The Must-Read Guide of Vail, Colorado- Where to Stay, how to ski the Mountain, Where to Eat and Drink.
Vail is one of the most renown ski resorts in the world. It was one of these resorts I always wanted to visit when I was young growing up in Argentina. Luck struck me and I was able to visit several times, and also worked for Vail Resorts long time ago now. International visitors always want to visit either Vail or Aspen. Those are the famous resorts they know. This made me then put together the Must-Read Guide to Vail to help you organise your trip to this grand resort!
This article may contain affiliate/compensated links. For full information, please see our disclaimer here.
The History of Vail
Ute Indians used to settle within this territory in the summer. They used to travel to the most arid lands on the west during winter. The Utes used to call the Gore Range that overlooked the valley the “Shinning Mountains”.
Came WWII and the United States created a training center called Camp Hale. Here the 10th Mountain Division trained for alpine combat. They went on to fight on the Mountains of Northern Italy. When they came back, they were the force to develop the ski industry in the USA.
One veteran of the 10th Mountain Division, Peter Seibert, came back to Colorado. He joined the Aspen Ski Patrol and Ski School. Then he went on to become the manager of Loveland Basin Ski Area. At that moment, Seibert and Earl Eaton start looking on developing a new ski resort in the Rockies.
Eaton was local to Colorado and started skiing when young. By 1940, he was ski racing in Aspen while working for the Civilian Conservation Corps in Glenwood. In 1957, he and Seibert climbed Vail Mountain in winter and realised of its potential as a ski area.
Vail Mountain was property of the United States Forest Service, as it is the case of many ski areas in the US. What both entrepreneurs did not have was any money. But Seibert was quick to secure investors. By paying $10,000 for a condo unit, investors were getting a lifetime season pass. Like that Seibert got $1 million in the bank, which is what he needed to pay the permit of the USFS.
1962: Vail opened on December 15, 1962 with a Bell gondola that connected Vail Village to Mid Vail. There were as well two chairlifts, many condominiums and base facilities. That year the snow was not that good and construction kept in place till opening day. Marginal conditions met the skiers on opening day. Lift tickets were $5 for the first year . There was on offer one gondola, two chairs, eight ski instructors and nine ski runs.
One of the selling points of Vail was that it was half the distance from Denver than Aspen.
1960s: Vail Village grew at an incredible rate in the 1960s. In the 1968-69 ski season Bell Gondola installed the Lionshead Gondola. It was a six-cabin tramway that went up from the new Lionshead Base.
President Ford travelled that year to Vail and became very impressed. He went yearly and finished buying property in Vail.
1970s: More construction in Vail. Vail Associates erected new trails and lifts. The Town of Vail in the meantime built a transit system, a library, an ice arena and parking structures. Denver won the Olympic bid in 1976 for the Winter Games. Vail and the area that nowadays is Beaver Creek were going to be the sites for the downhill events. The people in Denver rejected the games and that was it. The ski industry was very upset.
1980s: In the summer of 1985, Vail hired Doppelmayr USA lift company. They were to install four high-speed quad chairs, which were the rage at the moment. We were moving away of the fixed grips. These were having three sets of cables, two that were on the upload and download of skiers and boarders. The other was one that zipped the people up fast to the mountains. This allowed guests having more time to upload and get off the lift with safety and then get more people up faster.
Doppelmayr installed the following. Vista Bahn, Mountain Top, Northwoods and Game Creek lifts. All this investment and the development of the Back Bowls, made the ski experience in Vail great at the time. Vail celebrated its 25th anniversary in 1988-89. The China Bowl opened that same year with a new quad chair, making Vail the largest ski area in North America.
Come 1989-90 season, Vail and what is today Beaver Creek hosted the World Alpine Ski Championships. This put Vail in the media’s spotlight all over the world.
1990s: In January 1997, Vail Associates bought Keystone and Breckenridge. Like this, Vail became the largest single operator in Colorado’s ski industry.
