Anyone who has heard of Vail knows it as one of the best ski resorts in the world. Tucked in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, over two mountain passes and through a mass of weekend traffic, it sits in wait for thousands of mountain-lovers from across the world to grace its winding slopes. And though skiing establishes itself as Vail’s main appeal, it has so much more to offer.
As a born-and-raised Coloradan, I have spent the majority of my life living in Vail. I like to think after 25 years I know as much as there is to know. However I am always discovering new adventures, new hideaways, new secrets to this ever-changing place. For those considering visiting, and I highly recommend it, here are a few seeds of Vail wisdom.
1. Fall in Love with Fall
When it comes to deciding when to visit Vail, winter is the obvious choice and summer seems to be the secret that got out. But if you have the opportunity, if skiing is not your thing and if busy festival crowds just make you nervous, come in fall.
In late-September, the aspen leaves on the mountain change to a brilliant yellow, interspersed with burnt orange and the occasional red underbrush. The air cools down. You can hear and smell the fallen leaves. And if you’re lucky, the distant Gore Range gets a dusting of snow. Bring your camera, because it is a sight worth seeing.
Bonus Tip: Locals call tourists in the fall “leaf-peepers,” which I find more charming than insulting.
2. Ski Afternoons in Lionshead
If you do come in winter, chances are you will ski. With 5,289 acres of terrain to navigate, the skiing in Vail can be overwhelming. If you play it too ambitious, you could spend most of your day on a catwalk trying to get from one place to the other. If play it too safe, you could end up trapped in long lift-lines in the most crowded areas of the mountain (Blue Sky and Mid-Vail, I’m looking at you).
It’s all about timing. If you want to visit the busier areas of the mountain, do so in the early morning before most people have made it to the parking structure. That goes for the Back Bowls, too. Then—here’s the real secret—spend your afternoon in Lionshead. Hit sunny, open slopes with a variety of terrain and skip the lift lines on the other side of the mountain. Plus, Game Creek Bowl gets (and maintains) some of the best powder on the mountain.
Bonus Tip: If you are looking for some on-mountain grub, eat lunch at Wildwood Smokehouse on top of Chair 3 & 7 (above Game Creek Bowl). It’s less crowded and has shareable plates of BBQ that hit the spot when you are tearing up the slopes.
3. Grab Some Grub
“Where should we eat?”—it’s one of the most frequent, and important, questions I get asked. There are loads of options when it comes to dining in Vail, and it all depends on what you are looking for. I have compiled a list of my favorites, though it is by no means exhaustive.
Best Bang for the Buck: The Little Diner | Best Splurge: Westside Cafe
The Little Diner has hot, fresh diner food (I’m talking greasy) at a reasonable price. However, it can be packed in the mornings so get there early. The Westside Cafe has more varied breakfast options ranging from Cap’n’Crunch French Toast to a My Big Fat Greek Skillet. It also gets busy (what good breakfast restaurant doesn’t?) and it really isn’t a splurge until you add the mimosa. And then the one after that.
Best Bang for the Buck: La Bottega | Best Splurge: Mountain Standard
La Bottega has a surprisingly well-priced lunch menu featuring salads, sandwiches, and pizzas. Plus, they have a beautiful patio. Mountain Standard may the hippest restaurant in town, with food that highlights flavor and quality. The atmosphere really tops it off, as it overlooks Gore Creek.
Best Bang for the Buck: Garfinkel’s | Best Splurge: Terra Bistro
If you want high-end dining in Vail Village that really blows you out of the water, go to Terra Bistro. Featuring seasonal menus and quality-sourced ingredients, you really can’t go wrong. On the total opposite end of the spectrum there’s Garfinkel’s, affectionally known as Garf’s to the locals. It’s a sports bar in Lionshead with an huge patio overlooking the mountain. Split the combo nachos with a friend. They are seriously some of the best.
Coffee: Rimini | Ice Cream: Sundae | Happy Hour: The Remedy | Pizza: Local Joe’s
4. Hike LOST LAKE in Summer
One of the most popular places to visit during the summer in Vail is Piney Lake. While it does offer spectacular views and you can drive (however perilously) all the way there, I recommend hiking to Lost Lake (with the trailhead along the same road) instead. The roughly seven mile there-and-back hike tends to be less crowded and less treacherous than other trails in the area. With a quaint lake as your destination, you have something to look forward to along the way.
5. Enjoy our one week of spring
Spring tends to be the “mud season” in Vail. Take that as a literal term. When the snow melts, the ground turns to mud until the grass has a chance to grow, the leaves have a chance to sprout, and the flowers have a chance to bloom. Because of the altitude and mountain weather, that does not tend to happen until the last week in May. But if you catch it right, you will find the dogwood trees in bloom with pink and white flowers and the aspens budding. It’s a flurry of flower petals and it’s absolutely beautiful.
6. Head over to the Beav’
Here’s a not-so-secret secret: Vail is not the only ski resort in the area. Vail may be better known, but it is certainly not better than its nearby counterpart Beaver Creek. If you have the Epic Pass, you can go to both. Beaver Creek is like the classy step-sister to Vail. It has a variety of easy to access terrain (even for all the dare-devils out there), free cookies at 3:00 pm every day, and a candy store on the top of the mountain. Its slogan is “not exactly roughing it.” I don’t need to tell you why. Do yourself a favor and add a day at Beaver Creek to your itinerary.
7. Beat the Traffic
Traffic from Denver to Vail and back on the weekends can be something of a headache. But here’s the secret—it is only during certain times. Avoid driving up between 3-7 on Friday and back between 12-4 on Sunday and you can go from driving for five hours to driving for two. While you may be eager to get up and settled, a five hour car ride only puts everybody in a bad mood. Wait, then head to your mountain getaway.
8. Play in Gore Creek
July and August prepare to get your feet wet. Gore Creek, which runs through the center of Vail, begins to flow at an ideal rate and the cold water becomes just tolerable enough for adults and kids alike. Stick your feet in, let the kids play, or toss a stick for the dog. Bring a tube and float awhile. Take a fly-fishing excursion and cast your line. Gore Creek has something to offer everybody. Just remember to play safe and at your own risk.
Bonus Tip: Locals have a campaign going to “restore the Gore.” Illegal dumping and damage to the banks have taken a toll on the flora and fauna living in the creek. Do your part! Only enter Gore Creek at designated points and do not dump anything in the water or down the grates in the village, which lead directly to the creek.
9. Explore Outside of the Village
While Vail Village and Lionshead Village have a ton of shopping and restaurants, not to mention access to Vail mountain, there are many more opportunities just a short walk or bus ride away. Head east to the Betty Ford Alpine Garden and Vail Nature Center. Here you will find the highest botanical garden in the world, free to the public and open all year round. It’s the perfect place for a peaceful stroll through a flowers, trees, and water features. While you are there, take a short hike along the creek to the Vail Nature Center, where you will find animal exhibits that you are allowed to touch. Also in the area you will find creek access, a fairytale kids park with a climbable beanstalk, and the Ford Amphitheater, which hosts shows throughout the summer.
10. Find Hidden Treasures
Keep your eyes and ears open for hidden treasures in Vail. In spring, you can take an easy fifteen minute hike on the outskirts of town to East Vail Falls, a secluded and spectacular waterfall. Walking or riding along the bike path in August you will encounter wild orange, black, and red currants. When fall rolls around, the aspen trees glow gold just before sunset, their yellow leaves quaking in the light. In winter, you’ll find peace and quiet walking along the creek through the snow. It doesn’t matter what time of year you visit. Any person in any season can experience the small wonders of Vail, so long as they are looking for them.