Vail Ski Resort Review
Vail, Colorado was built for skiing. It was back in the early 1960’s that the foundations were laid for Vail Ski Resort’s base village, a purpose-built ski area that would capitalize on some of the most tantalizing ski terrain in all of North America. Since then it’s grown and been adapted so families can truly feel at home here, with a bustling ski area and more than a million visitors per year. The pedestrian friendly village is easily navigable and is right next to the biggest ski mountain in Colorado. Accessible to all, Vail is perfect for family vacations.
There are many things to love about Vail. The terrain and lift system are extensive and among the largest in the world. The famous back bowls provide great skiing for intermediates and advanced skiers. We love the fact that Vail is just off of I-70, so is relatively accessible from the Denver airport (just don’t try to drive it on a Friday evening or Saturday morning, when the rest of Denver wants to go skiing).
Although the resort is legendary for skiing, there are plenty of non-ski activities available as well, so quality family time can be spent on the slopes, trekking and cycling, or simply snuggling up by the fire with a hot cocoa.
Vail is located in Eagle County Colorado, a little less than 100 miles (157km) to the west of Denver and around two hours drive on Interstate 70 that runs east to west through the middle of the town and is the only road in or out. Note that the drive on I-70 can be crowded if you choose to go on a Friday evening or Saturday morning, and 2 hours could turn into something quite a bit longer. It is best to try to do the drive during an off-peak time, avoiding the beginning of the weekend.
With the constant race for being the largest skiing in North America, Vail boasts the largest ski area in North America depending on which metric you use (Big Sky, Park City, and Whistler also make a claim to the title as well). The Vail mountains are surrounded by the White River National Forest, which itself is the US’s most visited. The forest has 2,500 miles (4,023 km) of trails. The Vail base elevation is about 8,100 feet, making it one of the higher ski areas in the USA, and an area where those with altitude sickness may want to take extra precautions to deal with its effects.
When it comes to variety, Vail really shines. The terrain is huge and widely varied with plenty of snow and great verticals. To make sure there is an abundance of powder, the resort works with nature by cloud seeding to encourage additional snowfall. The result is impressive – 366 inches (9.3 metres) of snow on average per season.
There is a large, efficient and modern lift system with 31 different lifts from which to choose. These include 17 high speed quad chairs and one gondola. You will feel like you are taking high-speed lifts everywhere.
The resort has all the classic après-ski opportunities, including a vibrant nightlife and all the services to be expected, including takeaways, five star restaurants and fur boutiques.
Getting To Vail
Fly in to either Denver International Airport, which is 120 miles (194km) away, or the Eagle County Regional Airport, just 35 miles (56km) to the west of Vail, on a stretch of I-70 that tends to be much more lightly-travelled than the drive from Denver. There is a choice of transportation to Vail from both airports. While it might be tempting to save money by flying in to Denver (it is almost always less expensive), you may find that the drive from Denver to Vail takes longer than expected during peak times. The flight into the much closer Eagle County airport just might be worth it.
If you are driving from Denver and don’t want to head quite as far as Vail, you could turn off I-70 closer to Breckenridge, which cuts off 15-20 minutes from your drive each way, or go to Copper Mountain which is about 30 minutes closer to Denver.
Staying in Vail
Vail Lodging requires you to make some key decisions. Vail is pretty spread out, and you need to consider a few factors:
- The closer you are to the slopes, the more expensive the lodging will be
- Cheaper lodging options exist along and across the interstate from the mountain, but those will require a drive or ride to the base area
- Slopeslide lodging offers a combination of hotels and condos, a couple different base areas (Lionshead or the Village)
Whether you choose to stay in Lionshead, with its good access to the skiing areas via the gondola, or Vail Village, where you are right on top of all the facilities, or Golden Peak, which is popular with families, you will be within a complimentary town bus ride or short stroll from one another. There is a plethora of hotels, bed and breakfasts and condos to suit most budgets.
