It’s big, real big. Vail is spread along the broad front face of a ridge running generally east to west, with an equally broad expanse of terrain on the backside consisting of seven “Back Bowls”. Blue Sky Basin, across the valley from the Back Bowls, offers over 500 acres of additional terrain. There are some spots where it gets crowded like around Mid Vail (especially during spring break) and the Two Elk Lodge. The Back Bowls and Blue Sky Basin are a big draw on powder days. There tends to be a rush between 9:30 am and 11:00 am as the ski and snowboard school classes take to the mountain. However, with the massive amount of area available and with a little effort and exploration, you should be able to find less heavily trafficked areas. With all the acreage, and the variety of terrain, you could explore for a week and still find new trails off the beaten path!
Grooming reports are provided every day to help you decide where to find your adventure. You can either pick one up, or access it online or through the EPIC Mix app from your smartphone. Another great way to find out where to go is to take a free two-hour mountain tour. They leave at 10:30 am from the Game Creek Desk near the top of the Eagle Bahn Gondola (#19) and from Mid Vail Ski School Desk at the top of Gondola One (#1). They start on time and you’ll need to sign a liability waiver, so it’s a good idea to get to one of these spots by 10:15 am. Tours of the Blue Sky Basin are offered to high-level intermediates every Tuesday and Friday, leaving from Henry’s Hut across from ski patrol headquarters at the top of Mountaintop Express (#4). They set out at 11:00 am, but you should be there at 10:45 am to sign the release.
For the young at heart older skier and riders, there’s a weekly “60+Ski With Us” tour every Monday. It’s open to the first 30 advanced intermediates age 60 and over to sign up. Meet up at 9:15 am at Gondy’s Pizza in Eagle’s Nest. The tour goes all day long with a stop at one of Vail’s many on-mountain eateries.
Of course, another option is to take a lesson. Not only will you get to polish your skills no matter what your ability level, the instructors know the mountain back to front and will show you where to find the good stuff – plus, you’ll be able to use the ski school lift lines!
Vail’s massive amount of terrain is served by 31 lifts: two gondolas, three high-speed six-person chairs, 14 high-speed quads, one fixed quad, one triple, one double, and eight surface lifts. Vail has been actively investing in upgrading its lift system, replacing ten lifts in the past 11 years! Two of the most recent upgrades are Mountaintop Express Lift (#4) and, new for 2017-18, Northwoods Express Lift (#11). This increase in capacity helps mitigate the crowds and reduce wait times, especially in the Mid-Vail area which means more time on the slopes. Signboards throughout the resort post lift wait times, and you can also find them on the EPIC Mix app. Lifts open at 8:30 am and run till 3:30 pm or 4:00 pm, depending on the part of the mountain.
Crossing Between Areas
All of that terrain does make the resort seem to sprawl, and there are an abundance of tracks crisscrossing the resort, especially on the front side. Some of them unfortunately flatten out, which can be particularly frustrating for snowboarders. These areas are clearly marked on the map, though, and with a bit of planning, you can minimize your time on them or at least figure out where to keep your speed up.
Crossing into the Back Bowls is easy, as lifts get skiers and riders to the top of the ridge in three different spots. Two of them, Wildwood and the one near Henry’s Hut , can be accessed in just two lift rides from the base of the resort. In order to get all the way to Blue Sky Basin, work your way to the bottom of Tea Cup Bowl or China Bowl to get to the bottom of Skyline Express Lift.
Where to Ski - Beginners
Vail has two main beginners’ areas, one at the base of Golden Peak around the Gopher Hill Lift (#12) and another next to Eagle’s Nest above the Lionshead area, in an area clustered around the Little Eagle Lift (#15) which beginners can comfortably access by riding the Eagle Bahn Gondola (#19). Both areas have magic carpets and slow-moving lifts that make for a gentle learning experience. Vail’s Ski and Snowboard School has offices at both places. No matter which side of the village you’re staying on, both areas are easily accessible, have beginner terrain and offer introductory lessons. Golden Peak might be a better choice for families with little ones as they have a nursery and childcare. Just be sure to reserve a spot in advance!
Once beginners have gained some confidence, they can ride up the Riva Bahn Express Lift (#6) from Golden Peak and then the Northern Express Lift (#11), then turn left onto the Timberline Catwalk along the top of the ridge. Here, even novice skiers can enjoy one of the best views in the resort looking down into the Back Bowls to the south and out toward the jagged peaks of the Gore Range to the east and north. Following Timberline, you come to Sourdough Lift (#14), which serves a small pod of upper mountain beginner terrain with wide, smoothly groomed tree-lined runs such as Tin Pants. If you venture onto Highline Express (#10), a right turn gets you onto Flapjack, a long tree-lined trail in a relatively serene part of the mountain. The greens off Sourdough eventually merge into Flapjack before it opens up to lead you to the bottom of Northwoods.
