Aspen vs Vail vs Breckenridge: Which Colorado Town to Visit?

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by Duncan McHenry

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When weighing Aspen vs Vail vs Breckenridge and planning a trip to the Colorado Rockies, you’ll find that these classic mountain towns have earned a well-deserved reputation for some of the best ski slopes in the United States and worldwide.

All three of these locales are also known for the “après” culture of luxurious dining, shopping, and lodging that has taken hold in modern Rocky Mountain skiing in a nod to the classic chalets of the European Alps.

But while winter ski tourism may be a primary draw for these destinations, they’re worth a visit at any time of year since mountain activities ranging from biking and horseback riding to fly fishing and rafting are available in any of these high-country valleys.

In general, choose Aspen if you’re looking for a ski destination among the world’s elite. Vail is a great choice for those who want a mix of luxury and mid-range options. Finally, choose Breckenridge for an affordable destination with a youthful energy.


It’s no secret that if you’re looking for the $600-per-night, ski-in & ski-out, boutique experience of being in the lap of mountain luxury, then Aspen and its selection of upscale lodging and restaurant options will be sure to please.

With that said, maybe the best-kept secret about Aspen is how affordable it can really be for travelers, especially in the summertime and if you avoid one of Aspen’s four ski resorts. The White River National Forest, for example, that surrounds the town of Aspen is an outdoor recreation paradise that’s popular with campers and backpackers.


Assuming you’re not a movie star dropping in on your private helicopter charter, Aspen is accessed by car from either the northwest or southeast on Highway 82.

Depending on the time of year, almost any vehicle is likely to do fine on these paved mountain highways, though having a four-wheel-drive, high-clearance SUV or truck is not a bad idea between the months of roughly November to March. If you need to rent a car for your trip, you can browse for options.

If you plan on venturing out of the immediate Aspen area and doing some exploring in the wilderness areas of the White River National Forest, then be sure your tires are in good shape and probably leave the sedan at home.

Sunrise at Maroon bells near Aspen
Sunrise at Maroon Bells near Aspen

Where accessibility to skiing is concerned, Aspen is known as a “four-mountain” destination, and all four of its ski and snowboard areas—Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk, and Snowmass Ski Resort—are conveniently located either right next to or near the town.

Many of the lodges and resorts in what snow sports enthusiasts often lump together as “Aspen/Snowmass” are even set up to offer guests the kind of unparalleled “ski-out, ski-in” access expected of the most high-end mountain lodgings.

This is something to keep in mind if you’re weighing a trip between Aspen and Vail or Breckenridge, as Aspen might be the winner out of the three in terms of proximity between lodgings to the slopes.


As mentioned before, the cost of a trip to Aspen will depend largely on whether you’re on a ski trip and purchasing lift tickets, what kind of lodgings you book, and how you choose to spend your time.

The cost of lift tickets at the top-tier ski resorts like Vail and Aspen (in resorts such as Aspen Snowmass) has come to average out to something like $150-$200 per person for a day.

Plan for more, so the total cost of a visit to Aspen will obviously be a good bit more if you’re purchasing a 5-day ski pass in comparison to, say, doing five days of backpacking in the summertime and only paying for gas, other supplies, and a camping permit.

You’re also going to be paying a bit more if you need to go to a ski school – expect to pay less if you can go straight to intermediate or more advanced slopes.

Time spent in downtown Aspen can also be as economical or as lavish as you want to make it, as you could easily choose to pick up a $10 cold cut sandwich at a local deli for lunch and then turn around and spend hundreds on a sushi dinner prepared by a Tokyo-born chef and restauranteur.

The point being: Aspen doesn’t have to be all about caviar and expensive champagne, though it certainly can be if you want, and options for activities can range from the free or extremely inexpensive (hiking or visiting a landmark dating back to the area’s silver mining boom) to the opulent (going on a boutique shopping spree downtown). There is no doubt that this is an iconic ski destination for the rich and famous, however.

Aspen in winter
Aspen in winter

Things to Do in Aspen

Aspen’s ski resorts and surrounding National Forest areas offer some of the most diverse opportunities for outdoor recreation of all the Colorado mountain towns. Skiers will get lost in exploring the many trails and runs these resorts have to offer in the wintertime.

For visitors outside of ski season, the Conundrum Hot Springs trail is one of the area’s most famous hiking and backpacking routes that features some of the state’s most spectacular views of aspen trees changing colors in the fall.

