DCSki’s Editor is in the midst of a road trip. He checks in with occasional “Notes from the Road” in this series.
I had not visited Vail in a few years, and topping my list of things to do was a visit to Blue Sky Basin, an area that opened amid some controversy a couple of seasons ago. Blue Sky Basin offers 645 acres of deep-woods skiing suitable for intermediates and experts, with lots of gladed and open-bowl skiing. It is located past the Back Bowls -; very deep in the mountains.
When Vail announced its intention to develop the Blue Sky Basin area, the resort came under attack from some environmentalists who were concerned that the area would push into possible Lynx habitat. Although there had been no Lynx sightings in the area, the area was considered prime habitat for the rare and threatened animal.
Some extreme environmentalists tried to block construction equipment from entering the area, and the situation reached a climax when environmental terrorists set Two Elk Lodge and several lifts on fire. The beautiful Two Elk Lodge burned completely to the ground, and several lifts were damaged. Citizens of Vail and mainstream environmental groups were shocked by the act, and rallied behind the resort as it rebuilt Two Elk Lodge in record time. Blue Sky Basin opened quietly on schedule, and the controversy has disappeared. Security at the resort was beefed up -; I noticed some mountaintop security cameras -; but thankfully there have been no further incidents.
The Pete’s Express, Skyline Express, and Earl’s Express lifts service the Blue Sky Basin area. These are brand new high-speed quads, and as such, they’re faster and more comfortable than the high-speed quads of old. The lift terminals are designed to look like barns, and the entire Blue Sky Basin area has a rustic feel to it. Some trail signs in the area are made to look like Teepees.
It takes some effort just to get to Blue Sky Basin. It generally took me anywhere from 1.25 to 1.5 hours to reach Blue Sky Basin from the Lionshead base area at Vail -; requiring several up/down trips as I crisscrossed Vail towards the China Bowl area. The base of China Bowl includes a catwalk that goes to the base of the Skyline Express lift. From there, you can ride to an elevation of 11,480 feet, and cut over to the Pete’s Bowl area, or dip down to Earl’s Bowl, serviced by its own high-speed quad.
This is expert territory, but a strong intermediate will find plenty to do. The Cloud 9 trail, a great intermediate cruiser, crisscrosses down the mountain with opportunities to dip into the trees. In The Wuides offers an easier path down Earl’s Bowl, but the top can be a bit icy and wind-blown, as it was during my visit. I did a little sideslipping there.
There is one key thing to keep in mind when skiing Blue Sky Basin. You are far, far away from the base area of Vail -; expect at least an hour of solid skiing just to get back to the base. Bear that in mind if your legs give out. You might also wish to keep in mind that it will take some time to get medical attention if you are injured in Blue Sky Basin -; there is no quick way out. Ski carefully, and ski with a friend.
There are few services at Blue Sky Basin. At the top of the Skyline and Earl’s Express lifts is Belle’s Camp, offering a place to eat a bagged lunch (which you must bring yourself) and restrooms. But there are otherwise no dining facilities.
I wandered around various parts of Vail during my three days. Vail had received about a half foot of snow a few days prior to my visit; the resort has received an enormous amount of snow this season, allowing the resort to open nearly all of its terrain shortly after Thanksgiving.
There wasn’t much fresh powder left during my visit, and days were mostly sunny with occasional clouds drifting by. The resort did receive about 1-2 inches of snow during the last day of my visit.
Conditions were packed powder, but variable. Thin cover existed in some areas -; and an unseen rock put a large gash in one of my skis on Blue Sky Basin. Some areas at the top of the mountains -; especially bowl areas without tree cover -; were wind blown and hardpack, but not so icy that one couldn’t get an edge. The vast majority of terrain had plenty of loose snow for comfortable carving.
The good snow conditions allow one to ski on steeper trails than in the Mid-Atlantic, where conditions are frequently icy. However, Vail’s trail ratings are on a scale not typical of Mid-Atlantic resorts. Some of the green trails at Vail could easily pass as intermediate or even lower expert trails at Mid-Atlantic resorts. Intermediate trails at Vail can be very steep, but easily navigated with the good conditions. Black and double-black diamonds can be very steep -; including some ominous looking cliffs and lots of moguls. There is plenty of groomed and ungroomed terrain to satisfy everyone.
Each time I ski, I notice more and more people wearing helmets -; children and adults alike. I started wearing a helmet this season and there’s simply no reason not to: it’s comfortable, lightweight, and keeps my head warm. At Vail, it looked like at least 15% of visitors had helmets. A much higher percentage of children had helmets, and I suspect as these children grow older, helmets will soon become as common as ski poles.
I arrived at Vail just after the Martin Luther King holiday weekend, and thankfully, the crowds departed just as I arrived. The longest lift line during my three-day stay was about 3 minutes. There are sections of Vail that can get crowded, but the area is so large that you can always find your own piece of the mountain to have all to yourself.
After three days of skiing at Vail, I’m pretty tired. You can cover a lot of vertical in one day, and if you have sea level lungs like me, the slighest exertion (such as climbing stairs) will leave you short of breath. Yet, the incredible terrain, scenery, and conditions at Vail draw even the weariest skier or snowboarder out of bed each morning.
Some may view Vail as pretentious or too expensive. But there’s one thing most everyone can agree on: Vail offers perhaps the best skiing experience in the United States, and can stand up against any European resort.
Did you miss Part 1 of the Vail profile? Click here to read Part 1.
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.