The Next Best Thing

Even with a recent $1 billion makeover, Snowmass will never be as glamorous as Aspen. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

January 2010

A summer rain covers the Brush Creek Valley as I drive through stands of aspen to Snowmass Village. My husband, Chris, and I are hoping for a quiet weekend away from Denver's August heat, and sleepy Snowmass seems like the perfect place to relax. It's late in the afternoon on a Thursday when we arrive, and thunderclouds swirl over the peaks. But it's Snowmass' new facelift, not the drab weather, that catches our attention.

I had heard that Snowmass was in the middle of a massive, $1 billion renovation, but this was my first glimpse at its new look. The infusion of cash had certainly altered the appearance of Aspen's sister town, a place known more for its stellar mountain than for its glamour. Today, the mess of mud and construction debris is mostly gone, replaced by newly planted landscaping and elegant walkways that meander past street-level shops and restaurants. We follow one of these paths to our weekend accommodations at the one-year-old Capitol Peak Lodge. The lodge is tasteful, graced by a stone and timber facade, high ceilings, and the requisite hot tub. Our room, dressed in overstuffed chairs and a neutral palette, has a patio, on which we settle in to watch the sun set over the stalled ski lifts.

As we take in the view, we chat about the "improvements." There's no doubt the revamped base village is beautiful, even fancy. But it feels a bit forced, like the pretty girl next door is trying a little too hard to be a supermodel. The beauty of Snowmass has always been that it's, well, Snowmass: It's casual, family-friendly, and downright comfy. Which is why, instead of going out and sampling the new hotspots, we stay in for the night. As we watch the sun slip behind the mountains, I can't help but feel a little guilty: After all the construction and fuss, were we thwarting Snowmass' grand plans to remake itself in Aspen's image?

It's almost impossible to talk about Snowmass as a separate entity from Aspen, its over-the-top-gorgeous sister. Separated by a winding stretch of Highway 82, the towns' respective ski mountains are both owned by Aspen Skiing Company (or "SkiCo" in the local vernacular). But while Aspen became the see-and-be-seen mountain getaway over the past 60 years, Snowmass languished. The town's mountain is arguably one of the best in the state, but Snowmass' lack of restaurants, outdated retail outlets, and dearth of new lodging left people scrambling for the shuttle bus to Aspen when the slopes closed.

Of course, it's not altogether surprising that Snowmass lagged behind Aspen in off-mountain amenities. Aspen began operating as an official ski area in 1946; it took more than two decades for Snowmass to follow suit. In the late 1950s, California business developer William Janss began buying up local ranches, and eventually invested about $10 million to open 50 miles of trails and five ski lifts at Snowmass. During the first season in 1967, about 165,000 skiers carved turns in the powder. Ten years later that number had grown to 400,000, and it seemed that Snowmass might catch on. Development plans were hatched over the years to build out or improve on the underwhelming base village, but each fizzled because of poor timing or a lack of financing—or both. Without a strategic plan to help Snowmass develop beyond a ski mountain—to manufacture a main drag or build a quaint downtown—the area missed its first opportunity to compete with its older sister.