Whenever one speaks of skiing in North America, Whistler, Aspen and Vail becomes 3 of the most commonly cited destinations. Today’s Aspen actually consists of 4 distinct mountain areas, namely the legendary Aspen (or fondly known as Ajax by the locals), Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk and of course Snowmass. Amongst them Snowmass is the largest , while I did not manage to try Aspen Highlands (which is supposed to be more challenging) and Buttermilk (which has a nice park and geared for families with gentle slopes).
On my last day of skiing I decided to try out Aspen, and boarded the complimentary shuttle bus operated by the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority (RFTA) that runs between the 4 mountain resorts. However unlike Whistler and Vail which are really mega resort towns with many of the properties being developed by the resort owners, Aspen is a historic town in Colorado that happens to have a ski resort. This makes for a real town with historic sights and even housing a think-tank that bears the city’s name – The Aspen Institute. What it is also famous for is being a ski destination for celebrities. Where one finds pedestrian walkways to the slopes, the city has roads and residences, but yet still pedestrian friendly. In fact it was so charming, I spent half a day venturing around the city as well, though I will review the town amenities in the later part of the report.
For most passengers headed to Aspen, they usually stop at the main bus terminal which also houses the visitor’s information centre and located across the street from the iconic Silver Queen gondola. The whole town is easily walkable from one end to the other, and there are other stops for visitors taking the bus. There are also free roadside parking around town. As I mentioned, there is one gondola that takes skiers to the peak of the mountain and that mountain does look majestic hulking over the rest of the town. It is this scene itself that lends a certain aura over Aspen.
It is also convenient for skiers and snowboarders to get up quickly to the top. One note of caution to beginners is that the intermediate runs here are slightly more tricky for those who are still not confident of their riding ability as the trail does become narrow in certain sections. From the top, there are generally 2 ways to reach all the way to the bottom, via Copper Bowl or Spar Gulch. Though both runs merge into Little Nell eventually. Thus they act like funnels to the bottom. The other main area is accessed via the Shadow Mountain and Ruthie’s chairlift. The latter 2 areas does see less crowds and would be suitable for intermediate skiers and snowboarders. There are practically no beginner slopes on Aspen, so the crowds tend to be more adult skiers or mature families. It does give it a more grown ambience. This also means a more compact ski area that can be easily covered in a day.
As the gondola brings skiers up to the peak, those lucky to get the solar-powered gondolas get to plug their iPods/iPhones or listen to the music since the ride up takes about 15 minutes or so. First-timers are better off gazing out of the gondola for a clear view over the town though!
Once at the top, I tried both Copper Bowl and Spar Gulch and I have to say I like them both immensely due to the speed it gives but it is important to keep up with the momentum in these 2 runs. The length of the run all the way to the bottom is satisfying as well since it is a somewhat long run. The most tricky portion of the run is when skiers reach Kleenex Corner as there is a narrow bend before further descent into Little Nell. The merging of the 2 runs also mean that there are more skiers as we descend into town.
As skiers glide past Kleenex corner, they will encounter even more fun down Little Nell which is perhaps one of the widest runs that leads directly back to the gondola station. The best part is the bird’s eye view of the town as one approaches the base.
For those looking to spend their time at the top, there are a multitude of runs that head to 2 chairlifts, namely Ajax Express and Gent’s Ridge, though for the blue runs, I think Copper Bowl and Spar Gulch was far more thrilling for snowboarders. At the top, there are also a lot of challenging runs for advanced and expert level skiers.
Another major section of the mountain where I spent some time at was Ruthie’s run. The terrain here can be described as straight with the gradient that can provide for some need for speed. Basically this area has hosted some alpine skiing championships before and would serve for those skiers wanting to experience the thrill of racing. Lots of fast ski action here so beginners are advised to keep note and ensure they do not stop in the middle.
From Ruthie’s chairlift, skiers also get a nice view of the surrounding area, including the Aspen Highlands ski area and that of Aspen airport. It was lucky for me that the weather was another clear spring day, however that meant the snow was groomed and packed, no fresh powder that I had gotten used to in Snowmass a few days prior.
When it was time to head out for a break, there are 2 options on top of the mountain, one being Bonnie’s which can be accessed before reaching the bottom of the Ajax Express chairlift and the other being Sundeck located at the summit of the Silver Queen Gondola. I chose to take a break at Sundeck which featured a warm fireplace in the middle of the lodge and a balcony from where diners could get a view of the surrounding mountain ranges. The last part of the mountain is basically Shadow Mountain which has its own chairlift and is the part of the mountain overshadowing the St. Regis Aspen and Hyatt Grand Aspen. The runs here are short but steep with some moguls but there was less people here. Though the reason could be due to the slushy snow conditions when I visited. Basically, I would really not spend my time here with the amazing terrain elsewhere on Aspen.
At the end of the day after hitting the slopes, life basically starts in Aspen. And that is also when the magic happens. One of the reason why I like Niseko was the nice dining options and how the small ski town comes to life at night. This is similar with the village in the bottom of Whistler Blackcomb and one feature I did not manage to find in Snowmass. But I did find it in Aspen. To really bask in luxury, head no further than the St. Regis or the Little Nell located beside each other at the bottom of Shadow Mountain and the Silver Queen Gondola respectively. The essential hotel in Aspen though has got to be magnificent Hotel Jerome located a few blocks away from the slopes that has a splendid lobby!
If one word can be used to describe Aspen, it is perhaps expensive. Boasting some of the most expensive real estate in Colorado, if not North America itself, the town also boasts some pricey designer goods where ski jackets commonly goes for 4 figures. Generally all the international retailers are here and all within walking distance from the ski slopes. Thus if your other half is not keen on skiing, there are other activities like shopping.
Having said that the dining scene in Aspen is much better than Snowmass. I had a very good steak with truffle butter in the packed Steakhouse No 316, and the place does have decently priced cuts for dinner too. So overall much better quality for the buck compared to the dismal options in Snowmass. After my last morning of exploring the town of Aspen, I even dropped by the crowded Ajax Tavern for lunch, with a window view while watching skiers zooming down the slopes. I did not explore much of the other dining options but I have no doubt they would be on par as Araxi in Whistler.
It seems somehow most articles end with a punchline and I shall add one to summarize my snowboarding review of Aspen. Advanced skiers would definitely enjoy Aspen more with the terrain, the dining scene and the vibrance of town life, and I compare Aspen to a classic vintage car to the modern SUVs that the mega resorts of Whistler Blackcomb and Snowmass represents. You might not like them but they are sure pretty in some ways and hark back to the good old days of skiing when snowboards were not even invented yet.