This is an 18-mile out-and-back backpacking route if you plan on reaching the geothermal pool at the top of Conundrum Creek, so be sure to plan and pack accordingly. Hikes such as this one can also easily be done as a shorter day trip by simply turning around and heading back to the trailhead after a couple of miles.

If you’re looking to stay a little closer to town, not to fear: there are plenty of scenic trails and attractions to visit around Aspen without needing to go too far off-grid or even strap on skis or a snowboard. The Wheeler Opera House, built in 1889, is a fascinating example of a structure that dates back to Aspen’s 19th-century origins as a silver mining boomtown.

Other local hotspots to visit include the Aspen Brewing Company, which has delicious beer brewed in-house and is also a great summertime hangout if you’re looking for a patio with some sunshine, and the Silver Queen Gondola—a 20-minute ride to the top of Aspen Mountain (Ajax) that rewards you with incredible views.

Conundrum Hot Springs Trail
Conundrum Hot Springs Trail

Where to Stay in Aspen

If you’ve decided that Aspen is the place for you, you’re going to need to find a great accommodation option. There are lots of choices available in Aspen that suit all travel styles. If you’re looking for the perfect place to stay in Aspen, have a browse through these suggestions:

Private Vacation Rental – A great choice for accommodation in Aspen is a private rental such as this mountain hideaway with amazing views and a spacious living area.

Limelight Hotel — This 4-star hotel has a range of clean and comfortable rooms available that can suit couples and families, a pool and hot tub on-site, and a restaurant that offers breakfast daily.

The Gant — This luxury resort has a range of amazing apartments on offer, endless amenities including a pool, tennis court and fitness centre as well as a great restaurant and bar to relax in at the end of the day.

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Aspen hotels!

Scenic drive near Aspen.
Scenic drive near Aspen.


Often praised for having some of Colorado’s most varied terrain with perfect groomers, edgy back bowls, powdery tree runs, and everything in between, the town of Vail and the resort by the same name are a major presence in Rocky Mountain culture.

In fact, when comparing Vail and Breckenridge or Vail and Aspen, you’ll find that all three of these towns afford year-round access to some of the best outdoor recreation Colorado has to offer. Read on for more about how Vail stands apart.


For most, getting to Vail Village is a simple matter of driving in on Interstate 70 from either the east or west. If you’ve flown into Denver and are renting a car, for example, you’ll be looking at a drive of about an hour and 45 minutes with no traffic.

The drive from either side on the I-70 corridor is an easy one if your car and tires are in good shape, but be on the lookout for any adverse weather conditions, especially between November to March when temperatures are coldest and there’s the highest chance of running into ice, snow, and other challenging road conditions when driving from Denver in winter.

Moving around Vail is very easy once you’re settled since there are such excellent bus and shuttle systems. You could easily call an Uber to take you the roughly 10 minutes from the East Vail to West Vail areas, but there’s usually no need since the Town of Vail Transit Department is so good about providing year-round bus services.

And while there may not be quite the sheer number of “ski-in, ski-out” lodging options available with direct access to the resort, the entire town of Vail is built right at the base of the mountain ski area, so popular access points such as the Lionshead Gondola are always just minutes away even if they’re not right on your doorstep.

A last note: the Eagle Regional Airport is significantly closer to Vail than Denver International Airport, so keep this in mind as an option if flying. Vail’s location right along the interstate might be a downside for some if comparing Vail to Aspen or Breckenridge, but what’s lost in seclusion could be made up for by overall travel convenience.

Vail in summer
Vail in summer


If you look at Vail vs Aspen in terms of affordability, the two are really close cousins in terms of having plenty to offer where both high-end and affordable lodgings and activities are concerned.

It is worth mentioning that Vail Ski Resort has been known to have some of the higher rates for daily lift passes, so consider looking into some of the Vail Resorts package deals such as the Epic Pass if you really plan on putting in some time at the Colorado ski resorts during the winter.

Visiting Vail or Aspen in summer is going to look very similar when it comes to affordability, depending on your exact choices of lodging and other variables.

Outside of ski season and year-round, the town of Vail itself can be on the expensive side if you treat yourself to an afternoon of boutique shopping followed by dinner at one of the top restaurants. But Vail, like Aspen, can also be as affordable as you want it to be.

The town has a nice array of relatively affordable eateries inspired by classic European cuisines like those of France, Italy, and Germany, and there are dining options all the way down to pizza parlors and burger joints. Gore Creek runs right through Vail as it makes its way down from the peaks, and there’s a nicely lit pathway along the stream where you can take a walk after a meal.

