Vail remains the jewel in the Vail Resorts/Epic Pass crown

snow action team 29.09.2020

Vail Resorts has conquered the ski World over the past 12 years with their awesome Epic Pass.

Nowhere more so than downunder, with 3 out of 5 major ski areas under the VR umbrella. That has made the Epic Australia Pass simply the World’s best ski pass value – unlimited access at 3 resorts at home from $AUD 859 at the lowest pre-purchase rate (which for the 2021 pass ends today September 29 as we update this feature).

Then a huge choice of resorts in North America too, including plus 5 days each at Rusutsu and Hakuba (assuming travel resumes by 2021-22 northern winter!)

Powder riding in Blue Sky Basin at Vail
Blue Sky Basin living up to the name © Jack Affleck / Vail Resorts

Despite all the ongoing acquisitions, as the likes of Perisher, Hotham, Falls Creek, Park City, Whistler and Crested Butte have been added to the VR portfolio alongside Breckenridge, Keystone, Beaver Creek, Heavenly, Kirkwood 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.

Where to find the best skiing at Vail

The skiing is of course the bottom line of what always made, and still makes, Vail great. Getting back there after more than 25 years between aprés drinks, I was amazed at the transformation.

I remembered Vail as having great lifts, back when express quads were still the bees knees (make that six packs now), and far more terrain than we could ski around in a short visit last time. But we were blown away by how much the mountain has grown.

Back bowls at Vail
Andy Benaquista leaping into the back bowls © Owain Price

The Back Bowls used to be much smaller, served by a couple of slow lifts. Now Vail’s back bowls offer over 3,000 acres of express lift-accessed terrain. It’s mostly off-piste. But they have made it more accessible to cruisers too, with a 30% increase in groomed terrain. Which is handy if your legs are jelly too after things get chopped up on a pow day having an escape line to a groomer to the lift is no bad thing for most 10-20 days a season skiers.

Side country powder skiing at Vail days after the storm
A few days after the last storm we still found this © Owain Price

Save some legs for Blue Sky Basin. This is the cream on the pavlova. Vail’s most recent 645 acre expansion is filled with magnificent glades. These range from moderately tough to challenging level wise, all served by another 3 fast lifts.

The side country here out the gates is even better, and holds up snow-wise after the rest is tracked up. Four days after the storm we found moondust just a short skate out the gate.

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.

Glade skiing on a deep day at Vail
Trench it time © Andrew Maguire / Vail Resorts

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.

Family cruising time at Vail
Plenty of room to cruise with the kids © Carmen Price

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 (funny that!), 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.

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.

Get out early on a pow day © Andrew Maguire / Vail Resorts

Blue Sky Basin being a bit further out takes a bit longer to track out, but it was mostly shredded too. However in the side-country out the gates we still found the goods. We sessioned those, then headed back up the Back Bowls to find a nice kicker in the sun with the snow corning up nicely.

Then Andy had to go and time was ticking. The lifts close early most places in America, and larger areas close sequentially from the outer zones first so patrol can sweep. Which means you often have only a short window to access them, 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.

Skiing powder at Vail on the way to Minturn
The best last line – and yep, we found fresh on the way to Minturn Saloon © Owain Price

Vail Villages

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. Happy Hour meal deals are 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.

Have as many marshmallows as you want, you’ll ski ’em off next day © Owain Price

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.

Vail main street in winter
Vail’s main street © Carmen Price

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. Eagle Airport is normally 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. Hopefully by 21-22 season those flights will all be back on. Meantime for more info and current flight schedules visit www.flyvail.com
Alternatively Denver International Airport is 100 miles east.

Using an Epic Australia Pass at Vail

You get up to 10 ski days at Vail with an Epic Australia Pass access – that is 10 total to use between Vail, Beaver Creek and Whistler, with holiday blackout dates applying.

Easily combine time here with Breckenridge and/or Keystone, where you get almost unlimited access except for a handful of holiday blackout dates. Check full details/get passes here

For more Epic Australia Pass options and news check our features

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Crested Butte