Lay of the Land
Aspen is located in Pitkin County, in the heart of the White River National Forest, surrounded by the peaks of the Elk Mountain Range in the central Rocky Mountains. It sits at the southeastern end of the fifty-mile-long Roaring Fork Valley. Driving there from the airport, you’ll pass through a number of towns, such as Carbondale, El Jebel and Basalt; Snowmass, the nearest community, is twelve miles away. All these places are fun to visit for a few hours, and each has some very good restaurants along with limited shopping.
Instead of one monolith, Aspen offers four separate mountains for skiers, each with a different degree of difficulty. Aspen Mountain, which looms over downtown, tests the staunchest of athletes. It has more than twenty-three double black diamond runs (the toughest of the tough) and plenty of terrain that is never groomed at all but instead is left until the moguls grow big as Buicks. That said, it also has the extremely popular Aspen Mountain Club, a members-only restaurant, at the summit, and many people who have lunch plans there choose to ski the mountain as well. There are ample intermediate top-to-bottom runs for those who aren’t experts, but beginners and intermediates looking only for great skiing may want to try another peak. Aspen Highlands is sometimes referred to as the locals’ mountain, because that’s mostly who skis there. That’s too bad, since Highlands offers an incredible mix of terrain, from beginner to advanced. It is also known for having the top extreme terrain in Aspen, a big lure for those who want to test themselves against the very best. Every Friday brings a freestyle competition along with bump and big-air experts from around the country. Those not competing will find good viewing seats at the Merry-Go-Round Restaurant around lunchtime. Buttermilk Mountain, as its name implies, is a gentle place and one of the United States’ premier beginner’s mountains. The smallest of Aspen’s four mountains, it is also extremely popular with snowboarders and with snowshoers, who travel uphill for their daily workout. Snowmass, the family resort, is also Aspen’s largest mountain, with more skiable terrain than the other three put together. Mostly intermediate, it nevertheless has something for everyone, from complete beginners to the very advanced.
Aspen’s airport, Sardy Field, is located only three miles from downtown Aspen and is served by frequent flights from Denver, as well as from larger West Coast cities and Chicago. Weather delays occur year-round, so prepare alternative travel plans in case you need them. Some people choose to fly into the Eagle County Airport, seventy-some miles from Aspen, where the runways are longer and the flights seem more reliable.