Ski chair lift in Vail
Ski chair lift in Vail

Things to Do in Vail

Vail Ski Resort is something of a “crème de la crème” of Colorado high country skiing and snowboarding. Saying it “has something everyone” sounds cliché, but it really is true here, as beginning skiers and riders will find a lot of nice green and blue runs as they work their way up to the steeper black diamond runs this mountain is known for.

For experienced skiers and snowboarders, the back bowls of Vail are highly regarded by those who want to put their skills to the test and see a wide variety of terrain.

Just be sure to pay attention to seasonal conditions and closures, as legendary areas such as Blue Sky Basin might be open, or not, depending on timing and staffing. You can organise ski rentals here.

A trip to the Vail area after the resort closes in the early spring is still well worthwhile, as the town and surrounding areas of the White River National Forest offer lots of mountain recreation options.

There are plenty of mountain biking trails, and you might also choose to fly fish on the Eagle River, hike to a local favorite destination such as Booth Falls, or head to the Vail Farmers’ Market and Art Show and wander between the outdoor booths in the spring, summer, or fall.

If you’re choosing between Breckenridge or Vail—located just about an hour from each other via I-70—you’ll find very similar opportunities at warm-season activities based around the Blue and Eagle rivers, respectively.

Skiing in Vail
Skiing in Vail

Where to Stay in Vail

If it’s Vail that’s won your heart over Aspen or Breckenridge, you’re going to need to find a great place to stay in the Colorado ski town. There are lots of options to choose from, including these great suggestions:

Private Vacation Rental – If you want your own space while in Vail, then a private holiday is a great option. There are options to suit different levels of budget in Vail such as this stunning chalet if you’re looking for a bit of luxury.

Montaneros in Vail, A Destination Residence — If you’re looking for something high-end but also self-catering, then these apartments which can suit small or large groups are a fantastic option.

Lodge at Lionshead — This rustic, alpine lodge is an excellent choice for a place to stay at the base of Vail Mountain. They have apartment-like rooms with self-catering facilities and great amenities.

The Sebastian — If you’re looking for a luxury hotel then this ski-in, ski-out resort offers numerous plush rooms with on-site restaurants, spas and fitness centres.

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Vail hotels!


Closer to the main Interstate 70 corridor than Aspen but a little bit more tucked away than Vail, Breckenridge is yet another former mining town that has now transitioned to being sought after by Colorado’s skiers and outdoor thrill-seekers.

The ski resort features numerous peaks that are distinguished by number (Peak 9 has some especially great glades and tree runs, for example), and the heavily forested wilderness areas surrounding the town are home to great hiking and wildlife watching, mountain biking, fly fishing, backpacking, and much more.


Getting to Breckenridge will likely have travelers driving in on I-70 from either the east or west and getting off for the final leg of fewer than 10 minutes on Highway 9.

The other option is to take Highway 9 from the south where it branches off from US 285 at the town of Fairplay. Either way, this is an easy resort town to access and get around in by car, as all major roadways are paved and well-maintained.

Something to keep in mind when staying in Breckenridge, especially during ski season, is that the overall layout of the town and many lodgings compared to the resort areas is a bit more spread out in comparison to Vail and especially Aspen.

This isn’t a bad thing at all, especially when it comes to having more landscape types and areas for people to have fun, but it does mean that a little extra planning may be involved to account for getting to and from your accommodations and your daily activities.

Lovely town of Breckenridge
The lovely town of Breckenridge


The restaurants, bars, and shops of downtown Breckenridge come in all shapes and sizes, with retail storefronts ranging from skate/snow shops with a high “cool” factor to lace-draped souvenir and knick-knack purveyors that anyone’s grandmother would love.

Options for hotels and other opportunities at rental cabins and houses are in great supply and can sometimes be found at more affordable rates than in other ski towns like Vail, Aspen, or Beaver Creek. Breckenridge Ski Resort itself is also often somewhat lower in prices of daily expenses like meals, gear rentals, and lift tickets.

Non-winter activities like fly fishing, rafting, biking, hiking, or climbing around Breckenridge can be as expensive or as economical as you want to make them.

A day spent fly fishing the famed Blue River tailwater below Lake Dillon, for example, could cost as little as a few dollars for some flies or a few hundred dollars to hire a guide from Cutthroat Anglers and rent equipment, depending on overall needs.

When you compare overall affordability of Aspen vs Vail or Breckenridge, it’s likely that Breckenridge will come out as the winner in many scenarios.

