Kelly J. Hayes Kelly J. Hayes | December 1, 2020 |
A quick guide to the valley’s mountain zones for skiers
From fledgling skiers to Olympic hopefuls and, yes, all of the thrill-seekers in between, the Roaring Fork Valley has a ski zone for nearly every skill level and passion for powder.
Like snowflakes, no two ski mountains are alike. Each is unique in shape, purpose and personality. But within the spirit of each mountain, there are specific places, or zones, if you will, that provide skiers with distinct experiences, exclusive and authentic to that hill.
No resort embodies that concept quite like Aspen. With four diverse destination mountains, it offers up a range of choices. Here’s our insider’s look at a few of these zones, along with some insights shared by Aspen Skiing Company President and CEO Mike Kaplan.
Find the zone that fits you best.
If mountains were royalty, then Aspen would don the king’s crown. Despite its diminutive size of just 675 acres (there are ranches here bigger than that), it skis much bigger and provides a multitude of riches. “You could ski Aspen Mountain every day and never have the same day twice,” says Kaplan about the broad range of terrain. “And it has evolved over the past few years as the Ski Patrol has really worked to open more of the gated terrain.”
An iconic speedway, Ruthie’s is the signature run on Aspen Mountain. A race course tested by all of the sport’s legends in FIS races, skiing Ruthie’s is like playing golf at Augusta National. It’s a place where mere mortals can compete on the same hallowed ground as champions. The America’s Downhill course drops 2,300 feet in just under 1.7 miles. Feel the burn.
Aspen Mountain has an abundance of gated terrain that’s opened at the discretion of the Ski Patrol when snow conditions allow. When the ropes drop on Trainor’s (on the high west side) or Rayburn’s (below The Dumps), it’s in-bounds skiing with an out-of-bounds feel. And you guessed it: This is for experts only.
There are no green runs on Aspen Mountain. But if you’re comfortable on solid blue cruisers, you can still ski with the elite—even if you’re not vying for the Olympic team. Experience the summit served by the Ajax Express lift on groomed runs like Bellissimo and Silver Bell. And as a bonus, you’ll see everybody you know.
It was once a renegade ski hill, owned by a feisty entrepreneur named Whip Jones who catered to the locals and fought with the authorities. But things changed around the turn of the century when a state-of-the-art village was constructed at the base, and some of the most challenging terrain in all of skiing was opened, the famed Highland Bowl.
“Highlands may have the most distinct character of the four mountains,” Kaplan notes. “The way it falls off the ridge down both sides and the views up Maroon Creek Valley are so stunning. Everybody is in such a hurry to get up the Bowl, but there’s so much more to ski.”
It’s impossible to overstate the massive influence of “The Bowl,” as locals call it. For some, the 750-foot hike to the 12,392-foot summit is a rite of passage. For others, it’s just the appetizer before the entree. The Bowl is so vast that it has zones of its own. Literally. From the Y- and B-Zones at the start of the climb, to Ozone, straight down the gut, to the G-Zones that feather out through the North Woods, each is special in its own way. A masterpiece for mountain masters.
The other Bowl on Highlands, “Oly,” couldn’t be more different. First, facing west, the aspect puts the afternoon sun in your face. A dozen or so runs are shorter than the Highland Bowl, but still attention-grabbingly steep. Oh, and there is no climb. Just hop off the Loge lift and head on over.
When you’re done with the steeps and ready to cruise, arcing a few GS turns down the groomed Golden Horn and Thunderbowl runs is an impeccable way to end the day. The domain of the kids from the Aspen Valley Ski Club, whose clubhouse is nearby, it’s fun to watch the mini-speedsters as they bump through the gates.
It was built as a place to teach skiing, and there’s likely no better mountain dedicated to future skiers on groomed runs anywhere. But that’s just one facet of the “Milk’s” personality. It’s also one of the great cruiser hills in Aspen, with the Tiehack lift serving up the best blue-shaped black runs in the valley. And then there is the “Home of the X Games” moniker that resounds with winter sports enthusiasts around the world.
“Whatever level you ski, it’s a great mountain,” Kaplan enthuses. “I love Tiehack for high-speed GS turns. And for some reason, the light there at the end of a day can be just magical. I never get enough days on Buttermilk.”
Gentle and impeccably groomed, the West Buttermilk zone is one of the most forgiving ski venues to be found. There’s just enough vertical to get some slide under your skis or snowboards without putting a beginner in a panic. This is the place to begin your adventure in snow sliding.
On most days, Tiehack is your own private ski hill. Long the provenance of local ski legend Klaus Obermeyer (the trail on the far side was named Klaus Way in his honor last season), it is the place for cruising and solo powder when the crowds have headed to the other hills.
You’ve watched stars like Shaun White and Gretchen Bleiler make the 22-foot, Zaugg-cut superpipe at the Milk one of the most famous winter sports venues on earth during the X Games. It’s the Yankee Stadium of the sport. But all over Buttermilk, you’ll find terrain parks with small tabletops, urban-style down rails, barrel bonks and pyramids. If you know what those are, you’ve found your zone.
“You have to be purposeful when you approach Snowmass,” Kaplan counsels about the biggest of the ski mountains in the Aspen resort quiver. “I like to go from west to east, but there’s no bad way, or bad days, on Snowmass.” With 3,302 acres and 94 named trails, it’s a behemoth with many faces, personalities and zones. From absolute beginner greens in the Meadows atop Elk Camp to the chutes and cliffs of the Cirque, there’s terrain for every type of skier. If you can’t find your zone here, you don’t have one.
When Kaplan says he likes to start in the west, he means this part of the mountain. A quick ride up the Knob lift gives you access to an area that would be perfect as a stand-alone mountain. Double fall lines, long cruisers and no crowds make the area an oasis. And be sure to scope out the Frank Gehry-designed “meeting house” as you ride the Campground lift. Disney in the Rockies.
This year, a new six-pack lift is scheduled to make its debut, providing a great addition to one of the most iconic ski zones in America. Wide open and wild, The Big Burn, with runs like Mick’s Gulley and Dallas Freeway, is to cruising as the Highland Bowl is to adventuring.
The family-friendly side of Snowmass. Accessed most easily by the Elk Camp Gondola from the still-evolving new Base Village, the east side of the mountain features blue cruisers like Gunner’s View and Long Shot. This also is home to the Elk Camp Meadows beginner park and the Mountain Cruiser, plus the gateway to the Two Creeks area.
Photography by: From top: Jeremy Swanson; Matt Power; Matt Power; Matt Power; Daniel Bayer