Vail Mountain "Insider"
A quick and informal guide to Vail Mountain and village for the first time visitor - or anyone else who needs some local perspective on the resort.
Jump directly to any of the following topics related to the resort operation: parking, the lift system, where to ski based on your skill level, food services, ski instruction, ski shops, boot fitters, good deals, and everything else (including orthopedics), or just read this from the top.
Parking: As with many other things in Vail, the early bird gets the worm. This town has two large, excellently located public parking facilities. Unfortunately they're not free. But, if you want to be close to either the Village or Lionshead lifts and/or not waste time driving around endlessly, the structures are your best choice. There's also limited numbers of spaces (paid) at Ford Park.
A few days each year the structures do fill up and parking then becomes available for free on the frontage roads. Just don't count on it!
Based on one's willingness to park in outlying areas or accept the wait for a public bus (free), here's a table of the currently available no charge parking areas in town (which we hope is current).
|North Frontage Road in West Vail||West of Safeway||70 spaces|
|North Frontage Road in West Vail||West of the Roundabout on Fri., Sat., and Sun. only||100 spaces|
|Red Sandstone Park (Sandstone area)||Walk over Lionshead skier bridge.||15 spaces|
|Stephen's Park (West Vail)||On free bus route||15 spaces|
|Spraddle Creek Trailhead (Village)||Walk through main roundabout (may be out for 2013 season.)||18 spaces|
|North Trail Trailhead||On free bus route||12 spaces (some restrictions)|
|East Vail Interchange Trailhead||Near East Vail exit.||18 spaces|
|Red Sandstone School Parking Lots||Walk over Lionshead skier bridge.||15 spaces|
|Village & Lionshead Structures||First 120 minutes are free||Unlimited (overflow to frontage road)|
|Village & Lionshead Structures||Free parking after 3:00 P.M. until 3:00 A.M.||Unlimited (overflow to frontage road)
|Donovan Park (as of 1/8/09)||When pavilion not in use||Roughly 90 spaces
(when pavilion not scheduled)
|Vail Nordic Center
(Vail Golf Course Lot)
|Park at the south end of the lot. The north side is reserved for people using the Nordic Center. Public parking areas are clearly marked. Bus stop is located at the exit to this parking lot.||Roughly 35 spaces.|
Obviously if the skier is staying overnight at any of the lodges or condominium projects in town, parking is provided for guests; however it's not always free.
A word of caution. Don't attempt parking in a lot that is marked private and signed for owners or guests only. Parking tickets, towing tickets, and boot removal fees are all very costly penalties which are immediately applied to those who violate the rules.
Early risers benefit again. The following comments relate to the busiest seasons. Unless a powder day is in progress, any of the portal lift areas - Gold Peak, Gondola One, Lionshead, or the Cascade (used to be the Westin Hotel) will have minimal lift lines at the opening bell. During peak periods get up the hill via the Gold Peak Riva Bahn, followed by the Lionshead Gondola/Born Free Express, and lastly Gondola One in the village which is always the most crowded.
When possible, try to avoid all of the base lifts between 9:30-10:30 in the morning. That's when ski school classes head up the hill. If you get to Vail during that time period, either expect to wait in longer lines or go have a cup of coffee first.
During the day it's possible to move around the mountain and almost completely avoid waiting in lines. First, be willing to split up your party & use the singles lines at any lift. Secondly, when approaching a lift you may wish to use, look at the loading line on each side of the terminal before committing to one side or the other. Generally one side will be a significantly shorter wait.
Watch the lift sign boards. The colored lights will indicate short versus long waits. If your chosen lift is too crowded, ski by it and catch a lift further down the mountain. Keep skiing when at all possible - even if it means using a cat track to move across the area.
Notes about certain chair lifts:
Chair #4 - Mountain Top Express is recognized as being literally one of the busiest lifts in the world. Avoid it when you can possibly do so. Early mornings, during the lunch hour, and sometimes between 1:30-2:30 in the afternoon are generally the least crowded periods. The six pack conversion helps a lot.
Chair #7 - Game Creek can be a "let's wait forever" death trap for the unwary. There's no way out if you get to the bottom and both lift mazes are full. Check the sign board before heading into Game Creek and physically look at the lift lines from the entries to that bowl before heading down.
