Notes from the Road: Vail (Part 2 of 2) 11
Author thumbnail By M. Scott Smith, DCSki Editor

DCSki’s Editor is in the midst of a road trip. He checks in with occasional “Notes from the Road” in this series.

Looking towards Blue Sky Basin from the top of the Back Bowls. Photo by M. Scott Smith.

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.

The top of one of Blue Sky Basin’s three high-speed quads. Photo by M. Scott Smith.

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.

A shot of Blue Sky Basin. Photo by M. Scott Smith.

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.

Glade skiing at Blue Sky Basin. Photo by M. Scott Smith.

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.

A skier gets some air. A lot of air. Photo by M. Scott Smith.

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.

Adventure Ridge at Eagle’s Nest offers nighttime snowmobile rides. Photo by M. Scott Smith.

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.

A skier demonstrates skills that DCSki’s Editor does not possess. Photo by M. Scott Smith.

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.

A snowboarder catches some air. Photo by M. Scott Smith.

Did you miss Part 1 of the Vail profile? Click here to read Part 1.

About M. Scott Smith

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.

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Reader Comments

January 24, 2003
Is there a less time consuming access than the one you described?

Also, where's the blue sky? :)
January 24, 2003

No, I don't think so -- not from Lionshead, anyway. The trip could possibly be shortened a bit by taking some black diamond trails off of Tea Cup Bowl, but those trails had really variable conditions (read: rocks poking out of icy snow) and I'm not sure that would save much time. Blue Sky Basin is simply very far from the base area, and you can only ride the necessary lifts (and ski the necessary trails) so quickly!

Basically, to get to Blue Sky Basin, you must get to the base of China Bowl. That's the only entry point. And getting to China Bowl has always been an effort. Once you're there, though, the base of Blue Sky is just a short cat walk away.

The sky was blue on the two days I didn't bring my camera. :-)
Kevin R
January 24, 2003
Brings back mind-blowing memories of endless runs, draped in crystal blue skies, with snow capped jagged peaks as a back drop. Who could ask for anything more?
January 25, 2003
Insider Tip:

Park at Vail Village for the quickest access to the back bowls, including Blue Sky. It will take two lifts to reach the top of the mountain. From there you can ski a traverse all the way to the bottom of the Blue Sky Basin lift (not recommended since it's a total waste of vertical) or you can ski Sun Up Bowl to the bottom of the traverse or you take the Sun Up Bowl lift and ski the relatively tame black Tea Cup or Ghenghis Khan bowls. (Blacks at Vail are generally much easier than most blacks out West.) Last option recommended for strong intermediate skiers and above. Should take a little over 30 minutes.
January 28, 2003
Excellent pictures! The description brings back memories of (2-3hrs.) non stop skiing from Mayrhofen to Gerlos last year. Now we can do a shorter version right here in the U.S. I loved the way it is designed. The rustic barns on the ends of the high speed quads look good. The glade skiing is great. Dump a can of tuna in there for the Lynx. You won't see them. They only eat and party at night.
January 28, 2003

Have they installed a third lift in Blue Sky Basin? I was last there in 99-00 and it was marked as future expansion.

Also, did you hear any rumblings about other future terrain expansion? Seems like Vail & Associates wants to take over the entire mountain range. Friends of mine said that Vail once tried to build lift access on I-70 east of Vail Pass so commuters from Denver wouldn't have to cross the often treacherous pass. Apparently, the local Vail merchants nixed the expansion. They also mentioned possible plans to expand to the town of Minturn. That would take over the Minturn Mile, a back-country gem accessible to a wide range of skiers.
January 29, 2003
Hi John,

Yes, there are three lifts at Blue Sky Basin now. I think they've opened every part of Blue Sky now.

I didn't hear anything about terrain expansion. During lunch at Two Elk Lodge, I did notice some displays talking about a huge expansion planned at the Lionshead base area -- I didn't have a chance to read them too carefully, but it sounded like they basically wanted to re-do the village area at Lionshead -- on the order of a half billion dollar expansion, if I remember correctly. Not sure about Minturn. It seems to me Vail has more than enough open terrain -- it might be interesting if they were able to link up with Beaver Creek somehow for village-to-village skiing, but not sure if that's in the cards (or even possible).
Anne F.
January 30, 2003
Great write up on Vail, Scott. I was wondering about the snow conditions up in Colorado now; are they as dismal as New Mexico? After getting dumped on in late fall and December, New Mexico received no precipitation during the entire month of January, so all of our snow plus dreams of a fine 2002-2003 ski season are evaporating with every clear, dry day. I will be heading to Winter Park, CO in February and hope the snow will be better there than it is here!
January 31, 2003

You're scaring me talking about the New Mexico snow levels. It's not a good sign when the locals are leaving to ski elsewhere. I'll be in Taos three weeks from today. Hopefully, the weather pattern shifts and New Mexico gets several snow dumps in the meantime...
January 31, 2003
Because I have family in Edwards, I have the wonderful fortune skiing vail 10 - 14 days a year. Having said that, I think that Blue Sky is a tourist trap. The glade skiing back there is kind of dangerous because a) it is intermediate terrain and that brings a lot of skiers of differing abilities and b) the fall lines are mixed so, you get people coming at you from all kinds of angles. Collision waiting to happen!

This is true, every year for the last 5 years someone has died in a collision related accident while we were there.

TIP: If you really want the ride of your life ski with a local. We did year and WOW! We skied stuff that we hadn't skied in years. BIG, BIG SMILE!
February 1, 2004
Hey, My grandpa biuld Lionshead terminals, why ain't their a good website bout that?

Ski and Tell

Snowcat got your tongue?

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