At 8am on Friday 2/27/2015, my wife and I set off with our three boys (ages 6, 4 & 4) from Virginia toward Aspen/Snowmass for what turned out to be an incredible trip that everyone agreed was easily our best vacation ever! We were fortunate enough to receive many suggestions from the good folks on EpicSki that Snowmass would be our best fit for only the second trip out west for this beginner and intermediate family from the flatlands. Initially, it looked like Aspen/Snowmass was going to just be too expensive for us relative to other resorts, but I kept digging for a deal and eventually was able to pull off a relative deal by booking early back in August. I’m so thankful we made it work because the entire place is amazing. And although it was still slightly more than some other places, and definitely required a bit more driving to get to, it was so worth it. Of course the 3’+ of snow while we were there on top of 2’ that had fallen within the week or so before we got there certainly didn’t hurt either!
After driving 3 hours to the Dulles Airport, 2 hours at the airport and a 4 hour flight, we arrived in Denver around 5pm, just in time for rush hour…We had originally planned to spend a night in Denver to break up the trip and acclimate to the altitude, but we made a last minute decision to drive on up to Glenwood Springs that night because the weather looked to be better Friday night than Saturday morning. After securing the rental car, stopping for food and Starbucks, dealing with rush hour traffic and then mountain traffic and snow, we made it to Glenwood Springs around 9pm (or 11pm EST). Even though that made for about 15 hours straight of travelling, with 3 young kids, we were happy to be that close to the mountain with a full day on Saturday to goof off and rest up. Thankfully our boys are little road warriors and were great for that entire trip.
As a side note, I learned a good lesson for the future regarding rental car agencies in Denver, and Hertz specifically. I had called ahead to the local Denver Hertz prior to arrival and was guaranteed a 4WD or AWD SUV. When I checked in at Hertz, they assigned me a Dodge Journey and assured me again that, yes, it was AWD. Of course, when I checked for myself it wasn’t. To their credit, though, when I very politely complained Hertz did then upgrade me to a pretty sweet Infinity QX 60 with AWD, traction control, leather, etc. at no charge. I would say we fit in perfectly around Aspen with that ride but the free public buses were so convenient that the car stayed parked all week.
We couldn’t check in on Saturday until 4pm so after a leisurely breakfast and grocery shopping, we spent the bulk of the day exploring the town of Aspen with lunch at Ajax Tavern adjacent to the gondola.
Looking up at Aspen Mountain from Ajax Tavern:
We stayed right in Snowmass Village at the Terrace House condos, which is about halfway between the base village and the Snowmass Mall, one row off the slopes. The unit was very nice but not luxurious in any way, super convenient though and included a nice outdoor hot tub. Overall, it was a good value and I’d recommend it but maybe not for those looking for uber luxury. We quickly learned that the easiest way to get down to the base village was to just walk straight out to the edge of the slope (Fanny Hill) and walk down through the snow to the base village. The Sky Cab (aka Skittles gondola) runs between the base village and the Mall so we would take that to the mall and walk down to the condo to come home. The kids welcomed any opportunity to play in the snow and it beat walking along the sidewalks worried about them jumping out into traffic.
Kids running down the mountain to the base village:
We skied 5 of 6 days starting on Sunday and the skiing was absolutely incredible! Although most all of Colorado had been on somewhat of a drought for most of January and early February, we managed to hit the snow jackpot. Snowmass had gotten roughly 2’ over the week leading up to our trip and then over 3’ while we were there. The boys were in ski school all 5 days while my wife and I skied together about half the time. I’m a pretty solid intermediate and my wife made the transition from an upper beginner to a lower intermediate on this trip and there was plenty of great terrain to keep us both happy for the entire week and then some. The boys were beginners, but all had at least a few days under the belts over the past couple of years.
The kids ski school reputation was a major reason for choosing Snowmass and it definitely did not disappoint. This was our fourth experience with ski school for them and Snowmass was light years ahead of anything else we’ve experienced. From the Treehouse facilities at the base, to the overall organization checking kids in, to the teaching itself, to the on-mountain kid-centric lodge (Lizard Lodge) and special tails through the woods, etc., everything was truly first rate. They really make it fun for the kids without looking/feeling like Disney World. The 6-year old transitioned from a low level 2 to a level 5 skiing blues off the Village Express and Elk Camp Gondola during the week and gained a ton of confidence. The 4 year olds also made good progress but didn’t quite make it beyond the carpets/gondolas. They all three had an absolute blast the whole time. They couldn’t wait to go back every morning and didn’t want to leave at the end. We definitely got our money’s worth!
Our first day skiing was Sunday and my wife and I started the day together on some nice and easy green and blue runs off the Elk Camp Gondola to get our snow legs under us again. It had snowed several inches overnight so the conditions were great on both the groomers and ungroomed runs. Once nice feature I noticed at Snowmass is that many of the runs are so wide that they’d groom only half the width of some runs and it was almost like two runs in one. That made for a nice transition into the ungroomed areas as we warmed up a bit. We stopped for lunch at the Elk Camp Restaurant, which was good but very expensive and crowded. We quickly forgot about the costs, though, because it started snowing again so we were just excited to get back out. We spent that afternoon running laps on the slightly steeper blue runs off the Elk Cap Lift (mostly Bull Run, Gunner’s View & Sandy Park). Although we didn’t push ourselves too hard that first day, it was a great day. It was still snowing that evening when we all 5 hit the hot tub and it kept snowing most of the night.
