Snowmass, CO – Three things define the Snowmass experience; The
Big Burn, the mall, and ski-in, ski-out accommodations. The Big Burn is a huge
open ski run created by a forest fire many years ago. The mall is a shopping
mall next to the slopes with restaurants and shops offering anything you could
possibly want before, during, or after a day on the slopes. Ski-in, ski-out
describes 95% of the accommodations at Snowmass. You open the sliding glass
door of your condo, strap on your boards, and ski down to the lift. Forget clunking
from the parking lot to and from the lift in ski boots. Snowmass shows you how
skiing ought to be.
A run named Fanny Hill is where you start your day at Snowmass. Dozens of condominium
complexes line the south side of Fanny Hill. Slopeside cafés like the Cirque
allow you to eat and drink and take in the action during lunch, or après-ski.
Snowboarding may have put a major hurt on ski fashion, but there are still plenty
of tight-fitting Bogners to be seen here. Don’t plan on making a lot of consecutive
turns on Fanny Hill. It’s more a place to dodge beginners while sliding down
to the lift that takes you to — an even higher lift.
Should you be one of the unfortunates without a ski-in/ski-out condo, for $5
the day skier lot will put you a few hundred feet and a short staircase down
to a short lift that will take you to Fanny Hill. At the end of the day you
can ski right back to this lot. You can’t complain about that.
Click on image to open a full-size trail map in a new
In the middle of Fanny Hill sits the mall. The mall entrance is like a giant
mouth which breathes thousands of skiers and snowboarders onto the slopes each
morning and off again every afternoon. The ticket office is here. Shuttlebusses
from the parking lots and Aspen, Buttermilk and Aspen Highlands all pick up
and drop off here. The ski and snowboard shops in the mall have every ski, boot,
or snowboard you’ve ever lusted after People taking lessons all meet in front
of the mall. Local "Ambassadors" at the mall entrance serve you free
morning coffee and point you in the right direction.
Let’s say you started your morning at The Mall and rode the Fanny Hill Lift.
You’ve got two more high-speed quads to ride to get to the top of The Big Burn.
It’s hard to describe how large The Big Burn actually is. Let’s just say you
could have a hundred or more skiers schussing The Big Burn simultaneously without
ever running into each other. It’s perfect for perfecting your turns. Snowboarders
love it for carving big wide turns. In terms of steepness, The Big Burn is an
intermediate run with just a few trees providing a break in the white.
You come to realize The Big Burn is the perfect trademark for Snowmass; it’s
massive in every way. It takes two people just to hold a fully open Snowmass
trail map. It will take you two or three days to ski every run here. A week
to eat lunch at all the on-slope restaurants. Want empty slopes? Traverse Turkey
Trot over to the Elk Camp for lots of uncrowded intermediate terrain, or do
a short hike up to Long Shot for a l-o-n-g, uncrowded ride down.
Just How Massive
Even at the top of The Big Burn, you’re not really at the top. Snowmass consists
of several peaks—The Big Burn, The Cirque, High Alpine, Sam’s Knob, and Elk
Camp. At the very top the wind-powered Cirque lift serves the terrain overlooking
the resort. At 12,510 feet, this is serious nosebleed territory. Snowmass has
more vertical than any other resort in North America: 4,406 feet. Another great
thing; you don’t have to be an expert to go to the top. There is at least one
intermediate run down from each of the peaks.
Unlike a lot of resorts that claim to be snowboard-friendly, Snowmass truly
is. There are benches to sit on while you strap in at the top of every lift
as well as a tool-equipped work table. Newer benches are upside-down half-logs
equally suitable for slides. Trail maps clearly indicate flat spots for boarders
to avoid. There is a gentle terrain park where beginners can work on their tricks
as well as a gargantuan superpipe. There’s a lift serving just the terrain park
area. Even so, snowboarders only make up 20% or so of the crowd at Snowmass
so skiers won’t feel intimidated.
I’m going to skip telling you about all the amenities offered like cider and
cookies and the children’s race area and TubeTown and the skating rink, the
radar speed trap, picnic areas, the snowboarder’s yurt, the First Tracks program,
Nature tours, and so on. You’ll discover all of these and more when you get
here. The list of things Snowmass does to make sure their guests have a great
time seems to go on forever, just like the thigh-burner from the top of Elk
Camp back to Fanny Hill – a single ski run that’s a whopping 4.2 miles long!
(photo courtesy Aspen Skiing Co.)
Snowmass is one of four mountains operated by the Aspen Ski Company. Lined
up along a 12 mile stretch of Highway 82 are Snowmass, Buttermilk, Aspen Highlands,
and Aspen itself. Snowmass is so big and offers such a tremendous variety of
terrain you’ve got to wonder, ‘Had it been built first, would they have even
bothered building the others?’ Each area has its own distinct flavor. Buttermilk
offers excellent beginner and intermediate terrain. Offering mostly groomed
runs, it attracts families along with carving snowboarders. Aspen’s steeps capture
the die-hard Nordic ski and fashion gods. Aspen Highlands is the uncrowded locals’
favorite, but has begun moving seriously upscale with the new Ritz Carlton Club
ownership residences opening there.
Staying focused on Snowmass is hard when your lift ticket grants you unlimited
access to all four of the Aspen mountains. The transportation department at
Aspen Ski Company is a model of efficiency. Shuttlebusses between the mountains
run continuously. The shuttle stops are located extremely close to the lifts,
sometimes just a few steps. You can actually ski more than one mountain in a
day or go meet friends for lunch without spending half your day getting there.
A lot of skiers view a trip to Aspen like a trip to Mecca, something they might
do once in a lifetime, once they finally feel ready, or deserving. My trip to
Snowmass convinced me that’s the wrong attitude. Snowmass, Buttermilk, Aspen
Highlands and Aspen offer some of the best skiing/riding in North America. Sure,
it’s slightly more expensive than other resorts, but isn’t that what your VISA
card is for? Is there anything bad about a resort so large that you and your
friends can have a slope all to yourselves? Is there anything wrong with fabulous
restaurants in-town and on the slopes? I don’t think so. Rent a ski-in,
ski-out condo for a week at Snowmass. Spend a day on each of the other mountains,
take a lesson or two to improve your technique, eat dinner and party in Aspen
and you’ll have a ski vacation you’ll never forget.