Holidays & Travel

Why celeb favourite Aspen beats Europe for crowd-free slopes

It might be on the pricier side, but Colorado’s prime ski resort promises more space and perfect snow, says Josie Clarke.

Aspen Snowmass Resort on a sunny winter day
Darcy Conover and Gordon Bronson Skiing Groomers Together at Aspen Snowmass Resort on a Sunny Winter Day Aspen Snowmass Resort on a sunny winter day (©Scott Markewitz Photography; I)

It’s 9.30am under a near cloudless Colorado sky. Beneath me is a vision of untouched snow, not a track to be seen. My ski guide, Ange, and I laugh at our good luck just being here.

It’s as though the mountain – Aspen’s Snowmass, measuring 3,300 acres of terrain – belongs to us alone. And all this during the UK half-term holidays. Children – or anyone at all – are few and far between across the four mountains that make up the wider resort.

While friends back home WhatsApp pictures of crowded slopes and compare notes on variable snow conditions, a Facebook post I put up of empty runs, powder glistening in the sun, has one envious pal asking if I’m the only one there.

Skiing on Aspen’s largely empty Snowmass mountain.
Skiing on Aspen’s largely empty Snowmass mountain. Skiing on Aspen’s largely empty Snowmass mountain.

Having had only a vague impression of Aspen as an exclusive and formidably pricey celebrity hangout, I’m visiting solo to check out the newly-opened Hero’s terrain on Aspen Mountain, which has added 153 acres to the upper, eastern aspects.

Idyllic Rocky Mountain scenes are all around, with views travelling up Independence Pass and down to the valley floor, where the Roaring Fork River meanders through the snow-blanketed North Star Nature Preserve.

It’s scenes like this that make me wish I was sharing them with the family. Added to this, the resort is an exciting experience for everyone from beginner to experts, boasting more than 5,600 acres of skiable terrain across the gentler Buttermilk and Snowmass (he latter with the expansive Elk Camp Meadow learners area feeding into a myriad of softer blues down to base), to the more advanced Aspen Mountain and the Highland Bowl, which tops out at 12,392ft atop double black diamond runs and requires a 45-minute hike to reach it.

The four mountains are all within an easy short drive of one another and a single lift pass covers them all, meaning each morning you can choose a new scene depending on the abilities of those in your party – with different but equally breath-taking views wherever you go.

Aspen itself, a former mining town that holds its heritage dear judging by the number of people walking around in cowboy hats (sold at local store Kemu Sabe for US$900), is most definitely not a budget option.

However, there are family-friendly restaurants, free ice rinks, and a wealth of experiences other than skiing that adds to its all-purpose family credentials. And for those who at any point become terrified of leaving the hotel on account of how much it might cost them, the Aspen Art Museum is entirely free.

(Craig Turpin)

And while the lift passes may be relatively pricey compared with Europe, they come – in the week I’m there, at least – with absolutely no queues at any point. The mountains are wide open and, combined with the US dedication to courtesy or risk of being sued, the whole experience provides full days of relaxing, uninterrupted skiing – on some runs, mine are the first tracks until lunchtime.

For someone used to the jostle and queues of the European ski slopes, I feel like a kid in a candy store. Around mid morning, Ange wonders if a quick coffee might see us through to a late lunch, but we both agree it’s too glorious to stop.

Fortunately, the area puts a lot of effort into its apres-ski scene.

My first day skiing on Snowmass, around a 20-minute drive from the centre of Aspen town, ends sitting in the base village sipping an espresso martini, overlooking fields still bathed in sunshine and watching a Mardi Gras parade pass by. Cajun food and a live band round off the day, while children from the local school (which has its own chairlift from within the grounds, and deposits hoards of kids at the top of the mountain as soon as lessons end for the day) queued for free S’mores.

The town of Aspen. (AspenSkiCompanyPA)
The town of Aspen. (AspenSkiCompanyPA) The town of Aspen. (AspenSkiCompanyPA) (Jeremy Swanson)

Back in Aspen, the town comes alive as the sun sets and skiers return. The Little Nell, at the base of the Silver Queen Gondola, is the resort’s only five star/five diamond hotel and the area’s ‘grande dame’, making it a celebrity magnet and a fun place to people-watch in its lively bars.

The hotel also offers the area’s only ski-in, ski-out spa, which offers a deep recovery massage complete with purifying oxygen and an infrared blanket that is just what the doctor ordered after three days of solid skiing.

The Little Nell is also where you find the town’s most celebrated restaurant, Element 47 – named in honour of the precious metal that first put Aspen on the map – which serves “Colorado contemporary” cuisine such as locally-raised Wagyu beef and seasonal produce.

Before we sit down, we are given a tour of the hotel’s legendary wine cellar, which not only contains more than 20,000 bottles of the finest wine from around the world but also hosts the odd party and intimate dinners on request.

The Little Nell’s wine cellar. (Credit: Jamie Jaye Fletcher)
The Little Nell’s wine cellar. (Credit: Jamie Jaye Fletcher) The Little Nell’s wine cellar. (Credit: Jamie Jaye Fletcher)

Walking back after dinner to our hotel, the Limelight (slightly lower key, but luxurious and comfortable, and featuring steaming outdoor hot tubs), the snow is falling heavily, and it doesn’t stop by the time we wake up.

The day is perfect for a snowshoe hike up the stunning and pristine Castle Creek Valley, starting at the historic Ashcroft ghost town and moving through serene spruce and fir forests and open meadows.

We strap on our shoes – made for the thick powder that’s still falling – and set off on a 45-minute walk towards lunch. Amid the perfect silence that comes with a heavy snow fall, we take in our majestic surroundings, trying to work out which creatures might have left the footprints of varying sizes.

Snowshoeing up the Castle Creek Valley.
Snowshoeing up the Castle Creek Valley. Snowshoeing up the Castle Creek Valley.

The legendary Pine Creek Cookhouse is nestled at the base of the Elk Mountains and serves up gourmet alpine food, featuring wild game and fresh fish.

We lunch on Rocky Mountain elk bratwurst, hickory smoked venison and rainbow trout, accompanied by a cocktail menu designed to fend off the cold. My elderberry, pear and ginger old fashioned keeps me warm for the entire hike back to base.

Once again, I’m thinking about how much the kids would have loved this day, under a huge – by now, blue – sky and the adventurous freedom that comes with Colorado’s wide open spaces.

We’re lucky to have Europe’s slopes just a two-hour flight away, but the Rockies and their offer of a crowd-free, school holiday escape is an experience that is more than worth the investment.

How to plan your trip

For more information on the destination, visit aspensnowmass.com and aspen.com.