Pros: Moguls, Gondola, Ruthie's
Cons: Prices (sort of), Awkward Layout
First, the Ajax portion of this review. The RFTA buses will dump you off at the Rubey Park terminus of the shuttle route, and from there it's just a short hoof down the road and up the stairs to the Silver Queen Gondola. The base-to-summit gondola is a highlight, and if you have the days in Aspen to spare, I don't think you could go wrong by spending a day competing with your friends to see who can get the most laps. You could make it considerably more challenging by insisting that everyone ski the moguls off Bell Mountain each lap. Which brings me to my next point - every black run (with only a couple of exceptions) and some parts of the blue runs, are mogul runs. Bump-bashers and wannabes - rejoice! Families from Texas - get on the bus to Buttermilk.
That said, Ajax isn't a lost cause for the groomer zoomer in all of us, as Ruthie's provides what I think is one of the best long, zippy groomers in the Rockies, and seems to be largely ignored by the folks who are skiing off the Ajax Express and won't bother with the short ride up the (old, slow) F.I.S. double. Re-live your beer league racing glory days and World Cup fantasies while lapping what might be the only high-speed triple in the country.
Complaints? The trail layout is...well, hot garbage to put it kindly, but that is a consequence of shoehorning a ski area into three peaks that are broken up by two steep gullies. Lots of pinballing and skate-skiing to be had off the Ajax Express lift. Also, the slow-as-molasses Gent's Ridge chair needed to be replaced with a HSQ yesterday.
Having completed separate reviews of Snowmass and Highlands, I'll be including my observations on the town of Aspen and our overall experience there. First, let's deal with the perception that Aspen is expensive. Don't get me wrong, you should definitely pack your credit card - but you'd be doing that at any other destination resort, right? When the "Aspen is for the rich and famous" mantra is repeated by the same sort of folks who will gladly pay $200+/night to stay at a condo or hotel in Breck/Vail during the mid-winter season, it's pretty silly. When we got off the plane at ASE and on the bus going into town, any illusions of "all snooty, all the time" were dispelled by the ski bum in bib overalls standing next to us drinking a tallboy, who asked where we were staying and was nice enough to let us know at 4th Street, "This is your stop, guys. Welcome to town." We didn't see a limo all week. No fur coats or teacup poodles in purses. Basically, don't come to Aspen during a peak time, and you're guaranteed to avoid the worst of the prices and most of the pretension.
We stayed at the Aspen Mountain Lodge, where I snagged a great late March rate ($130/night, and on arrival we were given a complimentary upgrade to a balcony room on the top floor). That included a deluxe continental breakfast each morning (cereal, fruit, yogurt, hard-boiled eggs, waffles, toast, etc.) and a daily happy hour with wine, cheese, and a few other snacks. It was an older property, but very clean, and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it as an 'economy' option in Aspen proper. Naturally, if you were really dirtbagging it, you would know friends, or hit up AirBnB, or stay in Carbondale/Glenwood Springs and drive/bus in to ski everyday, but for the price we paid there was no beating the walkable location, or the overall quality of the hotel. Front desk staff was extremely helpful with telling us where to stand to catch each bus (there are different stops, depending on whether you're going to Snowmass, Highlands/Buttermilk, or downtown/Ajax).
Dining out proved to be no more expensive than any other destination ski town. We "slummed" it at the Hickory House (good ribs and big portions for moderate $$) and Su Casa (decent Mexican, not too overpriced). Splurged on lunch at Ajax Tavern (which was worth it, despite the trust fund vibe) and dinner at the J-Bar (best meal of the trip). Also ate at Finnbar's, which was very good, but I've heard it has since closed, thus demonstrating the short lifespan of many restaurants in Aspen. If you want a big lunch or cheap early dinner, get to the Grateful Deli before 5 and grab one of their big sandwiches with chips and a drink for a little over 10 bucks. Only restaurant I would hesitate to recommend is Mezzaluna - food was good, but we had very chilly and slow service from the waiter there, despite racking up a $100 bill.
Overall, I would jump at the chance to go back to Aspen. Thus far, between Ajax, Highlands, and Snowmass, it's the best combination of skiing and town that I've found in Colorado (only CO destination resort I haven't hit yet is Telluride), and features less than half the crowds of the Front Range resorts. So to summarize all three of my Aspen-area reviews:
1. Go during off-peak periods to save money and avoid the celebs/general stupidity
2. Fly into ASE. Seriously, when you calculate the cost of flying to DEN, renting a car, driving ~4 hrs each way, paying for gas, parking, etc., flying in and out of ASE usually makes more sense, even if you end up getting delayed (which happens often). If you're one of the unlucky ~10% to ultimately get cancelled or diverted to DEN or GJT because of wind gusts or storms, that's life, so plan accordingly.
3. Take advantage of the RFTA buses as much as possible - they will get you anywhere within Aspen/Snowmass without paying, and even out to Carbondale/Glenwood for a fee (there are pre-pay cards that will lower the overall rate-per-segment to those towns)
4. Whether you hike the Bowl or not (someday...we weren't good enough this trip), ski a minimum of two days at Aspen Highlands - you won't regret it.
5. At Snowmass, if you're at least a capable intermediate, you owe it to yourself to hike Burnt Mtn.
6. If you idolize Fistful of Moguls, you most "belong" at Ajax