Beaver Creek, I think, is relatively a new resort in the scheme of things. Closely affiliated with (perhaps even owned by?) Vail the Company; it’s also very close to Vail the Resort, maybe 5-10 miles away at the most. [Editor’s note: A single company, Vail Resorts Management Company, operates Colorado ski areas Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, and Keystone.]
The town of Avon sits a mile or two below the actual mountain Resort of Beaver Creek, and one can easily take a bus from the town to Beaver Creek, Vail, and perhaps to points unknown. To some degree Beaver Creek is still a resort in development. Although the main portion seems to be largely complete, skiing around the place you’ll run into works in progress at various places.
Once I arrived the plan of action became this: two days of skiing at Beaver Creek followed by two days of skiing at Vail. That seemed like a good way to split things up and since I’d never skied at either, I decided to make this sort of “fact finding trip” - with a “taste” of skiing. But, for reasons that I’ll go into in a bit, I ended up skiing three days at Beaver Creek and one day at Vail. This gave me a really good feel for Beaver Creek, and something akin to awe for Vail…
Beaver Creek is a fairly large resort and it will take you two or three days to really ski all the areas to get a feel for things. It’s split up across several mountains and three major areas, the main central “centennial” area, Bachelor’s Gulch, and Arrowhead. The latter two are still areas under development in terms of amenities and accommodations, so you will find the services at the bottom of each a little light. However Arrowhead does have a café and there are toilette facilities at Bachelor’s Gulch.
Photo by Kevin Rice.
It took me the three days to ski something under all of Beaver Creek’s 14 lifts. In my mind, the terrain is easiest at Arrowhead and progresses in slight degrees of difficulty at Bachelor’s Gulch, then the Larkspur Bowl area, Grouse Mountain, and finally the central Centennial section. This isn’t completely accurate however as the central area has numerous easy greens and moderate blues to choose from besides some steeper stuff, glades and bumps.
On the main mountain you will also find some world class steep stuff called the Birds of Prey that regularly host World Cup events, and next to it, Grouse Mountain seems to have more of the same but a bit shorter in length (and perhaps not quite as steep?).
While in line the first day (yes there was a lift line!) fresh, hot chocolate chip cookies were given out at the main lift and at Bachelor’s Gulch mints were being handed out too (no line). And just to add to the mix the Junior Olympics took place underneath the main Centennial lift between some good views of the jagged crags of the Gore Mountain Range at the top of it all.
Sound interesting? Hey, I had a great time and would go back. Now I should say that I might go someplace else first, but I’d definitely go back and I feel pretty comfortable recommending this as a resort destination to folks. And if your really good hardcore ski buddies think things are a little lacking in the “extreme” skiing department at Beaver Creek, they can always hop on the bus for a day of skiing at Vail, which is exactly what some of my ski buddies did after our first Vail foray of curiosity.
Let me just say this about Vail. It’s rather mind-boggling. I have some bad things to say about Vail, which I will get to but for now just cut me some slack while I gush about the place. Vail is awesome; Vail blew my mind. My little ski brain never conceived of such a place. Perhaps this is due to a lack of imagination, or perhaps it’s a tribute to the brains behind Vail, I don’t know. But it is truly exceptional. Get this, you open up the ski map and it’s got TWO SIDES with ski trails on it. You aren’t going to ski this place in a day, or three days or FIVE DAYS or even a week!
The “front side” is composed of the traditional looking runs that you and I are used to plus one bowl near the top. It’s got straight things and twisty things, groomed, groomed a few days ago, and au -natural. It’s got greens, blues, black, double-blacks, trees, bumps, jumps, cliffs, and rocks. Somewhere there’s a NASTAR run for fun. There are lifts and gondolas to to get ya going. I mean it’s got everything you could ask for right? Wrong, it’s got more.
There’s the whole “back side” which consists of four large bowls, or is it five? Heck, it might even be six huge bowls for your skiing pleasure. And you can ski any which way you want in them, over there, over here, down there, up there, around that, over that, through those trees, down those bumps, over that cliff - use your imagination. It’s completely ski-perational to stand at the precipice of one of those bowls and look out past your ski tips at what you can do. Who could ask for more than that? But it’s got MORE than that.
