Physical and cultural activities abound at the four Aspen mountains, some of Colorado's most family-friendly snowsports and adventure destinations. Physical and cultural activities abound at the four Aspen mountains, some of Colorado's most family-friendly snowsports and adventure destinations.
One company in western Colorado owns and operates the mountain resorts at Aspen, Aspen Highlands, Snowmass and Buttermilk. Together, they comprise 5,000 acres of Rocky Mountain terrain, arguably the finest winter sports resort in North America. Since Aspen and Aspen Highlands are the most challenging mountains, and Buttermilk is not as developed, visiting families with athletes of different abilities will find Snowmass the destination that best meets their needs.
On pure snowsports terms, Snowmass is hard to beat. The mountain is generally open mid-November to mid-April and enjoys about 300 inches of snowfall annually. The 3,132-acre terrain is carved into 91 trails — nearly 150 miles — about half of them intermediate level. Snowmass' 4,406-foot vertical rise is served by 24 lifts. Best yet, families who may be susceptible to altitude sickness will find the basecamp at 8,104 feet pretty comfortable.
Snowsports Instruction for All
The Aspen family of resorts is known for the wide array of learn-to-ski and learn-to-ride programs available at each mountain. There are programs to serve every life stage between toddler and senior; every ability from novice to extreme Olympian; and myriad interests from women's-only to back country and more. At the new Snowmass base, Brush Creek, the Treehouse Kids' Adventure Center is a convenient one-stop center where parents will find the Ski and Snowboard School check-in, lift ticket purchase, and rental/retail for students of all ages.
Since 1996, more than 5,000 disabled or handicapped family members have come to study with the famous Challenge Aspen program that provides one-on-one special snowsports training in winter.
The full range of Snowmass/Aspen facilities can be made available to the disabled, in large part due to the many local volunteers who escort participants on the slopes. Events like the 2007 International Paralympic Committee Alpine World Cup, where two super Gs were held on the face of Ajax at Buttermilk, testify to Challenge Aspen’s success. Major snowsports graduates of the program include visually impaired skiers, sit-skiers and disabled skiers who have lost the use of appendages. In their honor the Winter X Games now held in town include a medaled mono-skiercross event.
Family Activities on the Mountain
Family activities, beyond the excellent ski and snowboard schools, guarantee that everyone will feel welcomed, particularly if they enjoy the outdoors. Weekdays in winter, a naturalist from the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies joins skiers and boarders ages 7 and up (intermediate skills required) for a nature tour of Snowmass' Elk Camp area.
ACES Guides also lead daily, two-hour snowshoe tours for this age group to highlight the mountain's beauty and wildlife. Though some in our party found there was too much standing around and not enough touring, "responsible environmental stewardship" was taught very seriously. In fact, the Aspen Skiing Company was honored in 2002 for its "BEST Practices" by Business Enterprises for Sustainable Travel, became the first in the industry to buy renewable wind power credits to offset its use of electricity, runs all its Snowcats on biodiesel, and is third party ISO certified as a "green" company.
At Brush Creek basecamp's Treehouse at the foot of Fanny Hill, there are children's activities ranging from a family-friendly climbing gym to teen activities to a host of themed rooms for ages 8-weeks and older. From this spot, the Elk Camp Gondola stretches to the mid-mountain ecology center at Elk Meadows. The SkyCab gondola brings visitors from the retail areas up to the Snowmass Village Mall; it runs both ways and provides little ones access to the beginner terrain on Fanny Hill.
If kids are not enrolled in any learning programs (and kids under 6 get free lift tickets to ski or ride any time), be sure to pick up a "Kids Mountain Guide" that reveals where secret features, like kid-friendly trails with characters such as Fort Frog, Screamin' Eagle or Grouse Grove, are located.
Within the original Snowmass Village complex, also spruced up, are 30 shops and 25 restaurants, tucked between levels of mountainside condos served by a free shuttle bus. The popular sundeck is a family meeting place and site of many daily events hosted by the Snowmass Village Resort Association. Free family activities include twice weekly afternoon concerts in season, arts n' carfts workshops for children, street performers and art shows. To the tune of live bands, expert skiers and snowboarders show off their aerial antics on the 40-foot jump across from the village on Fanny Hill every Friday in season.
More evening fun includes fireside storytelling and marshmallow roasting twice per week, and the campfire sing-a-longs at sundown behind the Pokolodi Lodge. Snowmass' supervised daycamp at the kids center welcomes children ages 3-10 some evenings for pizza and a movie, for a fee, so parents can have a break.
A wonderful family-together activity is a Western-style barbecue dinner at the Lynn Britt Cabin, an old log cabin about 10 minutes' uphill from the Village by Snowcat. This evening out gives everyone a chance to play in the deep snow, admire the Snowmass reindeer (in a corral), and enjoy some serious local cuisine and John Denver music. An alternative is dinner at the Burlingame Cabin, similar but not as intimate because it accommodates a greater number of guests. At both places, you'll need to gather a group together (though reservations may already have several families booked), but in winter, the pretty Lynn Britt Cabin is open for lunch daily. Try not to miss it!
Arts & Outdoors, Learning & Fun in the Valley
In such a stunning natural environment, there is genuine appreciation for the visual — natural or manmade — that permeates this affluent community. From arts organizations to exclusive galleries, Aspen is a great destination for creative non-athletes who want to while away their days productively while others ski.
The Snowmass Recreation Center (970-922-2240) opened in 2009 at 2835 Brush Creek Rd. in Snowmass Village and provides a great outlet for evening fun, all year round. Within 18,000 square-feet are Mommie & Me classes, aquatics and fitness lessons, a great gymnasium, bouldering and climbing walls, and a state-of-the-art cardio and equipment room. Outside are the unique heated saline pools — more like spa water with a mild salt water rather than pool chemicals — where famliies can play in the lap pool, kiddie pool, general pool with water features or the hot tub. The center offes dozens of classes and full-day supervised camps during many school breaks.
The Anderson Ranch Arts Center (970/923-3181), located near the new base of Snowmass, invites the public to free slide lectures two evenings a week and to self-guided afternoon tours of their facility. For more than 40 years, this has been an artists' collective and it's amazing how many galleries and workshops fit into the space. Older kids and teens will be fascinated by the range of half-day to full-week classes in topics such as Japanese ceramics, book-binding, painting and more; a fee is charged for each.
For another fun day off the property, the local Aspen Art Museum (970/925-8050) in Aspen town offers a briefer commitment to an arts education, with classes for children enrolled in grades 1 through 8, and adults, as well as free lectures and museum tours.
Catering to youth groups, professional environmentalists, students and visitors, the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (970/925-5756) has their own 25-acre nature preserve housing injured birds of prey right behind Aspen's town post office. They offer naturalist-led programs and guided nature walks on Aspen mountain and elsewhere.
One animal encounter that kids adore is dog sledding, and the Krabloonik Restaurant (970/923-3953) serves up exotic wild game and fresh fish (child-friendly dishes available) combined with a dog sled ride. You can reach the rustic log cabin restaurants via the slopes, or drive up. It's open for lunch or dinner; reservations required.
For the past 30 years, Blazing Adventures (800/282-7238) has been the local outfitter that specialized in whitewater rafting, flyfishing, cycle tours and hiking in summer. Contact them in winter to arrange a small group excursion on snowshoe or cross-country skis (they'll provide instruction and equipment). Blazing Adventures' knowledgeable guides also run themed driving trips to mining camps and other historic sites.
And if the teens get bored, send them to the top of the Burlingame chairlift for some paintball sessions, offered daily.
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.