The Game Creek Bowl, on the front side above Lionshead, gives beginners easy access to their first bowl skiing experience. From the Eagle’s Nest and Adventure Peak area at the top of Eagle Bahn (#19), the gently meandering Game Trail leads to the bottom of the Game Creek Express Lift (#7) inside the bowl. A right turn off the lift gets you to Lost Boy. Before starting down, take a moment to enjoy the view of the imposing Mount of the Holy Cross to the southwest, one of Colorado’s many “14’ers” (peaks higher than 14,000 feet). Then, follow Lost Boy back down to the bottom Game Creek Express. A left turn off the lift gets you on the Eagle Peak Expressway back to the top of Eagle Bahn, or about a third of the way down you can turn right and cut underneath Avanti Express (#2) to check out Overeasy - a quiet green run that takes you down to Mid Vail.
Anyone who can ski and ride at an intermediate level should definitely take advantage of the free tours provided by Guest Services, including the twice-weekly tours of Blue Sky Basin. With a resort this size, you’ll be glad to have had some insider help getting the lay of the land!
There are plenty of intermediate runs around Mid Vail with loads of variety. You can get some distance from the worst of the crowds by heading west from there to the long runs above Lionshead. Bwana, Born Free, and Simba let you ski all the way from Eagle’s Nest to the bottom. There’s a handful of enjoyable blues in Game Creek Bowl, including Dealer’s Choice which can either be a fast cruiser when it’s groomed or a challenging bump run when it’s not. When you’re done there, you can enjoy either a nice cruise down Avanti, or stay high on the mountain with Hunky Dory or Mid Vail Express. The Northwoods and Mountaintop Express area features trails cutting through thick stands of trees such as Ramshorn, Swingsville. Far below, Ruder’s Run nearly parallels the Riva Bahn Express along a thicket of aspens on the way to Golden Peak.
The trail ratings at Vail have a reputation for slightly overstating difficulty, so strong intermediates shouldn’t be afraid to take their chances on easier looking black runs, especially some of the ones in the bowls when there’s a fresh layer of powder to help you control your speed (and cushion any falls!).
Poppyfields from Two Elk Lodge is the easiest way for intermediates to get into the Back Bowls. While you’re there, the Silk Road sweeps out past the Siberia and Mongolia Bowls and follows the far east boundary of the resort, offering incredible views across successive ranges of the Rocky Mountains. Across the valley in Blue Sky Basin, Big Rock Park and Cloud 9 both offer intermediate skiers and riders the chance to sample gladed tree skiing. In the Wudies is a steeper dive down to the bottom of Earl’s Express Lift (#38).
Advanced and expert skiers and riders will want to make for the upper areas below the Northwoods Express Lift (#11), and of course, the Back Bowls and Blue Sky Basin. Our favorite run is Forever, with just the right steepness and tantalizing views into the backcountry. It was named by legendary Vail figure Pepi - the namesake of Pepi’s Face on the front side and founder of Pepi’s Bar and Restaurant. He skied back here in the days before it was lift-served, and noted that it took “forever” to get back out! These days, you can take Forever to the Sun Down Catwalk, which is the run-out for all the advanced runs in the Sun Down Bowl, and follow that to High Noon Express Lift (#5) for more laps in the Back Bowls.
Anything back here and in Blue Sky is sure to please with an incredible range of choices. You can find bumps, cornices, glades, and even a few groomers. Ptarmigan Ridge to O.S. is another Sun Down Bowl treat, with fairly steep stretches, cuts through closely-spaced trees, and even small cliffs for the truly adventurous. Siberia Bowl is a good place to go on a powder day, when you should be sure to try out Rasputin’s Revenge. Since it’s a bit “out there” the fresh stuff can last a little longer. The same goes for both Inner and Outer Mongolia, but the run-out here can be flat so you’ll want to keep your speed up at the end (and even then, snowboarders will be wishing they had poles). There are more cliffs to huck off of here, and the long consistently steep pitch of Genghis Khan in China Bowl is always a good time. The Shangri-La Glade will have you weaving between trees and passing in and out of view of people riding up the Orient Express Lift - just mind the tree wells! Après Vous in the Sun Up Bowl offers another stunning view of the imposing Mount of the Holy Cross before offering you the choice of diving into a steep chute or dancing through a glade of trees.
On the front side, Riva Ridge, Vail’s longest run at 4 miles, starts out black before being mellowing to blue. They groom it a couple times a week, and when they do it’s blazing fast - which may keep you from appreciating the view of the Gore Range and Vail Village you get from the top of the run. North Rim and South Rim serve of a little bit of everything almost all at once - cliffs to huck off of and moguls to bounce through before running out into a groomer to catch your breath. Highline offers great, uncrowded bumps underneath the lift of the same name (so make sure you look good doing it!). Prima Cornice, which you access by turning right off Northwoods Express Lift (#11), earns its double black and is the steepest run in the entire resort. Prima, just to the left of it, starts out pretty gnarly itself before mellowing out as you approach the Golden Peak base area. A left turn off the Riva Bahn Express mid-station takes you to the Golden Peak Race run. It may be closed for training or a race, but if it’s not, you can take a spin for yourself and say you’ve skied where the best in the world do! You may even catch a glimpse of some of them!
