Vail is the biggest ski resort in the U.S. Aspen may well be the most
famous ski town. If Vail attracts skiers and riders looking for the
most terrain, then Aspen appeals to those looking for the most
We decided a Colorado comparison was in order. So one week last season, our family of four took on the arduous task of exploring both world-renowned ski destinations to determine the cream of the Colorado crop. Tough job, but as they say, “someone had to do it.”
Vail is enormous, 5,289 acres of skiing with 33 lifts. The Vail trail map encompasses two mountains and three skiable faces.
An added bonus for Vail skiers, sister resort Beaver Creek is just 10 minutes away. Vail also owns nearby Keystone and Breckenridge, so skiers and riders have reciprocal ski benefits at all of these major Colorado resorts, talk about a ton of options.
Aspen has four separate ski areas, with cumulative acreage of 4,823 serviced by 40 lifts. Your Aspen ticket is good at the original Ajax ski area, plus nearby Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk and Snowmass, all within minutes and a free shuttle ride of each other, and conveniently represented on one multi-fold trail map.
Elevation is similar at Vail and Aspen, though Aspen’s Snowmass tops out at 12,510-feet where Vail’s summit is 11,570-feet. Still Vail gets almost 50 inches more snow annually than Aspen’s 300 inches of Colorado-style light, dry powder.
You can fly into Eagle Airport near Vail or Aspen Airport. We found both of these options pricey, but arriving at these airports would eliminate your need for a rental car.
We booked a convenient direct flight from Boston to Denver, and rented an SUV since our plan was to tackle six separate ski areas. Vail is an easy two hours drive from Denver, Aspen is four.
If you like to stay slopeside, both Aspen and Vail have great ski-in, ski-out towns jammed with lodging from posh hotels to condos. Aspen is a funky Victorian style hub dotted with celebrities and glam shops like Prada and Chanel. Vail is the postcard Tyrolean slopeside ski village, complete with clock tower and covered pedestrian bridge.
If you are looking to be first on the slopes, Aspen offers a free “First Tracks” experience with a lift ticket. You must sign up 24 hours prior with the ski concierge, then you can board the gondola at 8:00am, for fresh tracks with a guide an hour before official opening.
Aspen’s flagship lift, the six-passenger Silver Queen gondola, lifted us from the heart of the celebrated town to the summit of Ajax, 3,267-vertical feet in 10 minutes.
We really scored with seven inches of “freshies” on our First Tracks morning. The early morning sun on the shimmering Aspen groves was worth getting up for, the effortless turns in the fresh powder was worth flying across the country.
If its steep you long for, Aspen Highlands has the expert reputation of Aspen’s foursome. This is where the local powder hounds ski. The well-pitched mountain has some of the best inbounds extreme skiing in North America.
If you like scenic cruisers, Aspen’s Snowmass has what I consider the most heavenly skiing on the planet. The Big Burn is named for the forest fire damage that cleared all but a sprinkling of towering pines on the perfectly sloped mountaintop. Riding a speedy quad, we threaded infinite turns while admiring the red rock mountain ranges.
Snowmass is Aspen’s biggest, and we deemed it Aspen’s finest. Snowmass has 3,010 skiable acres and the single most vertical of any mountain in North America at 4,406-feet, (more than Vail’s 3,450-feet).
Snowmass got the nod from our son and daughter for printing a kids’ trail map. Kids love cruising the family adventure zones, skiing through an Indian village, and even petting live reindeer on Rudolph’s Run by following their own trail map, just like Dad’s only more fun.
The Long Shot was our most extraordinary run at Snowmass. A 10-minute climb (not for everyone) leads you to a 3.7-mile adventure – a unique in bounds, out-a-bounds experience.
Last of Aspen’s mountains is Buttermilk, which was hosting the X-Games during our visit. This is the smallest and tamest, a great spot for beginners and kids. We skipped over Buttermilk as it was heavily populated with gen-Xers for the big event.
Vail is the big daddy of North American skiing. At Vail, we boarded the classy 12-passenger Eagle Bahn gondola and were launched up to 10,350-foot summit on Lion’s Head. Two runs and two lifts later we were dropping into the legendary Back Bowls, rewarded with seemingly endless untouched terrain.
