The Ultimate Guide to Skiing and Riding Snowmass (Plus, Where to Eat, Drink, and Play)
Given that Snowmass is Aspen’s most popular ski area, especially among destination visitors, you might think there’s nothing left to say about it. Surely every aspect of its terrain has long been common knowledge, right? And aren’t most of the runs cruisers anyway? Even longtime locals eye Snowmass with skepticism. Is it really worth trekking out there (even if that trek is all of twenty or so minutes) when Aspen Mountain and Aspen Highlands are so close at hand?
Forget the naysayers. Those who know better see Snowmass for what it is: a massive playground (3,332 acres) for skiers and snowboarders of all abilities. Yes, it’s heaven for intermediates, but the area also has some of Colorado’s best expert terrain, as well as great trails for beginners to explore. True, Snowmass hasn’t always been known for dining and après-ski, but with a variety of new restaurants and bars, that’s no longer the case. Trust us: Snowmass is definitely worth the trip. (But do consider bussing it from Aspen to avoid the parking hassle.)
With so many options, it helps to have a good strategy in place to get the most out of a day and evening. To that end, we’ve come up with three game plans: one for a family of intermediate skiers; one for a family that includes an expert snowboarder, an intermediate skier, and a youngster in ski school; and one for a posse of thrill-seeking experts. Follow our suggestions, and check out the info on other activities, and you’ll get to know Snowmass better than even many Aspenites do.
THE INTERMEDIATE CLAN
YOU, YOUR SPOUSE, AND YOUR TWO TWEENS are solid intermediate skiers who want to see for yourselves what Snowmass’s famed cruisers are all about. Your mission? To push yourselves on some steeper blue runs and dabble in bumps while exploring different areas of the mountain. Here’s one way to hit up some of the resort’s best intermediate trails:
GAME FOR ELK. With almost half of its terrain (some 1,500 acres) rated blue square, Snowmass is an intermediates’ nirvana. But even experts enjoy the exhilaration of carving turns on long, consistently pitched, regularly groomed runs like Green Cabin and Sneaky’s. The Elk Camp gondola is one of the most efficient ways to get up the mountain, but if you’re visiting during a holiday week or spring break, board it before 9:15 a.m. or after 9:45 to avoid the legions of pint-size ski schoolers. Warm up with a run down Funnel Bypass, a steeper green that eventually follows the liftline, then reboard the gondola at its midway loading point near the top of Assay Hill. Your next run is Cascade, a meandering groomed trail that descends more than 1,700 vertical feet in the lightly trafficked Two Creeks area—you may see more birds in the thick glades that border the run than other skiers. You’ll have about nine minutes to rest your quads on the ride up the Two Creeks chair, then another seven minutes of chill time on the Elk Camp lift. Catch your breath at the top of Elk Camp (elevation 11,325 feet) while admiring the view of the Maroon Bells in the distance. The five wide, moderately pitched runs that fan off the top are yours for the taking: Sandy Park, Gunner’s View, Bear Bottom, Grey Wolf, and Bull Run. And since all these runs are blue, there’s no chance of accidentally straying onto a “wall of death.”
FRESHEN UP. Hit Elk Camp restaurant at the top of the gondola by 11:30 a.m. to avoid the midday rush. This airy, wood-and-stone edifice has drawn raves for its fresh, organic food since it opened last winter. Grab a pulled-pork sandwich, or fill a plate from the extensive, Whole Foods–style salad bar. Then snag a spot by one of the floor-to-ceiling windows or on the deck facing the Meadows beginner area. What better lunchtime entertainment than watching rookies tentatively navigate their first turns?
FEEL THE BURN. If you caught lunch on the early side, check a grooming report in the restaurant to see if the Noon Groom has taken place near Elk Camp. This daily dose of slope maintenance on a different intermediate run each day serves up the type of pristine corduroy you’d normally only find first thing in the morning. Afterward, traverse the mountain via the roadlike Adams’ Avenue to the Village Express lift at the base of Fanny Hill. Ride it to the top of Sam’s Knob and ski down Max Park, a superwide (and sometimes superbusy) green trail to the Big Burn chair.
A favorite area among Snowmass regulars, the Burn offers a little of everything: high-speed cruising down Sneaky’s or Whispering Jesse, easy bumps on Jack of Hearts, well-spaced trees between runs and along Mick’s Gully. The Burn’s name comes from an 1880s forest fire, not the way your legs will feel after multiple laps here.