Vail is full of good vacation rentals by VRBO — consider one of those (and find them here). There are shops like Safeway so self-catering in a common VRBO neighborhood is not a problem.
For those who like to use their points from a chain like Marriott, there are a couple options in the Vail – Bachelor area. One great value option that attracts a lot of families is the Vail Marriott Mountain Resort, with its log cabin feel but the amenities of a 5-star resort. You can also find other good hotels in Vail, often at a nice discount, that are close enough to the mountain to give you some level of convenience.
For those of you willing to drive or bus to the base areas, you can stay in the West Vail area and save quite a bit on the nightly lodging. Your commute to the lifts will be 10-15 minutes or less, and in return for a short commute you will likely have larger ski accommodations for less money. It is common to get a nice 2-3 bedroom condo for a much lower rate than being near the mountain, but you will be best off to use a portion of those savings on renting a car.
Keep an eye on Hotelopia for good Vail hotel discounts that might pop up on a daily basis.
Because the 5,300 acre skiing area is so vast you will never need to ski the same line and will be discovering new trails, even after a full week of exploring. This is a joy for everyone from the most advanced skier or snowboarder to the newest novice.
There are three distinct areas for skiing. On the front side, which is usually crowded, are the cruiser runs and areas for beginners. Advanced skiers will aim for Vail’s back bowls as escapes from the masses. The Blue Sky Basin, which faces north, is full of backcountry trails with advanced terrain and opportunities for tree skiing. Purists sometimes say that Vail lacks the extreme double-black skiing of other areas, but we find that it is good for all skill levels.
Vail is very friendly to snowboarders, and you will see many on the slopes. This makes it a better destination for families who have a combination of skiers and boarders, than a place like Deer Valley which is ski-only.
The ski school at Vail offers about as many combinations as any family could want, starting for those skiers age 3 and continuing up to any adult age. All of the lesson classes have the option of starting at either Lion’s Head or Golden Peak (an easy 5 min walk from Vail Village, at the bottom of Riva Bahn lift). Most of the private lessons begin at the base of Vail Village. Lessons in Vail are not cheap, but you will get quality instructors, plenty of terrain, and a good overall experience. If your goal is to drop the kids in ski school while the adults go off and explore, Vail checks that box in a big way.
If you are going during peak times (e.g. holidays) you may want to reserve your ski school spots in advance to be sure you get exactly what you want.
Other Vail Attractions
Most people come to Vail for the mountain resort, but as well as the ski and snowboard areas there are biking trails. Another draw for many people is the world’s highest botanic garden – Betty Ford Alpine Gardens, which showcases the diversity of mountain flora.
Visitors can also discover the best food the area has to offer on a specially designed Vail Village Food and Walking Tour. Tasting samples from local restaurants families will discover plenty of succulent culinary creations. Taking in farm-to-table restaurants and award-winning eateries, the 2.5-hour tour guides visitors through the food and its history.
Just a few other examples of diversions for all the family include day spas, sleigh rides, and galleries. One that is definitely for the kids is Vail’s Adventure Ridge snow park. Located at the mountain top and reached by the gondola, this sprawling attraction offers a huge range of activities including a snowmobile course, bungee jumping, ski biking, and snow tubing, which involves flying down a slope in an inflatable ring.
Those kids who choose the Curious Critters Ski School can learn about the area’s natural history from naturalists at the Walking Mountains Science Center.
The Ski Girls Rock program, designed by Olympic gold medallist Lindsey Vonn, focuses on small group instruction and female empowerment.
If you are interested in skiing the Vail area, don’t overlook Beaver Creek, which is literally just down the road. It is a bit more private and posh than Vail, smaller but fewer crowds.
Paul Miller is the Founder of Family Skier. He is an advanced skier and has extensive experience with family travel and ski schools. An accomplished skier, he has skied in 15 states and provinces and 6 countries. In addition to FamilySkier, his writing can be found on many ski-related websites, and as curriculum for many ski clubs in North America.