Experience Aspen Like a Local

August 1, 2019

During the year-end holidays, Aspen’s busiest week of the winter, “Campo Dave” Ellsweig works round the clock, managing Aspen’s popular Italian eatery Campo de Fiori. Tall, dark and handsome, he choreographs one of the most popular spaces in town with ease, sending plates of crispy frutti di mare to impatient patrons and decadent espresso martinis to the bar’s loyal following. Does he mind working and not skiing? Not at all. Ellsweig knows much of Aspen’s best skiing happens in March. That’s when he hikes up Highlands Bowl in a T-shirt to ski deep north-facing powder and wrap up a morning session on the slopes with a wine-saturated lunch at Aspen Highland’s mid-mountain restaurant, Cloud Nine

Back in town after lunch, he can pull up a chaise lounge at the Sky Hotel on Sunday afternoon when the poolside DJ is in full swing. Or say he decides to ski Aspen Mountain: He’ll take the slow Couch quad, ski down sun-softened bumps before joining the lift operators for a barbecue at the bottom. From there it’s a couple of steps to check out the band outside at Ajax Tavern. For dinner, there’s king crab tempura at Matsuhisa a few blocks away. Every day, Ellsweig can set out to do something different: click into alpine touring skis to skin up Aspen Mountain, Nordic ski around the town golf course or ride a fat-tire’d snow bike up the unplowed road to the Maroon Bells.

It’s springtime in Aspen and anything’s possible. No, Ellsweig doesn’t understand why anyone would go to the beach in March. There are plenty of other months perfect for sun bathing, like December. March boasts the deepest base depths of the winter and more open terrain than at any point in the season. Colorado’s snowiest month of the year intersperses spring storms that bring deep powder days with abundant sunshine that create idyllic spring snow conditions, forgiving moguls and groomed runs made for carving turns. And the atmosphere on the mountain warms with the temperatures. Groups mingle on gondola square or atop their favorite run. And the deck scenes come alive. “In spring, you don’t have to get up early in the morning to get the best tracks—the ski day starts at 10 or 11 a.m.,” says Aspen-based pro skier Chris Davenport. “It’s all about timing in the spring.” 

What Davenport means is that the snow that freezes overnight is rock hard in the early morning, perfect around midday and slushy and sticky by late afternoon. You’re looking for the daily harvest of “corn,” a granular snow surface that turns mediocre skiers into phenoms, and you’ll find it by following the sun as it warms up the snow from the southeast to southwest, lower mountain to upper mountain. And with four ski mountains—Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Snowmass and Buttermilk—you can hunt for corn on a different mountain each day or on the same day thanks to complimentary shuttle rides between each area. 

On Aspen Mountain, Davenport recommends skiing the steep, east-facing aspen trees off the top of F.I.S. chair, known collectively as “The Dumps,” as soon as they’re warmed by the morning sunlight. “Ski a groomer like North American to test the snow and see if it’s transforming,” he says. “If your edges grip into the snow and hold a carve, take F.I.S., ski a perfect lap in The Dumps, go up the gondola and do it again.” “If it hasn’t changed,” he says, “swing into Bonnie’s mid-mountain restaurant for an oatmeal pancake.” 

At Aspen Highlands, longer days and warm sunshine motivate skiers to make the 45-minute hike up to the 12,392-foot-high top of Highland Bowl. It’s a long way to shoulder your skis, so bring a backpack or purchase a ski strap at the Aspen Highlands ski patrol shack near the start of the hike. While blustery conditions often limit summit time midwinter, March’s plentiful windless, sunny days allow hikers to linger atop longer and take in the most dramatic alpine views in the area. Depending on your skiing pleasure, you’ll ski down 1,500 vertical feet of wide-open steeps or flow through tree glades. When the sun has overcooked everything on the mountain, the Bowl’s north-facing G-Zones can still harbor good snow.

If it’s your first time skiing the bowl, hire a pro like local ski mountaineer and ski instructor Ted Mahon to find the best stashes. Beginners and kids love Buttermilk’s gentle terrain year round, but in spring, its two terrain parks soften up enough to make jump landings a little more forgiving. At Snowmass, where intermediate groomers reign, it’s hard to beat cruising any of the runs accessed from the Elk Camp chairlift on a perfect spring morning. If you’re looking for something more adventurous, head to the Sheer Bliss run and look for one of the gates leading to Hang On’s or Buckskin. Spring storms blast the high elevation terrain at Snowmass. After a storm, head to the top of the mountain to ski spring powder before the sun’s rays bake the snow. 

