DCSki’s Editor is in the midst of a road trip. He checks in with occasional “Notes from the Road” in this series.
There is a reward for driving nearly 2,000 miles across the country (see Entry 1) - just past Denver, the Rocky Mountains rise out of the ground, towering over 14,000 feet above sea level. This is convenient, because there are many ski resorts located in Colorado, and they’d be altogether uninteresting if it weren’t for the Rockies.
I had decided to spend three days skiing at Vail Resort, the largest resort in the Continental United States, and perhaps the most famous. Vail draws visitors from across the country and, indeed, the world.
At 9 a.m. on Tuesday, the ropes dropped and Vail’s 33 lifts (that’s not a typo) began running. Was DCSki’s Editor first in line ready for first tracks?
Continuing my long-standing policy of sleeping in on any day that is officially part of a vacation, I was still in my condo, recently awoken and trying to gather together all my skiing gear. And, I had decided to take it easy the first day as I was still adjusting to Vail’s high altitude. (Vail’s base elevation is 8,120 feet; its highest point, nearly 3,500 feet above, is 11,570 feet. As with most Colorado resorts, altitude sickness is a risk and it takes several days to adjust to the high elevation.)
I did make it to the slopes shortly after 10, and hopped on the Born Free Express Lift, located next to the Eagle Bahn Gondola. Whereas Eagle Bahn frequently has long lines in the morning, Born Free usually is line-free and goes nearly as high as Eagle Bahn.
Vail has 5,289 acres of skiable terrain. Let’s put that in perspective. DCSki covers 29 major ski resorts in Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina. If you added up the skiable terrain from these 29 resorts, you could fit all of them in an area half the size of Vail.
Or, put another way, Vail is equal to about 24 Snowshoe’s. Don’t even try skiing all of Vail in a day, let alone a week. I spoke with one lady who has been skiing Vail all of her life, and she told me she still gets lost.
Vail was one of the first resorts to adopt high-speed lifts in quantity. Of Vail’s 30 lifts, 14 are high-speed quads and 1 is a high-speed gondola. 9 fixed grip chairs and 9 surface lifts balance out the total. The high-speed quads are located strategically throughout the mountain; during my three days, I only rode a fixed-lift chair once.
Vail has 193 named trails, but that’s really only telling half the story. Virtually any terrain at Vail is “on limits,” and some of the best skiing is found off of named trails. For example, the famous Back Bowls of Vail provide wide-open skiing wherever there’s snow.
Vail is 7 miles wide - and getting from Point A to Point B on the mountain requires a fair amount of work, planning, and time. Getting from the Lionshead base area to Vail’s new Blue Sky Basin area - located past the Back Bowls - takes at least an hour, assuming there are no lift lines. Recognizing that many skiers and snowboarders run out of energy by the end of the day, many of the high-speed quads at the resort are down-loading and allow visitors to ride down.
Indeed, Vail is a big resort. It offers terrain suitable for all ability levels, and excellent snow conditions are almost taken for granted. Beginners will find plenty of greens, including at the top of the mountain where the views are best. Vail offers a wealth of choices for the strong intermediate skier; there are blues on virtually every part of the mountain, including places that are otherwise predominantly black (or double-black). Experts, too, have no shortage of choices. Experts will likely flock to Vail’s back bowls, where they can find some extreme conditions, but there are also a lot of challenging and bumped up runs on the front side of Vail.
There are a number of catwalks at the resort, but for the most part, they don’t require much poling. A snowboarder told me that it can be difficult to get over to Blue Sky Basin, which requires some catwalking. Even a relatively flat trail named Brisk Walk did not require much manual locomotion - although, in deep powder, I suppose that could change.
At the end of the day, many of the lower trails become clogged with skiers and boarders rushing to the base. Vail wisely posts a number of employees and volunteers at these funnel points late in the day, to make sure no one is skiing unreasonably fast.
Vail is a true destination resort - it perhaps defines what it means to be a destination resort - and offers plenty to do besides skiing and snowboarding. While companies such as Intrawest are now aggressively developing “pedestrian villages” at the base of resorts, Vail has been there, done that. There is little need for a car at the resort.
The town of Vail can be divided into three distinct areas: East Vail, which is furthest from the slopes; Vail Village, which is the hub of Vail’s aprés ski scene; and Lionshead.
Condos and hotels cluster around all three areas. There are few bargains to be found here: Vail is unapologetically expensive. Expect to pay a lot for lodging, for meals, and for lift tickets. (A single-day ticket is over $70.) Lodging closest to the slopes is the most expensive. An efficient free town shuttle connects the various parts of Vail, and a shuttle is also available to nearby Beaver Creek, which can be skied with Vail’s lift ticket. Further from Vail and closer to Beaver Creek, the town of Avon offers the most affordable lodging. I stayed in Lionshead, about a 2-minute walk from the gondola.
The main Vail Village area contains a host of quaint shops, from the requisite t-shirt shops to real estate shops that post flyers on the window showing just how much you can’t afford to buy a property at Vail. (Houses can go for several million dollars; condos can top $1 million.)
The only chain restaurant in the town of Vail is Subway, located bashfully in the parking garage near the Lionshead base area. Foot-long subs go for $7, and that’s probably the cheapest way to feed a large family. Small grocery stores are located in Vail, but expect to pay a premium: a pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, for example, goes for over $7. Don’t be surprised to pay $10 for a T.V. dinner.
A Safeway store, with more reasonable prices and a wider selection, is located on the shuttle route in West Vail. Savvy visitors driving in from Denver stop at King Soopers (Colorado’s version of our Giant) on the way to stock up on groceries. King Soopers also offers discount lift tickets for many Colorado resorts.
But, you are on vacation, so splurging a bit on food is not a bad thing, and there are lots of great dining choices in Vail. I dined at the Mezzaluna, located near the Eagle Bahn Gondola and offering a wide variety of choices. I had Indian Curry Chicken topped off by an Apple Crisp. You don’t want to know the price.
There are lots of on-mountain dining options, too. They can become quite crowded around lunch time, so try to eat early or late to avoid the crowds.
Two Elk Lodge, located atop China Bowl, offers standard lunch fare such as cheeseburgers, wraps, salads, and baked potatoes. Expect to pay about $13 for a cheeseburger and fries. At lunch time, it can be difficult to find a table at Two Elk Lodge. Here’s a tip: there are picnic tables outside that are usually vacant, and there are heaters so that the temperature is quite comfortable. It’s also generally quieter.
The Eagle Bahn Gondola doesn’t stop running when the trails close. It continues running until 10 p.m., taking visitors on a free, scenic ride up to the top of Eagle’s Nest, looking at the glittering lights of Vail far below. At Eagle’s Nest, visitors can partake in activities at the Adventure Ridge such as ice skating, snowmobiling, laser tag, and tubing. Adults can also ski-bike of Thrill Sled down the mountain. The gondola is free to foot passengers any time after 2 p.m.; activities at Adventure Ridge begin at 2:30 p.m., but are not offered on some days.
Continue to Part 2 of the Vail report…
M. Scott Smith is the founder and Editor of DCSki. Scott loves outdoor activities such as camping, hiking, kayaking, skiing, and mountain biking. He is an avid photographer and writer.