Updated: February 4, 2013 at 12:00 am
Vail — it’s hard to think of a place in Colorado as inexorably linked to skiing.
Aspen? Maybe, but that was a mining town long before skiing arrived. Same with Breckenridge and Telluride.
Built in an empty valley in the early 1960s, Vail is a town conceived by skiers for skiers, which has grown to become the largest ski area in the state, a vacation destination for powder lovers from around the world.
But there’s a lot more going on in Vail than skiing. Vail is where two worlds meet. It’s right along a major interstate, yet only a short drive from two of Colorado’s greatest wilderness areas. The highway noise is an ever-present din in town, yet ride a couple of chairlifts and you’re in a quiet winter wonderland. Open space stretches in every direction, yet parking is so tight people pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for a spot.
From ski season to camping season, here is your guide to visiting Vail.
The Back Bowls. If you’re skiing Vail, that’s all you need to know.
Left bare by a long-ago wildfire, the backside of Vail made founder Pete Seibert’s jaw drop when he first saw it. The seemingly endless open ski terrain is below timberline, so not subject to brutal winds, and in a good snow year the powder is bottomless.
Families with young kids and beginners should stick to the front-side groomers, but the bowls can be enjoyed by even intermediate-level skiers, as can Blue Sky Basin, which is so remote it’s seven miles and multiple lift rides back to civilization.
But skiing the biggest ski area comes with a big price. A window lift ticket could cost a staggering $119. Add $20 to park in the city parking garages and a king’s ransom if you eat in an on-mountain restaurant, and a day of skiing can get very expensive.
And we haven’t even gotten to the lodging. Prepare to spend hundreds, even thousands, of dollars a night to stay in Vail proper in peak season. Skiers on a budget should look farther west to Avon or east to Frisco, or visit Vail in spring for late-season deals.
Just east of town is one of the greatest expanses of wide-open snowmobiling terrain in Colorado.
Park at the top of Vail Pass along Interstate 70. Pay a $6 per-person fee and get on your snowmobile to enjoy 80 miles of groomed trails and 200 powder fields for you riding pleasure. If you don’t own one, you can rent a snowmobile or book a guided tour at several businesses in town.
Drive to the top of the Continental Divide and, on a clear day, all of Colorado seems to spread out in front of you in pearly white splendor. For extra fun, bring your skis and another snowmobile and get backcountry powder laps all day.
Not interested in zipping down the mountain on skis? Cross-country skiing is a healthy alternative. Two Nordic centers offer more than 30 miles of groomed trails adjacent to the ski area. Explore on your own or take guided nature trips, where stunning views of the jagged Gore Range await.
Strap on snowshoes instead and you’ll see why Time magazine once called Vail the “world’s leading snowshoe destination.” You can tromp through the powder at the Nordic centers or venture off on your own. The aforementioned Vail Pass offers many trails. Stick to nonmotorized trails or cross the highway on a bridge for a more remote experience in the Eagles Nest Wilderness.
If striking out on your own in winter, it’s a good idea to check avalanche conditions and study what terrain is most avalanche-prone. Colorado leads the nation in avalanche fatalities for a reason.
For the kids
A kid-focused amusement park in the ski area, Adventure Ridge features tubing, ski-biking, kids’ snowmobiles, a bungee trampoline and free snowshoe nature walks. It’s located off the top of the Eagle Bahn gondola.
When the kids get too cold, take them back to town for ice-skating in Lionshead Village, and then back out for a two-hour dog-sled tour with one of several Vail-based companies.
Seen in winter from the ski area’s front side, the mighty Gore Range looks hostile and intimidating, a wall of jagged spires and snow-bound valleys. But in brief summer, these mountains hold some of the prettiest hikes and alpine lakes in the state.
Eagles Nest Wilderness encompasses almost the entire range. While loop hikes are difficult, since few passes traverse the spine of the Gores, many in-and-out hikes to stunning lakes can be done from trailheads in town. Try day hikes to Booth, Deluge or Pitkin lakes, all accessed from the east side of town.
For a backpacking adventure, hike up the Gore Creek Trail and then the Gore Lake Trail to the namesake lake, one of the prettiest backcountry camping areas you’ll ever see. For a classic loop, leave one car at a trailhead near Copper Mountain ski area and another in Vail and continue over Red Buffalo Pass and Eccles Pass and back down to civilization. You won’t want to leave.
Hit the links in the shadow of the Gores, and challenge your skills against the ever-present mountain wind, at the 18-hole Vail Golf Club. Or you can drive down the valley a bit to Avon, where the Eagle/Vail Golf Club offers more rolling terrain.
No matter which you choose, you’ll find the scenery intoxicating and you can watch your balls fly 10 percent farther.
The Betty Ford Alpine Gardens claims to be the highest botanical gardens in the world. The former First Lady and President Gerald Ford were longtime residents of Vail, and she believed that “our flowers in the summer are as glorious as our snow in the winter.”
More than 100,000 people visit each year to see this display of flora from the Rockies and other mountain ranges around the world. And best of all, it’s free.
Eagle County is home to an extensive network of paved trails, whether you want to climb on your bike to Vail Pass or cruise to Avon.