Expert guide to Aspen
America’s A-list resort
With it’s famously challenging runs, glamorous, cultured town and celebrity visitors, there may only be one Aspen. But in fact the Colorado resort has four separate ski areas known jointly as Aspen Snowmass, all linked by a free shuttle bus service.
The old silver mining town of Aspen itself is at the foot of Aspen Mountain (also known as Ajax). Five kilometres to the west is Aspen Highlands, almost immediately followed by Buttermilk, the only one of the four mountains without a significant base village. Snowmass, bigger than the other three put together, is a further 16km or so to the west.
Inside the resort . . .
Originally a Victorian mining town, Aspen has many older buildings and accommodation is within a short walk or a free shuttle ride to the town centre and lifts.
During the 1880s the resort enjoyed a brief silver-mining boom and then, after decades of neglect, its historic core was brought back to life thanks to the American skiing boom of the late 20th century. Glamorous and fashionable, it is delightful to stroll around in the evenings, window shopping in designer boutiques and enjoying the varied restaurants and bars, of which there are over 100.
Whether it’s wood-fired pizza, goat-meat taco, vegan snack or juicy steak, Aspen can oblige to even the fussiest of food lovers, and hotel dining rooms provide high-end options too.
Aspen’s mining history is recalled in a series of shortish steep double-black chutes on Aspen Mountain, one of the four ski areas, with names like Zaugg Dump, Last Dollar and Short Snort. Many of these are so-called “dump” runs built on the steep slopes where miners once tunnelled their way into the mountain leaving piles of shale and other debris behind them.
In contrast to Aspen’s grid of streets, Snowmass is purpose-built town with some ski-in/ski-out options. An Ice Age discovery centre displays skeletons of large animals (including a woolly mammoth) discovered in the valley.
Among Aspen’s four ski areas, Buttermilk is a true beginners’ mountain, and novices and cautious intermediates will revel in the long, gentle but by no means dull trails here. There’s also The Hideout, a centre dedicated to helping children learn, located at the base area. It has lunch facilities and four learning rooms for interactive play as well as a gentle slope for first turns.
Although those searching for challenge have Ajax in their sights – and it certainly has its fair share of tough terrain – the most adventurous mountain is actually Highlands. And despite the challenging reputation, Aspen is also more than a match for intermediates and beginners – Snowmass in particular has so much terrain that it has plenty for everyone, no matter what their skill level.
On the slopes . . .
Navigate Aspens’s ski area with our insider’s knowledge of the local slopes and beyond, on and off piste, ski schools and terrain parks.
Three of Aspen’s four ski areas are close to each other in the Roaring Fork valley, and the fourth (Snowmass) is a short detour from it, around 16km from Aspen town. All are served by free ski shuttle bus.
Directly above town is Aspen Mountain (aka Ajax). It has a challenging reputation, fed by ungroomed steeps and mogul runs such as Face of Bell, but many of the 76 trails here provide good cruising, and there is easy terrain at the top. Two particularly long and exhilarating trails, Spar Gulch and Copper Bowl, form the mountain’s main homeward-bound routes, down which hot-shots come scorching at the end of the day.
However, these runs are among the reasons why beginners are discouraged from trying Ajax – manoeuvring down would be quite an intimidating prospect for novices, although there is the option of downloading on the Silver Queen gondola.
Aspen Highlands (119 trails) has some excellent slopes for experts, including the B and Y-zones on Loge Peak (3,560m), and gladed tree runs such as Lucky Find and Mystery Gully. However, the most interesting challenges are in Highland Bowl, whose 1,320m of vertical descent provides excitement for those prepared to earn their turns via a hike to the top (at 3,775m).
This can be partly off-set by a free snowcat ride at the beginning of the climb, which saves about 15 minutes of hiking, but from the drop-off point there’s still about 30 minutes or more of trekking to reach the summit. However, swerving it means missing out on the pick of the crop of steep, double-black diamond ungroomed runs at Highlands – there are six G-Zone runs (G-2, 3, 4,5, 6 and 8) plus other corkers such as Ozone, White Kitchen and Steep ‘n Deep.
Snowmass, by North American standards, is huge (91 trails), and it also has the USA’s biggest continuous vertical drop (1,343m). Legend has it that so-called grudge fires, started during the conflict between white and native Americans, left great swathes of the mountain treeless, which proved the ideal configuration for the planning of an almost entirely intermediate mountain.
Several trails run parallel through the Big Burn area, which is effectively a single trail almost a mile wide. Although Snowmass is the furthest ski area from the town of Aspen, it’s less than 20km away, and really should not be missed. It may not be as fashionable as Aspen Mountain or Highlands, but it has a wonderful variety of intermediate terrain, as well as plenty for beginners and experts.
Off-piste enthusiasts will relish the Hanging Valley Glades and the Cirque– accessed via Aspen Snowmass’ only button lift.
Buttermilk is one mountain with a few personalities. It has 34km of terrain, much of it gentle and family-friendly, plus uncrowded beginner slopes – and it’s home to the Hideout, a learning centre for youngsters. However, it’s also known for hosting extreme sporting challenge at the Winter X Games in its extensive terrain park, and as such has become an iconic destination for freestylers.
Buttermilk is also the locals’ haunt for good ungroomed terrain when much of the powder has been used up at the other three areas. These secret stashes linger longer because so few powder hounds are aware of them, and so don’t bother to go there.
Who should go?
Aspen is one of the most glamorous ski resorts in North America, if not the world. It’s choice of designer shops and luxury lodgings entice celebrities and alike to flock here for a mountain escape. It’s A-list reputation has led to its having a gourmet scene that will delight food lovers and a charming atmosphere off the mountain. It’s four ski areas have something to suit all levels, with some real challenges for experts and intermediates in particular.
Know before you go . . .
International travellers going to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) are now subject to enhanced security requirements. Online completion and approval of ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorisation), along with payment of the fee, is mandatory ahead of travel for all Visa Waiver Programme travellers. For full details, be sure to go to the official website at esta.cbp.dhs.gov
British Consulate-General in Chicago: +1 312 970 3800; 625 N Michigan Ave Suite 2200, Chicago, IL 60611
Emergnecy services: dial 911
Tourist office: See aspensnowmass.com, the website for the Aspen Snowmass Tourist Board, for weather reports, lift status, webcams, traffic details and local event listings. Pick up maps, leaflets and other information from ticket offices at each ski area.
Currency: The USA uses the dollar ($). Notes/bills look similar, and are in denominations of $1, $2, $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100
Telephone code: To phone the UK, dial 011 44 and then the number – but drop the ‘0’
Time difference: -7 hours
Taxis expect a 10-15 per cent tip; restaurants expect 15-20 per cent on the total before local tax (6.25 per cent). A few restaurants build in a 20 per cent gratuity; always check your bill.