The Back Bowls encompass a six-mile expanse of wide-open, above tree line “ski anywhere you like” beauty. There are seven bowls, with a few daily groomed runs amidst the immense territory.
If that’s not enough, there’s Blue Sky Basin and Pete’s Bowl, a third mountain face added in 2000, which is adventurous skiing on natural terrain and glades.
Vail’s Front Side has loads of traditional trails from beginner to bumps - served by quads galore. Vail gets busy on weekends. But with so much terrain and an incredible lift system (15 of the 33 lifts are high speed), you can find your own space. Follow the efficient lift status signs at each peak that indicate any lift lines and avoid the clusters.
Vail also has plenty of cool kids terrain including Chaos Canyon and Fort Whippersnapper - a terrific on-mountain model miner’s fort. Adventure Ridge is a mountaintop evening entertainment zone for families with tubing, snowmobiling, laser tag, ice-skating and more reached by Vail’s gondola.
Vail’s sister resort, Beaver Creek is a must see, must ski resort, emerging from a gorgeous base village started in 1980. Beaver Creek’s Centennial lift gave us 2,000-feet of vertical exhilaration, plenty of bang for our buck. Here we explored meticulously groomed steep pitches on the front face, and fantastic glade shots, with a fun pass through the kids’ Zoom Room and Rowdy Ridge.
During our Beaver Creek day, we rode all six high-speed quads racking up run after run on the 1,600 acres of vast terrain, including the notoriously steep Golden Eagle Downhill course on the Birds of Prey.
We concluded Beaver Creek has the most consistent fall line skiing. It was also our record vertical day during our Colorado trip, 34,200-feet.
On Mountain Lodges:
Out west, they do things big and the on-mountain lodges are no exception. We felt that Spruce Saddle, the mid-mountain lodge at Beaver Creek, had some of the best panoramic views of the Rockies outside and a wonderful wildlife décor inside.
Vail’s summit Two Elk Lodge is another fantastic post and beam structure offering very good cafeteria-style fare with outstanding vistas.
Aspen’s Sun Lodge is an award-winning lodge, for its enviro-friendly aspect. Made from green materials, this lodge at the top of the gondola is beautiful inside and out, including dazzling views of the Highlands Bowls and the famous Maroon Bells.
The Après Scene:
Aspen is the place to see and be seen. The best oxymoron we uncovered is that so few Aspenites actually ski. This makes for fantastic un-crowded skiing and admittedly great star spotting. Curl up by the roaring fire in deep leather couches at The St. Regis Lobby Bar, the place for après ski, and watch the parade of furs.
We had a drink with comedian Carrot Top and apparently just missed Melanie Griffith who frequents Cindy Crawford and Rande Gerber’s trendy bar, Whiskey Rocks. Our First Tracks ski instructor lives next to the “Dons,” Henley and Johnson. That’s all the Aspen name-dropping I have.
Unlike Aspen’s glitzy après ski scene, Vail skiers and riders are more hard-core, heading directly to the village bars in their ski boots, as opposed to quitting early to don their furry après ski boots.
Vail appears the more rowdy of the alpine hamlets, but I cannot fairly attest to which town has better nightlife. After all the skiing we did, the pillow won. Suffice it to say you will not go thirsty, hungry or un-amused after the lifts close in either of these animated ski towns.
In one week we did the side-by-side ski test of Aspen and Vail, to determine who is the fairest of them all. End result, we were exhausted from logging 234,000 vertical feet – but gleeful. We came to ski and we were highly successful, quite high literally too, skiing at elevations over 10,000-feet.
We would gladly return to either resort and settle in for the duration. I love Aspen’s ambiance – but enjoyed Beaver Creek’s terrain most. My husband loves the vast Back Bowls of Vail, but says there is no better 2,000-feet of pure vertical terrain than the Big Burn at Snowmass.
My daughter says she would gladly move to Aspen. My son inquired about colleges near Vail.
Aspen’s four diverse mountains and fabulous ski town will amuse anyone for days, weeks, and for many - a lifetime. Vail alone takes a week to conquer plus you have Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone and Arapahoe on the same ticket.
I recommend you bring the pace down a notch, settle in to one of these incredible resorts and stay awhile. Pick the best western ski resort that suits your personality. If you long for maximum vertical, neither area will disappoint.