It all starts out predictably enough. A little orange signinforms us that we’re now “entering freestyle terrain.” And naturally there it is: A pod of features comes into view, rails, boxes, jumps, all the usual suspects. The kids hop off of a couple of kickers and slide a box or two. On we go.
At this point at most other resorts, the run would carry on, perhaps with a few fun tree trails and the chance to pop through the woods onto another slope. Not at Buttermilk. Every time we round another bend, we run into…yet another terrain park. The features keep getting bigger, more robust, more outlandish. A propane tank poking out of the snow. A football goal to jump through. A steep set of wooden stairs. It’s a veritable rabbit hole for the jibbing set.
But when you’re an eight- or nine-year-old kid, it’s pretty much the best thing ever. My sons Cole and Jake have been watching the X Games on TV for the past few years, but this is their first time skiing the venue where the games have taken place every January for the past 13 seasons. They were expecting some pretty rad terrain parks. But the park we’re in, called Buttermilk Main Park—which spans two miles from the top of the mountain to the base, plus one-mile-long Buttermilk West Park, a superpipe, and a skiercross course—exceeded their expectations. Simply put: Minds. Blown.
That’s just the reaction terrain-park manager Greg Boyd is aiming for. For Boyd, a 14-year veteran of Aspen Skiing Company, it’s about “fun and flow.”
“We scaled back the amount of expert features last season, and we will again this season,” he explains. “The goal is to create a park with multi-use features from top to bottom. We don’t want to scare away beginners. We want to inspire them and promote progression.”
Buttermilk is by far the least glamorous of Aspen Skiing Company’s four resorts. It’s the smallest, with only 470 skiable acres and three high-speed quads. It’s also considered Aspen’s teaching mountain, with most of the terrain comprising wide green or blue boulevards with only a handful of laid-back blacks on the Tiehack side of the resort. The rest of the mountain’s extra-wide slopes are excellent newbie terrain—even the terrain-park trails here are somehow friendlier and less intimidating than at other resorts.
But if you visited Buttermilk before last season, you probably side-eyed the less-than-impressive base area, with its trailers and ’60s-era day lodge. It doesn’t take much to figure out that it’s been a while since ASC invested good money into village upgrades at Buttermilk. So it was a relief when the company announced plans to build a new children’s center at the base, especially since ski school had been HQ’d in a temporary trailer for, oh, the past 13 years.
The $10 million project, called The Hideout, opened at the start of last season and is a home base for kids two through 12 years old, with childcare for non-skiers and several play structures throughout. Just out the back door is a mini bunny hill with a short magic carpet, a safe oasis for little never-evers.
The building itself is modern yet welcoming, with a sunny lobby and a line of check-in desks—always a happy sight for parents wanting to get out on the slopes sooner rather than later. When I arrive on a Friday morning to drop off my youngest, four-year-old Chase, he quickly spies an indoor play area and is off in a flash, ski boots, mittens, and jacket in a pile at my feet while I fill out the requisite forms and waivers.
The Hideout is based on the Treehouse Kid’s Adventure Center, which opened at Snowmass in 2007. It’s designed to be a one-stop shop for families with kids in ski school, daycare, or both. And while it was imagined on a much smaller scale than the Treehouse, the playful ambience is identical: bright colors, climbing structures, and cheerful Pied Piper–like instructors.
No kids? No interest in the park scene? Are you thinking there’s no reason to ski here when Aspen Highlands, Ajax (Aspen Mountain), and Snowmass are all minutes away? Well, if you like Mongolian barbecue… Seriously, at the summit-top Cliffhouse Lodge—which also serves up stunning views of the Maroon Bells—the Mongolian barbecue and phô station make as good a ski lunch as there is, in a decidedly humble setting. (I imagine the aging Cliffhouse is somewhere on ASC’s redo list.)
But strictly from the skiing perspective, a few laps on the Tiehack Express, which ASC installed in 2011, is a morning well spent. Runs such as Racer’s Edge, a steep groomer on the resort’s eastern boundary, are a hoot. And Timberdoodle Glade, between Tiehack Parkway and Sterner, is a fun little shot that no one seems to ski. Go figure.
And maybe that’s the crux. In a growing valley packed with skiers champing at the bit, Buttermilk feels like an outlier, a place that’s familiar and homey yet…other. At times it seems there are more people skinning up than skiing down, more people gathered around the double pipe at the base than seeking out face shots. It’s a place to bring your kids—or yourself—to learn to ski, or to learn to throw a switch double flip. There’s an interesting dichotomy here—old school meets new school—yet everyone plays together just fine.
And that’s how I find myself at the top of the wooden staircase in Buttermilk Main Park, looking horrified as my kids tell me they want to ride down. On skis. “We did it at ski school yesterday,” they plead.
As they fly down the steps at an alarming speed, I’m 25 percent terrified and 75 percent psyched. Psyched that there are people like Greg Boyd and his team to keep us all young and inspired. Psyched that there’s a place like Buttermilk to fulfill the fantasies of park-and-pipe newbies. Hell, all skiers. Because, as Buttermilk has proven to me, you don’t have to be a kid to have fun here.
>> Sleep: There’s no slopeside lodging at Buttermilk, but there are regular shuttles from both Aspen and Snowmass. Stay at the Limelight Hotel, in downtown Aspen, if you want a hip and lively lodging experience that’s great for families. The killer lobby has board games, live music, and cozy nooks for chilling, plus the (complimentary!) breakfast spread is tops. Don’t miss the maple bacon.
>> Eat: The Limelight has a light dinner menu and great pizzas, but if you’re looking to get out with the family in Aspen, try Brunelleschi’s for family-style pastas or El Rincon for delicious Tex-Mex in a happy, loud setting.
>> Do: Spend a couple hours scaling the 32-foot climbing wall and plunging down the two-story water slide at the Aspen Recreation Center, right near Buttermilk.
• 200 inches annual snowfall
• 470 skiable acres
• 9,900 skiable acres