Aspen or Vail?

Dylan Craig | | Industry NewsIndustry News
Vail back bowls
Vail’s Back Bowls. Photo Credit: Jack Affleck

Colorado has obviously developed a world-famous reputation for being home to amazing skiing, and Aspen and Vail are arguably the two most internationally known Colorado resorts. Both are famed destinations for celebrities and the elite, in part due to luxurious accommodations, but also in part due to the world-class skiing either resort offers. The two resorts have developed a friendly rivalry, partially due to their geographic proximity but mostly due to the inherent similarities the two resorts share. 

Comparing Vail and Aspen from a skiing perspective is a unique comparison since Vail is one contiguous resort whereas Aspen consists of four separate locations under one name. These locations are Snowmass, Buttermilk, Aspen Mountain (Ajax), and Aspen Highlands. For comparison’s sake, we’ll include Aspen’s four resorts as one contiguous resort.

Skiable Acres

Vail or Aspen
The slopes at Vail. Photo Credit: Vail

Vail:  5,289 acres

Aspen: 5,500 acres

Vail has the most acreage, coming in at 5,289 standalone acres. This makes Vail the fourth-largest ski resort in North America, behind Whistler/Blackcomb, Park City, and Big Sky. Vail is famed for its seven back bowls, which compromises over half of the resort’s skiable acreage. Being the fourth largest resort in North America, Vail has no shortage of terrain for all skill levels.  

Snowmass has 3,362 standalone acres, making it the largest resort in the Aspen resort collection. Aspen Highlands, famous for its hikeable Highland Bowl, has 1,040 skiable acres. Aspen Mountain (Ajax), famed for runs that descend directly into the historic mining town of Aspen, has 625 acres. Buttermilk has only 470 acres, but is home to family-friendly terrain and hosts the annual winter X-Games. Altogether, the Aspen conglomerate has a total of 5,500 skiable acres, which are connected by free bus shuttles. 

Top Elevation/Vertical Drop

snowmass vertical drop
Snowmass has the largest vertical drop in the United States. Photo Credit: Atlanta Ski Club

Vail: 11,570 feet / 3,450 feet of vertical drop

Aspen: 12,510 feet (Snowmass) / 4,406 feet of vertical drop (Snowmass)

Since both resorts are in Colorado, both resorts have admirable top elevations and vertical drops. Snowmass comes at the fifth highest resort in Colorado, and Vail comes in at the fifteenth highest (Silverton Mountain is Colorado’s highest ski resort, and North America’s, coming in at 13,487 feet). Snowmass admirably has the longest vertical ski drop in the United States at 4,406 feet, putting it in the company of vertical legends such as Jackson Hole or Big Sky, although the drop at Snowmass arguably isn’t as direct or easily navigable as Jackson/Big Sky. Still, runs at Snowmass seem to last forever. If you hike up to Highland Bowl at Aspen Highlands, you can get 4,292 vertical feet of skiing. Buttermilk and Aspen Mountain don’t have as much vertical drop, but still pack a vertical drop punch. Vail has 3,450 feet of vertical drop, roughly 1,000 feet less than Snowmass, but 3,450 feet is still admirable.

Annual Snowfall

aspen or vail
Nothing beats Vail’s Back Bowls on a powder day. Photo Credit: Vail

Vail: 360 inches

Aspen: 310 inches (Snowmass and Highlands)

Both Vail and Aspen get over 300 inches of snowfall, most of it falling as the dry powder Colorado is famed for. Last year was good for both resorts, Snowmass/Aspen received 400 inches, and Vail received 300 inches. Due to the high elevation of these resorts, the colder temperatures, and a multitude of north-facing slopes, snow at both resorts tends to stick around for a while after falling. As is the case with most Western resorts, the snowpack will typically be deepest in March.


aspen or vail
Highland Bowl at Aspen Highlands. Photo Credit: Aspen Chamber

The powder-filled bowls are what give Vail much of its character, but Vail’s front side is home to immaculately groomed slopes, helping Vail achieve their reputation as one of the country’s best destinations for intermediate skiers. Riva Ridge is reportedly Lindsey Vonn’s favorite trailspanning four miles and combining numerous carvable blue & black trails. One of the more admirable things about Vail is the family-friendly terrain, in the sense that it’s easy for families of different skill levels to ski together. Many intermediate, beginner, and advanced/expert trails lie in close proximity to each other and end at the same lift, meaning that families don’t need to split up. With over 5,000 acres, there’s no shortage of terrain for all skill levels. 

