Aspen has quickly become one of my favorite places to visit in winter! I visited again last week and was reminded again of what a charming town it is. Aspen is actually a small little city, but surrounded by 4 huge mountains to choose between and first-class dining to fuel all the activity. In case you are inspired to go, here are some of the things I love and recommend!
Much to my surprise, we’ve never faced crowds on the mountains or waited more than a few minutes for a lift. There are NO lines! Because the Denver population has so many closer mountains to choose from, such as Keystone or Breckenridge, and it’s a 4 hour drive away, you are mainly surrounded by locals and a few other vacationers. The easiest way to get to Aspen is to fly into Aspen/Pitkin County Airport (ASE). The aspen airport is only 3-4 miles from the downtown area, about a $25 cab ride.
It is a quieter city, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t nightlife. All the action of the town is centered around the main lift to Aspen Mountain, in a 4 by 4 block square radius packed with restaurants, bars and shops. It’s magical at night with all the trees lit up.
The 4 Mountains: They are all connected by a free bus system and accessible with the same lift ticket. If you stay downtown at the base of Ajax, then Highlands and Buttermilk are a few minutes away by bus and Snowmass is a 30 minute bus ride.
- Aspen Mountain (Ajax): This is our favorite mountain, especially on a powder day! If you stay in downtown Aspen, you can wake up, walk a few blocks to the lift and hop right on the Silver Queen Gondola. It’s for the intermediate skier and above because there are no green runs. It has a fully enclosed Gondola that goes all the way to the top, so you can enjoy nice long runs. We’ve spent the majority of our time on this mountain.
- Snowmass: This is the largest mountain with a large variety of runs from easy to expert. It’s the perfect option when you have a variety of ages and abilities in your group because everyone, no matter their level, will find runs they enjoy. It will take you a full day just to ride every chair lift.
- Highlands: It has a mix of different runs, but is most famous for the bowl that you have to hike uphill 45 minutes to get to. I don’t have to guts to ski down it or the ambition to hike up to it!
- Buttermilk: You will see this mountain driving into town and immediately notice the large terrain park, home to the Winter X-Games. Ironically, it’s a great option for new or beginner skiers because ¾ of the trails are green or blue.
- Find a condo on vrbo.com. Not only is it much more comfortable and fun than a hotel room, it’s also economical. Most condos you find on vrbo will go through a management company, such as Gondola Resorts, that might provide free transportation from the airport to downtown. The condo allows you to make meals at home, which is convenient for breakfast. Plus, no matter how determined you are to party, skiing is exhausting – and sometimes it’s fun to just stay in and play cards in front of a fireplace! As an added bonus, most places have a washer/dryer.
- Downtown Aspen is the only place I’ve stayed. It’s best to stay near the Silver Queen Gondola, at the center of town, for a short walk to the mountain and to be close to the action. The downtown area is full of great dining and nightlife. Plus, there is a sizable grocery store in the middle of town, City Market, which has anything might need. The bus stop in the center of town will take you to any of the other 3 mountains for free
- If you are vacationing with a group of people where the skill levels are better suited for Snowmass, you might consider staying there instead. There are a ton of condo and hotel options.
Dining – These are my favorite spots in downtown Aspen:
- White House Tavern – This is hands down my favorite place I’ve eaten in Aspen. You know that when a menu has only 12 total items on it, there is nothing that isn’t over-the-top being served. I had the best chicken sandwich of my life, which was the perfect mix of comfort food and sophistication. The “lettuce” was kale and cabbage mixed with chilies and honey mustard. I died. Next time I’m in Aspen, I will eat here multiple times so I can try one of everything on the menu.
- The Meatball Shack – As the name suggests, they serve meatballs, and you just might find yourself wanting to lick the plate. Awesome place for local drafts, fun cocktails, and creative meatball appetizers to share like ‘buffalo chicken balls’ or ‘General Tso’s balls’. Very fun rustic, but hip atmosphere.
- Sundeck – sits on top of Ajax mountain and on a clear day, looks out over the Elk mountains and Highlands mountain. Even if you don’t ski down Ajax, it sits right on top of the Gondola so you could make the trip up for the view and the classy cafeteria-style food (think seared tuna salad or lamb curry).
- Paradise Bakery – get a muffin or cinnamon roll and sit outside at one of the tables facing the mountain. Even in winter, if you have a sunny morning, it’s beautiful to eat out in the fresh air and watch people skiing down the mountain. (If you want more of a meal, Poppycocks is close by and has delicious oatmeal pancakes.)
- Do some pre-trip ski conditioning. If you want to make the most of your trip, you want your legs to be able to outlast the long runs!
- Make a packing list! Ski trips end up requiring a lot of equipment, especially if you bring your own skies or snowboard. Some things on my list are trail mix, cards/games, iPod speakers, detergent/dryer sheets, and sturdy hiking or snow boots.
- Buy your lift tickets ahead of time on Liftopia. You can get a good deal that either includes rentals or $20 a day to the restaurants on the mountain.
- Drink a lot of water. Andrew and I always wear our Camelbaks on the mountain. You don’t realize how thirsty you get skiing, especially on warmer day, and these allow you to keep hydrated.
- Hit the slopes right when they open. The best skiing is at 9am when the lifts start and the snow is either fresh powder or still nicely groomed. By mid-afternoon, your legs are tired, the snow is getting choppy, and it’s time for après ski!
- Treat yourself to good food – you earned it!