Downhill Skiing and Snowboarding
Vail. Year after year, Vail logs more than a million "skier days" (the ski industry's measure of ticket sales), perpetuating its ranking as one of the top two or three most popular resorts in North America. From the top of China Bowl to the base of the Eagle Bahn Gondola at Lionshead, the resort is more than 7 miles across. The vast acreage is roughly divided into three sections: the Front Side, the Back Bowls, and Blue Sky Basin. Snowboarders will find plenty of steeps on the Front Side, and technical challenges at the Golden Peak or Bwana terrain parks, but they should avoid the Back Bowls, where long catwalks can get slow in the afternoon sun.
In 2013, Vail introduced Gondola One, one of the fastest 10-passenger gondolas in the world, clocking in at 1,200 feet per minute. The heated gondola with Wi-Fi and cushioned seats replaced the Vista Bahn. From Mid-Vail, the Mountain Express Lift (No. 4) has also been upgraded from a high-speed quad to a high-speed six-passenger chairlift.
Vail is perhaps best known for its legendary Back Bowls, more than 3,000 acres of wide-open spaces that are sensational on sunny days. Standing in any one of them, it's difficult to get a visual perspective, as skiers on the far side resemble Lilliputians. These bowls stretch from the original Sun Up and Sun Down to Game Creek on one side and Teacup, China, Siberia, and Outer Mongolia bowls on the far side. The terrain ranges from wide, groomed swatches for intermediate skiers to seemingly endless bump fields to glades so tight that only an expert boarder can slither between the trees. When there's fresh powder, these bowls beckon skiers intermediate and above. But after the fresh snow has been tracked up by skiers and pummeled by wind and sun, it may be wise for less-than-expert skiers to stay in the groomed sections of the bowls.
The Front Side of Vail Mountain delivers a markedly different experience. Here there's lots of wide-trail skiing, heavily skewed toward groomed intermediate runs, especially off the Northwood Express, Mountaintop Express, and Avanti Express lifts, as well as the slopes reachable via the Eagle Bahn Gondola. Pockets of advanced and expert terrain are tucked in and around the blue-marked slopes. The upper parts of Riva and the top of Look Ma are just a few of the places you'll find skilled skiers. The best show in town is on Highline (you can see it while riding Chair 10), where the experts groove through the moguls and those with a bit less experience careen around the bumps. The other two extremely difficult double-black-diamond trails off this slow lift are the best cruisers on the mountain for skilled skiers.
It takes time (as long as 45 minutes) to reach Blue Sky Basin, made up of three more bowls, but it's worth the effort. Tucked away in a secluded corner of Vail, this 645-acre area has been left in a wilder state, and the majority of the terrain is never groomed. Intermediate skiers will find a few open trails with spectacular views of rugged mountain peaks. For advanced and expert skiers, the real fun is playing in glades and terrain with names such as Heavy Metal, Lovers Leap, the Divide, and Champagne Glade. Facilities: 195 trails; 5,289 acres; 3,450-foot vertical drop; 31 lifts. Vail, Colorado, 81657. 970/476–5601; www.vail.com. Lift ticket $129. Late Nov.–mid-Apr., daily 8:30–4.
Lessons and Programs
Vail Ski & Snowboard School. This respected operation runs classes, workshops, and clinics for skiers of all levels. The more than 1,000 instructors teach in 22 languages. Beginners can take three-day courses that include equipment rental and lift passes. Workshops for women, teen sessions, and telemark courses are among the programs targeting specific groups. Vail, Colorado, 81657. 970/754–8245; www.vail.com. From $150. Closed in summer.
Vail Sports. Within steps of the lifts and with 10 locations along the mountainside in Vail Village and Lionshead, this shop rents a wide range of ski gear, including high-end equipment. Prices for skis range from $47 to $67 a day. Book online for discounts. 151 Vail La., Vail, Colorado, 81657. 970/477–5740; www.vailsports.com.