Vail is one of the largest ski resorts in North America with 5289 acres of excellent ski terrain, including wide open runs, steep slopes, powdery bowls, beginner areas and more. Combined with a yearly average of 346 inches of snowfall and 300 days of sunshine, Vail is a skier’s paradise.
One of the most exclusive ski resorts in the world nestles in the heart of the Rocky Mountains in the USA. Apart from Aspen, Vail is probably the most well-known ski area on the North American continent. Across almost 2000 hectares of terrain, ski enthusiasts of all ages can let their skis do the talking. Founded in 1962 the attractive, purpose built resort brings Alpine charm to the American Rockies. Ranked as one of the finest ski resorts in the world, ski holidays in Vail offer a wide variety of skiing for all levels on the largest single ski mountain in the USA.
Vail often comes top of the rankings of U.S. ski resorts and for a variety of reasons. Years of investment in ski facilities have provided an unrivalled range of lifts and runs. Constant attention to the slopes throughout the season keeps them in pristine condition and when you move off the slopes Vail has that essential sense of style-mock Austrian-Tyrolean in parts, certainly-but style nevertheless.
In sum, Vail has fabulous skiing, glitz, a lively crowd, and good nightlife. But sometimes it is crowded, suffers lift lines that are long by American standards, and prices both in the resort and on the mountain are relatively high.
Vail Ski and Snowboard Terrain
The Vail skiing area is one of the largest in the world with 2,140 hectares (5,289 acres). Off-piste there are infinite lines. You’ll never run into your ex-wife, and you’ll still discover new trails after skiing there for a week. Vail has all the terrain you could ever desire, especially if you’re an advanced skier or snowboarder. The lift system is amazing with 31 lifts in total, including one gondola and 17 high speed quad chairs!
Vail Colorado has three distinct ski areas. The front side is generally crowded and includes lots of cruisers and the beginner areas. The Vail back bowls are renowned amongst advanced skiers and are a good way to escape the masses (except on a powder day!). The north facing Blue Sky Basin is peaceful and has boundless backcountry trails, lots of advanced terrain and tree skiing.
For the Beginner
Novice skiers are catered for in the Golden Peak area (Gopher Hill, a short walk from Vail Village) and the Eagles Nest (at the top of the Lionshead gondola).
More confident beginners can head up to the Sourdough Express lift which has the best beginner terrain at Vail. Beautiful wide, super groomed and tree lined sheltered runs converge at the base of the chair. There are various other green runs on the Frontside, but it may require some confidence to navigate these. Beginners will need to keep a trail map handy and their eyes peeled on signage. Unfortunately much of the beginner terrain at Vail is actually on cat tracks, which leaves little space for error. So get a lesson, learn fast and get on the bountiful intermediate runs.
Intermediate Skiing Vail
Vail is pretty good for intermediates, particularly low-end intermediates that enjoy short runs. Vail has countless intermediate runs. You’d struggle to ride them all in a week!
Many intermediates are understandably drawn to the Mid Vail area on the Frontside. There are some fantastic runs to be had, however be warned. It can get really congested. One of the fantastic advantages of Vail is that intermediates can also head down the Back Bowls and across to Blue Sky Basin. All that exploring is a lot of fun.
Vail has some limitations for strong intermediates who enjoy fast long fall-line groomers. In addition to the grooming problems outlined above, there are only a couple of runs that continue long enough to get the thighs burning (e.g. Blue Ox and Riva Ridge – see below) and lots of runs change ability rating on the way down. For example in the Lionshead area there are runs such as Simba; it’s blue then it turns to black moguls and then blue again. If you want to stay on blue trails…… you guessed it, you’ll have to head onto a cat track! And if you want to go at Mach 1 on a groomer, then your options are very limited. There are an abundance of manned slow zones and Vail proudly displays signs to indicate how many people have lost their lift tickets for speeding.
The Game Creek Bowl has some choice terrain for intermediates to progress and try a few advanced runs. On a powder day, runs like Faro, Ouzo and Ouzo Glade will get you onto some pitch, but with the added safety of being able to traverse out to ‘safer’ terrain if you get in trouble.
