Vail Resorts have conquered the ski World over the past 10 years with their awesome Epic Pass.
Despite ongoing acquisitions, as the likes of Perisher, Park City, Whistler and Crested Butte have been added to the VR portfolio alongside Breckenridge, Keystone, Beaver Creek, Heavenly and more, Vail itself, the original Vail Resort, is still the jewel in the Epic Pass crown.
Vail set the standard for purpose built American ski resorts in the industry’s boom years in the 1960s and 70s, springing up from nothing beside interstate I-70 to become the country’s most popular ski area in the space of 20 years. It has never stopped growing. Huge terrain expansions, like adding Blue Sky Basin, and massive lift improvements – the capacity is over 60,000 an hour – have kept pace with the popularity, so you can certainly spread out and find your more private piece of powder or corduroy.
Vail ski options
The skiing is the bottom line of what always made, and makes, Vail great. Getting back there recently after more than 25 years between aprés drinks, I was amazed at the transformation. I remembered Vail as having great lifts, and far more terrain than we could ski around in a short visit last time, but was blown away by how much the mountain has grown.
The Back Bowls used to be much smaller, served by a couple of slow lifts, but have exploded to over 3,000 acres of express lift-accessed off mostly off-piste. For 2018-2019 they are making it more accessible to cruisers too with a 30% increase in groomed terrain.
Blue Sky Basin is the cream on the pavlova, the most recent 645 acre expansion filled with magnificent glades. These ranging from moderately tough to challenging level wise, all served by another 3 fast lifts. The sidecountry here out the gates is even better, and holds up snow-wise after the rest is tracked up.
Frontside skiing at Vail set the benchmark back in 1991 and still does. There’s a complete variety up to expert level for hard-charging old school carvers. The less proficient will love the super wide and super cruisy runs, all given Vail’s “5 Star Grooming” treatment. Twelve fast chairs and gondolas provide mass-transit system grunt to cope with the weekend/holiday rush hours.
Midweek you shouldn’t have trouble finding lots of empty runs and lots of queue free lifts.
When it is busy use the Epicmix Time app to get real time lift wait updates and avoid the worst traffic blackspots.
For less fit cruisers just remember it’s a long way back to the base here, especially on the Vail Village side, so downloading on the gondola is a much easier way to end your day.
It’s always handy to have a local show you round, and somewhere as big as Vail it’s essential – get a lesson or take a mountain tour if you don’t know anyone. Or find someone. I thought the bell-hop guy at the Lodge at Vail looked like a skier, so as we checked in I got chatting, met Michael Boumphrey, and soon had a guide for his next day off. Plus I had already lined up RMU (Rocky Mountain Underground Skis) skier Andrew Benaquista. Andy is a full-time pro skier, who was already up to 83 consecutive days skiing for the season by late January, with legs of steel as a result. Michael was the true local, who knew local secrets like one of the best last-run-of-the-day options in America, the side-country line to Minturn Saloon.
Two days after the last dump the visible Back Bowls areas were pretty much totally shredded. Obviously you need to get into those early on pow days, the competition can be insane both on the mountain and on I-70 up from Denver.
Blue Sky Basin being a bit further out takes a bit longer, but it was mostly shredded too. However out the side-country out the gates there we still found the goods. We sessioned that, then headed back up the Back Bowls to find a nice kicker in the sun and the snow corning up nicely.
Then Andy had to go and time was ticking – the lifts close early most places in America, and large areas close sequentially from the outer zones first. So you often have a short window to access these, with last rides up and gate closures kicking in as early as 2.30pm.
After Andy left Michael showed me an awesome last run of the day down to Minturn and the legendary Minturn Saloon – see the full story on that here.
Vail Village has exploded like the mountain over the past 25 years, with new satellite centres strung along the valley. Considering the first lifts only opened in 1962, and the town was incorporated in 1966, it has come hell of a long way. There are endless shopping, dining and aprés options. They cover the range of affordability too, at least in the dining and aprés departments, with Happy Hour meal specials the go if the exchange rate gap is biting too hard.
We stayed in the original Vail Village, at the original Lodge at Vail, which is super convenient to everything. They have nice touches like firepit marshmallow toasting sessions in the afternoon, and great dining options.
The village centres at the base have been transformed with impressively stylish redevelopments. The newer Lionshead Village area has some stunningly timeless architecture around the pedestrian village area there, like Arrabelle at Lionshead. What remains of the original ersatz Tyrolean style from the early years now has a certain period character at Vail Village.
Heated cobblestone streets make strolling around comfortable even in mid-winter, or use the free bus network. Vail Village has the most aprés and restaurants, but Lionshead also has excellent dining options. Golden Peak is a quieter alternative.
One thing hadn’t changed since our previous visit back in 1991 – the Red Lion Pub on the main street is still a great first aprés stop.
Getting to Vail
Vail is one of the simplest big resorts to access, with lots of flights to Eagle Airport just 30 miles & 30 minutes west along I-70. This winter, Eagle Airport will be serviced by Air Canada, American, Delta and United from markets including Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas/Ft. Worth, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York/JFK, Newark, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Toronto and Washington DC.
For more info and current flight schedules visit www.flyvail.com
Alternatively Denver International Airport is 100 miles east.
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