Aspen Snowmass resort guide
Proud host to four huge mountains, Aspen is one of the world’s best ski resorts, offering a glorious snowy playground for all levels, and a lively town that welcomes everyone from seasonaires to millionaires.
Named after the silver trunked trees that abound in the area, Aspen is a historic town that dates back to the 19th century silver rush. More recently, thanks to easy access, quiet ski runs and great terrain, not to mention character and culture, Aspen has become renowned as both a great ski town and a magnet for the wealthy and famous. North America’s answer to Zermatt, Aspen offers great food, skiing and culture. While Aspen is a town first and a ski resort second, Snowmass offers total skiing convenience.
Facts and figures
Resort altitude 2422m (7945 feet) - Aspen
Highest point 3813m (12510 feet) - Snowmass
Vertical drop 1340m (4400 feet) - Snowmass
Ski areas Aspen, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk and Snowmass
Pistes 509km (all four areas)
Skiable area (acres) 5305 (3132 Snowmass, 1028 Highlands, 675 Aspen Ajax, 470 Buttermilk)
Lifts (all four areas)
Best for Couples and adult groups who are looking for varied skiing and vibrant nightlife will love Aspen. Families with younger children and less advanced skiers would enjoy Snowmass.
Skiing in Aspen Snowmass
Much of the skiing in Aspen Snowmass occurs among the aspens and evergreens. The snowfall record, while not quite as substantial as some other North American resorts, is still very impressive, especially by European standards. The absence of major cities nearby means that the mountain tends to be deserted outside the main vacation weeks.
The four separate ski areas are all accessed by the frequent and free bus – Aspen (Ajax mountain), Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk and Snowmass (which accounts for just over half the ski area). Guests can either stay in Aspen town or the resort of Snowmass, about a 15 minutes’ drive away. The skiing above Aspen itself is reasonably steep and challenging and while intermediates will manage it, only fairly strong skiers will do it justice. On the other side, Snowmass is a great alternative for those learning to ski, and is the best place to stay for those who want a quieter nightlife. Good skiers would be encouraged to get the bus around from time to time in order to get the most from the ski area.
Aspen Ajax is served by a central gondola which whisks you the 3267 feet to the summit in around 10 minutes. This and half a dozen chairlifts give you access to leg burningly long groomers or a range of more challenging diamond and double diamond black runs. Aspen Highlands, the locals’ favorite, offers similar terrain but is groomed less frequently. At the top you can take a cat ride before hiking the rest of the way to the top of the Highland bowl to get fresh tracks. This can leave you breathless although the view of Maroon Peak, one of Colorado’s “fourteeners” (peaks over 14,000 feet), gives you plenty of motivation; for advanced skiers this is definitely a must for your vacation.
For beginners, intermediates and families, we recommend staying in Snowmass. Snowmass may not have the history of Aspen but it is a paradise for anyone who enjoys groomed intermediate runs. There is also some more challenging terrain off the High Alpine and Sheer Bliss chairlifts. Moreover, the ski area is as big as the other three hills combined so there is plenty to keep you going without needing to take a bus.
For complete beginners or avid freestylers, Buttermilk, between Aspen and Snowmass offers two extremes - gentle green runs and enormous snowpark features and the half-pipe that star annually in the X-Games. There are also some great intermediate runs which are almost deserted as a result of Buttermilk’s “novice” reputation.
While getting between the different hills requires a little extra effort, the excellent bus service is free and our recommended rental shop has a free concierge service to deliver your skis to a different area each day so that you can collect and deposit them at the base of the slopes, so you really don’t have to worry about them at all.
The town of Aspen is laid out in a grid and features a wide selection of hotels, shops, restaurants and galleries. The vast majority of these are of a very high standard and best suited to those with a healthy budget. Ski in / ski out hotels are in the minority but most hotels offer efficient shuttles and ski lockers are available at the base of the gondola.
Aspen is a great place to party and you could easily find yourself rubbing shoulders with any number of Hollywood stars such as Michael Douglas or Johnny Depp. Lance Armstrong, Goldie Hawn and Jack Nicholson are also considered Aspen locals. Après-ski is focused around the Ajax Tavern, adjacent to the Little Nell and 39 Degrees, the bar of the Sky Hotel. There is a vast selection of restaurants and, with competition being so stiff, you are likely to eat well. Matsuhisa is renowned worldwide for its fine sushi, Steakhouse No 316 is a new restaurant gaining a great reputation for juicy prime steaks, and the Wild Fig offers Mediterranean cuisine in sophisticated surroundings. A little more down-to-earth, Jimmy’s Restaurant and Bar is usually busy with locals and boasts a range of tequilas, and surf and turf dishes! The J-Bar in the Hotel Jerome has played host to many a celebrity and Hunter S Thompson used to ride his horse into the bar. For entertainment, the Belly Up is a small venue which attracts blockbuster acts such as Snoop Dogg and the B-52s and also hosts some intimate gigs.
While Aspen has great nightlife, hedonism is only one dimension of the town. The town is increasingly environmentally aware with many of the hotels being LEED certified and the local community is very forward thinking as is apparent in the “Aspen Idea”, based on complete life being enriched in mind body and spirit. The Aspen Institute promotes value based leadership and aims to provide a forum for discussion and resolution of global human and social issues.
Snowmass is a purpose built resort offering ski in/ski out convenience that families will love. There is a range of eateries and the pedestrian friendly areas make wandering around the shops a pleasure. Snowmass is extremely well equipped for children. The Treehouse, a 2,322m2 children’s center at the base of the lifts, is the hub of Snowmass’ kids’ programs with separate interactive rooms for children of different ages. There’s the ‘Trout Haven’ for ages 18 months-3 years, the ‘Fox Den’ for 2-4 years or a ‘Bear Den’ for 3-4 years, amongst others. A ‘climb room’, check-in for ski school and family après activities are also all under the same roof.
Aspen Snowmass insider tips
Aspen Highlands is where the locals go. Expert skiers will love the Highland Bowl. Save it for the second half of your stay once you have acclimatised though.
Brunelleschi’s is the place to go for pizza. Eat in and be sure to book as there is always a crowd.
Gwyn’s High Alpine restaurant at Snowmass is a favorite – the blackened ahi (tuna) sashimi-style alone is worth the long journey to Colorado.
Aspen airport is only 10-15 minutes from Aspen or Snowmass (by bus or hotel shuttle). Served by short scheduled flights (and many private ones) from Denver and other cities several times per day, this tiny airport really takes the hassle out of the journey.
The Winter X Games takes place at Buttermilk in January. This is the “Blue Riband” even of winter sports and is nothing short of spectacular. Book early though.
Check out who is playing at the Belly Up before you travel (and buy tickets in advance). This tiny venue punches well above its weight, attracting big name acts.
Have a drink at the J-Bar at the Jerome. Steeped in Hollywood history, this is an iconic Aspen drinking venue.
Go for après-ski at 39 Degrees in the Sky Hotel and don’t forget to take your bikini or boardies and an open mind!
Enjoy lunch one day at Lynne Britt cabin, this is a small traditional cabin on the Snowmass mountain with a small Canadian menu and excellent, friendly staff.