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Between Christmas and New Year’s my family took a short ski trip to visit Aspen as part of the Amex SPG Stars program. I wrote about our stay at the St. Regis Aspen here (including video review). It was an absolutely gorgeous hotel that was at the base of the mountain in Aspen. It was the perfect location if you ski that mountain, to get to ice skating, restaurants, and shops in Aspen. However, you have to be a pretty darn good skier to actually ski that mountain, and they don’t offer a ski school there. In other words, it is not a mountain that is right for most young families. That means that we had to head to another mountain in the area for our skiing experiences.
Luckily, there are four different mountains in the Aspen-Snowmass family, several of which are family friendly. Those four mountains are Aspen Mountain (blue runs and above), Aspen Highlands, Snowmass, and Buttermilk (listed in approximate order of difficulty of their terrain).
When you have a lift ticket, it is valid at all four mountains in the area, so you can mix up your vacation by trying out different mountains, if you want. We debated between skiing at Buttermilk and Snowmass. Buttermilk was much closer to the St. Regis in Aspen (about 5-10 minutes instead of 20-25 minutes each way), but ultimately Snowmass won out because of their childcare and ski school facilities. Ultimately I think that both would have been fine choices for our needs, but we enjoyed Snowmass enough to book a return trip there at the Westin Snowmass next ski season, so we must have done something right.
Here are a few more details about the child care and ski school options at the mountains, so you can start to narrow down which mountain would be best for your family.
Childcare For 8 Week Olds – 4 Year Olds:
If your children are too young for ski school, but you want some child care for them so you can hit the slopes, then you absolutely want to look at Snowmass and their Treehouse facility. Treehouse is a state licensed child-care facility that accepts children from 8 weeks – 4 years old. You absolutely need to make reservations in advance or there is a good chance they will be full if you try to just walk-in. The facility looks amazing with different themed rooms for different age groups and a registered nurse on staff.
They are open from 8AM to 4PM daily (included extended care) and every Wednesday night during the ski season. Starting at around age 2 1/2 part of their day can include some “on snow” time, but this is a small portion of their day as opposed to in ski school where skiing makes up a large part of their day. You do not have to be potty trained for that option, as opposed to the regular ski school. You can also choose to book your child an hour-long private lesson while they are spending the day at Treehouse.
The cost is for a morning half day at Treehouse is $109 (at least according the website, I wonder if it is a typo that should be $169) and a full day is $204, or $194 with seven day advance purchase.
Group Ski School for 3 and 4 Year Olds:
Also located in the Treehouse building is ski school for 3 and 4 year olds. This is where they start their day, eat lunch, and end their day. A full day of group ski school runs from 9:30AM–3PM, but plan to get there 15-30 minutes before 9:30AM, especially the first day. Also plan for it to be a zoo both during drop-off and pick-up times. Seriously, a zoo. Go register the day before, but don’t go to register during the times that other parents are likely to be picking up or dropping off.
The cost is $204 for full day, $169 for a half day, and $194 for a 7 day advance purchase rate. Like almost everything in Aspen, this is pricey. However, do note that the ski school will provide the boots and skis, lunch, helmet, etc. so the (expensive) price is an all-in price for this age group (other than any tip you choose to give the ski instructor).
This is our daughter’s third time at ski school and she is learning to go, stop, and turn. However, the skills didn’t seem to really transfer over from last year to this year for her. I will say that I saw some other 3 and 4 year olds who were doing really, really well on the mountain, so how well your kid will do at this age can certainly vary. My daughter doesn’t do extremely well in a ski school setting, so we are likely to try a private lesson, or me teaching her some on our next ski trip. Most likely we will do a mix of both. When we do utilize ski school later this year it will be out of convenience for us so she is kept occupied for a few hours, rather than us expecting it to be an amazing learning experience for her.
Group lessons for 3 and 4 year olds are available at both Buttermilk and Snowmass, though we only tried it at Snowmass.
Group Lessons 5 and 6 Year Olds:
Once you hit this age group you can do skiing or snowboard lessons. Skiing and snowboarding at Snowmass and Buttermilk. Skiing only at Aspen Highlands. The website does indicate that Aspen Highlands is only for intermediate and above skiers. This is the youngest age group that has ski school at Aspen Highlands. My daughter won’t be in this age group until the next ski season, but my impression is that this group is treated much differently than the 3 and 4 year olds, and likely rightfully so due to their (hopefully) improved maturity level. The prices are the same as for the 3 and 4 year olds. Again, this includes ski rentals and is an all-in price.