Vail Ski and Snowboard Terrain - Advanced
For advanced riders that relish the thought of a well pitched, super groomed, fast, long, leg burning black run, look no further than Riva on the Frontside. You can smoke down here at Mach 2 with your sphincter puckering the whole way as your legs turn to jelly. It generally only gets groomed once a week, so check the grooming reports.
For advanced riders that want to stay off the groomers, Vail is absolutely perfect. Vail has superb terrain variety including mega moguls, tree skiing, and open powder bowls.
The Back Bowls provide some of the best bowl skiing in the world for advanced skiers and boarders. The slopes are not particularly steep but the bowls are just beautiful. Boarders should avoid going out to Inner and Outer Mongolia, unless they are prepared for the torture of a long walk!
Blue Sky Basin is not super steep either and it provides fabulous tree skiing and boarding. In Blue Sky Basin there are some “must dos”. These include jumping off the extensive cornice at Lovers Leap, and hucking off the rocks in the Skree Field. Otherwise just go exploring.
To show off at the end of the day on the Frontside (or crash and burn in front of an après crowd), rip a bumpy line down Pepi's Face at the base of the Vista Bahn.
Vail Skiing and Snowboarding - Expert
Vail isn’t particularly well renowned for its expert terrain. Some people go so far as to say Vail is flat! Whilst Vail doesn’t have the steep alpine chutes of some other resorts in USA, Vail has a smattering of cornices, tight steep trees, and small cliff lines if you’re willing to do a bit of recon. The marked double black trails are not super challenging relative to some other USA ski resorts, but still a bit of fun.
Easy to get to technical trees are on the Front Side off the Gitalong Road. These include the Frontside Chutes, Mudslide, The Narrows and Pumphouse. Cover can be a bit dodgy here, so adhere to any closed signs or suffer the consequences to your body.
Also on the Front Side, long, well pitched bump runs exist off the Highline and Northwoods Express lifts. Opportunities exist to duck into the pine trees also. Various cliff lines, cornices and tight steep trees exist off the Northwoods Express. Drop in off the rim anywhere from between the top of the lift along to the Prima cornice area. However, scope out your entry before diving in!
Ski Resort Topography & Configuration
- Base: 8,120 ft (2,470 m)
- Summit: 11,570 ft (3,530 m)
- Vertical Rise: 3,450 ft (1,050 m)
- North: 40% of skiable terrain.
- South: 20%
- East: 20%
- West: 20%
- Skiable area: 5,289 acres (21.40 km2)
- Trails: 193 total (18% beginner, 29% intermediate, 53% advanced/expert)
- Longest run: Riva Ridge - 4 miles (6.4 km)
- Average annual snowfall: 370 inches (9.4 m)
- Terrain Parks: 3
- Bowls: 10 (7 official)
- Sun Down Bowl
- Sun Up Bowl
- China Bowl
- Siberia Bowl
- Tea Cup Bowl
- Inner Mongolia Bowl
- Outer Mongolia Bowl
- Pete's Bowl
- Earl's Bowl
- Game Creek Bowl
- 31 total
- 1 Gondola (12 person)
- 1 Gondola (10 person)
- 2 high speed six packs
- Mountaintop Express (#4)
- Avanti Express (#2)
- 15 high speed quads
- Wildwood Express (#3)
- High Noon Express (#5)
- Riva Bahn Express (#6)
- Game Creek Express (#7)
- Born Free Express (#8)
- Highline Express (#10)
- Northwoods Express (#11)
- Sourdough Express (#14)
- Sun Up Express (#9)
- Orient Express (#21)
- Pride Express (#26)
- Teacup Express (#36)
- Skyline Express (#37)
- Earl's Express (#38)
- Pete's Express (#39)
- 1 fixed grip quad
- 2 triple chairlifts
- Gopher Hill (#12)
- Little Eagle (#15)
- 9 Surface Lifts
Vail Snow Conditions
The average snowfall per season at Vail has increased over recent years to 366 inches (9.3 metres), possibly due to their cloud seeding schemes that aim to get more precipitation out of each storm! During the 2007/08 and 2008/09 seasons, Vail scored over 430 inches of snowfall. Strangely, Vail also has about 300 sunny days per year, so it’s perfect for fair weather powderhounds (if there’s such a thing!!).
The quality of the powder is pretty typical for the Colorado Rockies, and the elevation is reasonably high so the snow quality is well retained, particularly on the north facing slopes. And in case Mother Nature is being unkind, about 9% of the terrain has snowmaking capabilities.
