Congratulations —you’ve arrived in Aspen Snowmass, the sun is shining and there’s fresh snow on the slopes. But wait, there’s four separate mountains to choose from here — how do I know where to schuss first?
Indeed, each of the four ski areas at Aspen Snowmass has its own distinct personality. If time and ability allow, definitely sample them all (a single lift ticket covers all four). But, totaling more than 5,300 acres across the four mountain, that’s a lot of ground to cover, so here’s a bit of guidance to help you distinguish the flavor of each. And remember, figuring out which mountain to ride is a good problem to have.
Where it all began in a sleepy post-war town in 1946, Aspen Mountain is the skier’s classic. Its runs were designed and cut by the men who served in the US Army’s 10 Mountain Division, as well as some of Europe’s best mountaineers and skiers. Aspen Mountain — sometimes called Ajax — gained fame hosting national and international ski races in the ’50s and ’60s, and to this day you can channel your inner Ingemar Stenmark (or, more appropriately today, Mikaela Shiffrin) on the perfect groomed intermediate pitches on the west side, off of the 1A (Shadow Mountain) and Ruthie’s chairlifts.
With the Silver Queen Gondola rising Aspen Mountain’s entire 3,300 vertical feet directly from downtown Aspen, it’s also an easy choice if you’re staying in a downtown hotel or want a quick and efficient few runs before a lunch date or other non-ski plans. And that’s the secret sauce of Aspen Mountain: Its comparatively small size — a mere 675 acres — packs an amazing variety of terrain, all quickly accessible. It's know for it's mostly intermediate - advanced terrain. Want some steep and deep? Lap the Walsh’s area on the east side after a snowstorm. Bump skiers can tire themselves out by strategically zigzagging their way down the “Long Face” (Face of Bell). There are gorgeous aspen glades to navigate in the Dumps, amazingly fun lines under Lift 1A, and more than 70 shrines, hidden in the trees, that commemorate locals and celebrities alike and contribute to the unique character of this place.
You’ve probably heard of Highland Bowl, that legendary all-aspects basin of double-black-diamond terrain accessed via a hike to 12,392-foot Highland Peak at the top of Aspen Highlands. “The Bowl,” due to its location and limited accessibility, holds snow well all season long and offers some of the best turns in ski country for expert skiers and riders —not to mention bragging rights and memories that will last well beyond après-ski.
But to focus solely on Highland Bowl does a disservice to what’s considered the “locals’ mountain.” For one thing, there’s plenty of proving ground that doesn’t entail a hike, like the steep, no-nonsense fall lines in Steeplechase and plentiful powder stashes of Deep Temerity. Highlands also offers a lot for those who aren’t as radically inclined: fun learning bumps on Scarlett’s (home to many a freestyle contest back in the day), impeccably groomed, wide green and blue cruisers with incredible views, and pockets of challenging terrain on the lower mountain that see very little traffic. And while crowds are never really a problem at Aspen Snowmass, the feeling of having a run all to yourself is probably most felt at laid-back Highlands.
Buttermilk is known for two things: being the beginners’ mountain and hosting the Winter X Games. Its reputation for both ends of the ski/snowboard spectrum is well earned: Countless local families swear by the gentle, accessible terrain of kid-oriented Panda Peak to introduce their little ones to schussing. And Buttermilk’s two parks — the West Buttermilk one ideally suited to learners and the real-deal X Games park (with over 100 features) and pipe — keep aspiring freeriders busy all day.
But there’s more to Buttermilk. Kids who’ve graduated from Panda Peak, and their families, can explore this mountain’s wide groomers, tree trails, and many glades. Tiehack, the east side of the mountain with its own lift and parking lot, is the go-to place on a powder day for many locals. And, hey, we can’t overlook the attraction of convenient free parking. In sum, Buttermilk is an oft-overlooked gem of a mountain.
The “mass” in Snowmass — more than 3,300 acres and the highest vertical rise, 4,400 feet, in the country — means that it truly offers something for everyone. Got a family or group that includes all abilities and preferences? Mom can lap the steeps and powder fields of Hanging Valley, while Dad enjoys the endless cruisers (don’t miss the Noon Groom) without skiing the same run twice. Kids of all ages can explore the dozen-plus tree trails or Snowmass’s three terrain parks — or, better yet for Mom and Dad, learn from the real Pros in the ski and snowboard school. And everyone can meet for lunch at Elk Camp, possibly adding a few spins on the new Breathtaker Alpine Coaster to really round out the experience. Known as the family-friendly mountain, Snowmass really is — no matter what any skier or rider in the family might desire.
CATHERINE LUTZCatherine Lutz is an Aspen-based freelance writer and editor who helps craft stories and content for the Aspen Institute, Aspen Sojourner magazine, Powder magazine, and many others. An avid skier, paddleboarder, and mountain biker, she’s now vicariously experiencing a second childhood through her two young children in one of the best places on the planet to raise a family.