Last August, in the midst of the pandemic that had kept us isolated for the better part of six months, my 13-year-old daughter and I, desperate for a change of scenery, began scouring the internet for travel deals. When we found round-trip flights to Denver for just over 100 dollars each, I began thinking out loud about the three years I had spent ski bumming in Snowmass, Colorado, as a recent college grad in the early 1990’s. “Dad,” my daughter said excitedly, “let’s go!”
Two days later, we landed in the Mile-High City, rented a car, and headed up into the hills.
While there are frequent connecting flights from Denver to Aspen/Pitkin County Airport (which services Snowmass and the other resorts in the area), we opted for the scenic four-hour drive which took us up into the foothills of the Rockies, through deep, craggy canyons, and over high mountain passes before the road twists and narrows, and finally – at 8,000 feet above sea level -- winds its way into Snowmass.
Since first opening in 1967, Snowmass has consistently been recognized as one of North America’s preeminent skiing destinations. With 50 miles of groomed trails and more than 3,000 acres of skiable terrain, it is the largest -- and arguably the most family-friendly -- of the four mountains that make up the sprawling Aspen Snowmass resort complex. With its world-class ski school, friendly locals, and 300 inches of annual snowfall, SKI magazine recently crowned it the #1 ski resort in the Western United States.
With its reputation as a skiers’ paradise secure, Snowmass has in recent years been quietly reinventing itself as a top year-round resort, boasting, access to hundreds of miles of scenic hiking and biking trails, a spiffy new base village and a friendly local population that gives the whole place a welcoming, laid-back vibe. These days, it attracts nature lovers and adrenaline junkies from all over the world who flock to this pristine corner of the Rocky Mountains to escape into the great outdoors, breathe in the clean mountain air and draw inspiration from the incredible scenery.
The hub of activity is the new Snowmass Base Village. This ambitious $600 million development at the foot of the mountain ushered in a new era for the resort when it opened to great fanfare in 2018, bringing online new hotels, slope-side condos and a delightful hodgepodge of shops and restaurants.
The focal point of the new Base Village is an inviting central plaza that features an ice-skating rink which, during the warm alpine summers, transforms into a turf-covered playground where children can run freely and play lawn games. The plaza hosts a weekly farmers market, and on Saturday nights in July and August families pack the lawn with blankets and beach chairs to watch movies on the big screen under the stars. It’s like a little slice of heaven amid the towering aspens.
We made the warm and inviting Limelight Hotel Snowmass headquarters during our stay. Our mountain-view room had a fireplace and a spacious deck with a comfy teak sectional that was ideal for kicking back for afternoon naps and drinking in the spectacular view.
Just a few steps from our hotel, a high-speed gondola whisks passengers from Base Village up to Elk Camp, a recreation area perched at mid-mountain. From here, under impossibly blue skies, one can access miles of pristine hiking and mountain biking trails or enjoy a relaxing farm-to-table lunch on the sundeck. Then, catch the Elk Camp chairlift that carries you all the way to the summit at 11,325 feet – well above the tree line -- where you can take in the stunning 360-degree view of the surrounding peaks and valleys.
One of the main attractions at Elk Camp is the Lost Forest adventure park, where kids of all ages can test their strength and agility on a thrilling self-guided obstacle course that winds its way through the treetops, up to 40 feet above the forest floor. There are five courses of varying difficulty that include repels, zip lines, rope bridges and climbs, some of which, I learned, are easier for nimble teenagers to maneuver!
For a little more adrenaline, the nearby Breathtaker Alpine Coaster zips riders along an elevated metal track that winds its way down the mountain at speeds nearing 30 miles per hour. The sight of my daughter, laughing with excitement as she sped full throttle through the trees is one I may never forget.
For mountain bikers of all skill levels, Snowmass is the gold standard. The massive Snowmass Bike Park features a wide range of impeccably maintained downhill and cross-country trails that wind through evergreen forests, pristine aspen groves and alpine meadows while dropping 3,000 vertical feet from the summit back down into the base village.
The Bike Park is the focal point of an extensive 300-mile trail network that reaches all the way to the town of Glenwood Springs, 40 miles down valley. You can rent bikes, helmets and other protective gear (recommended, especially for the more technical downhill trails) from shops in the base village, which also organize guided rides and skills clinics.
A few minutes down the road, the Anderson Ranch Arts Center is a serene 5-acre compound comprised of artists’ studios, classrooms, event spaces and a gallery that features rotating exhibitions throughout the year. Visitors can take a self-guided tour of the property or sign up for one of the 150+ classes and workshops offered during the summer months. Stop in for lunch at the Zen-like Ranch Café, where a nearby babbling brook provides a soothing soundtrack to your meal.
Of course, no visit to the area would be complete without a trip into Aspen, the quintessential mountain town just 9 miles up-valley. Well known as a playground for the rich and famous, Aspen is ground zero for the area’s wining and dining, shopping and people-watching scenes.
With its family-friendly atmosphere, stunning natural beauty, and almost limitless options for outdoor recreation, Snowmass is the ideal destination for that post-pandemic vacation you’ve been dreaming about. So get ready to peel off that protective mask, lace up your hiking boots, and head up into the mountains for some well-deserved R&R. And whatever you do, don’t forget the kids!