In the same season, work began to change the old Lionshead gondola for the Eagle Bahn Gondola. This new gondola, still today, uplifts 12 passengers in each cabin.
Blue Sky Basin was the next major project. Vail Resorts obtained the permit from the USFS to install three new high-speed quads. This was in the 1999-00 season.
Many more works took place to see what is the Vail we have today. I am not going to expand on it in this guide.
How to get there
DEN – Denver International Airport, located two hours away. The nearest airport for international and many of the domestic flights. Denver receives non-stop international flights from:
Cancun, Frankfurt, Guadalajara, London, Mexico City, Montreal, Munich, Reykhavik, Tokio and Toronto.\
EGE – Eagle Vail receives flights from Los Angeles, New York, Washington D.C., Atlanta, Miami or Dallas. International flights can connect via any of these hubs.
From Denver, take US 6 and then go to the I-70 and it is 97 miles to the west. Take into account that there can be traffic on the weekends.
From Grand Junction – Travel east on the I-70 for 147 miles. The road across the Glenwood Springs Canyon is worth the trip! It consists of two roadways, one on top of the other one. An elevated roadway with forty bridges and viaducts! A spectacle!
Parking in town
There are a series of parking sites in town, which are not cheap.
Vail Valley offers free transfer from and to Vail Mountain and within town. There are a series of circuits of different colours and you wait for the bus and pop in when it comes. Or you can walk around. These transfers are great for those staying in condominiums on East Vail to go into the mountain.
The heated cobbled streets in Vail Village and Lionshead allow you to walk around. It helps you to avoid skidding, even in the coldest days! What you can find there? From exclusive boutiques and all the typical outdoor gear brands, to local jewellery. (I love all the Ute Indians jewellery available!) Also, cowboy boots and hats, and many art galleries that are worth a visit.
Where to Eat in Town
Cucina in the Lodge at Vail
You need to make reservations to be sure you will be able to dine there. Call +1 (970) 754-7872 or book through OpenTable online.
Up the Creek
Overlooking the Gore Creek, a simple, yet lovely menu to enjoy. Famous for its truffle fries, ruby trout and scallops. Not to miss! https://vailupthecreek.com/
This is from the legendary late Pepi Gramshammer and his wife Sheika. In the heart of downtown at Vail Village steps away from Vail Mountain. Open for lunch and dinner. Eat some European dishes with some American options too. Have a Bratwurst, Goulash or Wiener Schnitzel for lunch. Or go to have dinner for a Jaegerschnitzel, Paprika Goulash or Sauerbraten. http://www.pepis.com/maindining.php
Games Creek Club
An on-mountain adventure! Located below Eagle’s Nest, above the Game Creek chairlift. This is a private membership club during the day but you can visit for dinner. You need to reserve in advance. To access, you ride a snowcat in winter. In summer you can hike or take a 4-wheel drive shuttle.
Cucina is at the Lodge at Vail. A great place to have a hearty buffet breakfast. Perfect for fuelling up before going skiing
Call +1 (970) 754-7872 – or book through OpenTable.
Located at the Gateway Plaza, south of the Main Vail roundabout. This Parisian-style brasserie offers Brunch from 8.30 am till 2 pm Friday through Monday. Go for the Mimosas, eggs Benedict, ‘galette du jour’ and bacon mascarpone stuffed French toast. You can superpower your morning with a “We Speak no Americano”- a double shot Espresso with Amaretto).
A great place for a morning hang-over. Locals love to get the Big-Ass Bloody (as called). Pair this with Fat Tire sidecar. Why not try the “Bakon” version? A bacon-infused vodka, a glossy candied bacon and a kabob of pickled vegetables. Ask for the eggs Benedict with sweet potato waffles and fried chicken.
This is a full service lunch restaurant with great views over the Gore Range. On offer there are a series of classic mountain dishes with a twist. Located on Top of Gondola 1. Opens from Tuesday to Sunday from 9am till 3.30pm.
