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 The town's mountain is arguably one of the best in the state, but Snowmass' lack of restaurants, outdated retail outlets, and dearth of new lodging left people scrambling for the shuttle bus to Aspen when the slopes closed.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.
In 2001, however, Snowmass took steps to rectify its decades-old misstep. The town hired Canadian firm Intrawest—the group behind Copper Mountain and Winter Park resorts—to re-envision the village. After completing only a portion of the work, Intrawest sold out to Related WestPac in 2007. Related WestPac took on the project and put its own spin on the plans by focusing on eco-friendly standards and inviting the ultra-luxurious Viceroy Hotel to set up residence instead of the previously planned Westin. SkiCo helped by accelerating plans for $70 million in on-mountain improvements. "Snowmass was clearly outdated, and it was time to freshen things up," says Jeff Hanle, SkiCo's director of public relations. "We've got four mountains and two towns. Why not take advantage of it all?"
And so, last season, the first new accommodations on the mountain in 20 years, the Capitol Peak Lodge, began taking reservations. During the previous season, SkiCo's massive, 25,000-square-foot Treehouse Kids' Adventure Center opened, along with an American bistro called Sneaky's Tavern. Across the plaza, the Sweet Life recently began churning 250 varieties of ice cream, candy-themed drinks, and hearty food. Next door, the minds behind the Playboy Club and Ghostbar in Las Vegas added an adult flavor to the mix with après-ski spots Junk and Liquid Sky. All of the new construction had a simple goal: Make Snowmass a destination on its own that complemented—not competed with—Aspen.
By Friday the clouds have moved on, and we settle in at an outdoor table at Sweet Life that offers the perfect vantage of Fanny Hill. This weekend, Snowmass' slopes are being transformed into a mountain bike course, and I want to watch the racers skidding down the mountain on warm-up runs while we eat. We order Sloppy Joe sliders and settle in for the show.
As the show of mud and fat tires unfolds on the mountain, I let my mind wander to what this place, with its new eateries and just-opened hotels, will look like in the winter months. I wonder if the highly stylized Viceroy and comfortable Capitol Peak Lodge will be enough to convince visitors to not only hang out for après-ski but also stay for the night.
Regardless, visitors this winter will find a mountain in transition. Because of the economy, Snowmass' much-anticipated revitalization has hit some serious bumps of late. Related WestPac has temporarily shuttered plans for a second Viceroy building. Construction on the Residences at the Little Nell, a second outpost of the Aspen hotspot, stalled this summer because of financing problems. In the base village, the owners of Liquid Sky and Junk say they hope to reopen for the winter, although the owners face several lawsuits with contractors on the Snowmass properties. And plans to develop the West Village—the old mall—may still be years away.
But reinventions take time and patience, and although Snowmass has certainly waited long enough to make this final push, it may take a concerted effort to finish what it has started. As we sit in the sun, I look around the square. The new Snowmass may be more beautiful, but it still feels like the girl next door. And that's not a bad thing.
Natasha Gardner is 5280's assistant editor. E-mail her at email@example.com.