On Monday, we both took lessons as well. My wife did a group at Snowmass with 5 others and had a good day, but she felt she was a little better than the rest of the group so she wasn’t pushed much. I did a small group “Performance Coaching” lesson at Highlands with only one other person. It had snowed another 10” overnight so there was great powder all over the place. The one other skier in my group was a good level or two better than I and both he and the instructor pushed me really hard all day. And I loved that! I learned so much that day, particularly about powder and bumps. I felt bad that he had to take his lesson with a lower level skier like me but I gave him the opportunity to switch and he seemed content not to push as hard. I can see why that mountain is the favorite of the Aspen four for so many. We spent most of the day skiing the blues off Cloud Nine lift as well as some of the single black runs; I remember Boomerang and Robinsons Run but not the other names. We tried taking the Lone Peak lift to the top to get a good view of Highlands Bowl, but it had started snowing really hard around lunchtime again (oh darn…) so we couldn’t get a good view of the bowl. We skied so hard that day that we cut off our lesson a few minutes early even though the instructor was willing to go over and I could barely walk across the base village to catch the bus back to Snowmass. All in all, it was an amazing day and, up to that point, easily the best skiing experience of my life; admittedly, I only have about 40-50 days skiing total, but still it made a huge impression.
Attempted picture of Highland Bowl:
Looking up at Boomerang (single black):
Tuesday started out with another 10” or so of fresh powder and I stopped by Four Mountain Sports to swap out my demo Volkl Kendos for some Nordica Soul Riders, which turned out to be a great choice for me. Having decided to ski Snowmass exclusively the rest of the week to stick close to the kidos, we spent this day exploring the mountain more and started off on the Elk Gondola again but quickly moved skiers left across the mountain to the Alpine Springs lift (Lodgepole, Lunkerville & Naked Lady), then to Sheer Bliss lift (Sheer Bliss, Whispering Jesse) and then the Big Burn area (Sneaky’s, Micks Gully & Dallas Freeway). Before this trip, neither of us really had much experience in powder like we were experiencing but by now we were intentionally seeking out the ungroomed runs and literally having the time of our lives! The only down side was that, given our limited powder experience and skills, our legs were completely wiped out by the time we stopped for a late lunch back at the condo around 1pm. With that realization, we decided to pick the boys up a little early from their lessons and ski with them a little for the rest of the afternoon.
Looking down Sheer Bliss (blue):
I grabbed my 6-year old and headed up the Village Express to the midway unloading and set off with him down some easy greens, Lunchline to Dawdler. As we started out, he noticed a nice section off to the side that was about 10”-12” of barely tracked powder (I guess it had held up since most green skiers didn’t want to touch it?), to which he says – “Daddy, why can’t we hit that powder over there”? - and, of course, how do you argue with that? It was a very proud moment for me since he was just three days of lessons at Snowmass removed from just snowplowing down the bunny slope. This was the first time that we had ever truly skied together, which was an amazing experience for me and quickly replaced the incredible previous day at Highlands as my best experience on skis to date. Skiing together with him this day, and the remainder of the week, was very special for me and truly made the whole trip worth it. And I attribute that mostly to the excellent ski school getting him up and going so fast. I’m sure I only have a short window of a few years now before he’s leaving me behind…
Enjoying his powder run:
Wednesday was our day off and my legs sure thanked me after the first three days of relatively hard skiing (by our intermediate standards anyway). We spent some time exploring Aspen again, thanks again to the easy free bus, went tubing at Snowmass, enjoyed some “storytelling” for the kids at the Ice Age Discover Center in the Snowmass Mall, and enjoyed a nice reasonably priced meal (relative to Aspen) at Slice in the base village. Topped off with a trip to the hot tub and we were all ready for an early night to rest up for our last two days of skiing.
Thursday was our first day all week without any new snow. But no worries because there was still plenty of powder still around and it was a beautiful blue bird day with mild mid-30s temps. After a couple of warm-up laps with my wife on Bull Run and Gunners View (Elk Camp lift), I peeled off on my own for my first ever “earn my turns” quasi-side country experience by making the 10-15 minute hike up to the aptly named Longshot. Longshot is a 5.3-mile intermediate blue run that is never groomed and includes some very widely spaced trees in places that I don’t think are considered “glades” – more like just enough to add interest – but there are also some true glades to skiers right within the Burnt Mountain Glades. The top third or so of Longshot is a fairly moderate pitch but a lot of fun, the middle third is noticeably steeper and bumped up, and the final third is fairly moderate again and probably more like a green run in places. Longshot was by far my personal favorite run on the mountain and it was great to get a little taste of hike-to terrain for an intermediate. The rest of that day I met back up with my wife and spent the afternoon primarily in the Big Burn area before a few more turns with the boys after their ski school.