By March, conditions in the backcountry also grow safer and Aspen offers plenty of ways to ski beyond the resort boundary, no matter your experience level. Ride a luxury snowcat to the backside of Aspen Mountain with Aspen Mountain Powder Tours, where you’ll score fresh tracks down gentle alpine bowls with expansive views of the picturesque Elk Mountains. Aspen Expeditions’ guides lead clients to lift-accessed backcountry off all four of Aspen’s resorts. Ski wide-open intermediate terrain off Snowmass Mountain or black diamond steeps off Aspen Highlands. Take it even farther off the map and to a higher level of luxury with one of Aspen Expeditions’ Epicurean Hut Trips. Ski on alpine touring equipment to one of Aspen’s many backcountry cabins for a lavish meal prepared by a gourmet chef, sleep to the sound of a crackling fire and enjoy fresh powder the next morning after another over-the-top meal. 

After months of sitting vacant due to the freezing cold, the decks around the mountains and in town defrost and host the liveliest scenes in Aspen and some of the world’s greatest people watching. The famous two-tiered deck at Bonnie’s on Aspen Mountain should be your first stop. Grab a cup of white bean chili, a mug of warm red wine, a slice of authentic apple strudel with hand-whipped cream and take a seat in the sun to experience Aspen’s best patio atmosphere. At Aspen Highlands, Cloud Nine’s deck turns into a Euro disco. At Snowmass Village, Viceroy Snowmass offers ski-in/ ski-out sushi at Nest and a vodka bar steps from the pool. For something more posh and quintessentially Aspen, suss out the orange umbrellas of The Little Nell’s pop-up champagne bar, The Oasis, located mid-slope on Aspen Mountain. Once there, raise a glass of Veuve Clicquot and toast the fact that right here, right now, this is the best that Aspen gets. 

Aspen Year Round

Must-Try Restaurants in Aspen

Spring Café: Start your day out right with a hearty and healthy breakfast, including energy packed smoothies. Warm up with a chai latté made with their homemade nut milk.
Ajax Tavern: An Aspen icon for decades, Ajax Tavern’s open deck at the base of Aspen Mountain is a must. Order the restaurant’s famous double burger served with truffle fries and kick back as local bands offer a live soundtrack to the end of your day on the slopes.
Burlingame Cabin: Once a sheepherder’s cabin, the Burlingame is a short snowcat ride away from Snowmass Village, but thanks to its secluded location tucked among an aspen grove, it seems a world apart. The menu is decidedly cowboy with barbecue pork, fresh chili and mac and cheese served family-style. Local storytellers and musicians entertain guests throughout.
Cloud Nine Alpine Bistro: Book an outside table for the last seating of the day at this mid-mountain institution at Aspen Highlands. When you book the reservation, order the raclette, a melted cheese that you can slather over baked potatoes or air-dried beef. That way it’s ready as soon as you sit down. The extensive wine list and unmatched views of the iconic Maroon Bells mountains will keep you occupied until ski patrol signals last call.  
David Burke Kitchen: The celebrity chef opened a spinoff of his eponymous New York City restaurant in downtown Aspen that features locally sourced dry-aged meats (think elk, venison, wild boar) and a seasonal menu.
Richard Brasseries & Liquor Bar/Bia Hoi Southeast Asian Street Food: A Food & Wine “Best New Chef,” Tim Goodell from Los Angeles has partnered with Related Colorado to open two new restaurants in Snowmass Village this winter. Ricard Brasserie serves classic French fare such as prime steak tartare, oysters and house-made charcuterie. Bia Hoi’s draw is an extensive drink menu that puts a Colorado spin on tropical cocktails thanks to AJAX spirits and beers from local distillers and brewers.

Aspen’s Must-Do List from a Vacation Advisor 

Shopping: Downtown Aspen is the Madison Avenue of the Rockies—and arguably the chicest shopping town between Chicago and Las Vegas— due to its cluster of upscale boutiques. Find the latest from Prada, Louis Vuitton, Burberry, Ralph Lauren and more among local faves such as Goruch.
Spa: Remède Spa at the St. Regis offers customized treatments.