Vail Mountain claims that they have the most groomed terrain on the planet, and their aim every day is to groom at least one trail from every major lift. However Vail probably shouldn’t be boasting about their grooming because it’s not their strength. Vail has a trillion cat tracks that they groom, and they spend a lot of time grooming the terrain parks. They even spend a lot of time making a huge wide trail down the back bowl when a narrower one would probably suffice. So considering the size of their terrain, it doesn’t leave them much time to groom the blue runs you actually want to ski down. We were disappointed that many of the blue runs were left ungroomed for many days, and got a bit of a fright in Game Creek when a groomed blue run suddenly terminated into bumps.
Away from the slopes, there is also a variety of different ways to enjoy a day in Vail. In the Adventure Ridge Park, adventurers of all ages can try their hand at snow tubing, ski-biking and zip-lining. There are even mini-snowmobiles especially for kids. Fancy trying a snowshoe hike? If so, guided tours are on offer through the endless fields of powder in the backcountry.
Vail was built in the 1960s and the town itself is very much reminiscent of the architecture in an Alpine mountain village. In its design, great importance was attached to providing the utmost convenience and an attractive townscape. The town’s pavements are fully heated, while the centre of town is completely free of cars. The pedestrian zone is a great place for a relaxing stroll and spot of retail therapy. In fact, you will find shop after shop in the area between Lionshead and Vail Village.
However, after a day in the cold snow, perhaps a different kind of therapy is in order – a visit to the spa. Massages, wellness and other exquisite applications are a blessing for tired muscles and limbs. Guests can choose from these treatments and much more besides at Arrabelle’s RockResorts Spa, the Lodge at Vail RockResorts Spa and Golden Leaf Spa at the Marriott Mountain Lodge.
Après-Ski and Nightlife
As you would expect from a top ski area, there is plenty of après-ski on offer in Vail. And you won’t have to look far to find a party hotspot! Watching the final skiers descend the mountain over a beer or a glass of wine is the perfect way to end a day on the slopes. From Garfinkels, the Chop House or the Los Amigos, you can enjoyfabulous views over the runs down into the valley. Don’t miss the opportunity to grab a slice at Vendetta’s, the hottest pizzeria for locals and visitors alike.
The Red Lion is also a popular spot, with great drinks and live music every night. The George is a somewhat quieter affair, and it belongs to the Mountain Haus Lodge. Night owls can shake a leg in Vail Underground or in the Samana Lounge to the beats of the guest DJs which change every week. As almost everything in Vail is within walking distance, you don’t have to decide on one location and bar-hopping is therefore a definite possibility.
Dining and Restaurants
The range of restaurants on offer is also extensive in Vail, with something for every taste. First stop for connoisseurs is La Tour, where head chef and owner Paul Ferzacca conjures delicious dishes from fresh and seasonal ingredients. The Kelly Liken Restaurant is also a great place to eat, with simple and refined cuisine varying with the season and regional produce on offer. Accompanied by fine wines, a dinner here is a truly unforgettable experience. The Larkspur is another exclusive spot where American dishes are reinterpreted in stylish surroundings.
A “Mountain Dinner” in the Game Creek Restaurant below the Eagle’s Nest takes exclusive dining to a whole new level. You make your way up the mountain by snowcat after the lifts have closed, enjoying unspoiled views over the Game Creek Bowl accompanied by five-star cuisine. The restaurant, which is designed in the style of a European mountain chalet, treats its guests to top-notch American and French dishes complemented by selected wines.
Vail Adventure Ridge near Eagles Nest (at the top of the Eagle Bahn) is the centre for family fun, and is open from 2pm to 9pm, 5 days a week (970-476-9090). There are activities for the kids, the whole family, and those that still think they are kids. Snow tubing, mini snowmobiles, free snowshoe tours, Nature Discovery Centre in a yurt, bungee harnessed trampolines and snow biking are all available. Access to Adventure Ridge on the Eagle Bahn gondola is free.
If looking for something completely different (and scary!), those 14 years or older can try snow biking at night time. Armed only with a snow bike and a headlamp, you can travel all the way to the village at Lionshead in the dark. Take some friends and have a hoot.