Outdoor Adventures

Ski Diamonds Out West This Winter

by California Chaney
Aspen Hiking the Bowl on a sunny day. Photo by Butch Peterson.

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Let’s talk about skiing in the U.S. West. The number of direct flights to ski town airports makes it easier than ever to get there, even for impromptu weekends. What you shouldn’t be spontaneous about, however, is rolling up to the slopes without a ski ticket. 

Which brings me to my first tip: Serious skiers are incentivized to purchase passes early for access to multiple resorts. Ikon Pass, which covers some 50 resorts worldwide, including Mammoth, Steamboat, Aspen, Sun Valley, Banff in the Canadian Rockies, and even the Italian Dolomites, goes on sale in late spring through December for the following ski season. Epic Pass, another option, serves Vail, Beaver Creek, Whistler, and Stowe, among others. (You can read more about ski passes in the Fathom article I wrote.)

When it comes to gear, you should rent the bulky stuff (skis, poles, boots) and buy the packable stuff (helmet, jacket, gloves, base layers). When you advance up, you’ll want to invest in a pair of ski boots. Because ski and snowboard models change so often, it can be fun to rent new gear on every outing. Boots rarely change, and wouldn’t you rather have them broken in by your own tired feet than someone else's?

Now let’s hit the slopes that made the Rockies so famous.

The Real Aspen Extreme

Aspen, Colorado

Whether or not you’ve been to Aspen, you probably know it as a hotspot for fur-clad ski bunnies fueled more by champagne than snowfall. I have skied Aspen for the last 30 years, and while I can attest that this reputation is totally deserved (tipsy influencers in designer ski goggles are everywhere), it is ALSO true that Aspen is one of the most beautiful and rewarding places to zip downhill. The high-altitude views are incredible — the town sits 7,908 feet above sea level — and the terrain (more than 5,600 acres of soft powder across four mountains) delights and challenges every type of skier. 

Part of the experience is navigating around the contingent dancing on chairs while spraying $150-bottles of Veuve on each other at aprés ski party spot Cloud Nine. (Money does buy some fun? Fools and their money?) But for a real only-in-Aspen experience, get a thrill from hoisting your skis on your back and hiking Highlands Bowl. The 270-acre powder playground for advanced skiers and snowboarders is only accessible by strapping your skis onto your back and hiking up some 700 vertical feet to reach the steep and deep. If you don’t have a “bowl strap” (a rope that ties over your skis to become a backpack), head into the ski-patrol shack at the top of Loge Peak lift at the base of the bowl and grab one. The hike is a workout, and the views from 12,392 feet are wildly rewarding. Aspen Snowmass has great tips on how to prepare and maximize the experience to stay safe and have fun.

One Aspen resort lift ticket grants you access to the four mountains across the valley: Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk, and Snowmass. Each is a separate destination and all are easily accessible via a convenient — and free! — bus service that links the mountains. This means you can do first tracks on Aspen Mountain and spend the afternoon on cruisers on Snowmass on one ticket. If I had to rank them from beginner to advanced, I would place Buttermilk as the easiest with several green runs and a forgiving bunny hill. Snowmass, the largest of the four, offers a wide range of terrain: perfect for families and groups. Aspen Highlands is definitely challenging, an adrenaline junkie’s dream. Aspen Mountain is equally thrilling. With no green runs, it’s not the slope for beginners but rather a mountain to work your way up to.

Speaking of advancing your skills, the red-jacketed instructors of Aspen Snowmass are the best of the best. Not only will they help you harness your skills, they will also show you the hidden gems and powder stashes on the mountains. They offer a wide range of lessons with private, group, child, and teen lessons and several one-day clinics. You can find more info here.

A note on dining: It can feel impossible to get a dinner reservation at Aspen’s scene-y restaurants. But if you opt to dine at the bar, you can often find a spot. You’ll have dinner, still enjoy the lively scene, and get a free pour from the bartender if you’re friendly. Las Montañas, Clark’s Oyster Bar, Ellina, Steak House N. 316, and even Nobu’s Matsuhisa all have great bars you can saddle up to without a reservation. (I think a barstool is always the best seat in the house.)

Sleep is always essential, but especially when you’re skiing — and most likely imbibing during après ski. For the ultimate pampered ski-in/ski-out experience, check into The Little Nell, easily the most luxurious hotel option. Guests enjoy access to First Tracks, a blissful hour of skiing on freshly groomed runs before the mountain officially opens to the public. Newcomer Mollie Aspen debuted in December in the center of town. The Japanese-Scandinavian interior design (hygge meets onsen) was done by Post Company; the boozy hot chocolates are by bartending wizards from Death & Co. A forthcoming rooftop pool will take a 180-degree spin of views on Aspen. 

As après is just as much a sport as skiing in Aspen, I always check out The Snow Lodge’s lineup of weekend concerts in the courtyard of the St. Regis Hotel — DJs includes the likes of Sofi Tukker, Diplo, and Bob Moses. If cozying up by a fire is more your tempo, secure a seat in the lobby of Hotel Jerome with hot toddies and a roaring fire. On a bluebird day, follow the sun’s siren call to the patio of Ajax Tavern for a spritz and generous portion of truffle fries.

