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Affordable Aspen Vacations for Budget-Minded Travelers

Over an $8.50 pint of craft beer from Aspen Brewing Company, which is comparable to what I pay at home in Chicago, I realized that Aspen, Colo., is not expensive by big-city standards. It’s expensive by small-town standards.

The Economic Research Institute, which compiles financial data for public and private organizations, pegs the cost of living in Aspen at 51 percent higher than the average in the United States, a little less than a city like Seattle.

As a professionally penny-pinching traveler, I try to avoid paying urban prices in the mountains. In the summer in Aspen, apart from my weakness for microbrews, I didn’t have to.

For those who don’t care to shop for Prada or Gucci clothing, or don’t maintain elaborate second mansions here, Aspen’s essential appeal lies in the outdoors — mountains, wildlife, rivers — which, compared with winter, when you might need to rent ski equipment or pay for mountain access, is a steal. Hiking and city bus transportation are free. Cycling, if you can avoid expensive rentals, is a bargain. Parks beckon picnickers, and free cultural attractions abound.

Over the course of three days in Aspen, I spent about $600 before airfare, with most of that on lodging. Here’s how I cheaped out in a resort town synonymous with wealth.

An annual winter visitor to Aspen, I touched down in July, astonished at how dramatic the mountains looked without fluffy layers of snow to soften their jagged edges.

From the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport, nearly four miles from downtown, the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority buses are free to and around town, saving more than $20 on a taxi and delivering the moral satisfaction of speeding by bumper-to-bumper traffic in a bus-only lane.

Within 10 minutes, I reached town and walked a few blocks to my Main Street accommodations at the Tyrolean Lodge, a relatively affordable, family-run hotel decorated in vintage ski gear and backcountry photos that the local Aspen Times once called “a dying breed in Aspen.”

“There used to be small lodges all over Aspen owned by families and not corporations,” said Pierre Wille, the general manager, whose family has owned the Tyrolean since 1970.

Fifteen of its 16 rooms accommodate five people in three beds, and all have efficiency kitchens with free coffee to help guests economize on meals. I paid $267 a night including taxes and fees, which, for budget travelers, is expensive for one person, but a find for families and groups, potentially knocking the price down to $53 a night per person. By comparison, rates at the luxury Hotel Jerome were running $1,275 a night. Even the more modest Limelight Hotel Aspen was charging over $700 a night.

“We’re interested in keeping Aspen affordable,” Mr. Wille said. “A ski bum can still sort of make it.”

A summer bum, I was relieved to find the lodge offered free bikes. The fleet of eight hand-me-downs solidly beat the offerings at local shops, which mostly rent only electric bikes, charging $130 a day for e-bike rentals.

I pedaled my single-speed cruiser to the nearby Rio Grande Trail, which runs down the valley following the Roaring Fork River from Aspen 42 miles to Glenwood Springs. I breezed as far as Woody Creek, about eight miles, before turning around for the uphill return, consoling myself with extended wildflower-viewing time as other cyclists whizzed past on e-bikes.

As skiing is to winter, hiking is to summer. Several trails take off from town, and anyone who hikes up Aspen Mountain can take the gondola back down free.

Among the stars of the Elk Mountains that surround Aspen are the “14ers,” or 14,000-foot-plus peaks, including Maroon Peak and North Maroon Peak, collectively known as the Maroon Bells, about 10 miles west of town.

One look at the majestic pyramidal pair reflected in Maroon Lake at the base of the Maroon Bells Scenic Area explains why more than 300,000 visitors come here each year. To quell traffic between May and October, RFTA runs a bus ($16 by reservation) to the area from Aspen Highlands, one of the four ski mountains that make up Aspen Snowmass (a free RFTA bus travels between town and Aspen Highlands).

I booked the day’s first lightly trafficked shuttle at 7 a.m. on a chilly, bright morning and hit the trail to Crater Lake, 3.6 miles round-trip, for closer mountain views. Stands of aspen gave way to alpine meadows blooming with wild columbine and aspen sunflowers. The trail bisected one rock pile occupied by a family of pika, pudgy rabbit relatives who vocalized like squeaky toys.

By 9 a.m., as I descended back to the bus base, a steady stream of hikers were making their way up the trail with cellphone cameras pointed lakeside at a family of moose.

While the outdoors are free, the indoors — namely restaurants and bars — require strategy.

“With happy hours, you’re golden,” advised my famously thrifty brother-in-law Chuck Leavitt, who lives near Aspen, noting the happy-hour deals that many restaurants offer during off-peak hours.

There are few locations better than Ajax Tavern, with a sprawling outdoor patio at the foot of Aspen Mountain. Its happy-hour deals slash margaritas from a nosebleed $19 to a reasonable $8. But the signature truffle fries, undiscounted, cost $21, and food specials like arancini at $15 weren’t enough for dinner.

