Aspen: There's Nothing Like It -

The name Aspen is synonymous with skiing in America and has become a legitimate icon for the sport in its own right. The four ski mountains all are focused on the lively, stylish town of Aspen, Colo., though only one is accessed from the center of town. Each mountain is different from the others and offers a unique skiing and riding experience. All together? Well, you get the picture.

Aspen Mountain (the locals call it Ajax) is at the town base of 7,945 feet and rises to a summit of 11,212 feet. The skiing and riding is over 673 acres. Ajax is the flagship mountain of the Aspen Ski Corp. and, because of its closeness, you can ski or ride down to lunch or shopping.

Ajax terrain is for intermediate and advanced skiers and riders. There is no beginner terrain here. There is plenty of exciting expert terrain with steeps and bump runs. The steepest is the Elevator Shaft section (42 degrees) of the Silver Queen run. Look for some cruisers under Ruthie's and Ajax lifts. There are six lifts including a gondola that rises from the town base.

The crowds are fairly thin on Ajax because of the perceived and real difficulty of the terrain, so if you ski or ride with some confidence, give it a few days of your time. The après ski place to be seen seemingly always has been, and remains, Little Nell's.

Aspen Highlands, independent for many years and owned by Whip Jones, is now part of the Aspen Ski Corp. family. It long has been the locals' favorite mountain and it rises to 11,675 feet. It has some incredible expert terrain, but there is 18 percent of the mountain that's fine for beginners. Aspen Highlands has its own village. Go-Go Gully, Highland Bowl (description on Highlands' Extreme Guide) – has a slope angle of 48 degrees.

Still, for all of the mountain's unpretentiousness, it is home to the posh Ritz Carlton Club. It's a short shuttle or drive from town.

Are you a fan of the X Games? Then, you've seen plenty of action on Aspen's Buttermilk Mountain and in Crazy T'rain Park. The summit here is 9,900 feet, a bit lower, and covers 453 acres. Buttermilk also has superpipe, a Ski and Snowboard School Park, and a mini-pipe out of the main traffic flow. There's also a separate beginner terrain park.

Buttermilk has another distinction. It is quite possibly the best learning/teaching mountain in the U.S. and, possibly, the world. The secret is in the grooming. There's some long groomed runs at West Buttermilk, and steeper rollers at Tiehack. The ski area is three miles from downtown Aspen, and six miles from Snowmass.

Then, if you haven't had enough, there's Snowmass, a destination ski resort in itself. Snowmass is famous as a self-contained family resort, with plenty of slopeside accommodations and its own village. Snowmass is about 14 miles from downtown Aspen.

The summit elevation here is a real oxygen grabber at 12,510 feet. The things that put Snowmass on the map, beyond its family-friendly attitude, are the long, groomed cruising runs over 3,128 acres. In fact, you can ask a lot of skiers and boarders to name their favorite cruiser in the whole world, and the Big Burn at Snowmass will be their answer. Snowboarders love the Super Dragon halfpipe and acres of terrain park action.

The Family Zone lets the family stay together and play together. There are interactive kids' trails, a children's race arena, picnic area, terrain park, and halfpipe.

The family fun continues into the evening hours with snowcat dinner rides to an old Western cabin, and even campfire storytelling.

Fly directly into Aspen's Sardy Field from Denver International Airport, or head into Eagle/Vail or Grand Junction and drive. There are shuttles available at all airports.

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