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Aspen is really four ski areas rolled into one resort. Aspen Highlands, Aspen Mountain (Ajax, to locals), Buttermilk, and Snowmass can all be skied with the same ticket. Three are clustered close to downtown Aspen, but Snowmass is down the valley in Snowmass Village. A free shuttle system connects the four.
Aspen Highlands. Locals' favorite Aspen Highlands is essentially one long ridge with trails dropping off either side. Aspen Highlands has thrilling descents at Golden Horn, Olympic Bowl, and Highland Bowl, a hike-in experience unlike any in Colorado. The steep and often bumpy cluster of trails around Steeplechase and Highland Bowl makes this mountain one of the best places to be on a good-powder day. Aspen Highlands has a wide-open bowl called Thunder that's popular with intermediate skiers, as well as plenty of lower-mountain blue runs. The best overall downhill run is Highland Bowl. Besides the comparatively short lift lines and some heart-pounding runs, a highlight of Aspen Highlands is your first trip to the 12,392-foot summit. The view, which includes the Maroon Bells and Pyramid Peak, is the most dramatic in the area, and one of the best in the country. Maroon Creek Rd., Aspen, CO, 81612. 970/925–1220 or 800/525–6200. www.aspensnowmass.com. Mid-Dec.–mid-Apr., daily 9–4.
Aspen Mountain. Open since 1947, Aspen Mountain is a dream destination for mogul and steep skiers. Bell Mountain provides some of the best bump skiing anywhere, followed by Walsh's (also a favorite for snowboarders), Hyrup's, and Kristi's. Those wanting long cruisers head to the ridges or valleys: Ruthie's Run, Ridge of the Bell, and International are the classics. There are no novice-level runs here: this is a resort where nearly half the trails are rated advanced or expert, and a black-diamond trail here might rank as a double-black diamond elsewhere. The narrow ski area is laid out on a series of steep, unforgiving ridges with little room for error. Most skiers spend much of the morning on intermediate trails off the upper-mountain quad. Then they head for lunch on the deck of Bonnie's, the mid-mountain restaurant that on sunny days is one of the great people-watching scenes in the skiing world. After a big storm there's snowcat skiing on the back side of the mountain. Many trails funnel into Spar Gulch, so it can be quite crowded late in the day. For an alternate route, head down the west side of the mountain below the Ruthie's chair and take the road back to the main base area. E. Durant Ave., Aspen, CO, 81611. 970/925–1220 or 800/525–6200. www.aspensnowmass.com. Late Nov.–mid-Apr., daily 9–4.
Buttermilk. If you're looking for an escape from the hustle and bustle of Aspen, spend a day at Buttermilk—a family-friendly place where it's virtually impossible to get into trouble. Buttermilk is terrific for novices, intermediates, and freestylers, thanks to the superpipe and Buttermilk Park (which has over 100 features). It's a low-key, lighthearted sort of place, and an antidote to the kind of hotdogging you might encounter at Aspen Mountain. Red's Rover on West Buttermilk is a mellow long run for beginners, while Racer's Edge appeals to speed demons. Among the featured attractions is a hangout for children named Fort Frog. The Tiehack section to the east, with sweeping views of Maroon Creek valley, has several advanced runs (though nothing truly expert). It also has superb powder, and the deep snow sticks around longer because many serious skiers overlook this mountain. Buttermilk's allure hasn't been lost on pros, however: it's the longtime host of the Winter X Games. W. Buttermilk Rd., Aspen, CO, 81612. 970/925–1220 or 800/525–6200. www.aspensnowmass.com. Early Dec.–early Apr., daily 9–4.