Road Trip: Vail, Colorado

There’s more than high-end venues and crazy great skiing in the Colorado Rockies. See what Vail has to offer, whether you drive there in the winter, spring, summer or fall.

By Meg Hemphill

Hard to believe but it was just 50 years ago that Vail opened for its first ski season. Conceived by Pete Seibert, a skier who trained in Colorado during World War II, and local rancher Earl Eaton whose sheep ranch was transformed, Vail was modeled after storybook European ski towns, like St. Moritz and Staad. (Not surprisingly, St. Moritz is its sister city.) Though the town has a well-deserved reputation for attracting the rich and famous, it also has plenty to do for couples and families on a budget.

When To Go

Winter is the most popular time of year in Vail, thanks to phenomenal skiing conditions and other snow sports. But in the off-season, basically when the snow melts and until it magically reappears, bargain hunters will find gorgeous hillsides blanketed in wildflowers, and bargain rates at hotels and restaurants. So don’t rule out a spring or summer visit to Vail.

Getting There

Vail is 100 miles east of Denver, Colorado via Interstate 70. As you cruise along, you’ll go through the Eisenhower Tunnel, which runs under the Continental Divide in the Rockies, and pass defunct mining towns, which offer kitschy tours if you’re so inclined. Shoppers beware: the Silverthorne outlets are an hour into the drive (about a half-hour before you hit Vail).
I-70 can be congested if you travel at peak times from Denver (between 2 and 6 p.m. on weekends), so opt for off-peak travel times. If you go during the winter, make sure you have a 4-wheel drive vehicle, or at least chains for your tires, in case the highway gets nasty (which it can during big snow storms).

Where To Stay

Wanna play like the celebs? There are places that cater to that. The Four Seasons is synonymous with luxury. This beautiful lodge has easy family activities for tots and teens, a pool, spa, fitness center and a ski concierge who will wax your skis, warm your boots and will serve you muffins fresh from the oven. A cocktail or their gourmet hot chocolate by the fire is a must. (Winter rates start at $695/night.) If an upscale boutique hotel is more your style, book at The Sebastian, which is ideal in winter thanks to its ideal location and ski-in, ski-out access. (Winter rates start at $600/night, with a four-night minimum required.)

For a middle-of-the-road option, check out Gore Creek Properties for condo and home rentals that start at $250 per night. This is a great idea for larger groups that want to prepare and eat meals at home. There are also less expensive accommodations, especially for the adventurous type. Have you ever wanted to snowshoe or cross-country ski to a yurt? You can do that. Several establishments cater to yurt and cabin stays; check out Leadville Back Country, which is $115/night for the entire yurt during winter weekends. ($105 during winter weekdays; $75 and $65 for off-season weekends and weekdays, respectively.) See more about Leadville under What to Do.

Where To Eat

Like you might imagine, Vail, winter home to the glam set, has the requisite number of stellar dining spots. Renowned chef Nobu Matsuhisa recently opened Matsuhisa Vail in the Solaris Residences in Vail Village. The menu features Japanese and Peruvian fusion (how many times can you say you’ve had that?), with signature items such as Black Cod with Miso and Colorado Lamb with Peruvian chili sauce. Terra Bistro at the Vail Mountain Lodge focuses on locally sourced dishes that are as tasty as they are healthy. Kelly Liken, of Top Chef season 7 fame, has a namesake restaurant also in Vail Village, with inventive yet approachable cuisine. The three-course meals are $74 (in winter) and feature choices from the appetizer, main course and dessert menus. Don’t miss the Vail Farmer’s Market, held Sundays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. during the summer (mid-June through mid-September). Dozens of food stalls sell flavored popcorns, house-made ice creams and baked goods, and giant turkey drumsticks; there is something for everyone. Best of all if you’re on a budget, you can keep your meal ticket to $10 per person.

What To Do

Take a day trip to Leadville (less than an hour’s drive from Vail), which is home to Colorado’s highest peak, Mt. Elbert (14,443 ft.). History buffs in your party will enjoy exploring the area’s rich 19th-century mining camps, as well as visiting Camp Hale, where the army’s elite 10th Mountain Division ski troopers trained beginning in 1942. Try snowmobiling at Camp Hale for a unique way to see the area. For the return drive, loop down to Summit County to mix up the scenery. Other nearby ski villages, including Aspen, Breckenridge and Beaver Creek can be a fun day excursion with shopping and restaurants.

But back in town, there is enough to keep even the most active person satisfied. In the winter, aside from skiing, there is ice skating at the Solaris, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and Adventure Ridge on Vail Mountain, which has ski bikes, tubing and a gondola (that’s open year-round). Vail is a family-friendly destination with plenty of activities for children of all ages. If you’re more the lounge lizard than the ski bunny, have a hot toddie or a margie at Los Amigos, and watch skiers descend the mountain. If you’re up on the mountain, a meal at Game Creek restaurant can be a fun experience: you take a Snowcat ride from the gondola to this mountaintop chalet, where you can enjoy decadent food like pork belly, elk and scallops.

If you come to Vail when the snow has melted, there is still plenty to keep you occupied. Hiking becomes the de rigeur sport after the snow has gone. A real treat is booking time with hiking guide Ellen Miller through the Vail Athletic Club She’s the first American woman to ascend Mt. Everest twice in as many years. She’s inspirational, motivating and knows her clients’ limits, but isn’t afraid to push you a little. Adventure Ridge also hosts summertime activities like horseback riding, mini golf and lawn sports. You can try paddle boarding, kayaking, rafting and tubing down Gore Creek. Ford Amphitheater is the place to be at night. This outdoor pavilion hosts dynamic dance and music shows throughout the summer, including free concerts each week. You can bring in your own food, or buy snacks and a bottle of bubbly there. (See the calendar here for more information.) And finally, Vail Village in itself is a charming place to wander around, checking out shops, eateries and plaques explaining the town’s history. No matter when you go and what you want to do, Vail is one destination worth driving to.

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