It’s got the whole BLUE-SKY Basin area which is its own little mountain, with a cornice you can jump off of and glades, and steep stuff to scare the pants of you if you want, and some blue stuff if you’d rather ski clothed. I mean it’s a whole ‘nuther section that has a whole ‘nuther pile of runs and crazy stuff to ski off of, over, around, on top of, till your legs feel like little sacks of jelly held up by your ski pants!
Are you getting what I am saying?
Photo by Kevin Rice.
All right, so maybe I am laying it on a little thick but this is some good stuff and you should go sometime. I mean just do it. But first be forewarned. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see what is plainly obvious. So you will not be skiing alone. This is a perhaps Vail’s big dark underside - the crowds.
I actually stood in about three lift lines totaling one hour! Yep, you read that right. The longest of the three was around 25 minutes of waiting. I was flabbergasted. Now I am not sure that Vail is always that crowded but it was packed on the day we were there. Eating at Two Elk Lodge near the bowls at 1pm bordered on the impossible, and getting back to the front around 3:30pm when things started closing down felt something like rush hour. One of us was run over in the mêlée and received a twisted leg for her troubles. Luckily it turned out to be a mild injury and she was able to ski the next day, but you get the picture. At Vail you could be skiing with 1000 of your best friends. And that’s not why you came out West to ski is it?
But having said that, I don’t think it’s fair to deep-six Vail so readily for this one reason. Besides one data point does not a generalization make. But the locals seemed to confirm that it can get very crowded at Vail and that you have to know how to “work the system.” And while I’m not precisely sure what this means I think I can offer two simple pieces of advice. First, know where you are going and get there bright and early. And second, just skip Two Elk Lodge. It’s packed and expensive. It’s just not worth it. Instead, if possible, bring a picnic lunch on your ski travels and eat outside in the bright sunshine on one of the bowls. Of course that’s going to be problem if its not bright and sunny out. Perhaps then the answer is to try somewhere else for eats at Vail, or eat before 11:30am or after 1:30pm - neither of which may be ideal. Perhaps there are no straightforward answers here; you just have to take your lumps.
I think my last piece of advice is this. Go to Colorado and go skiing. I think that’s pretty straightforward right?
Oh, and why did I end up only skiing one day at Vail? Well, the crowds mainly … bummer.
Vail is awesome beyond belief - but the crowds can be overwhelming. They are worst on weekends. With some careful planning (or "working the system" as the locals refer to it), you can largely avoid the crowds, even on the busiest days.
The reason is that the average crowds follow a distinctive path across the mountain throughout the day. If you stay a step ahead, you can usually have the slopes to yourself.
First, it's best to be at the bottom lifts the second the ropes drop. (You have an advantage: you're still on east coast time.) Most people head for the Eagle Bahn gondola first thing in the morning, and the lines can be huge. But there is a high-speed quad just to the right of it (I forget the name) that usually has no lines. With two high-speed quad rides up, you can get the same place as Eagle Bahn but much quicker. Tip 1.
Tip 2: head to Game Creek bowl first thing. This is the bowl on the front side (off to the right), and offers great morning skiing with the sun hitting it. But after about an hour, Game Creek will be a zoo - there is only one lift that gets people out of it and it will start to back up as people head over there.
So enjoy an hour of crowd-free skiing, and then split just as the line starts to get long.
Next, jump on over to the back bowls and spend time there. They get really crowded in the afternoon, starting around lunch, so you can finish the morning there with untracked powder and no crowds.
Once the crowds start building there, head back to the front side. By now the crowds have moved towards the back parts of the mountain. You can finish the afternoon on the front without crowds, and find an uncrowded restaurant for a late lunch.
This is the game plan my friends and I used on our last trip to Vail, and it worked pretty well. We really didn't have any lift lines the entire time.
Hope that helps!
Thanks for the report. DCSki is lucky that so many of its readers report on their adventures further afield. I especially liked your pictures.
Got a couple of questions:
What day did you ski at Vail?
What was apres ski like at Vail and Beaver Creek? Food, nightlife, other entertainment?
Finally, how were the prices? Can you comment on costs, including air fare and ground transport?