Dillon Reservoir is a great place to stop between Denver and Vail
Dillon Reservoir

Things to Do in Breckenridge

Craft beer aficionados will love the town of Breckenridge as there are several breweries and taphouses worth touring, including the Breckenridge Brewery, Broken Compass Brewing, and CB and Potts. “Breck,” as the locals call it, is also another Colorado mountain town like Aspen where the “après ski” culture is prevalent.

In other words, don’t be surprised to see half of the people sipping beers in the bars around town wearing snow pants and sporting goggles on their heads once afternoon hits during the winter months. You can join a beer tour if you want to join in!

One intangible that this town has when you compare Breckenridge vs Aspen and Vail is an overall “youthful” vibe. Lots of 20-somethings and college students work at Breckenridge as “lifties” and resort staff in the wintertime, so the nightlife scene downtown is worth checking out for anyone interested.

Breckenridge is also known by mountain bikers for its summertime trails that are typically in top shape by early to mid-July once the spring bulk of the Colorado snowpack has melted off.

The nearby town of Frisco is home to the Frisco Adventure Park, which offers summer activities like biking on a well-groomed course complete with jumps and other features and tubing and skiing in the winter.

For hikers and backpackers, the National Forest areas that surround Breckenridge in Summit County are some of Colorado’s prettiest.

Frisco, Colorado
Frisco, Colorado

Where to Stay in Breckenridge

If you’ve decided that laid-back Breckenridge is the place for you, then you’re going to need to find a place to stay. There are lots of accommodation options on offer in the town, including these great suggestions:

The Ranahan – If you’re looking for a luxury option you’re after while visiting Breckenridge, then you can’t go wrong with this place. They have large and comfortable rooms available and countless amenities to make your stay a great one.

Breck Inn – If you’re on the hunt for something a bit smaller and less grand than the previous choice, this inn is a good option for those on a slightly lower budget. They have cosy and comfy rooms on offer and a lot of other amenities to ensure your stay is fantastic.

Private Vacation Rental – Another fantastic option for those who want some privacy or are simply after your own place in Breckenridge is a private vacation rental Places like this ski-in/walk-out condo are only some of the great offerings available in this Colorado town.

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Breckenridge hotels!

Downtown Breckenridge in winter
Downtown Breckenridge in winter

Aspen vs Vail vs Breckenridge: Which is Better to Visit?

While you might wish to spend some time in all three of these unique Colorado mountain towns, making a decision with a limited timeframe is likely to involve weighing the factors of accessibility, budget, and how you want to spend your time.

Considering the ski slopes of Aspen and Vail might not quite have your scales tipping either way since both offer such beautiful scenery and quality terrain, but if you narrow down your hotel choices and find one that affords easier access to a great resort, then you may suddenly have an easier decision.

However, if you’re looking for a high-end, ski-in/ski-out experience in the lap of luxury, then Aspen might be your place. Although you can visit this resort on a budget, there are also numerous opportunities to splash the cash.

Alternatively, if you want to experience some of Colorado’s best skiing while having a range of both high-end and more affordable options available, then Vail might be the place for you.

And finally, if you’re looking for a laid-back ski town experience with far more affordable options than either Aspen or Vail, then Breckenridge is going to fit the bill.

The time of year also may play into your choice, as there could be a more appealing place to car camp at low cost in Breckenridge as opposed to Aspen in the middle of the summer, or vice versa, depending on what you discover when doing research.

Rest assured that no matter which of these three Colorado destinations you choose to visit after comparing Aspen, Vail and Breckenridge, you’ll be in a historically and naturally rich Rocky Mountain town.

Are you struggling to decide between visiting Vail, Aspen or Breckenridge? Have any questions? Let us know in the comments!

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Duncan is a writer for The World Was Here First. He lives in Colorado and also works as a fly fishing guide and instructor when not editing or writing. He has spent time in Costa Rica and has made numerous trips exploring the Western states of the Rocky Mountains.


  1. Altitude is important for skiers & non-skiers and Brecks base is the highest of the 3. Breck also boasts the highest lift, the Imperial Super Chair, in North America taking skiers to 13,000. Breck also has more to do for those who dont ski making it easy to rondaveau with skiing members. The vast ski area is also completely visible in town.

  2. Breckenridge has so much to offer for all ages, perfect family spot, full night life for college age, ice skating rink, annual snow sculpture competition, great skiing, great Nordic skiing. Beautiful real old mining town, big art scene. Affordable.

  3. You didn’t mention that Breckenridge has a free transit system that makes getting around town very easy, and that the trailhead to Quandary peak, one of Colorado’s favorite 14ers, is only half an hour from town.


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