Kids want to show you how to air off jumps or ski low-to-the-ground boxes and rails? Head down the mountain to Blue Grouse (maybe hitting a designated kids’ trail along the way; see “Child’s Play,” at right) and, toward its end, the Lowdown Park, designed especially for beginning jibbers. Prepare to be shown up by skiers half your size.
BREWS, NO BLUES. It’s day’s end, and time to click out of your skis at the edge of the Snowmass Mall and clomp right into the NEW BELGIUM RANGER STATION (970-236-6277; rangerstation.org). This outpost of the Colorado microbrewery best known for its Fat Tire Amber Ale may not seem like an obvious choice for kids—until you’re all vying for the last bite of a s’mores chocolate-chip waffle or the pretzel rolls with a mix of savory and sweet dipping sauces. Those of age can choose from some ten brews on tap, including seasonal specials.
MANGIA, MANGIA. Just like your ski day, SLICE ITALIAN BISTRO (970-923-2743; slicesnowmass.com) in the Base Village plaza offers enough variety to please everyone, with hearty pastas, salads, sandwiches, and pizza. If your family has more adventurous taste buds, forsake the usual calamari or garlic bread starters for deep-fried avocado with goat cheese and marinara. The dozen specialty pizzas—which range from classic margherita to one topped with spiced shrimp, Italian sausage, and Cajun seasonings—also come in individual sizes with a flatbread crust option.
Snowmass loves little skiers so much it has a dozen-plus special trails for them in between main runs. Pick up a Kids’ Mountain Guide map for specific locations. Just remember, as signs by some of the trails proclaim, adults must be accompanied by a “responsible child.”
Our top three picks:
1. PROSPECTOR’S TRAIL. Wind through the trees on this narrow path off Adams’ Avenue and feel like you’re miles away from the ski area. The wooden cutouts of miners and their gear got a face-lift this winter.
2. HI DI HI WOODS. This popular trail forks in the middle. Stay left to ski through the new Bat Cave tunnel, where bats hang from trees near the entrance and the curved passageway lasts for a few spooky seconds.
3. ICE AGE TRAIL. This pathway between Scooper and Dawdler leads you back in time, past life-size panels of a giant sloth, a woolly mammoth, a mastodon, and other ancient creatures.
THE MIXED BAG
YOU’VE HEARD SNOWMASS IS A GREAT FAMILY MOUNTAIN—and it is—but the people in your family don’t exactly ski the same way, do they? Mom’s a rippin’ snowboarder, Dad likes the cruisers, and Junior’s still learning. How is everyone going to ski the runs that suit them best while still getting some quality family time? Don’t sweat it. Between its top-notch ski school and lifts that allow Mom and Dad to ride together while each skiing their preferred terrain, Snowmass gives you plenty of options.
SCHOOL’S IN FOR WINTER. Kids have fun skiing with their parents, but being with kids their own age in ski school is lots of fun, too. Plus, most kids learn how to ski better from a qualified instructor than they do from Mom and Dad. So in the morning, drop Junior off for a lesson at the Treehouse, the HQ for kids’ ski school that includes a play area with “aspen trees” to climb and other interactive features. Then hop on the Village Express lift to the top. Dad: go right along Banzai Ridge to Ute Chute or Moonshine, steep but short. Mom: head left for high-speed turns down Slot, which gets groomed regularly (speed-skiing races used to be held here). Reconvene at the Sam’s Knob lift. For the next run, Mom can check out the steep double fall line of Campground or the bumps of Wildcat—both part of an underused side of the mountain—while Dad catches some rays on spacious, south-facing Sunnyside. Mom takes the Campground lift back up; Dad does another lap or two off of the Sam’s Knob lift. Rendezvous at the top of Sam’s Knob, then head over to the Big Burn lift. From there, Dad skis moderately pitched Sneaky’s, while Mom slaloms the trees of Powerline Glades.
VIEWS AND BBQ. Time for lunch. From the bottom of the Big Burn, stay left and take the appropriately named Lunchline back to the Sam’s Knob lift. Your destination, Sam’s Smokehouse, is at the top. Spectacular views abound at Snowmass, but few can match the in-your-face vista of Garrett Peak and Mount Daly from Sam’s. Take some extra time to soak up the Rocky Mountain splendor as you devour Sam’s mouthwatering barbecue fare (but save room to share the bread pudding with bourbon-whiskey sauce). When you’re done, get your skis and boards back on and cruise together—you are married, after all—down Max Park and Trestle to the romantically monikered Sheer Bliss lift to start your afternoon.