I went to Europe this year because it wasn't much more money than Vail. After reading your article, I think I made the right decision. Although Sunday was a little crazy, I hardly ever waited in line at St. Anton during the mid-week. As Scott mentioned, you can also easily work the system by getting to the higher elevation slopes quickly and then sticking to the highs. Poma and T-Bar served slopes (often steeper trails) also never have lines...
John, the day we skied at Vail was MONDAY Mar 4. Some of us also skied there on Mar 5. By all accounts it was not as crowded on Mar 5. BC was more crowded on Mar 3/4 than on Mar 4/5 (empty on 5). I wish I could attribute the crowds to something but I can't.
On the back bowls I never waited in a lift line. The lifts that were so packed were Mountain, Avanti, Game Creek and Wildwood. And that was after backtracking -- bad idea. Blue Sky Basin my friends said had no lines.
As for apres skiing. I can recommend ONE restraurant called Ti Amo nearish Vail. Very good and they make their own desserts.
As for bars and that, I hate to admit it but I skied from open to close with just four days to explore both BC and Vail, I had just enough energy to eat dinner before hitting the sack every night. But there are no doubt cool places to hang after skiing with the large numbers of skiers.
We all thought things were relatively expensive. Lifts were $67 per day! (Peaks program online) The Vail/BC bus was $3 one way. The lodging costs I was insulated from as I was crashing someone elses arrangements but it seemed more expensive than Crested Butte. I saw airfare to Eagle/Vail below $300 but actually it cost me around $450 (timing is everything!) The bus trip that I had to take (long story) one way from Denver was $62 with Colorado Mountain Express. I believe roundtrip is cheaper. From Eagle/Vail it's around $30 with CME too. I believe there may be a public bus that is available to/from the vail/eagle airport -- TBD.
BTW, season passes are going on sale sometime in April for Vail/BC/Breck/Keystone & A-basin. $300 dollars IN PERSON... ;-)
Unfortunately the only link I can find to this info is here: http://www.skimag.com/article/feature.cfm?aliasid7019
I believe I was told to watch the websites when I called the number ... but I don't see any info at www.snow.com at the moment.
Thanks for the info. It confirms the claims made by www.Ski-Europe.com and others that Europe and Colorado are comparable in cost for someone traveling from DC or New York. The airfare to Vienna with a stop in Innsbruck was the same as your ticket to Eagle/Vail. Lift tickets were $24 a day for a 6 day pass. Our hotel cost us $63 per day per person, including a large breakfast.
However, the one problem with Europe is that it is tough to go to for just 4 days. The whole system over there is set up for 6 day/7 night packages. Vail, on the other hand, offers all these flexible, last minute, short term deals that can be super--especially late in the season. The snow I suspect is also more consistant at Vail.
As someone who has been to Vail/Beaver Creek four times and has had friends who lived there for the winter, it's time for me to throw my 2 cents in.
First of all, Vail probably has the best combination of skiing/nightlife/non-skiing activities as any area in North America. This can be very important when planning trips for a larger group or when traveling with non-hardcore skiers/boarders. IMHO, only Aspen and Whistler/Blackcomb can compete with Vail for this diversity of activities. The downside is that Vail can be expensive and crowded. Vail is verging on being a small city in the mountains, as opposed to being a quaint little ski village.
For bars, I'd recommend Garfinckel's in the Lion's Head section of Vail, The Red Lion and The Club(?) in Vail Village, and The Minturn Saloon in the nearby town of Minturn. The saloon can be accessed by a relatively easy backcountry trail from near the top of the Game Creek bowl. It has the best Margaritta's in the valley and some good food also. Be sure to have some of your group drive to the saloon to pick you up. They probably won't need much urging ;)
For a different dining option, try Beano's Cabin in Beaver Creek. It's a renown restaurant located near the top of Beaver Creek. The restaurant is accessed only via a snowcat! Reservations are required. I haven't had dinner @ Beano's, but friends have, and have rated it highly.
Another different dining option is a place across the street from the Minturn Saloon (can't remember the name but its a popular spot for locals). You buy your side dishes and a raw piece of meat (steak, chicken, fish) and cook the meat yourself. You meet some interesting people at the grill.