If you dare, end your day by taking Lindsey’s to Pepi’s. Lindsey’s is sometimes groomed, so you can make big sweeping turns (or just go fast), but other times it’s a popular bump run. Follow it as it turns into the short but steep and frequently bumpy Pepi’s Face. You’ll be in full view of everyone in the Vail Village Mountain Square, so your après will either be a celebration of your triumph or a way to soothe your bruised ego (and possibly other parts).
Vail has had families in mind from the start, knowing that attracting returning guests was the key to growing the resort. The trails are laid out such that most front side lifts access terrain of all ability levels, so everyone can ski a trail that suits their abilities or interests yet still reunite at the bottom of the lift. There are also designated adventure trails and play zones such as the Magic Forest and Chaos Canyon for little ones to explore with their adults, and of course, there’s Adventure Ridge at Eagle’s Nest. Located near the mid-mountain beginner’s area, it offers a plethora of other activities for families to enjoy together when the kids could use a break from learning. It has a kid’s cafe - and grown-up eating and drinking options too - and is open into the evening.
Vail boasts three terrain parks. The entry level one with the smallest features is Avanti Park, near the lower part of the Avanti Express Lift (#2). Bwana Park, between Eagle Bahn (#19) and Born Free (#8) is the intermediate park for riders who are ready for a little more. Golden Peak Terrain Park, beginning at the Riva Bahn Express (#6) mid station, is the big time. It has the biggest features on the mountain, including a superpipe. It’s home to the Burton US Open, so you know it’s not for the faint of heart!
Off-Piste and Backcountry
There’s a wealth of off-piste terrain in the Back Bowls, and the Blue Sky Basin offers a near-backcountry experience while still being in patrolled and avalanche-controlled terrain. To get to the Back Bowls from Golden Peak, take Riva Bahn Express (#6) to Northwoods Express (#11). From the top of that, you can drop right down into either the Sun Up or Sun Down Bowls. From Vail Village, take Gondola One (#1) to Mid Vail, then either Mountaintop Express (#4), which access both Sun Up and Sun Down Bowls, or Wildwood Express (#3), which accesses only Sun Down Bowl. From Lionshead, take the Eagle Bahn Gondola (#19) to Eagle Peak and then dive into Game Creek Bowl. Take the Game Creek Express (#7) to gain access to Sun Down Bowl.
The Back Bowls and Blue Sky Basin can be exposed to passing weather systems, so visibility can sometimes be challenging. If this is the case and you haven’t become familiar with the mountain yet, be sure to stay close to trees to keep track of where you are, or go play on the front side which usually has good skiing during poor visibility. Fresh snow can get skied out relatively quickly in the easier-to-get-to bowls, but it lasts longer in the trees and in the farther east Siberia and Mongolia Bowls.
Going outside the ski area means leaving the jurisdiction of Vail’s ski patrol. There isn’t any avalanche control out here and any rescue will be done by the county, possibly at your expense. Go with a buddy, but only if you both are properly trained and have the right equipment (such as a probe, shovel, powder cords, and beacon). Much of the out of bounds terrain is sensitive wildlife habitat, so to leave the resort area you must exit through a designated gate. Backcountry tours and workshops are available through the Vail Nordic School.
A rather well-known backcountry experience for strong intermediates or above is the Miniturn Mile. This takes you from the top of Game Creek Express(#7) to the old mining town of Miniturn and its rustic saloon. You exit through the backcountry gate at the top of Lost Boy, and work your way down till you wind up on an old jeep trail into town. Enjoy some well-earned refreshment at the saloon before the 8 mile car ride back to Vail via taxi, Uber, or bus. Because of the unmarked and unpatrolled terrain, it would be best to find a local guide to go with you!
There are two options for cat skiing. Vail Powder Guides operate in Vail Pass, 15 miles to the southeast along I-70. They offer full-day guided cat tours for strong intermediates and up, and have powder skis and snowboards available for use. The rate is $500 per person or $5,500 to rent out the entire cat and its 12 seats. They provide lunch, but not transportation, so you’ll have to use a taxi, Uber, or one of the bus services.
The other cat operator is Ski Cooper, 26 miles away. It’s a smaller ski resort on the Continental Divide, and their full-day tours are $349 per person. They need five people minimum for a tour to launch, but they work to combine smaller groups as necessary to get the right size. They also include lunch, but unlike Vail Powder Guides, their tours are tailored toward advanced to expert skiers and riders.