In spring, the days are longer, the air warmer. You may awake to champagne powder, or bluebird skies. It’s a glorious time of year for ski aficionados. And one of my favorite places for spring skiing is Aspen.
Aspen may be a singular place, but I’m surprised how many people still don’t realize there are four mountains to chose from. I love all the choices, especially in spring. Aspen or Ajax; nearby Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk; and 9 miles away, Snowmass— each area has its own personality. I’ve done my fair share of partying in Aspen over the almost three decades I’ve lived here. But despite Aspen’s reputation as over the top for excess—which it often is—the resort’s diverse skiing and boarding always lure me back in March, and until the lifts close (April 21).
Baddass Highlands is high on my list. I love how this mountain still manages to keep its vibe more Patagonia than Prada, as someone once described it. With some of the steepest slopes in Colorado, its 1,040 acres span one long zigzagging ridge, with trails dramatically dropping off each side. My spring ritual starts with carving warm up turns on eastern facing slopes that get early sun, such as Thunderbowl or Golden Horn on the lower mountain, or Kandahar off the Loge lift.
Warmed up, it's time for show-stealer, Highland Bowl. A vertical paradise, this huge basin offers off piste but still in-bounds skiing at its best. A snowcat carries you about a third of the way, then you hike the rest, in ski boots, skis slung over your shoulder, to the summit at 12,392 feet. Depending on your fitness level, it can take 20 minutes or longer, but I’d choose this workout—and workout it is—over the gym any day.
After savoring sweeping views, it’s time to schuss some 2,500 vertical feet of adrenaline-pumping steep chutes, glades, and rolling expanse. I never ski the Bowl by myself; I’m usually with an instructor, or friends more expert than I. Sometimes we start before the summit and duck into Ballroom and B-Fore zones, which tend to soften sooner. I love the G-Zones because these slopes always challenge my comfort zone. When I reach the bottom cat track, I’m exhilarated as I traverse back to the Deep Temerity lift for another lap.
Or head to the legendary ski-in, ski-out eatery and party pad Cloud Nine Alpine Bistro, overseen by gracious Swede host Tommy Tollesson. Originally a ski patrollers’ hut, vacated years ago to build a new structure closer to expert terrain, the tiny restaurant was Aspen funky for years. In 2015 it was tastefully renovated and expanded; its cosy chic look and feel work just right. I love its Euro-style table service. And I’m always in awe of the jaw dropping views from here of the 14,025 foot Pyramid Peak.
And what a beloved Aspen ritual Cloud Nine is. The menu’s a little fancier now, with caviar, steak tartare, charcuterie. For more than two decades I’ve celebrated holidays, or just a great day on the slopes, here. My favorite memories are with my friends Chris and Gerry Goldstein over a very social meal of traditional raclette. It may sound like a cliché, but I find the experience so much fun of melting the cheese, on a sizzling grill, in little trays until it's gooey good. Then scrape and smother the accompanying air-dried beef, pickled onions, and potatoes with melted cheese.
After lunch the bistro becomes a party pad for après—or as it’s notoriously dubbed here “après spray.” Imagine day drinking as alpine theatre. Pop tunes blast as men and women dance in clunky ski boots on table tops and chairs. The party goes great guns as dancers peel off a layer of clothing while—in one of those only in Aspen moments—wildly spraying one another with bottles of Veuve Clicquot. No one's in a rush to get back on the slopes. The challenge of the afternoon becomes returning to the base safely. (If you prefer sipping your Veuve or your Krug definitely go for the earlier res).
For another day, another mood, I adore Snowmass. As its name suggests, the mountain is massive. Surrounded by pristine national forest, its 3,332 acres make it larger than the other three mountains combined. The variety offered by its 94 all-level trails can’t be beat. Everybody feels like a star on the groomed cruisers off Big Burn, Elk Camp, or Sam’s Knob chairlifts. And there are steeps— like Hanging Valley Headwall—which can be great skiing in good spring conditions.
Snowmass traditions include a late leisurely lunch at Gywn’s table service High Alpine Restaurant. And though it’s long been overshadowed by Aspen, Snowmass has upped the ante on après action. Slopeside, I might head to Richard Sandoval’s Venga Venga Cantina for guac and tacos, or grab a Colorado craft beer from New Belgium's Ranger Station.
At Christmas I checked out the resort's new base village, still a work in progress. The new Limelight Hotel at Snowmass was unveiled this season; I know I’ll be stopping for après at its comfy lounge. Always a favorite is the outside ski-up bar of the luxury hotel The Viceroy, which now also houses another Sandoval restaurant, Toro Kitchen & Lounge—though I will always miss former chef Will Nolan and his New Orlean’s style dishes at its now closed Eight K.
And don’t forget Buttermilk, the best little beginner’s mountain in the world, except it’s not just for beginners. Home to ESPN’s famous Winter X Games, it’s also a mecca for snowboarding, with its pipe and two-mile-long Crazy Train terrain park. And for another way to skip the gym, especially in spring, I either walk up its gentle slopes with studded shoes and poles, taking the lift down, or skin up. That means climbing up on alpine touring gear, with free heeled boots and stickies on the ski's bottom to prevent sliding while ascending, then peelingl off for descent.
But Aspen Mountain—lovingly nicknamed Ajax— will always be my favorite—springtime, or any time of the year. Maybe it’s the memories. Maybe it’s because for 25 years my office, where I stored my skis, was a block away, and I lived east of town. So Aspen Mountain was the most convenient, the one I skied the most.
If I’m skiing Ajax by myself I’ll usually ask an instructor or ski patroller about the conditions, and try to follow the spring sun around the mountain best I can. Best bets for morning soft snow are east facing slopes, like Back of Bell Mountain, Walsh’s. Or time the sun just right on the Mine Dumps like Bear Paw, which can be particularly good for creamy corn snow, skiing these slopes before they turn to slush. Later in the day it's Face of Bell or Gentleman’s Ridge.
And one spring ritual, after a late lunch of white bean chili and apple strudel at Bonnie’s, is last run down Ruthies, looking down on killer views of the town.
As the days stay lighter longer, hanging out at Ajax Tavern at the base of Aspen Mountain is the perfect place for rosé fueled après that turns into early evening. Or spill over to the adjacent Little Nell bar or Living Room for world class people watching, and savoring days like these. Aspen’s restaurants, shopping, and nightlife are just hours away. And summer just around the corner.