As a small town sandwiched in a mountain valley, Aspen doesn't have neighborhoods in the big city sense. For the summer visitor, the downtown core is the center of interest. Beyond lie the mountains where roads and trails lead to beauty and adventure. More important to the winter visitor are the slopes. Aspen serves up four separate mountains for skiing and snowboarding, and one lift ticket connects them all. A base village at Snowmass, Aspen's biggest ski area, offers its own variation on the mountain escape theme.
Downtown is the action spot and what a visit to Aspen is all about. It's here that nearly all of the town's lodging, restaurants, shopping, parks and nightlife can be found. As a first-rate silver-mining boomtown toward the end of the 19th century, Aspen featured top hotels, banks and stores, plus an opera house and a stunning courthouse. With many of those classic structures remaining, downtown feels like a reborn ghost town. Mixed among the Victorian-era structures are a potpourri of architecture designs that range from pseudo-Swiss to brick-and-concrete modern. Like a modern shopping mall, downtown offers a clean, upper middleclass aura. Aspen's famed mansions, like Saudi Prince Bandar's 56,000-square-foot edifice, lie tucked away in the woods, out of sight. Locals are generally unsnooty, and even the wealthy run around in modest shorts and Levi's. It's a foot friendly area, with wide sidewalks and car-free pedestrian malls.
Located 12 miles down the Roaring Fork Valley off Colorado Highway 82, Snowmass is Aspen's biggest mountain. It offers 3,132 acres of skiable slopes, with a vertical drop of 4,406 feet, said to be the most in the U.S. More than half its terrain is ranked intermediate, and nearly a third double-black. What's fun to do here is find an area you like and do a series of lift laps, sampling each section's variety of runs. Elk Camp accesses intermediate trails. High Alpine features mostly black-diamond descents. Big Burn provides blue cruisers with some black-diamond connectors. Sam's Knob offers a variety of black and blue terrain. There's the appropriately named Fanny Hill for beginners and terrain parks for those looking for pipes, hits and jibs. CafÃ© Suzanne, Gwyn's High Alpine and the Ullrhof provide great spots to stop for an on-mountain lunch.
The resort town of Snowmass Village spreads along the lower slopes of the Snowmass ski area. Largely a condo community, Snowmass Village used to be a place where restaurants were few and hot nightlife meant reading a torrid romance novel. It now features two main base developments connected by a gondola. Liveliness picked up a bit after the Viceroy Hotel opened in 2009. Its Eight K restaurant serves up some of the Village's best gourmet grub and its Lobby Bar offers an intimate retreat for a glass of wine or a martini or two. While summer mountain bikers come here to hit lift-served trails and winter skiers grab aprÃ¨s ski brews at lively slope-side bars, the village still remains a generally sedate, family friendly place. For those craving quiet, it's hard to beat Snowmass Village.
Located off Colorado Highway 82, 3 miles west of Aspen, Buttermilk is a small area offering 470 skiable acres and a 2,030-foot vertical drop. What sets Buttermilk apart is its bipolar personality. At one extreme, it's a beginner's hillâa place where kids and adults go to learn the snow-sliding arts on gentle terrain. More than a third of Buttermilk's trails are green groomers. At the other extreme, Buttermilk is terrain-park territory and the long-time home of ESPN's Winter X Games. For those who think that skiing and boarding is all about flying above the snow rather than being on it, Buttermilk offers a 22-foot superpipe, plus more than 100 hits, jumps, rails and boxes.
Not long ago, Highlands was where locals showed up in Levi's patched with duct tape. Although Bogner suits have become commonplace, courtesy of an expanding base area that includes a Ritz-Carlton Club, Highlands remains a locals' favorite. It's located off Maroon Creek Road, 3 miles west of downtown Aspen. The area offers 1,028 acres with a vertical drop of 3,635 feet. About half the terrain is ranked easiest or intermediate. The rest consists of solid black- or double-black-diamond plungers, which include some of the steepest and deepest powder runs in the state. From the Loge Peak warming hut, the 14,000-foot summits of Pyramid Peak and the Maroon Bells seemingly sit in your face. Lunches at Highlands can be had at the Merry-Go-Round cafeteria, which occupies what looks like an old Safeway building, or at Cloud Nine, a sit-down alpine bistro built in a retired ski patrol hut.
To old-time locals, this ski hill bordering downtown Aspen is known as Ajax. The name comes from a mine that once spit ore from the hillside. A 14-minute ride up the Silver Queen Gondola delivers skiers to the top of the peak. Here sits the Sundeck restaurant with its panoramic, eye-candy views of Elk Range peaks. By Colorado standards, the ski area is small at only 673 skiable acres. What it does offer is 3,267 feet of vertical drop. More than half its trails garner black- or double-black-diamond ratings. The rest rank intermediate status. If you're a beginner, bewareâthere's nary a bunny run on the mountain. In summer, the Silver Queen Gondola runs daily, allowing easy access to the heights. Home of one of Colorado's best on-mountain burgers, the Sundeck restaurant is open for lunch.