For skiing at Vail, proper crowd management is a key, as Scott mentioned. Beaver Creek is a very good option on weekends/holidays. It's much less crowded than Vail and has separate, less-crowded expert's only mountains. Grousse Mountain is 80 percent challenging bump runs, with the other 20 percent being some very steep glades and one or two blue cruisers. Some of the trails off the side of the ridge are the steepest bump runs I've ever skiied. (Steeper and more bumped than Jackson/Whistler/Blackcomb even.) I've never had more than 1-2 groups ahead of me in the liftline. Plus, it's a high speed lift. After 1500 vert of tough bumps, more rest is sometimes desired!
The Birds-of-Prey section of Beaver Creek is the original expert section of the area. It now longer has the amount of skier traffic that Grousse Mtn does, so the trails there don't get as bumped up and ski much easier. The newly-cut World Cup downhill course is on this section. The one disadvantage of this section is the very slow double chair. (You can access the trails via the chair at the top of the mountain, but repeat trips require a long loop across several lifts.)
Beaver Creek is also known for impeccable grooming, ala Deer Valley. Many of the groomed trails take you back to the base lift, which attracts the most crowds. The Rose Bowl, Larkspur and Strawberry Park lifts access intermediate terrain away from the main base section.
Arrowhead and Bachelor Gulch are two smaller areas which were recently annexed into Beaver Creek by Vail & Associates. Engulf and devour. Don't know anything about those two areas.
Scott mentioned a good strategy for avoiding the crowds at Vail. The most crowded sections of the mountain are Mid-Vail (juncture of several lifts), China Bowl (only groomed back bowl) and the Lions Head section. Avoid these and the Two Elk Lodge at the top of the mountain during prime times.
For more advanced skiers, the Sun Up, Sun Down, Blue Sky Basin sections of the backside and the Highline and Northwoods lifts of the front side access fantastic terrain with very little crowds.
Final crowd avoiding tip @ Vail - park in Vail Village as opposed to Lion's Head (gondola). It has faster access to the back bowls and doesn't have the same crowds going up in the AM (don't have to catch the first lift to avoid the crowds) and is less crowded on the final run down in the PM. Nothing kills the buzz of an awesome ski day than a last run down with traffic comparable to the beltway. You can take shuttle buses to Lions Head for HH/dinner if needed.
Great comments JohnL & JohnS. I'll throw in a few oddball $0.02. Vail does probably stand out for groups that have a mixed set of things they'd like to do besides just ski. And that can be very important!
Having BC & Vail so close is also overall a very positive thing. My take on BC was that its blue runs were "easy blues" and groomed well. Black and up tended to be ungroomed or semi-groomed. I did not try any double-black diamonds but Grouse Mtn was tough and something else called Raptor? dropping into the Rose Bowl was very steep at the bottom and long. My really expert ski pals said they thought the "gladed options" were somewhat limited at BC and so went over to Vail. But I don't think they gave it a fair shot personally. I wish I could've spent more days out there to explore...
As for cost, I felt that I spent quite a bit less at Crested Butte for housing and lift (and car!) than at Vail/BC although the flight was about the same. Definitely it is possible to get a round-trip flight to Denver around $275 if you time it right and watch the online deals but $450 might be more realistic. On the other hand, I've flown to Europe for $400-$600 give or take, and this is competive with flying out West. Personally I'd really like to ski in Europe and heard St. Anton is a great place to start. Maybe next year!
Love it or leave it, everyone has an opinion on Vail. Kevin, thanks for your report on Vail/The Beav.
For the most bang for the buck skiing, it is really hard to beat Utah. Cheap and convenient flights from DC are common. You can say for near nothing in Salt Lake City (Motel Hell - been there, done that) and drive at most 50 minutes (good weather) to several world class resorts. Plus, for 35 dollars US, you can't beat Alta.
John, I have a aquaintence that lives in SLC. He told me that many of the resorts stay open through April. He has even skied at Snowbird on Memorial Day! I'm considering going sometime in April "just to do it..." But then again when things hit 65, it's hard to really think about skiing. But I certainly appreciate the ideas!