My husband and I recently skied Vail, and we found it a lot of fun. A real joy. In fact, we loved every minute of our stay. We skied from first thing in the morning to the last lift up in the late afternoon. We played hard and after three days of skiing we left promising to come back again some day. We left knowing that we could spend a lot more time exploring the vastness that is Vail.
We arrived on a Monday in early February and found the place hopping with skiers finishing up the day. We checked into the Vail Marriott at Lionshead, and went for a walk to get our bearings. We found the gondola a mere 150 yards from our hotel so we were happy at the thought of walking to and from the ski area. We also found the ticket booth, a coffee shop with my favorite, chai latte, and we found plenty of places where we could hop on a free shuttle for a ride to Vail Village. And ride we did. We parked our Subaru Outback on a Monday and never saw it again until Friday.
Although we typically ski the small, less crowded resorts, Vail is one place we have always wanted to ski. Why? Because it’s the opposite of the places we usually ski. It’s big instead of small. In fact, Vail is not only the largest ski resort in the United States, it is according to Ski Magazine, “The best of the best. There’s Vail—then there’s all the rest.”
For the past decade, Vail has been the most successful resort on the continent. In fact, since 1988 when the survey began, Vail has been chosen the number one North American ski resort an amazing 14 times. Ski Magazine readers rated Vail in the top ten in 13 of 18 possible survey categories. Categories included terrain variety, terrain parks, snow, grooming, lifts, weather, service, on mountain food, lodging, dining, après ski, off-hill activities, and overall satisfaction. I know that in addition to vast acreage and fun runs, we found very friendly people. For example, each time we entered the Two Elk Lodge we were greeted by various folks. They welcomed us with smiles and they offered us a tissue, not just on one occasion, but every time we walked in the door.
If Vail is two things, it is friendly and fun. Three distinct areas make up Vail, with all three offering something different. The front sides have 1,627 acres; Vail’s Back Bowls consist of 3,017 acres, and magnificent Blue Sky Basin is 645 acres. There are four terrain parks, a whopping seven bowls to ski and ride, and 5,289 acres of free-ride terrain. One super-pipe is 450 feet long with 18-foot walls. Two half-pipes offer 13-foot walls. And if you like moguls, like we do, then you’ll find plenty of mogul-blessed runs. One local informed us that Chair 10 offers long moguls, perfect egg carton bumps for experts to enjoy.
Vail Mountain ranges from a base elevation of 8,120 feet to 11,570 feet on top of Pete’s Express Lift in Blue Sky Basin. That’s 3,450 vertical feet of fun. The resort boasts of an average annual snowfall of 348 inches.
Though more than half of Vail is geared toward the expert/advanced skier, there’s plenty of room for beginners and those ready to try some blue or moderate runs. Eighteen percent of the runs are geared toward the beginner, with 29 percent aimed at intermediates. There are 193 miles of runs (the longest is Riva Ridge at four miles), one gondola, and 33 lifts including 14 high-speed quads. Total uphill capacity is 53,381.
Lots of Room
Since the ski area is seven miles wide, on an average day there are only two skiers per acre. On a busy day, there are only four skiers per acre. Still, lift lines can be long so you just have to play the mountain correctly. Jen Brown, Vail Mountain’s communication manager, suggests that skiers and riders avoid congested areas during peak times (for example mid-Vail at noon). She also offers this tip: “Access the Back Bowls on a powder day by riding the Riva Bahn Express from Golden Peak to Northwoods Express and then dive into the bowls.”
One of the best ways to get to know the mountain is to join a knowledgeable guide for a tour. Two free tours are designed to introduce skiers and riders to the vast terrain. You’ll also learn about the amenities the mountain has to offer. A Front Side and/or Back Bowls tour departs each day at 9:15 a.m. from Golden Peak, Lionshead and Vail Village. Tours to explore Blue Sky Basin begin at 10:30 a.m. each day. If you’re interested, meet at the top of Northwoods Express Lift (#11) for the tour, which is available for intermediate and advanced skiers. Both tours are available from mid-December through mid-April.
Ski Vail and you’ll soon realize that the resort manicures the most groomed terrain on planet Earth. Amazingly, on average Vail combs 1,300 to 1,600 acres of terrain per night. Think about it, that is more than most resorts claim in total skiable acres. Before your day starts be sure to check on the Web site www.vail.snow.com to find a map and/or list of the day’s groomed runs. If you don’t have the chance to check out the list before you get on the mountain, don’t despair. Daily grooming reports are located at the base areas of Vail Mountain, on electronic message boards at the top of each chairlift, and if that’s not enough, you can follow the directional signs to the various runs.
If you’d like pictures of you and your fellow fun-seekers, but you forgot your camera, look for professional mountain photographers on top of all major lifts daily from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. There is no shooting fee and no obligation to buy, so a professional photograph couldn’t be any easier. And if you need help in planning your ski vacation to Vail, just call Vail Customer Care at (877) 204-7881. The service is free and allows you to talk to someone with personal knowledge of the resort. They can help with lodging, activities, Ski & Snowboard School and a whole lot more.
In addition to skiing, the mountain offers more than groomed and ungroomed runs. There’s also Adventure Ridge, Vail’s mountaintop activity center. Here, visitors can ride ski bikes, enjoy the kids’ snowmobile tracks, ice skate, go tubing, and more. Adventure Ridge is open Tuesday through Saturday and is closed most Sundays and Mondays. Call (970) 476-9090 for more information.
While we were on the mountain we didn’t partake in any of the adventures at Adventure Ridge because we were constantly skiing down the mountain, then riding back up. But while we were there we noticed that Vail was abuzz with renovations. Vail opened in 1962. Now, more than four decades later, Vail is being revitalized, modernized, and is in the middle of a billion-dollar renewal.
Once you are in Vail it’s easy to get around town. Vail buses are free and make numerous stops between the western end of Lionshead and the eastern end of Vail Village. There are also scheduled buses to East Vail and West Vail. Vail’s NextBus system enables riders to know when the bus will be arriving.
While you’re in town you’ll find Vail offers everything from quick meals to five-course dinners. Visitors will find everything from French-American to Mexican to Italian to barbecue. Pazzo’s Pizza in Vail Village is a local pizza restaurant and a must-eat. I would also recommend Los Amigos in Vail Village. Fairly inexpensive, it serves delicious Mexican food and is a popular après spot.
Vail is accessible from both the Denver International Airport and the Vail/Eagle County Airport. The Vail/Eagle Airport is just 30 miles west of Vail on Interstate 70. Visitors can fly nonstop from Atlanta, Charlotte, Chicago, Cincinnati, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis, New York, Newark and Philadelphia. The Denver Airport is approximately 120 miles east of Vail via Interstate 70.
If you have a car and prefer to drive, know that parking garages cost from $4 for under two hours to a maximum of $16 a day. There are also some free outlying parking areas with access to the Town of Vail bus system. Visit www.vailgov.com or call (970) 479-2104 for more information.
Donna Ikenberry is a writer and photographer and longtime RVer who lives in South Fork, Colorado.