Group Lessons 7 – 12 Year Olds:
This age group can take ski or snowboard lessons at all of the mountains except Aspen Mountain, and the rate is $121 for the full day and $111 if booked 7 days in advance online. There is no half-day option listed online once you hit this age group. For this age group, equipment rentals and lift tickets are not included in the price and must be purchased separately.
Group Lessons for Teenagers:
This age group can be accommodated at the same mountains for the same price as the lessons for 7-12 year olds, but it sounds like Snowmass has a dedicated program whereas Buttermilk and Highlands accommodate teens, but not necessarily in their own class. Older teens can also book in an adult lesson.
Overall Suggestions for Skiing Aspen Snowmass With a Family:
We spent all of our ski time at Snowmass on this trip, and found it to be a mountain with a good mix of runs for our family of varying skiing abilities. It was not as “family focused” of a ski mountain as somewhere like Keystone, and it is very expensive, even by Colorado standards. However, the Treehouse child care and ski school facilities are very family friendly, and offer a very good option for kids who are not yet old enough for traditional ski school. That would really be interesting to me if I had a young child, but still wanted to hit the slopes. Leaving an adult behind in the room or condo to watch a baby while everyone else hits the slopes can work, but isn’t always practical on a short trip without extended family members all taking turns with the kids.
The Westin Snowmass is a tremendous points value as a Category 5 hotel right on the mountain. This would eliminate the problem of hauling gear and having to hike/drive to and from the mountain with a tired kiddo that you can often run into on ski trips. Staying at the Westin Snowmass and using the childcare/ski school facilities at Snowmass would probably be the best play for a points focused family for these mountains.
I would be remiss to not include the story of my own child who apparently successfully walked away from the ski school at Snowmass for a brief period of time. I did not hear about this incident until I picked her up at the end of the day, and the event was over. My four year old said she left to try and find us, and we had a big talk about how dangerous that is. I believe she was quickly returned to ski school by a Snowmass employee who spotted her. I obviously was not pleased that this happened, but if you go and watch a busy ski school in action it is easy to see how it can happen. I do recommend talking to your children about not leaving ski school no matter what. I will probably still use ski school again in the future, but this and some other issues have made me keenly aware that my daughter is not the best ski school student out there.
Also, be aware that many kids spend at least some portion of the ski school day crying at the 3-4 year old age. It only gets worse if they spot you “spying” on them, so keep that in mind. With lots of ski gear on it is pretty easy to not be spotted by your kid from a distance, but don’t be surprised if the day isn’t 100% smiles. I’ll write a separate post soon with some general tips for planning a ski trip with a young child, as well as tips for sending them to ski school.
Eating on Snowmass:
I mentioned that everything is expensive in Aspen, and that is true when eating on the mountain. The only real way to avoid this is to hit a grocery store and cook in your condo/room if possible. At the very least, I recommend stuffing some granola bars and similar in your pockets to cut down on the amount of food you have to eat on the mountain. With a family, this is a very real expense that adds up in a hurry. We ate at Elk Camp at the top of the gondola on Snowmass.
We were starving by lunchtime (normal when skiing), and everything looked good. Everything I ordered also tasted good (my husband had mixed reviews), but the grand total for this order…..
….was $57.60 for a self-service cafeteria style lunch for two. We could have made it a bit cheaper by skipping the brownie or similar, but it would have still been a bunch of money lunch, so plan accordingly.
One tip I do have that would have saved us the $9 spent on two water bottles is to look for the “hidden” free water dispenser. At this restaurant it was not located with the drinks you buy, but it was in the dining area. Packing a few snacks and looking for the hidden water fountains can bring the cost for a meal down from really high to pretty high.
All in all families can have a great ski experience at Aspen Snowmass, but it will come with a price tag. Using SPG points to stay at the Westin Snowmass dramatically reduces the out of pocket expense you have for the trip, but skiing will never be “cheap”. Though you can check out my post on how to save on skiing and snowboarding trips. However, if you love it as much as I do, it can still be worth it even though it isn’t as inexpensive as I wish it was!