The Inside Story Behind the Mysterious Shrines of Aspen Ski Slopes

A tribute to "The King" is just one of many Aspen-area shrines.
A tribute to "The King" is just one of many Aspen-area shrines. David Wood, Courtesy of AspenSnowmass
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No doubt you know when the sun warms your favorite Aspen ski run to the perfect temperature or where to find late-day powder stashes on local slopes. But the ski areas, like Aspen itself, offer plenty more than meets the eye—you just need to know where to look.

Especially when it comes to the unique shrines and memorials tucked in glades and secret spots on all four surrounding mountains. These aren’t your average memorial plaques and benches (though there are plenty of those, too): These are less formal, more impromptu tributes and testaments, some tongue-in-cheek, some serious, others with campy cache, all organic in design, and hidden, sometimes in plain sight, across more than 5,000 acres of terrain on Aspen’s ski areas.

Pictures included in the Marilyn Monroe shrine
Pictures included in the Marilyn Monroe shrine David Wood courtesy of AspenSnowmass

With more than 100 shrines dotting the landscape, locating the shrines of Aspen can be like a treasure hunt, as well as a fun way to spice up your ski runs and discover new-to-you terrain. The shrines themselves are as varied as you can imagine: The Hunter S. Thompson shrine includes pictures of the iconic journalist, a bottle of Chivas Regal Scotch whiskey, empty gun shells, and testaments to his hard-living ways. Ticket stubs, park signs, and photographs are some of the mementos you’ll discover at the shrine for Fenway Park.

The Marilyn Monroe tribute, meanwhile, has a bra and pearls, and you can usually spot a few pot leaves at the shrine to Jerry Garcia, believed to the one of the first shrines that popped up in Aspen (although local legend says it began as a tribute to Bob Marley).

Memorabilia at the Jerry Garcia shrine
Memorabilia at the Jerry Garcia shrine David Wood courtesy of AspenSnowmass

“It’s kind of neat for locals and tourists when they can find one or more shrines,” says David Wood, author of the closest thing to a guidebook on the topic,  Sanctuaries in the Snow: The Shrines and Memorials of Aspen/Snowmass . “But most people ski on by, never knowing they’re there.”

With no maps of where to find them, and nothing more than general directions in Wood’s book, the shrines are no small challenge to find. But that's part of the fun, too. Some are on popular runs, others in the furthest reaches of the ski areas. And, that seems to be the point: The underground nature of the shrines is part of their quirky allure. More often than not, the shrines were done anonymously, with the as a sort of and those lucky enough to stumble across them or put in the effort to find them. Or, of course, know someone kind enough to show the way.

“It's quite a mystery as to who put them in, started them, and when,” says Wood, who also says he's never seen anything to this extent on other ski mountains. “In the cases where I do know who started a shrine, most of the people want to remain anonymous.”

Memories of John Denver
Memories of John Denver David Wood courtesy of AspenSnowmass

On-mountain ski ambassadors can often set you in the right direction and arm you with clues to aid your quest. And, if you ski with an instructor or go join a guide for a free mountain tour (check at ticket offices for times), you might talk them into taking you to one or two. Otherwise, grab Wood’s book and expand your mountain knowledge.

As for Wood, one of his favorites is the 9/11 shrine on Aspen; he also likes the golf shrine on Snowmass.

"It’s sobering and thoughtful," he says of the 9/11 testament. "It’s also visible from lift 3. I think that was done on purpose. ... I like the Golf shrine because I like golf and because it has good historical images. There’s even a bag of clubs and bucket of range balls, so you can take a few shots. “

On a quest to find the hidden shrines of the Aspen Highlands
On a quest to find the hidden shrines of the Aspen Highlands michael.stockton

Whether the shrines are allowed by the Forest Service or Aspen Skiing Company is a bit murky. But, for the most part, they are left alone, although, according to Wood, if any get too trashy, “they just disappear with no explanation.”

So, if you're inspired to build one yourself, keep that in mind. Otherwise, enjoy the treasure hunt on Aspen slopes.

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