes.com access, please upgrade your digital subscription.

Call customer service at 1.800.542.0820 for assistance with your upgrade or questions about your subscriber status.

The Seattle Times

To keep reading, you need a subscription.

We hope you have enjoyed your complimentary access. Subscribe now for unlimited access!

Subscription options ►

Already a subscriber?

We've got good news for you. Unlimited seattletimes.com content access is included with most subscriptions.

Activate Subscriber Account ►