Besides limited menus, the problem with happy hours is adjusting to dining between the early-bird hours of 3 and 6 p.m., which I managed the next day at Mezzaluna. A veggie pizza ($14) from its happy-hour menu provided ample leftovers for breakfast.

Lunches, thankfully, were easier. A sizable slice of pepperoni pizza at New York Pizza set me back $6.25. Red Fox Frozen Yogurt offers self-serve by the ounce (75 cents) so I limited myself to a $2 cup. My friend Tess Weaver, a writer who lives in nearby Basalt, suggested we meet at the Big Wrap for lunch, where her chicken pesto and my chicken Caesar — both as generous as the business name implies — cost $11 each.

“Most of my dates with friends are hikes, bike rides or river activities,” she said, as we sat at a public table on shady Cooper Avenue and discussed spots to stage B.Y.O. après-sport picnics. “You meet people to do free things.”

One considerable trickle-down benefit to the largess for which Aspen is famed is that most of its major cultural attractions are free, including the Aspen Art Museum. A few blocks from the ski hill, I toured exhibitions by the Iranian artist Nairy Baghramian and paintings by the German artist Florian Krewer before reaching the tranquil Rooftop Café, where a pick-me-up cappuccino cost $4.

Aspen’s reputation as a cultural destination began after the Chicago businessman Walter Paepcke visited in the 1940s and envisioned the former mining town as a gathering place for artists, thinkers and leaders, an inspiration that would spawn the nonprofit Aspen Institute and the Aspen Music Festival and School. In 1946, he lured the artist and designer Herbert Bayer, who had studied and taught at the influential Bauhaus in Germany, to Aspen, where Bayer would design everything from Modernist homes to the Aspen leaf logo originally used by the local ski company.

Bayer’s prolific work in textiles, book graphics and more is the subject of the year-old Resnick Center for Herbert Bayer Studies (free). A six-minute bike ride from downtown, the museum borders the 40-acre Aspen Institute grounds, which Bayer also designed. After an hour in the museum, I spent another outside with a free online guide from the Aspen Meadows resort, seeking out marble sculptures, earthworks and a topographic mural by the artist.

Next door, in a giant tent, caterers were preparing for a concert from the Aspen Music Festival, an eight-week summer series devoted to classical music and opera (through Aug. 20). Headlining performances by the opera singer Renée Fleming and other stars start at $75, but the calendar is loaded with free events, often performed by some of the school’s more than 400 students (alumni include the violinist Joshua Bell and the composer Philip Glass).

That evening, I took a bus to the school’s leafy campus about two miles out of town to attend a String Showcase, a free one-hour concert by violin and cello students who performed a range of music, from the French Romantic composer Ernest Chausson to the contemporary Turkish composer Fazil Say.

“The free events are important parts of what we do,” said Laura E. Smith, the festival’s marketing and communications vice president, estimating that roughly 70 percent of its programming is free. “More than a ticket sale, it’s about heart and humans and enriching the world.”

In summer, when mountain roads are free of snow, Aspen is a great base for day trips in the region, including exploring the Continental Divide on 12,095-foot Independence Pass. Extremely fit bicyclists make the roughly 20-mile ascent southeast of Aspen — gaining over 4,000 feet in elevation — but far more drive the twisting, narrow route on a seasonal stretch of Highway 82 that follows the cascading Roaring Fork River.

I hitched a ride with my sister and brother-in-law, who live in nearby Carbondale. Slushy ice still covered a pond ringed in wildflowers on the pass. Working our way back down the road, we parked below the pass to hike to Linkins Lake, a steep 1.2-mile round-trip in the Hunter-Fryingpan Wilderness for a lakeside picnic, and later wandered around the mining ghost town of Independence. At the Grottos, we waded into the icy river at a tumbling section known as the Cascades. We broke out a D.I.Y. happy hour at Devil’s Punchbowl, entertained by jumpers from surrounding cliffs launching themselves into a river pool.

To replicate this day without freeloading, I would need to rent a car (Kayak lists them from $48 a day), pack a picnic (Grateful Deli’s ham, turkey, Cheddar and Swiss, $10.50) and stock up on beer (25-ounce cans of Bud Light were recently priced at two for $6 at City Market grocery in Aspen), a roughly $65 outlay, not including gas. Rocky Mountain high: priceless.

Follow New York Times Travel on Instagram and sign up for our weekly Travel Dispatch newsletter to get expert tips on traveling smarter and inspiration for your next vacation. Dreaming up a future getaway or just armchair traveling? Check out our 52 Places to Go in 2023.

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