Photo Credit: Aspen Ski Co
Aspen Spins its Image
Once an exclusive ski destination for the rich, the Rocky Mountain resort had no choice but to reach out to the masses
ASPEN --Zooming down the steep face of Ajax with the wind in your face on sun-sparkled snow makes for a memorable ski day in the Rockies. What makes for a memorable winter vacation is the wall-to-wall mountain experience of Aspen.
No longer just a playground for the rich, Aspen has evolved into a more accessible and varied destination that seeks to draw regular folks. It had no choice.
In the 1980s, Aspen was the haughty queen of North American ski resorts, with an international brand that catered to Hollywood celebs and jet setters with Euro-style skiing and nightlife. Since then, places such as Whistler, Vail and Park City, Utah, have eclipsed Aspen by luring couples, families and teens with deals, new facilities and expanding winter activities that offer a lot more to do than skiing. No wonder. Aspen Ski Co. stubbornly banned snowboarders from Aspen Mountain for a decade until then-owner Jim Crown lifted the ban in 2001.
Today, all four mountains operated by the ski company --Aspen, Snowmass, Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk --welcome boarders, with Buttermilk hosting the annual in-your-face extravaganza, the Winter X Games.
Aspen's comeback also has been helped by discounts and promotions. A discounted daily lift ticket that is interchangeable at all four ski areas, for instance, runs about the same price as an $87 ticket to Disneyland.
Still, Aspen is no budget vacation by any stretch. It's more affordable to stay in a condo in nearby Snowmass and cook your own meals than stay in a pricey hotel and eat out every night in town. Either way, though, Aspen is where you want to go at night to sample the bar and club scene.
My wife and I returned to Aspen last winter on a three-day getaway, skiing Ajax (the locals still call Aspen Mountain by the old nickname) and Snowmass. We stayed at the Molly Gibson Lodge in town, where you don't need a car because of Aspen2's free public bus system that also takes you to Snowmass Village and the other two resorts. Skiing, shopping, dining, nightlife --all of it is within walking distance if you stay in town.
Aspen is a historic mining town that is much more than a winter sports mecca --it also has a long cultural tradition of music, art and political activism. In fact, summer is Aspen's busiest season with nonstop festivals, hiking, biking, camping, river rafting, fly fishing, mountain retreats and public policy forums.
We arrived in February, our first visit in several years. While we didn't see any celebrities on this trip, there were plenty of sleek private jets parked tip to tail at the airport. On the Aspen pedestrian mall, fur coats have been replaced by fleece, which reflects the Aspen Ski Co.'s drive to go green. Aspen and Jackson Hole are the only ski resorts in the nation to receive international certification for their environmentally friendly management practices.
What makes this area stand apart from other destinations is the variety of terrain at the four mountains. Here's a summary:
Aspen MountainTake the town gondola to the 11,212-foot summit and ski or board nearly 3,300 feet straight back down. That's the vertical rush of this mountain, which boasts no beginner runs or bunny hills. Half the mountain is rated intermediate and the other half is advanced and expert, with deep steeps and occasional knee-grinding bumps.
The signature trail is Ruthie's Run, also called "America's downhill" because this is where the world's fastest skiers race in the World Cup competition every November. Unlike much of the rest of the mountain, Ruthie's is usually corduroy groomed so you, too, can fly down like a racer, at least until your legs give out near the bottom.
SnowmassEverything is big here: more sprawling terrain than the other three mountains combined, more parks and pipes for snowboarders, more activities and programs for kids and more winter offerings that include everything from snowshoeing to hot-air ballooning to paragliding.
The mountain is a cruiser's paradise, with meandering, wide runs up to five miles long. The penultimate Snowmass cruiser is called the Big Burn, named after a wildfire that scorched hundreds of pines decades ago. After taking the lift up to the top at nearly 12,000 feet, we skied in and out of scattered trees to an open slope with panoramic views of the Rockies. There is plenty of room to move and just enough pitch for intermediate skiers and boarders to make sweeping turns without worrying about getting in over their heads.