Lunch with a view! From here you can see the fourteen-thousand foot Mount of the Holy Cross. Casual sit down dining with a full bar. Great for lunch, après and when you are hungry after being at the Adventure Ridge Center.
Reserve a table through Open Table.
BBQs on-mountain like the locals.
If you fancy eating cheaper and being cool like the locals, here is a tip. Bring your burgers and buns up. Try Belle’s Camp or Dawg’s Hauspicnic in Blue Sky Basin. Belle’s Camp is at the top of the Skyline Express Lift (#37). This is the largest of the grilling areas but is a bit more difficult tot access. Or go to Henry’s Warming Hut (called after the first ski patrol dog). You’ll find it next to Hawk’s Nest. Here kids can have a place inside to get warm while you flip burgers outside.
The only thing you have to do is bring your food as there is your food. Be sure to clean after you eat.
Where to après:
Vail Mountain 10thWhiskey.com
Inspired by the 10th Mountain Division soldiers who trained near Vail in the 1940s. The local whiskey distillery uses local ingredients to prepare its malts. The downtown tasting room is in the middle of the mountain village. Decorated with copper, wood and exposed brick. Go and sip some fruit-infused vodkas and sazeracs.
When you come down on Vail Mountain, walk some steps and you’ll see the lively Pepi’s bar. Owned by late Vail’s Pepi and his wife Sheika Gramshammer, this bar oozes the ambience of après at their native Austria. You can get Paulaner beer on tap. This reminds me of the après in Telluride with the Paulaner boot! I could not understand how locals could drink so much beer in one go!
This is where you go and get your Génépy des Alpes and different cabernets, paired with cheeses and charcuterie. rootandflowervail.com
Located off the Eagle Bahn in Lionshead. Go to this slopeside deck bar to drink pitchers of Lagunitas. If you are brave enough, go inside and turn the wheel of misfortune. You will have to see which shot you have to drink! (That is the only rule of playing that game!)
Express Lift Bar
This used to be an old coffee shop turned into a full-service après bar- the nearest to the Vail Village slopes. The streaming Block Rockin’ Chocolate is the favourite drink here. It consists of a cream-topped cocoa spiked with vodka and raspberry liqueur. Go there if you don’t want to navigate the Bridge street bars. Located by the Gondola One ski yard, behind the lift ticket window.
Tavern on the Square
Your option for going with your furry friend. The outdoor patio at the Arrabelle caters to our pooches with a dedicated Doggie Menu. Get some doggie biscuits or scrambled duck eggs. You can sip in the meantime crème brûlèe Martinis paired with the Tavern Black Forest Fondue.
For Mexican food go to “Los Amigos” in Vail Village.
Try the pizzas at “Vendetta’s” and “Pazzo’s”, for many the best pizza in town.
Italian food at La Bottega- they do a Philly sandwich per inch that is amazing!
Best fondue in town (if not a bit expensive) at the Swiss Chalet in the hotel Sonnenalp.
The best drinks are the Mudslides at the Bully Ranch, also at the Sonnenalp.
You can divide Vail Mountain into three sections: The Front-Side, Blue Sky Basin and the Back Bowls. It’s base elevation is 8.120 feet (2,454 m) and its top is of 11,570 feet (3,527m). It’s skiable area is of 5,317 acres (2,141 hectares). The Front Side has 1,655 acres, the Back Bowls 3,017 acres. Blue Sky Basin has 645 acres.
Vail’s vertical rise is of 3,450 feet (1,052m).
