Shortly after touching down at Denver airport, with its jagged architectural peaks emulating the nearby Rocky Mountains, we were off in our Jeep Grand Cherokee heading west towards that very range. For over 50 years, the Rockies have laid claim to having the best snow and facilities in America and we were out to find the top resorts in the region. It’s an easy 3 hour run along the American Interstate highway system, passing Vail and Beaver Creek resorts and going through incredibly beautiful copper-coloured canyons en route.
Our first stop was Aspen, long considered to be the Grande Dame of American skiing venues. Aspen actually consists of four mountains: Aspen/Ajax, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk and Snowmass. Together, they boast 5,285 acres of skiable territory with some 336 trails and 46 lifts, this is one of the most extensive operations in the US. Each location has a different emphasis: Aspen/Ajax, which has been operating since 1947, is more suited to experts; double black runs and incredible views are the highlights. Buttermilk is geared more towards beginners and families, with wide, rolling trails. Snowmass is the largest, with over 3,000 acres of skiable terrain aimed at intermediate/expert skiers and snowboarders. Finally, Highlands, the locals’ favourite, boasts Highland Bowl, “Colorado’s ultimate off-piste experience”, where a short hike to the summit will provide 800 vertical metre descents down pitches as steep as 45 degrees.
All four areas are connected by frequent shuttle busses and included in one lift pass. One can easily spend a week here and never do the same run twice. We opted to ski Snowmass and Highlands and were impressed with the quality of the pistes and the excellent planning behind the lift locations. Once one is on the mountain, there are few queues and there’s a chance to get a lot of runs in during the time on the slopes.
Most of the après ski and accommodation is in the town of Aspen, which boasts some superb hotels, restaurants and bars. The long-established Jerome, in the centre of town; the Little Nell – right at the base of the Aspen lift, and the St. Regis offer luxury lodgings. At Snowmass, the Viceroy is a good option. Aspen also offers a wide range of top brand clothing and accessory shops.
From Aspen, we headed north to Wyoming and the world-renowned Jackson Hole ski area at Teton Village. A totally different scene awaited us there, more dramatic and compact…and more laid-back than Aspen. Located at the southern end of the stunning Teton range, with the longest vertical rise of any US ski area, Jackson covers some 2500 acres. In addition to the 100 passenger aerial tram, which whisks skiers to the mountain top at 3,185 metres in 9 minutes, there are two high speed gondolas and 8 quad chairlifts. Teton is geared more towards the advanced intermediate and expert skier, with half of its 133 trails designated blue or black. At the top of the aerial tram is Rendezvous Bowl, with double black steepness and open trails. Off to the right are the quad lifts, well spaced to give access to the many challenging pistes. Last season, the mountain launched the Sweetwater gondola, which offers access to several intermediate blue trails, less challenging than the narrow and vertiginous alternatives.
Because it is further north, Teton tends to have even better snowfall and more deep powder than the Colorado resorts. There are excellent trails for snow-shoeing or cross-country skiing, giving access to striking views of the Teton range.
Located some 20 minutes outside of the “frontier town” of Jackson Hole, Teton is home to one of America’s two Aman resorts, the Amangani. There is also a superb Four Seasons Hotel directly opposite the chair lift and the Terra hotel just a short distance away. For Apres-ski, many head straight to the Mangy Moose, located near the base of the tram and well-known for its margaritas and local brews. In Jackson, there are a number of excellent restaurants, including The Blue Lion, Snake River Grill and Wild Sage, but don’t miss the chance to have dinner at the Amangani: superb menu at the same prices as the town restaurants.
If you’ve had enough skiing and want some variety, several companies offer safaris to the National Elk Refuge by horse-drawn sleigh or to Yellowstone National Park by snowmobiles. It’s a two-hour high-speed run along snow-covered roads (which are closed to normal traffic) with a stop for lunch and a chance to see the famous Old Faithful Geyser (without having to cope with the huge crowds in summer).
Both Aspen and Jackson Hole resorts are easily reachable by air, with regular flights from many US cities directly to Aspen and Jackson Hole.