Chair #5 - Back Bowls Lift (Good News! It's upgraded to a high speed detachable quad for the 2010/11 season). When the masses arrive at Chair 5, head up Chair #17 to the ridge above China Bowl. From there you can cycle #17 until it gets too crowded, and then head out to Blue Sky Basin or to the China Bowl lift. The object on powder days is to ski Sun Up & Sun Down bowls early - then keep moving further & further East to stay ahead of the traffic.
Chair #26 - Pride Lift is probably the least utilized - or populated - lift on the hill. Admittedly it only serves cruiser runs, but if you want maximum time on the snow and minimal time in the lines, this is the one to choose.
Chair #3 - Hunky Dory is generally a preferred alternative to the Mountain Top Express if you have to remain in the cirque above Mid Vail. It's about a five minute ride and offers some nice bump skiing in addition to the gentle cruiser runs.
Exiting Blue Sky Basin: Because of the popularity of the Blue Sky experience, persons leaving that bowl later in the afternoon tend to exit by the China Bowl lift or Teacup Bowl Express lift and then head down Flapjack to the Northwoods Express lift in an effort to get back to the top of the mountain. Chair #11 (Northwoods Express) has thus become extremely crowded in the afternoons between 2:00-4:00 p.m..
Starting with the 2010/11 season, coming out of Blue Sky via Teacup Bowl Lift and then dropping down into Sun Up Bowl via Yonder will get the skier to the new quad lift and back to the top of the mountain faster than by going through the mess at Northwoods.
Best Lifts and Runs For Different Ability Levels:
Never Evers: Take a lesson. If you won't, then ride up the Eagle Bahn Gondola and hang out on Chair #15 at the top of Adventure Ridge. It's flat terrain & easy skiing & the restaurant is nicely accessible when you get tired. The only other option is Chair #12 at Gold Peak, but it's steeper, icier, and always jammed with people.
Low Intermediates: Vail is not a great low intermediate skier mountain. From Lionshead, take the Gondola up and go to Game Creek and find Chair #7 to be a decent place to hone your skills while staying well away from the big crowds. Try Lost Boy. From Vail Village take the new gondola and then take Chair #3 up. Go along Eagle's Nest Ridge and past the top of Chair #2 on the right side. Go about 5 towers down to the right on to Over Easy. Then go up Chair #3 to Hunky Dory and then Meadows back to Mid Vail. Remember that you can download to the base areas if you're really bushed and don't want to fight the crowds getting off the hill at the end of the day. Gondola One, the Lionshead Gondola, Chair 8 and 6 all download.
Intermediates: Vail, however, is a great true intermediate's mountain. Read the grooming report every day and stick to those runs at first. If you have safety concerns, see what run is being manned by the "Yellow Jacket" speeder patrol & stay there for a while. After that the mountain's your oyster. Black runs or even double blacks that have been groomed are ideal for intermediates. Just try to be careful to be consistent in the way you make turns so as to not present yourself as an unwelcome target for faster - not necessarily - better skiers.
Experts & Up: Go anywhere. If powder is in season, follow the path around the bowls noted in reference to Chair #5 above. Chair #10 - the Highline Lift has been upgraded to a new high speed detachable effective for the 2007/08 ski season. Only seven minutes compared to 16-18 minutes in prior years. Should you have the itch to see how many times you can cycle Highline (the run) in a day, you should be able to nonstop an average of five runs per hour! If you want to look at some of our other favorite steeper places, click here to get a description.
Ski Shops: The closer to lifts generally speaking the pricier the shop. In Lionshead Double Diamond (previously Kenny's, but was sold) is widely regarded as perhaps the best shop in all of Vail. Performance Sports has been around for a long time, and the Boot Lab is now renting a full selection of demo Atomic skis.
In Vail Village the old standby's are Pepi's, Gorsuch, Christy Sports, and Vail Sports. For a less costly rental try the American Ski Exchange or Buzz's Boots & Boards. To buy hard or soft goods shop around & ask for a deal. You'll probably get one if you're persistent.