STICK AND MOVE. Sheer Bliss is also the name of a fantastic intermediate trail, and nearby runs like KT Gully (an “easy” double black) and Garrett’s Gulch (which turns into a natural halfpipe) are great for advanced snowboarders. But don’t spend too long in this area; there’s plenty more exploring to do. Ski down to and ride the Alpine Springs lift. Dad: return to the lift via one of the area’s rollicking cruisers, like Naked Lady. Ride the lift back up. Mom: take the High Alpine lift and ride Reidar’s (on a powder day, look for the end of the rope line at rider’s left and dive into the unmarked Reidar’s trees, which have been thinned a bit this winter for even better lines through them) or, for high-speed carving, the Edge. Meet your spouse near the top of the Alpine Springs chair. Do another run or two here and take Turkey Trot, a rolling cruiser, down to the Elk Camp lift. From the top, both of you should shoulder your boards and make the short hike up to Long Shot to enjoy this long, twisty, backcountry-style trail together.
SPA OR STRIKE. By now, your legs should be sufficiently rubberized to call it a day. But are you forgetting something? Ah, yes: your child. Pick up Junior at the Treehouse and squeeze in one more trip to the midway station of the Village Express lift. Ski an easy green run like Dawdler or Scooper so he or she can show off the benefits of the day’s lessons. Then rock/paper/scissors over who gets to visit the full-service spa at the Viceroy Snowmass (970-923-8000; viceroyhotelsandresorts.com), perhaps for the Bear Dance Ritual, a two-hour extravaganza of exfoliation, body wrap, and massage. But Parent no. 2 and Junior get a pretty sweet deal, too: hitting up the new eight-lane bowling alley off the mall (behind Aspen Sports). This lounge-style space, with eye-catching artwork, is no Big Lebowski–style venue. A wood-fired pizza oven serves up fresh pies, and the full bar includes beer on tap from the Aspen Brewing Company, plus Colorado-distilled spirits.
THAT’S 2,438M METRIC. It’s back to the Viceroy for dinner at Eight K (so named for its elevation), where the comfortable lounge and fireplace will warm the chill from your bones. Eight K’s seasonal menus, courtesy of Executive Chef Will Nolan, are heavy on locally sourced, organic ingredients like elk, trout, and beef, and the innovative cocktail menu and lengthy wine list will encourage you to linger at the eighty-seven-foot-long glass bar. Feast on an elk loin or rib eye, and then, if you want to get really crazy, wash it down with the Viceroy Eau-de-Vie, a $125 concoction of Casa Dragones tequila, top-flight Grand Marnier, and locally distilled peach brandy that’s virtually guaranteed to keep you toasty all night.
Interested in learning more about Snowmass’s history and ecology? THE ASPEN HISTORICAL SOCIETY’S Skiing History Tours focus on the area’s Native American and ranching heritage, as well the recent fossil dig. They leave from the guest services kiosk atop Sam’s Knob at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Tuesdays. Wildlife-centric Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (ACES) ski tours leave from the Wapiti Wildlife Center at the top of the Elk Camp lift every day at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. For a tranquil change of pace, try a snowshoe tour with an ACES naturalist ($36 if you already have a lift ticket), starting at the top of the Elk Camp gondola every day at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m.
THE THRILL SEEKERS
YOU KNOW HOW GOOD YOU ARE; no need to be modest. You and your crew are all rippers. You’ve long ago mastered Snowmass’s fabled cruisers. Now you’re looking for good snow and the kind of steep lines that give adrenaline junkies like you their fix. Fortunately, Snowmass has snow and steeps galore, but to get the best of both, you’ll want to outmaneuver the crowds. So let’s say it’s a powder day, and you’re ready to go when the lifts open. Here’s what you do:
TO THE PEAK! There are two main areas of expert terrain at Snowmass: Hanging Valley and the Cirque/Rock Island. Both start at the top of the mountain, so you’ll want to get up the hill as quickly as you can in the morning. (The free First Tracks program lets you get on the hill at 8 a.m., but space is limited, so reserve spots the day before at the Snowmass Ticket Pavilion.) Take the Village Express lift to Sam’s Knob and warm up with a cruise down Max Park and Trestle to the Sheer Bliss lift. Ride it to the top. Odds are that Snowmass’s upper double-black terrain won’t open right away, while the patrol does avalanche control, so in the meantime make a lap down the glades of West Face or Free Fall to the natural halfpipe of Garrett Gulch. When the upper runs open, ride Sheer Bliss and tackle the vertiginous cornice of Gowdy’s and the cliff-studded steeps of Rock Island before they get tracked up.
