My skiing siblings and I share a rallying cry: “If you’re going to go west, go big!”
Of course, it helps to have siblings who actually lived near some of the great ski resorts, including Breckenridge, Keystone, Vail and Snowmass in Colorado, as well as Park City, Deer Valley, Snowbird and Alta in Utah. There’s nothing quite like a slopeside family reunion to strengthen the ties that bind.
My younger brother, Matty, started the tradition, heeding Horace Greeley’s advice and promptly relocating to Breckenridge after getting his sheepskin from the University of New Hampshire. My brother Mike, a contractor, followed suit, eventually landing a job with the Canadian development giant, Intrawest. Mike earned his chops by building the village at Keystone, which earned him another gig — developing the village at the base of Snowmass. And that was our invitation to explore Aspen and the Colorado Rockies.
Aspen, as the resort likes to tell us, is comprised of “four mountains, two towns and one unforgettable experience at the confluence of nature, culture and recreation.” But, as the old adage says, it ain’t bragging if you can back it up.
So the real question is, where do you go when you visit Aspen? I asked my brother, Mike, who called nearby Basalt home for 15 years and is an exceptional skier, what he would recommend for friends coming into town to visit.
“Ski all of Snowmass and Highlands, period,” he said. “Aspen is best for après-ski and people-watching, but Snowmass is getting pretty good. Woody Creek Tavern is a must, a short drive down valley from Aspen and Snowmass in Woody Creek. And check out the shows at the Wheeler Opera House.”
So, there you have it.
What, you want more? OK, let’s start with the legend that is Aspen Mountain. Home to the rich and famous, and ESPN’s annual ode to everything rad — the X Games — Aspen rises out of the perfect grid town of the same name like a massive vision. Sure, the celebrity spectating here is top-notch, but I like to think my audience isn’t that superficial.
Aspen is, without a doubt, a spectacular mountain. It features 76 trails and 675 acres over its 3,267-foot vertical to the 11,212-foot peak elevation. It is not well-suited for the faint of heart, or beginners. There is no “easier” terrain. The trail network is rated 48 percent “more difficult,” 26 percent “most difficult,” and 26 percent “expert.” Better bring your ‘A’ game. The phenomenal glades off Gentlemen’s Ridge and the double black diamonds off International deserve a special mention.
Same goes for the nightlife. Aspen is a world-class winter attraction for many, very good reasons. Yes, it helps to have a bottomless bank account, but if you can afford it, the town has a fabulous selection of dining spots and watering holes. For the former, try Kenichi or Matsuhisa for sushi, The Wild Fig, Campo de Fiori, 7908 Aspen, Cache Cache, Betula, Clark’s Oyster Bar, Ellina, Steakhouse No. 316, or Brunelleschi’s (which almost always has a hockey game on the flat-screen).
For the latter, stop by Ajax Tavern, W Hotel, White House Tavern, the J-Bar at Hotel Jerome, Eric’s Bar, Hooch Craft Cocktail Bar underneath Meat and Cheese Restaurant, and Aspen Tap House. Belly Up is a first-rate late-night music venue. Culture vultures will want to visit the Aspen Art Museum, which — and I say this with unmitigated pride — was built by my brother Mike and opened in 2014.
Next door, Aspen Highlands’ motto of “wild but always welcoming” wins our “truth in advertising” award. Here, you’ll find the hard-core local skiers who don’t mind relinquishing Aspen to its well-heeled visitors. What separates the two groups? Well, for starters, there are no poseurs at the Highlands. They won’t hoof it from the top of the lifts at the 11,675-foot summit of Loge Peak to the 12,392-foot summit of Highland Peak. If you’re coming from sea level and haven’t acclimated, expect to suffer (which I did, mightily, during my last stopover).
Your reward? The extraordinary Highland Bowl, which will warm the heart of any skier who has ever peered over the edge of Tuckerman Ravine. Drop in for 3,635 feet of vertical ecstasy.
“The Bowl, Steeplechase, Boomerang Woods, the G Chutes off the righthand side of Bowl (facing downhill), Temerity, Kessler’s — all of these are excellent tree-skiing, unmanicured and rowdy terrain,” Mike said. “Head to Prospector Gulch for high-speed cruising.”
In all, Aspen Highlands offers a generous 1,040 acres of terrain and 144 trails, serviced by three high-speed quads and three triple chairs. Essentially, nothing extravagant, unless you’re putting a premium on your ski experience.
Like Aspen, Highlands dispenses with “beginner terrain” ratings. The trails are rated 23 percent more difficult, 12 percent most difficult, and a whopping 65 percent expert terrain. Ignore those ratings at your own peril. But if you’ve earned your turns, you’ll be grinning ear-to-ear, from the first lift to the last run.
And where do you head for après-ski? “Cloud Nine at Highlands,” Mike said. “No list would be complete without it.”
We need to mention Buttermilk, though in honesty, I haven’t had the chance to visit. Yet. But the twin peaks of Buttermilk (9,720 and 9,900 feet, respectively) are a great option for families, and more inexperienced skiers, while providing the same great natural snowpack. The 44 trails, spread over 470 acres and more than 2,000 feet of vertical, are rated 35 percent easiest, 39 more difficult, 21 percent most difficult and 5 percent expert. Sounds pretty appetizing, doesn’t it?
Meanwhile, Snowmass is beginning to realize the promise that attracted Intrawest almost two decades ago. This spectacular mountain was seriously underutilized for years, and Intrawest officials knew it. So did locals, who fought tooth and nail to keep Snowmass quiet. The village, finally brought to fruition, is everything the Intrawest gang envisioned (though it sold the project long ago). Still, the mountain remains the star of the show.
Developed in the shadow of Maroon Bells (14,156 feet) and Snowmass Mountain (14,092 feet), this ridiculously expansive resort boasts a mind-bending 3,342 acres and 4,406 feet of vertical (The Cirque tops out at 12,510 feet, while the peak of Big Burn measures 11,835 feet). The 98 trails break down to 5 percent beginner, 48 percent intermediate, 17 percent most difficult and 30 percent expert.
Lift capacity, including a pair of gondolas and a pair of six-person lifts, is an almost absurd 32,500 skiers and riders per hour. The key is that, despite all that capability, you’ll rarely, if ever, feel crowded at Snowmass. The place is that big.
“For high-speed cruising, check out Green Cabin and the entire Big Burn Mountain area,” Mike said. “Burnt Mountain Glades and Glissade are great for late-day powder stashes. Powerline Glades and all of Sam’s Knob are where you want to be for early powder runs before moving to the Headwall. Rock Garden, Cirque Headwall, Possible and Baby Ruth are also favorites.”
All that activity is going to make for great stories, and you’ll want to share them at Gwyn’s High Alpine, Up 4 Pizza, or Ulrhoff, which all provide superb on-mountain escapes. The New Belgium Ranger Station, Base Camp Bar & Grill, Venga Venga Cantina & Tequila Bar, and The Lounge at the Limelight are fun après-ski options in Snowmass Village. Want something really special? Try the Snowcat Dinner Rides to the Lynn Britt Cabin.
Note: Aspen/Pitkin County Airport provides terrific access to the Aspen area. However, given the vagaries of the weather here in the mountains, flights can be unpredictable. Plan accordingly.
Brion O’Connor can be reached at email@example.com.