Aspen’s four mountains each have a distinct terrain-feel. Buttermilk is the best designation for younger families, or those learning how to shred. If you’re a parkrat, you’ll love Buttermilk, home of the annual winter X-Games. Aspen Mountain is certainly a more advanced mountain, there’s not a single beginner run on the entire mountain, and 65% of all trails are ranked as advanced or expert. Some of the best mogul-skiing in Colorado can be found at Aspen Mountain. Aspen Highlands is another advanced mountain, any trip to Aspen isn’t really a trip to Aspen unless you hike and ski Highland Bowl. The steep glades off the Deep Temerity lift are also worth a visit, but only if you’re an advanced skier. Snowmass, the largest resort in the Aspen collection, offers an abundance of diverse terrain for all skill levels. Half of Snowmass’s terrain is intermediate, including Long Shot, a leg-burning five-mile run that requires a quick hike to access the run.


Aspen Mountain
Aspen Mountain in the foreground, Aspen Highlands in the background. Photo Credit: Expedia

Of course, any comparison between Vail and Aspen would be incomplete without discussing the towns themselves. There’s a reason celebrities own properties at these towns/resorts, the luxurious amenities offered are out of this world. Aspen was originally a mining town that was established in the 1880s, and much of Aspen retains an old-west atmosphere. Downtown Aspen has some historic buildings that any history buff should visit. Vail was established in the 1960s, but has still garnered a reputation for being a luxurious destination. Top-notch luxurious restaurants, hotels, and spas can be found at both locations. For those seeking a better price, amenities in Vail tend to be cheaper than Aspen, partially due to Aspen’s geographic isolation (Vail is closer to Denver). Many argue that Vail also has more of a laid-back atmosphere, it’s said that many in Aspen prefer to apres in elegance, whereas those in Vail prefer a more low-key atmosphere. However, it’s still easy to find laid-back atmospheres in Aspen. Just keep an eye out for celebrities! Which resort do you prefer?

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16 thoughts on “Aspen or Vail?

  1. For those of us that were lucky to experience Vail in the early days (1971) and return each year for a Winter and Summer visits, the real joy for me has been experiencing the growth of Vail, Beaver Creek and the extension of the now Beautiful Vail Valley! After 51 years, I am still excited to return each year, even now living in the coastal city of Naples Florida..

  2. For us that were lucky enough to start skiing Vail and visit the village in the early years of 1971 and have continued with both Summer and Winter visits now for 51 years, part of the joy for me
    has been experiencing and feeling in my own small way, the growth of Vail and Beaver Creek and the development of what now is known as the beautiful Vail Valley. And I am still feel part of it returning in December to ski at 72. It is still a real joy, even as I am now retired in the coastal city of Naples Florida.

  3. As someone who lived in Boulder and loved skiing Vail, I thought a power day in Blue Ski and the back bowls were like heaven. I now live on the east coast and trek out west a few times to ski every year. When I visit Vail now it’s still a great mountain. So much incredible terrain, but the crowds and lift lines can be so crazy. I started going to Aspen now for trips and I can say I much prefer their 4 mountains over Vail. No lift lines to speak of and one run down Highland bowl will have you forget about Vail’s bowls. As for town and nightlife it’s Aspen hands down (and I’m not rich or famous). The town is a real town and not a copied Austrian Village. Honestly both towns are very expensive but skiing in general is not a discount sport. If I had to pick between the 2 for a week ski trip, Aspen would be my pick, but a day trip from Denver on a weekday I would pick Vail. Vail…Easy to get to and crowds not bad during the week. If I had any mountain and town out west Jackson Hole would be my pick. I spend more time in CO because of my people are in CO, but if I had any place to go for a week it would be Jackson. Utah great skiing (better snow than CO) but the vibe and nightlife are not there. Jackson Hole gets so much snow and the town itself is great (though not right off mountain;). BUT and a big BUT..honestly as an east coast dude…any one of the places are so much better than driving to the mole hills we call mountains here lol. So really its like comparing Ferrari and a Lamborghini…you won’t be disappointed with either place 😉

  4. Been to both many times but for the last seven years I go only to Vail. Nothing beats the back bowls. The ease of transition from bowl to bowl. I’m in it for the incredible skiing not all the other stuff. JMHO!

  5. What a waste of an article. State your conclusion. Me? Vail is a place I drive by on my way to go skiing in Aspen.

  6. The reason Aspen is far superior is the terrain of all 4 mountains, the company is mortally superior and doesn’t simply look for profits but rather pushes climate change awareness, green building etc.

    Additionally, as a former employee of both, Aspen treats it’s workers FAR better. Like different planets better.

    Lastly Vail is a nice little town, but ultimately feels like Disney Land for skiing. Aspen is an authentic mountain minjny town, rich in history. It’s not just for the ultra rich, it’s for everyone, and has some of the best dive/cheap places I’ve ever visited.

    Ultimately, they are both high end resorts, but Aspen is better in every way other than accessibility (which is actually another pro as it keeps the REDOCIULOUS Vail crowds away).


  7. You left behind the cost of skiing there.
    Because you did so I assumed price per lift tickets is totally ridiculous.
    Thanks. Going to Austria- accommodations per $ is sooo much better, skiing is soo much cheat, food is sooo much testier
    Unfortunately skiing in America is getting so much more expensive then couple years before.

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