Boot Fitters: In Lionshead both Double Diamond and The Boot Lab are places to get rid of the pain in your feet. However, the one's used by most ski instructors is Gravity Jones in the Vail Village parking structure and SBF for skibootfitters.com that's open from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. at the top of Chair #4. SBF is part of Vail Sports with that operation in the Vail 21 Building in Lionshead.
Vail Village also has boot fitting operations. The Sure Foot shop in the Golden Peak building is at the base of the Vista Bahn lift. Unfortunately Gorsuch no longer offers Strolz foam boots, my recommendation for those wanting a custom fitted boot. However, if you're loaded with big bucks, they do offer the latest and greatest Ertlrenz computerized fitting operation. Has to be seen to be believed.
If you plan to eat on the mountain - eat early. Eat before 11:30 if possible. You'll avoid crowds, and you'll get your choice of tables. At all the mountain eateries the soups are always good. If you don't have to eat on the mountain, the restaurants in the village or Lionshead will absolutely provide more comfortable and higher quality experiences. But here's the story on mountain dining.
Mid-Vail: The primary & busiest mountain restaurant. Two levels of general cafeteria style eating and a lower level for kids ski school classes only. This place gets really crowded at the noon hour - and even more so on cold days. Eat early. The food's not bad. Burgers are decent & the French fries are terrific. There's a good pasta bar & the best deal of all is a soup & sandwich special (assuming it still exists in 2015/16.
Our favorite food at Mid Vail is the Panini offered at the Terrace Level. The Panini is sometimes available and sometimes not, but there now are excellent fish tacos, sushi, a good looking salad bar, and a number of Asian dishes. Only problem is that these options all take time to prepare, so if you have an interest in trying them, either arrive early (11:30) or before - or well after the noon crowd has departed.
Where you pick up napkins, there's a wide variety of condiments in little packages. One of my favorite lunches is just a quick tub of fries (small $) dipped in a variety of concocted sauces picked up from the condiments bins. You get the picture.
Microwave ovens have been removed from the main restaurant areas. Go to Sarge's Shelter at Mid Vail or Henry's Yurt at the mountain top to use those kinds of cooking machines - and at the same time, enjoy a pleasant picnic lunch.
Pass on the soft drinks. Way over-priced. The fountain water's free, and it's high quality - coming directly from a local spring.
If the upper "Look Ma" level (Mid Vail) is too crowded, try the Terrace Level, and in the spring or in good weather, there's a decent outdoor barbecue called "Sarge's" after our original mountain manager - Sarge Brown. When seating elsewhere is unavailable, the short walk to Sarge's will reward you.
New (2011/12) is the 10th, a fancy new sit down restaurant at the base of the Look Ma run at Mid Vail. A long overdue replacement for the now defunct Cook Shack, this table seating restaurant fills a long needed gap in the mountain's lunch options. Reservations are really a necessity, especially during high activity weeks. .
Wildwood: Probably our favorite mountain restaurant. Lots of smoked foods. Really good combo platter lunches with pulled pork, brats, hot dogs, cole slaw, good baked beans. It's a small place at the top of the Hunky Dory lift, but the views of the bowls are great and so is the food. It's the only restaurant that serves smoked chicken with wild rice soup - it's a winner.
If the main restaurant here is slammed, walk a few steps over to the Pavilion. Slightly fewer food options but generally less crowded - or you can carry your tray over from the main section.
Two Elk: A really beautifully rebuilt (after the fire) mountain lodge. Seating has been expanded, but this place gets way crowded. The food can be quite good and also very expensive. The red beans & rice platter - or the wraps - are probably the most filling decent values. I like the custom pizzas. The burgers & fries are fine too. Always avoid the soft drinks from a value standpoint. Get here early to beat the crowd - and find a place to sit inside.
Adventure Ridge/Eagle's Nest (at the top of the gondola): In all honesty I'm not overwhelmed with this operation. There are plenty of places to eat, but none really stand out. If you want a sit down restaurant experience, you can go to Bistro 14 on the lower entry level of the building. In past years there was a small restaurant called Vintners located on the top level - it's no longer open. There's also a cafeteria upstairs similar to that at Mid Vail. Try the stuffed bakers. The best value is rice and beans with all the toppings for $?.?? this year.
Other: The ski company has apparently given up on anything but typical generic mountain lunch stuff. The Dog House no longer exists - whoops, may be back near the bottom of Pete's lift in Blue Sky. Will wait to see if that's true..
