The town of Aspen sits in a valley 41 miles south of Glenwood Springs and about 160 miles west of Denver, in the foothills of the Elk Mountains. The resort areas are spread over four nearly-adjacent mountains: Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk and Snowmass – collectively offering more than 5,300 acres of skiable terrain.
Snowmass is an "easy button" for families, as the mountain has its own village, complete with condos, hotels, dining, shopping and activities. Oh, and a world-class ski mountain, with a nation’s-best 4,406-foot vertical drop and 150 miles of trails, the longest of which moseys for five miles.
Aware that kids don’t come with an off switch, Snowmass management dreamed up a Friday night family camp called Ullr, in honor of the Norse God of Snow. The party features the Breathtaker Alpine Coaster, tubing, snowbiking, s'mores and hot chocolate by the bonfire, ice skating and (why not?) live music.
A 15-minute drive down a scenic valley brings you to the town of Aspen, which boasts an earned reputation as a refuge for the very rich and famous as well as a down-to-earth spot with chill locals setting the tone in many of the town's establishments.
The meld is true to Aspen’s history. A silver boom town from the late 1800's – the Smuggler Mine outside town yielded a 2,350-pound silver nugget, the largest ever mined – Aspen fell on hard times after 1893, when Congress repealed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, meaning silver was no longer legal tender.
Skiing arrived in 1936 and the revival came quickly. To the great credit of town planners, Aspen managed to retain a heavy dose of the architecture and landmarks that defined the silver years, from the venerable Hotel Jerome and Wheeler Opera House – both opened in 1889 and still kicking – to the modest Victorian homes, dating to the late 1800's that now add a Norman Rockwell touch to Aspen neighborhoods. A cocktail at the Hotel Jerome bar is a rite of passage – as is a toast to once-regular Hunter S. Thompson.
The peaks of Aspen Mountain (also known as Ajax Mountain) loom over the town, and often rank as a local's favorite – if for no other reason than because they can ski on their lunch breaks. With 76 mostly advanced and expert trails spread over 675 acres, Aspen Mountain caters to more skilled skiers, and offers numerous touches for that certain percentage of visitors accustomed to comfort. The Silver Queen Gondola rises 3,267 feet from town to summit and includes a smartphone/MP3 plug-in so riders can tap their own music libraries on the way up.
On the descent, keep an eye out for a roving champagne bar, run by Little Nell, a local five-star hotel. The Oasis could pop up anywhere, serving Veuve Clicquot, caviar and chips, all backed by a solar-powered sound system (follow @TheLittleNell on Twitter to learn where the bubbly will be next). If you’re worried what champagne might do to you at 8,000 feet, you can always go the healthy route and drop into one of Aspen’s complimentary slope-side yoga classes.
About a ten-minute drive west, Aspen Highlands has more balanced terrain, although the hike-to summit of Highland Bowl at 12,392 feet is an experts-only adventure, and a solid rite of passage for any vacationer. Its relative lack of flair also makes it a favorite for locals and in-the-know chargers.
Buttermilk, meanwhile, is the beginner’s heaven with mostly rolling terrain; a notable exception is a 22-foot super pipe in Buttermilk Park that regularly hosts X Games competitions. An entry-level terrain park paired with The Hideout, a learning center for young skiers, will help hone the skills before that big drop-in.
The Aspen Ski Company makes it easy to ski multiple mountains in one day, with free shuttles among all four mountains every 15 minutes.
Hotel Jerome blends an air of exclusivity with a warmly welcoming atmosphere of cozy furniture, roaring fires, richly appointed guest rooms and one of the best bar’s in town: J-Bar. And, for families looking to bed down in Snowmass, try Wildwood, an off-beat hotel in Snowmass Village that caters to young adults and the entire brood, with casual on-site restaurant and bar, game room and pool.
Justice Snow’s, housed in the historic Wheeler Opera House in the heart of Aspen, serves history with a memorably modern flair. The menu will please the healthy and decadent alike, with beets, kale and quinoa dishes alongside classic western big game plates. The Victorian-era bar and many refurbished remnants, like an original Aspen bank vault door, encourage lingering.