Beginner Terrain: 18%
Intermediate Terrain: 29%
Advanced/Expert terrain: 53%
Longest Run: Riva Ridge of 4 miles (6.4 km)
Average Annual Snowfall: 354 inches (899 cm)
How to ski the mountain as a beginner
Stay on the front of the mountain. There is 18% of the mountain’s 5,317 acres of beginner trails. Start of Lionshead Village and take the Eagle Bahn Gondola up to Eagle’s Nest. You have panoramic views from the top and can see the expanse of Vail’s mountain. From the top go towards Little Eagle Chair (#15). Do some laps and then take the Practice Parkway away from Chair 15. There are lovely trails such as Lion’s Way, Gitalong Road and Trans Montaine. You can see the famous Back Bowls when you get off the Sourdough Lift.
How to ski the mountain as an intermediate
Vail is great for intermediates. With a network of blue and green runs and some easy blacks, intermediates can enjoy a great day out. Start warming up on the blue groomers on the front to move later to the Back Bowls. Great runs on the front are Ramshorn, Avanti or Mid-Vail Express. Try to ski the bumps on Powerline, o test the not so steep Northwoods or Avanti.
When you move to the Back Bowls, not everything is for experts. Try Lost Boy and Dealer’s Choice in Game Creek Bowl. China Bowl has easy accessed terrain like Poppyfields West and Chostix. Blue Sky Basin has some adventurous runs like Cloud 9, Big Rock Park and Grand Review.
How to ski the mountain as an expert
Start in the Back Bowls. Go Sun Down Bowl, from Ptarmigan Ridge to O.S. Lots of snow accumulate below the ridge. The terrain changes from open steep runs to tight aspens to open glades. There is even a small cliff band.
Then go to the Siberia Bowl, more if a powder day. Rasputin is the highlight in big snow years.
China Bowl has Genghis that is long and steep. Shangri-la Glade can be fun.
Sun Up Bowl. It is a bit off the beaten path but worth the journey.
In the front side choose Mud Slide, Lindsey’s to Pepi’s Face, Northwoods, Highline and Riva Ridge.
Then move to Blue Sky Basin. There is lots of variety there but try Steep and Deep. The name says it all!
Some interesting facts of Vail’s ski trails
Lost Boy ski run got its name thanks to a boy of 12 or 13 years old that got lots from his cousins and slept under a pine tree. He was boy scout and was ok.
Bear Tree run acquired its name due to being a bear under a tree that should have been chopped. When the operatives seen the bear sleeping, they left the tree intact. And that gave the name to the trail.
The Epic Pass
You don’t go to the ticket window in Vail and buy a daily pass. Last year it cost $209. The company’s model changed, from selling real estate to sell advanced season passes. If you buy your lift in advance, you will go to the resort at some time, and it will not matter if it snows or not. It is a pretty intelligent idea. The amalgamation of ski resorts in North America changed the landscape forever. Vail Resorts was the first one in the market creating the Epic pass, now with more than ten years. It offers you a collection of ski areas to choose from in North America and all over the world. There are lots of different options that for me are too difficult to explain, but check before you buy. If going only for four days, you can buy a local pass or a 4 days pass. Now due to the curtailment of the ski season due to Covid-19, the Epic pass is coming with free Epic coverage.
Tour operators selling Epic Pass can help you. If not check the Epic Pass website for rules and restrictions.
Vail Resorts owns the ski and snowboard school in Vail. Americans ski resorts tend to own their ski schools. They differ from their European counterparts. In Europe, there are tons of ski or snowboard schools to choose from.
They offer private and group lessons for all abilities. If you prefer, you can take a lesson as a family. The ski and snowboard instructors at Vail’s ski school are from all over the world. They speak all languages. Many of them work year round, double seasons, from Vail to Argentina, Chile, NZ or Australia.
I like how instructors and lift operators in North America treat the safety of little ones. You see how there are always lifties helping kids to get on the chairlift. Many times another one comes from the back, to make sure the kid is well seat before the chairlift bar comes down. I have not seen anything like that in European or South American resorts. As a fearful mother, this is great for me to trust my little ones getting on the lift. Now my kids are older and they can sit alone with no help (even if I don’t want to admit it!)
