231-922-9460 | Google +

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Affordable Aspen Vacation

Story first appeared on OregonLive.com

Zooming down the steep face of Ajax with the wind in your face on sun-sparkled snow makes for a memorable ski day in the Rockies.  Luxury Aspen condo rentals. What makes for a memorable winter vacation is the wall-to-wall mountain experience of Aspen.

No longer just a playground for the rich, Aspen has evolved into a more accessible and varied destination that seeks to draw regular folks. It had no choice.

In the 1980s, Aspen was the haughty queen of North American ski resorts, with an international brand that catered to Hollywood celebs and jet setters with Euro-style skiing and nightlife. Since then, places such as Whistler, Vail and Park City, Utah, have eclipsed Aspen by luring couples, families and teens with deals, new facilities and expanding winter activities that offer a lot more to do than skiing. No wonder. Aspen Ski Co. stubbornly banned snowboarders from Aspen Mountain for a decade  until then-owner Jim Crown lifted the ban in 2001.

Today, all four mountains operated by the ski company -- Aspen, Snowmass, Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk -- welcome boarders, with Buttermilk hosting the annual in-your-face extravaganza, the Winter X Games.

Grand Rapids child abuse defense lawyer Bill Bright says he started vacationing in Aspen years ago, and that the offerings from resorts and local businesses keep him coming back year after year.

Aspen's comeback also has been helped by discounts and promotions. A discounted daily lift ticket that is interchangeable at all four ski areas, for instance, runs about the same price as an $87 ticket to Disneyland.

Still, Aspen is no budget vacation by any stretch. It's more affordable to stay in a condo in nearby Snowmass and cook your own meals than stay in a pricey hotel and eat out every night in town. Either way, though, Aspen is where you want to go at night to sample the bar and club scene.

Aspen is a historic mining town that is much more than a winter sports mecca -- it also has a long cultural tradition of music, art and political activism. In fact, summer is Aspen's busiest season with nonstop festivals, hiking, biking, camping, river rafting, fly fishing, mountain retreats and public policy forums.

We arrived in February, our first visit in several years. While we didn't see any celebrities on this trip, there were plenty of sleek private jets parked tip to tail at the airport. On the Aspen pedestrian mall, fur coats have been replaced by fleece, which reflects the Aspen Ski Co.'s drive to go green. Aspen and Jackson Hole are the only ski resorts in the nation to receive international certification for their environmentally friendly management practices.

What makes this area stand apart from other destinations is the variety of terrain at the four mountains. Here's a summary:

Aspen Mountain
Take the town gondola to the 11,212-foot summit and ski or board nearly 3,300 feet straight back down. That's the vertical rush of this mountain, which boasts no beginner runs or bunny hills. Half the mountain is rated intermediate and the other half is advanced and expert, with deep steeps and occasional knee-grinding bumps.

The signature trail is Ruthie's Run, also called "America's downhill" because this is where the world's fastest skiers race in the World Cup competition every November. Unlike much of the rest of the mountain, Ruthie's is usually corduroy groomed so you, too, can fly down like a racer, at least until your legs give out near the bottom.

Everything is big here: more sprawling terrain than the other three mountains combined, more parks and pipes for snowboarders, more activities and programs for kids and more winter offerings that include everything from snowshoeing to hot-air ballooning to paragliding.

The mountain is a cruiser's paradise, with meandering, wide runs up to five miles long. The penultimate Snowmass cruiser is called the Big Burn, named after a wildfire that scorched hundreds of pines decades ago. After taking the lift up to the top at nearly 12,000 feet, we skied in and out of scattered trees to an open slope with panoramic views of the Rockies. There is plenty of room to move and just enough pitch for intermediate skiers and boarders to make sweeping turns without worrying about getting in over their heads.


The name suggests a warmed-over bunny hill, and indeed Buttermilk for years was a gentle learning hill for kids and beginners. Not anymore. Boarders flock to the parks, pipes and the top-to-bottom advanced terrain in the Tiehack area. The base area still has a popular open glade where ski school instructors teach beginners of all ages to board and ski.

Aspen Highlands

If you want to escape the crowds, come here. Aspen Highlands is similar to Aspen Mountain, with its narrow profile and steep terrain, but it lacks cachet because it's a day use area tucked away in a canyon with minimal amenities. Besides the low-key vibe, the chief attraction is the top-of-the-world views of the Maroon Bells, the twin 14,000-foot peaks to the west whose jagged summits are the most photographed mountains in Colorado. Though the runs are shorter than Snowmass and less steep than Ajax, the views at the top are worth the trip. 

Other Colorado Greats

Aspen is just one of many iconic ski towns Colorado has to offer. Vail vacation rentals offer skiers walk-out access to lifts, and other resorts like Breckenridge have the kinds of amenities once only reserved for bourgeois  now available to average travelers.