In Town: Most skiers prefer to lunch on the mountain despite the high prices & limited offerings, but with the advent of high speed lifts, your restaurant choices at the base are pretty much unlimited. For some lunch place suggestions in the village and Lionshead, click here.
The best deal of all is the cafeteria at the hospital. Makes no sense?? Yes, it sure does. Great sandwiches, salads, and deserts at a fraction of the price at local restaurants. Although the hospital's a bit away from the lifts, there is a handy bus stop in front of the building.
If you can't afford the $800+ a day charge for private lessons, here is another suggestion.
For the season of 2011/12 the company is offering a very small group (as in semi-private) lesson experience in the afternoons called Max 3 starting at Mid Vail at 12:45. It could be a pretty intense learning session for those wanting that kind of personal attention. Will try to update it for the current season as soon as we find out the rates.
Other Good Deals:
There's a free two and a half hour mountain welcome tour originating at the top of the mountain. Used to be a great deal as the guests could cut lift lines. No longer that way. Some uncertainty about this product for the 2015/16 season. Check back later.
Stop by the Look Ma area at the Mid Vail complex or the coffee shop near the top of the gondola at Eagle's Next. Try this on your first day if you've never skied Vail before. There's also a Blue Sky welcome tour that's useful for better ability skiers - it meets at Henry's Hut at the top of the mountain at 11:00. Ditto as above about the situation for 2015/16.
Every Ski Patrol office has a large tub of sun screen available for free use by the public. So if you run out of protection, just stop by one of those facilities & save yourself some money by taking advantage of the freebie. They also have aspirin, ibuprofen, and band-aids.
After 2:00 P.M. foot traffic is free to use the Gondola in Lionshead without charge (this may be changing, so check before attempting). Visit Adventure Ridge and enjoy a variety of activities (tubing, snowmobiling, snowbikes, etc.).
Arrabelle in Lionshead offers ice skating for a nominal fee.
Miscellaneous Information and Other Things To Do:
Every base lift area in the morning is staffed by guest service volunteers in red jackets. They offer free grooming reports. Pick one up and keep it with you on the mountain all day. These people are invaluable resources for local knowledge. Ask them all kinds of questions. They'll help you.
On the mountain, if you want a break from skiing, visit the Discovery Center in the yurt next to the Gondola terminal at the top of Lionshead. In town take a stroll through the history of skiing in Colorado at the Ski and Snowboard Museum located in the village parking structure.
Snow Cat Skiing: The local operation is currently called Vail Powder Guides. They can be reached by phone at 719-486-6266.
Orthopedic Assistance. In the unlikely event you develop joint or bone breakage problems while enjoying your stay here, you have a choice of being repaired by one of two world class operations based here in Vail. The Steadman-Hawkins Clinic is best known and might be the firm of choice - as long as you are recognized as being a world class athlete. Should the world not be familiar with your name, be prepared for a long wait to be serviced.
If you're just a normal human being, the reality is that you'll get better care and far prompter service at Vail Summit Orthopaedics. All of the physicians in both firms have similar core competencies. Since the writer of this article has had experience dealing with both clinics, my recommendation would be to contact Dr. William Sterett at Vail Orthopaedics (970-476-7220).
Beaver Creek. Use the West Lot or the newest upper day skier lot serviced by the new access lifts. You'll understand the logic of this at the end of the day. Better yet, drive to Arrowhead and use their free day skier lot with shuttle service to the lift. Just be careful at the end of the day to be certain you get back to Arrowhead before the lift system between there and Beaver Creek shuts down. If you don't want to drive to Beaver Creek from Vail, there's a $5 (hopefully still the same charge) each way shuttle service from the Vail Transportation Center directly to the Centennial Lift. Be patient on the ride. There are lots of stops along the way.
If you simply want a break from skiing and this resort altogether, do the drive to Glenwood Springs through the spectacular canyon of that name and cook your bones in the world famous hot springs pool. Or, try a few runs at what we feel is a truly nice small ski area - Sunlight Mountain. Afterwards, if you're so inclined, you can take another hour & drive to the Aspen area to see how some other beautiful people live - but please come back to Vail when you're finished there.
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