(*) If booking for your kids, I cannot more than recommend my friend of childhood from Buenos Aires. Ask for Vicky Galarraga, when you book from the Vail Ski School desk. You will love her!
Vail offers this free service for everyone wanting to see what the mountain has to offer. Tours leave at 10.30 am from the top of Eagle Bahn Gondola (Sun-Fri). You need to be at least intermediate skier or boarder for these tours.
Usually they start on December 16th, weather permitting.
Back Bowls Tours
For intermediate and advanced skiers and riders. You meet at 10.15am. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Friday (depending on weather), at the top of Chair 4, 5 and 11 at Mountain Safety Center.
Starting December 17th, terrain permitting.
Women’s Winter Adventures
For intermediate skiers/riders or above- women only. They meet at t he Express Lift Café in Vail Village (Base of Gondola One), every Monday and Friday at 10.15am. They are to explore the Back Bowls. Starting on December 9th.
Legacy Historical Tour
If interested in the history of Vail, there is an afternoon guided complimentary tour. You will learn lots of facts of Vail’s past. Tours meet on Tuesdays at 12.30pm on the top of Chair 4- Mountain Top Express in the Safety Center Building.
60+ Ski with Us.
This is for skiers 60 or older, very advanced intermediates or more. This is an all-day tour on Mondays through the National Ski Patrol Mountain Host program. People meet at 9.15 am at the top of the Eagle Bahn Gondola at Gondoly’s Pizza on the first level of Eagle’s Nest. The group departs at 9.30 am. Stop for lunch along the way at one of the mountain restaurants. Tours limited to the first 30 people signing up each Monday morning.
*Groups of 8 or more, please call the Mountain Information Center at 970.SKI.VAIL (754.8245).
At the Golden Peak Daycare & Nursery. Open daily in the winter season from 8 am till 4 pm. They take babies from 2 months old onwards till six years old.
Cross-Country lessons and tours are available at the Golden Peak Nordic Desk. Reservations are not required.
Snowshoe Wilderness Tours offered daily from 10 till 12.30pm for a fee of $120 (rates for 2019/20 ski season). Equipment included (snowshoes, boots, poles and water).
Other types of tours available. For more information visit the Vail Nordic School at Golden Peak. Phone 970-754-3200 or 970-754-3210 (between 8.30 & 9.45 am)
Contact Apex Mountain Tours. They give you training in avalanche awareness and take you to the backcountry. This amongst many other things.
Go to the top of the Eagle Bahn Gondola to Adventure Ridge. This is a hub of mountain activities for kids and adults. It offers ski biking, snow tubing, snowshoeing and a place where to have a bite. Kids can also ride snowmobiles on a track designed especially for them. I remember going there to the press room, many moons ago when taking a press fam.
The Forest Flyer Mountain Coaster, something opened in winter and summer. Good for kids 3 years and over (with an adult), on top of the Gondola 19 (Lionshead).
Mountain Mushers take you dog sledding in private, scenic trails amongst Aspen trees. More information: Mountain Mushers.
It is a great adventure if you can afford it. Go with friends or family and a guide to pristine places. Lots of companies in Vail offering this.
Minturn is a small quirky historical town that is West on I-70 and then turning on US-24 E.
Minturn was a railroad town in the late 1800s. It was an important point along the Rio Grande railroad line which covered all Colorado.
Minturn was home of the old railroad Turntable. There they could turn the locomotive to go either towards Leadville or Denver. Leadville is on the Continental Divide, through the Tennesee pass. This made the locomotive needing more power. At the Turntable they could add some motor power to the locomotive.
Vail in Summer
Vail in summer has lots to do. The last years they started marketing it more to international visitors. Lots of hiking trails to go by foot from the village or by taking up the gondola.
The scenic gondola allows you up to 10,000 feet. Kids 12 and under ride free when an adult buys a Scenic Ride ticket.
The Forest Flying Mountain Coaster opens during the summer.
