What to know before you arrive
Vail Valley is situated at the base of Vail Pass, off interstate 70, surrounded by the White River National Forest. At an average elevation of 8,150 ft. (2484m), the area enjoys around 200 inches of snowfall from October to May each year. This can cause road closures during peak season, making travel in and out difficult. There are 3 bases: Vail Village, Lionshead, and Golden Peak close by. There is also Beaver Creek 10 miles to the west offering a similar European ski experience.
If arriving at Eagle County Regional Airport you will be 30 miles (48km) west of Vail. The airport is smaller, but offers several options for car rental and transportation to surrounding areas. There are regular flights in and out on several large domestic carriers. This airport is a good option in the winter to avoid interstate closures and bad driving conditions.
If you are arrive at Denver International Airport you will be 120 miles (193km) east of Vail. This airport is huge and will have almost anything you could possible need. There are numerous rental car companies, and transportation options. From Denver International you will travel along interstate 70 through the Eisenhower tunnel and over the Continental Divide. It’s a great drive, if weather permits; during winter road closures happen often.
Vail is home to the largest, free public transportation system in the US. The system supports Vail Village, Lionshead, Golden Peak and the business district. There is also bus service from the Transportation Center to surrounding towns, provided by Eagle County. If renting a car, you should find it easy to park, but you are likely to incur a daily parking fee at most hotels and resorts. Since the villages are pedestrian area you will not need a car to get around.
Interstate 70 stretches east to west, through the middle of Vail Valley, and is the only major road in and out of the area. You will also find Highway 24 to be a nice scenic route into the mountains. Be aware that winter weather can cause dangerous road conditions, and commonly closures.
Things to see and do
Vail is one of those places where you go to do, rather than see. The terrain is accommodating to all levels, and the activities are plentiful all year.
Consider the follow for winter:
Ski Vail/Beaver Creek – Both villages have their advantages; in Vail you can be adventurous in their 7 Back Bowls, or sail through the meadows and glades of Blue Sky Basin. I find the slopes at Beaver Creek to be more laid back than Vail, although, both make for a great day of skiing, and an enjoyable après ski.
If you purchase a 3 Day Vail/Beaver Creek Lift Ticket (2016 price is $465), your pass will allow you to ski Breckenridge, Keystone and Arapahoe Basin.
Take the scenic ride up the gondola – If you aren’t in the mood to ski you can always take the Gondola One or Eagle Bahn Gondola for a scenic ride, maybe even stay for a bite at one of the mountain restaurants.
Snowmobiling on Top of the Rockies – This activity was the highlight of my recent trip to Vail. There are a couple tour providers to choose from these days. I booked my Top of the Rockies tour through Nova Guides for a half day of excitement. You can read about my first-hand experience in my Nova Guide Tour Review for more details.
Après Ski – This ski tradition is alive and well in Vail Valley. You will find main areas, on slope and off, to enjoy this end of day social. A majority of resorts will offer hot beverages and cookies to guests, and you can’t throw a rock without hitting a bar that has a lively crowd. If you are new to the term: think of it as “Happy Hour” after work, or the “19th Hole” in golf.
Take a day trip – US Highway 24 provides a scenic drive through the Rocky Mountains, with several small-town stops along the way. If you like driving along winding mountain roads, this is the activity for you. You can stop in Minturn for antique shopping, drive through small mining towns like Red Cliff, and have a Hot Toddy in Leadville before returning to the resort for dinner. Along the way, the immense beauty of the White River National Forest will surround you.
Where to sleep
Over the years, I have had the opportunity to stay at a couple different places in, and around Vail. Most recently I stayed at the Wyndham Resort at Avon for a couple days, and wrote a review of my experience. I enjoyed this resort quite a bit, but there is one downside: the resort isn’t in the village, thus, far from the slopes. However, there is quick access to the slopes using the Riverfront Express Gondola.
If you are looking for ski-in/ski-out, look at the Beaver Creek Lodge. This resort is beautiful inside and out, with beautiful mountain views from their rooms. I spent a tiny bit of my childhood running those halls, so this one holds a special place in my heart.
A comparable property in Vail would be The Lodge at Vail. The resort is gorgeous, the on-site restaurants are delicious and you are steps from Gondola One. Here you will really feel the warmth and charm of a European chalet.
If you don’t mind being a bit further from the action you can stay at the Manor Vail Lodge in Golden Peak. You will be across the street from Chair 6: Riva Bahn – giving you quick access to the Back Bowls and Blue Sky Basin. In only a few minutes you can walk, or ride the in-town free shuttle to Vail Village.
Where to eat
If you are a foodie than Vail and Beaver Creek are going to serve you well. There are many choices, ranging from fine-dining to taco joints; at some you can easily secure a table, and others you will need to plan well in advance.
Try some of these while in the area:
La Bottega (Vail Village) – This restaurant really captures the small town vibe of Vail. On a normal day you will find a lively staff, tasty dishes, and libations to suit your whims.
No Se Hagan Bolas (Avon) – Not far from the Wyndham Resort at Avon you will find this tiny taco shop in a strip mall. Order the item of your choice, and make sure to sample their homemade salsas. Don’t be surprised if you want make a repeat stop before leaving town.
Bob’s Place (Avon) – This is a local spot that serves typical bar food, and one of the best Huevos El Paso I’ve tasted. The location is tucked away, but well worth the stop, especially for breakfast.
The Metropolitan (Beaver Creek Village) – Perfect for après ski, or just a glass of wine. The atmosphere in this restaurant feels like sitting in a hip wine cellar, complete with a winter wonderland outside. If you order the bacon wrapped figs you will not be disappointed.
Breckenridge – Less than an hour drive from Vail, Breckenridge offers great skiing with old Colorado charm. If you have ever seen National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation or Dumb and Dumber than you already know what Breckenridge looks like. It’s an old gold mining town that has risen to one of the most visited ski towns in Colorado. Just take a walk down Main Street and you will understand why people love to visit this place. Also, remember, Breckenridge (Breck as the locals call it) is included in the Vail and Beaver Creek multi-resort lift ticket.
Copper Mountain – Less than 30 minutes from Vail, Copper Mountain is an alternative to the crowded slopes of its neighbors. You will still find fun runs and well-groomed slopes, but the crowds are generally smaller than the larger resorts, and the lift tickets are less expensive.
Top of the Rockies Byway – Take US Highway 24 through Minturn, to Red Cliff, then up to Leadville. Along the way you will have plenty of chances to stop and take in the immense beauty of the White River National Forest. When you come up to Red Cliff, make sure to drive through town and under the massive green bridge that breaks up the white landscape in winter. Once in Leadville, do some shopping and make a stop at the Legendary Silver Dollar Saloon before heading back for dinner.