Steamboat Springs is one of the few resorts in the U.S. to offer night skiing. Photo courtesy of Steamboat Springs Resort.

Skiing — On Champagne

Steamboat Springs, Colorado

Steamboat is what I would call the anti-Aspen. Although it shares the same Rocky Mountain range, this place couldn’t be more low-key — a refreshing return to the Wild West of American skiing. Tucked in the upper valley of the Yampa River just west of the Continental Divide, it savors and honors long-standing traditions of classic skiing, harkening back to when the sport felt, shall we say … luxuriously dangerous?

Nicknamed Ski Town USA, Steamboat Springs is home to the oldest continuously operating ski area in the US. Its iconic trademark is champagne powder: dry, low-moisture snow — the lightest and fluffiest on the planet — that tickles your face like bubbly in a coupe. Ski jumper and OG Olympic team member Carl Howelsen founded the area as Howelsen Hill in 1915; Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, the oldest ski training club west of the Mississippi, is where more than 100 Olympians took their first turns.

While the resort and ski town feel sleepy, DO NOT sleep on this vacation: The time to go is now. While Steamboat has held onto its nostalgia for the simpler days of ski culture — before ski clothes became flattering and a lift ticket cost less than a plane ticket — it's gaining traction with all levels of skiers as its terrain grows.

Beginning this winter, Steamboat Resort added 650 acres of advanced and expert terrain (Mahogany Ridge, Fish Creek Canyon) to an already sprawling 170 runs across 3,000 acres. Novice skiers will appreciate the new Greenhorn Ranch. Located mid-mountain, this is no mere bunny hill but rather a 14-acre, state-of-the-art park with a gentle obstacle course designed by ski pros for skiers and boarders to learn how to use their edges and gain confidence on the snow. 

Also debuting this winter is Wild Blue Gondola, the longest and fastest ten-person sky rider on the continent. It will travel a total of three miles, from the base to the top of Sunshine Peak, in just 13 minutes. This is especially exciting for Ikon Pass holders because when the high-speed gondola is combined with first tracks tickets, skiers can get in an extra lap before the rest of the crowd arrives.

On Steamboat, the euphoric last run of the day is a slow and gentle ride down to TBar, a self-proclaimed five-star dive bar in a former ski patrol building off the Right-o-Way run near the base. Frosty Colorado brews are served alongside street-style tacos, flatbreads, and peanut butter panini loaded with bacon. Every Saturday in March, the newly redesigned ski plaza hosts free concerts with music ranging from brass to country.

Gravity Haus hotel caters to young couples and groups of friends who want easy access to the slopes and a social hang after skiing. The set up, slide-side at the Thunderhead Gondola, includes ski lockers, a great coffee bar, and a restaurant that sources ingredients from local farmers and ranchers.

Steamboat Grand has long been the go-to for families and large groups who like the spacious condos and penthouse suites, spa, health club, restaurant, bar, and convenient grab-and-go coffee and snacks for skiing. Every morning, the resort’s direct mountain shuttle runs every 20 minutes.

Set your own après scene. Photo courtesy of Gravity Haus.

A Vibey, Affordable Newcomer in Sleepy Teton Village

Jackson Hole, Wyoming

Jackson Hole Mountain Resort is an engineering feat. It has the longest continuously vertical rise of any ski area in the U.S — 4,139 feet from the valley. If you’re not familiar with mountain lingo, that’s like zipping up three Empire State Buildings. The iconic red Aerial Tram holds 100 people at a time and achieves that height in just nine minutes. 

But then you have to ski down. If you’re equipped with nerves of steel, you might drop into Corbet’s Couloir, the famous daredevil ski run — a 45-degree chute framed by sheer cliffs. Don’t worry! There are also plenty of exciting, wide open runs that will get you downhill.

However you make it to the base, you’ll be full of adrenaline and maybe in need of a place to celebrate the feats of the day. Historically, because of the lack of nightlife in sleepy Teton Village, skiers had to drive from the village to the town of Jackson Hole for rounds at the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar. I’m hopeful the atmosphere will change this season with the addition of Gravity Haus. The stylish, Colorado-based social club with a stay-to-play ethos will add a desperately needed restaurant for après as well as an affordable hotel at the mountain base. (Guests will also have access to ski lockers, gear rentals, fitness facilities, and a grab-and-go coffee shop.) Otherwise, the scene at the base is dominated by properties that cost a pretty penny, like Four Seasons and Caldera House, both beautiful and slopeside, with access to first tracks. If you’d rather stay in a beautiful home, those available through The Clear Creek Group are far and away the best in town.

The Sommet jumpsuit. Photo courtesy of Cordova.

Get the Gear

Read More on Fathom

The Definitive Family-Friendly Guide to Aspen
On Diamonds with Olympian Bode Miller
A Champagne Powder-Perfect Weekend in Steamboat Springs
A Weekend That Puts the Why in Wyoming

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