HIGH STYLE OR HIGH SPEED? For the last run of the morning, take the Cirque lift to the top and cut across the high traverse to reach Hanging Valley Wall. Strut your stuff on the steep, high-profile Headwall, followed by Wall Two, a vast, open powder field. Cruise the run-out past Elk Camp to the Alpine Springs lift. At the top of the lift, Gwyn’s High Alpine presents you with a dining decision: Have a gourmet sit-down lunch (970-923-5188, for reservations), or grab a bowl of stick-to-your-ribs chicken stew from the cafeteria line and get back to skiing? Gwyn’s also serves breakfast. Try getting there early on a powder day. Have breakfast while avalanche control work is being done, and then skip lunch in favor of making some additional turns.
ANOTHER BRICK IN THE WALL. Treat yourself to a brownie after lunch, go directly up the High Alpine chair, and work off the extra calories by heading back to the Headwall, this time via the short hike from the top of the lift. Look for soft snow in the trees on the right or the rocks on the left, and then angle hard right at the bottom to ski Lower Ladders, which has a nice mix of technical terrain and overlooked tree stashes. Ride Alpine Springs and High Alpine again, make the hike, and ski Roberto’s, a wide, steep gully. At the bottom, stay left above Wall Two to reach the snow-retaining woods of Cassidy’s and Willy’s. On your next lap, skip the hike and ski Baby Ruth, a tree-choked, elevator-shaft-steep chute, to the angled meadows of Glades One, Two, or Three. Then, if your legs are up for it, make one more trip up High Alpine after the Wall has closed and look for lingering freshies in the rocks and hollows of Hanging Valley Glades.
TURN UP THE BASE. Ready for a drink? You’ve earned it. Head for the deck at BASE CAMP BAR & GRILL and stake out your turf (970-923-6000; basecampbarandgrill.com). Revel in the pumping music, beautiful people, and party atmosphere. Rehydrate with a Mountain Mai Tai while sharing a platter of mole chicken wings, but be sure to save your appetite. You’re going to need it.
ACTUALLY, IT’S MADE WITH GROUND BEEF. For dinner, hit up the Vue Lounge at the Westin Snowmass Resort (970-923-8200; westinsnowmass.com), home of the Mammoth Burger, which comes in several varieties. A pound of beef and a pound of toppings, this jaw-dislocating monstrosity is served with a pound of parmesan fries, just for good measure. It’s plenty of food for two or three people, but if you’re looking for thrills of the gastronomic variety, see if you can handle one by yourself.
You’ve ripped the gnarliest lines Snowmass has to offer and thrown down at all the hippest après-ski hot spots. But you crave even more. Fret not: Snowmass has got you covered.
— Take to the skies on a tandem paragliding flight with ASPEN PARAGLIDING (970-925-6975; aspenparagliding.com). Leaving daily from the top of Sam’s Knob starting Dec. 15, these flights allow you to ski right off the mountain—most likely in front of a horde of gawkers—and fly to a landing in front of even more gawkers on Fanny Hill.
— Or head for KRABLOONIK (970-923-3953; krabloonik.com), hitch up to ten hyperenergetic huskies, and give dog sledding a try. Morning and afternoon ride packages ($285) include a gourmet lunch at the posh, game-focused Krabloonik Restaurant, where you’re likely to be serenaded by scores of howling hounds. Twilight ride packages ($340) include a four-course dinner.
— If your posse includes adrenaline junkies of the younger variety, ride the Elk Camp gondola to the top for ULLR NIGHTS (Fridays, 5:30–9:00 p.m., starting Dec. 27). Named for the Norse god of snow, these evenings feature a host of outdoor activities, including sledding, climbing through a snow-built Viking ship, ice skating, and snowbiking by headlamp. The cafeteria is open for dinner, with live music in the dining area. Cap off the night with s’mores and hot chocolate around a roaring bonfire.