Aspen: not just a winter playground for the jet set

It was a slow start to the Aspen snow season last year. Less than two weeks out from Christmas and most of the expert terrain wasn’t even open.

The weather in November was so warm snowmaking machines weren’t able to work their magic so visitors to this former silver mining town were forced to wait for the real stuff to fall watching new releases at an historic 102-year-old cinema, eating at magnificent restaurants, sipping cocktails at apres ski bars, shopping at Gucci and the like or getting lost at the Aspen Art Museum.

There’s a lot on offer here aside from the snow, but considering that’s why most people – from Hollywood A-listers to Russian billionaires as well as mere mortals who enjoy Aspen’s variety of terrain – come to this town on the Roaring Fork River in Pitkin County, Colorado, snow was on everyone’s mind.

But as the saying goes, good things come to those who wait, and it certainly delivered.

Early snow in downtown Aspen. Image: Jeremy Swanson
Early snow in downtown Aspen. Image: Jeremy Swanson

Nine days out from Christmas and a huge snowstorm dumped almost 50 centimetres of snow over the resort’s four mountains. And it kept falling. Measurable falls were recorded on 16 of the following 27 days after the storm. In just one week in mid-January, a whopping 115 centimetres fell, creating conditions many skiers and snowboarders can only dream about.

But in typical Aspen fashion, out on the slopes after the dump it felt like everyone else had missed the memo. Unlike comparable resorts in Europe such as France’s Chamonix or Italy’s Sella Ronda, you never wait more than a few minutes to get on a gondola or chairlift, and groomed runs are rarely, if ever, crowded. That’s because it’s been designed to stay that way.

Aspen locals say a handful of factors ensure the place is never overrun with tourists. The first being the distance the mountain is from Denver. Major ski resorts in Breckenridge, Keystone, Arapahoe Basin, Copper, Vail, and Beaver Creek are all within about two hours driving distance of Colorado’s capital, whereas Aspen is double; about four hours by car.

A skiier enjoying the power at Highlands bowl. Image: Jeremy Swanson
A skiier enjoying the power at Highlands bowl. Image: Jeremy Swanson

Also, a lift pass that grants access to Aspen’s four mountains – Aspen Mountain, Snowmass, Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk – is also more expensive than any other of the state’s 26 ski resorts, just pipping Vail to the title.

But if you fly in and forget about how much you’ve paid to ski or snowboard here, there’s no looking back.

Visitors are spoilt for choice of terrain upon waking up in Aspen. The resort’s four mountains offer something for skiers and snow boarders of all levels. Its lack of green (beginner) runs makes Aspen Mountain, which the locals have dubbed Ajax, the best for advanced skiers. The gondola from bottom to top takes 14 minutes, so it’s best to make the most of the lifts at the top before skiing all the way down again.

Downtown Aspen at dusk. Image: Aspen Skiing Company
Downtown Aspen at dusk. Image: Aspen Skiing Company

For beginner or intermediate skiers, there are free shuttle buses to Buttermilk Mountain’s more manageable terrain. It’s just three miles away from Aspen village, or a 10-minute bus ride, and is a haven for families with young children.

For lovers of fresh powder, Aspen Highlands is a must. This is the mountain favoured by locals and expert skiers for its famous Highlands Bowl. It requires a hike from the top of the chairlift, where you effort is rewarded with virgin powder and fresh tracks.

And then there’s Aspen Snowmass, which, as the name suggests is, a massive peak that offers the most varied skiing conditions of the lot. It is America’s second biggest mountain and has groomed runs for all abilities, serviced by 21 lifts.

In all, Aspen offers more than 2225 hectares of terrain that can be accessed with a single all-mountain lift pass.

A bluebird day at Highland's bowl. Photo: Jeremy Swanson
A bluebird day at Highland’s bowl. Photo: Jeremy Swanson

While the resort has garnered a reputation for its bejewelled jet-set crowd, for every mink coat clad, Louis Vuitton toting tourist, there is another daredevil skier here for the fresh powder, vertical drops and apres ski beer(s).

This charming town has some of the most expensive real estate in the world, but you can stay within walking distance of the village for under $500 and eat at the bar of its glitziest restaurants for half the cost of their a la carte menus.

If you’re willing to fly rather than drive, it’s also easy to get to Aspen. The town has its own airport and you can fly there direct from major US cities. Once you touch down, make sure to check out the line-up of private jets before jumping on the free shuttle bus into town. Even with frequent stopping, the seven kilometre trip takes all of about 15 minutes.

So don’t let the town’s highflying reputation put you off, for this skiers haven is well worth the schlep. But if you want to fit in, bring a 150-pelt chinchilla.

Best route: Qantas flies to Aspen via Los Angeles
Stay: Rooms at Hotel Aspen are about AUD $400 for night
Coffee: Victoria + Co Espresso + Wine Bar
Dinner: L’Hostaria (northern Italian) or Steak House No.316 (book in advance)
On mountain dining: Bonnie’s on Aspen Mountain