Fishing and biking are very popular in the summer.
One thing to go and see is the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens, the highest botanical garden in the US at 8.250 feet.
The parks have lots of activities for the little ones. There is one with a pirate ship that kids adore!
Vail has lots of summer events:
The Philharmonics of New York, Philadelphia and Dallas give concerts at the Ford Amphitheatre.
The Dance Festival is also held at the same amphitheatre. Summer concerts are on some tuesdays in summer.
Where to Stay in Vail
Lots of options as you can imagine, with a town of this size. Here are some of my picks:
Steps from the lifts, in the heart of the Lionshead Village. This is a sumptous hotel capturing Vail’s alpine legacy. The hotel has 81 spacious and elegant guestrooms and private residences. Their RockResorts Spa features a roof-top lap pool and hot tubs. It also offers an on-site bar and restaurant.
One of the top picks in Vail, this European hotel is five minutes away from the Gondola One ski lift in Vail. The Sonnenalp has three restaurants and a bar. Also a spa with two pools. Pilates and yoga lessons are available for guests. Swiss chalet offers European cuisine and Bully Ranch typical American food.
If going in summer, the Sonnenalp has a private 18-hole golf course.
Located ski in/out with access to Vail Mountain Gondola One. Lovely décor and lots of open spaces to lounge. It offers an outdoor pool open year-round and four hot tubs. Go and check Frost, the modern bar, it is pretty cool!
Located in the base of Vail Mountain in Vail Village, 200 yards from Gondola One. The Lodge at Vail includes a full service spa. Cucina offers mountain comfort cuisine. Elway’s does cut prime steaks, Colorado lamb and fresh fish.
Austria House resembles one of those family-run ski chalets in the Austrian Alps. This boutique hotel offer 25 exquisite rooms, not two alike. Located on the banks of the Gore Creek, a stroll from the heart of Vail Village. Chic rooms and suites with luxurious amenities.
The hotel is 650 yards from the Riva Bahn, and 0.7 miles away from Adventure Ridge.
Located in the middle of Vail, this is the hotel of the late Pepi and Sheika Gramshammer and has operated since 1964. You have the bar and restaurants I’ve talked before in the where to eat section. Rooms make you think you are in Austria more than in America, but then Vail seems a bit Austrian. At least that is what you feel when you walk on the pebbled streets in town. A very good continental breakfast is available. Ski rental services are on-site.
Apartments located in Lionshead. As the apartments have different owners, each one has a different décor. There is an outdoor swimming pool available on site. Each unit comes with a a well-fitted kitchen and private bathroom with hot tub and shower.
Vail Mountain Lodge & Spa accommodations include twenty hotel rooms and seven condos. A spa, gym and restaurant are onsite. Located along the Gore Creek only a short walk to Gondola One. Also near shopping and nightlife on Vail’s Bridge Street.
Special thanks to Vicky Galarraga, a local kids’ ski instructor and a local gardening company owner for her help with this guide. If you want to hire Vicky for your kid’s as a ski instructor, contact her through her Instagram account: @vickydevail. She is a great teacher and kids love her, having lots of repeat clientele year after year.
You can search for your own accommodation in the snow for your next ski holiday through our Accommodation Search tab. Or if looking to stay in the heart of the Mont Blanc Valley in the Aosta Valley, check Il Coure della Valdigne review here. This is our own family home in the mountains, that I am renting out when not using, you can always write me a private message if interested to firstname.lastname@example.org
You can book directly through Airbnb through this link
If you want to take your family skiing and you don’t know where to start, read here. And search for your ski transfers from all airports to the Mountains here. And for those that are like me, that are lazy to cook, you can get your food, even gourmet mountain food delivered to your home with Huski.
If renting equipment (skis or snowboards) check our agreement with Skiset– you can get up to 50% off ski or snowboard rental rates. I have been using them for years every year when I go to America and Europe and they are great!