Looking down Gunner's View (blue):
Hiking up to Longshot:
View from the top of Longshot off the back side - I'm pretty sure that's the Maroon Bells but hopefully someone will correct me if I'm wrong(?):
Looking down Longshot (blue) from the top:
Looking back up Longshot:
Friday was another blue bird day and noticeably warmer – low 40s at the base by midday. Recognizing that it was my last day, I decided to step it up just a notch (for me) and spent the morning on some of the single black runs in the Campground and Sam’s Knob area, notably Campground, Slot and Bearclaw. After a great early lunch at The Stewpot we did a couple laps off of Elk Camp lift again before my wife peeled off to pick the 4 years olds up a little early to hit the bunny slopes of Elk Camp Meadows with them. I went toward High Alpine lift (fixed-grip double that is an adventure of its own) for a couple more groomed single black runs, The Edge and Cookies. The views from the top here were amazing and my legs were happy to find some groomed runs as I was pretty worn out by then.
Top of High Alpine lift toward The Edge (single black):
That afternoon I managed once last run with the 6-year old down Funnel off the Gondola. That night was Ullr Nights at the top of the Elk Camp Gondola – this was fun for our little kids for about an hour (think snow bikes, a snow fort with a slide, bonfire with s’mores, etc.) but kids older than 10 or so would probably find it a little boring.
Saturday was a bittersweet goodbye to Snowmass before a fairly uneventful drive back to Denver with a lunch stop at Copper Mountain to pay homage to our first western ski trip one year earlier. That afternoon we visited the Denver Aquarium, which we thought was very nice and definitely worth a visit for anyone looking for something to do with the kids to burn some energy before heading back to the hotel. We then flew home on Sunday with no issues.
Overall, we thought the Aspen area, and Snowmass in particular, are absolutely amazing and worth every minute of the extra drive out. There is more than enough terrain to ski as well as restaurants and activities off the mountains to keep anyone entertained for as long as their schedule and budget allows. It’s also true that the area can be insanely expensive, depending on your tastes, but I also found that with a little research and planning the overall costs can be very similar to any other large resort. I also found that the extra hour or two of driving past Summit County, Vail, etc. wasn’t really a big deal for a week long tip, or more, especially in light of the 12-15 total hours of travel already required. All in all, Snowmass is an excellent family resort with diverse enough terrain for a wide mix of abilities and plenty of off-mountain options. It truly was the best vacation this family has ever experienced and we hope to go back many more times.
A few things worth noting:
- Again, the kids ski school and facilities were incredible. I really can’t say enough good things.
- Another selling point for us was a reputation for lack of crowds, which also did not disappoint. Admittedly, we planned our visit after the February holidays and before most spring breaks to miss some crowds, but I don’t think I ever waited in a lift line more than 60 seconds and 75% of the time lines were less than 30 seconds. The trails were also never truly crowded, which were aided by how wide open most of the trails are.
- We didn’t eat out a ton and sort of felt like we missed out a little on one of Aspen’s best aspects. However, with young kids in ski school all day it didn’t seem to make sense pushing them out to nice dinners. Within Snowmass, we ate at Slice in the base village a couple of times (decently priced Italian/pizza and pretty good), Venga Venga Cantina in the mall a couple of times (really good Mexican food and good après specials), the Stewpot in the mall once (excellent food and good value for lunch but can be hard to get a seat at times), Elk Camp Restaurant (as noted above, nicest cafeteria food I’ve ever seen but insanely expensive – i.e. $40 for a small salad, cup of chili and a bottle of water ), and Ajax Tavern (base of Aspen Mountain at the Gondola; very good food, cool atmosphere, somewhat expensive but understandable given location).
- I’ve mentioned it already, but the free bus systems were excellent. There is the Snowmass Village shuttle plus the RFTA bus between Snowmass and Aspen, as well as a few directs each day b/w Snowmass and Highlands and Buttermilk.
- Four Mountain Sports was very good to work with for their demo (premium) skis. They had several locations available with free overnight storage and overnight transfer b/w all four mountains. Swapping out was typically pretty quick and painless with a ton of selection.
- I was concerned this year about the altitude b/c I was affected for the first 3 days at Copper last year even though we spent the first night in Denver. I took Diamox this year, starting 2 days prior for 5 days total. I’m not sure if it was sleeping at 8,500’ instead of 9,700’ (Copper), the Diamox, the overnight in Glenwood Springs, or the combination of all three, but I didn’t really have any affects this year. Much better!
- I was a little concerned whether there would be enough green runs for my upper beginner wife but many of the blues are pretty moderately pitched and may be considered green at other resorts, particularly the Two Creeks area and the area off the Elk Camp Gondola.
- I was really impressed with how friendly every person working here was and how willing they were to go out of their way to be helpful. I’m not sure if that is just an Aspen thing or if it’s b/c everyone is just so happy to be living and working around what they love. Or maybe both.