Insider’s Guide: James Salter’s Aspen

The American literary icon was also a skier, rock climber, and fighter pilot—and for many years, the spirit of a bygone Aspen

The American writer James Salter (1925–2015) wrote his breakout novel, The Hunters, about his experience as a Korean War fighter pilot. Light Years paints a portrait of an unraveling marriage in the Hudson Valley, and his most acclaimed novel, 1967’s A Sport and a Pastime, is set in the French countryside. But it is Aspen, Colorado, where the New Jersey–born writer moved to with his family in 1968, that has become most synonymous with his name.

With the goal of escaping the New York publishing scene, by the mid-’70s Salter had bought and restored an old miner’s cabin in Aspen’s historic West End. He became a capable climber and an expert skier, and he and his second wife, Kay Eldredge, were known around town for their intimate dinner parties (chronicled in their delectable 2010 book Life Is Meals). “You had to be fairly interesting even to want to be there. It hadn’t been turned into a mega-destination,” Eldredge says of Aspen 50 years ago. “It was worldly in a different way.”

Though his adopted home was rarely a subject of his work, Salter created an enviable writer’s life for himself in the “queen of American ski towns,” as he once called it. Below, take a tour of some of the writer’s favorite haunts, which are still going strong. And as for that West End cabin? The one-of-a-kind three-bedroom is up for grabs on Airbnb.


In Salter’s time, the bar at the 19th-century Hotel Jerome was the social hub: “From the closing of the lifts until past midnight everyone was there or had been,” he wrote. Gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson, Aspen’s other famous writer, would come by to watch football and, depending on his mood, “throw food or drink at the screen.” J-Bar, as it’s been renamed, now has The Little Nell, The St. Regis, and other uber-fancy hangouts to compete with. But it’s a handsome space with history, and chef Rob Zack’s kitchen offers arguably the best burger in town. The expanded hotel’s latest opening is Bad Harriet, a sleek cocktail lounge in the basement of the converted printing house next door.


For a time during Salter’s era, Aspen had no fewer than five bookstores. Of those, only Explore Booksellers has survived. Salter was friends with its original owner, Katharine Thalberg, daughter of Hollywood producer Irving Thalberg, and considered her renovation of an old Victorian house “dazzling.” (She threw him a party there whenever he had a new book out.) Various wealthy Aspenites have kept Thalberg’s longstanding literary hub going since she died in 2006. Plus, the forward-looking vegetarian café that she built upstairs is now Pyramid Bistro, the best bet in town for lemongrass tofu, sweet potato gnocchi, and other gluten-free fare.


Though he didn’t learn the sport until well into adulthood, Salter was a bold and intrepid skier until his mid-80s; one of his most iconic magazine articles describes a hair-raising run in Kitzbühel with Austrian downhill champion Toni Sailer. The snow in Aspen, Salter wrote, “is wonderful, often so squeaky and cold that skiing on it is like gliding on velvet.” He loved Aspen Mountain’s tougher runs; the mere names of Corkscrew and Franklin Dump conjured “the icy feel of terror.” Especially on the busier mountain days, though, Salter craved the solitude and locals-only vibes of Aspen Highlands. He never rhapsodized about this section in his travel writing, possibly because he didn’t want to draw more people there. The Highlands remains an advanced skier’s paradise—more than one-third of the terrain is double-black—and even as lift access has improved, it still feels removed from the glitz and congestion of greater Aspen’s three other ski hubs.

Kay Eldredge and James Salter in 1976
Kay Eldredge and James Salter in 1976


“Anything 10 years old in Aspen is old. Anything 20 years old is a tradition,” Salter wrote. Restaurants tend to have a short shelf life, one reason that pretty much all his favorites have come and gone. One exception is the indomitable Red Onion, which dates to 1892 and might be the only establishment in Aspen that’s less tony now than when it opened. Regulars head there for reliable wings, fries, and tacos—brought to the table, in summer at least, by local high-school and college kids—and for the impressive whiskey selection. The menu has ventured beyond bar food lately, and last year more patio seating was added. Another holdover from Salter’s era is slightly out-of-the-way Pine Creek Cookhouse. An “alpine gourmet” menu has replaced the Hungarian food it used to serve: think chimichurri-slathered buffalo tenderloin, lemon-buttery rainbow trout, and elk-bratwurst sandwiches on toasted challah.


For cross-country skiing, Salter heartily recommended the area around the ghost town of Ashcroft, located a 12-mile drive up Castle Creek Valley from downtown. He and Eldredge liked to bring out-of-town guests there. The abandoned mining cabins are picturesque, and a nearby restaurant serves hearty post-workout lunches on a heated terrace. Gear rentals are available at Ashcroft Adventure Lodge—in summer, too, when the trails are great for hiking and biking.

Darrell Hartman is a freelance writer based in New York City. He is the editor and cofounder of the website Jungles in Paris.