Vail is unashamedly upmarket and expensive with a huge number of luxury hotels and a vast array of restaurants serving virtually every type of cuisine. So be aware, prices for lift passes, equipment rental and lessons are all sky high. Lift passes cost substantially less than the in-resort price if bought in advance online or through a UK tour operator.
But while prices are high, visitors buy access to one of the biggest and most varied ski areas in the USA. It best suits intermediate or expert level skiers and snowboarders, including those keen to try Colorado’s usually dry, light and plentiful powder snow.
Stay on track with the essential facts from the resort below, and scroll down for our insider guide to a day on the pistes, expert ratings and advice. For further Vail inspiration, see our guides to the resort’s best accommodation, restaurants and après ski.
Inside the resort
Vail was built from scratch in the 1960s and the resort is celebrating its 60th anniversary in 2022/23. The founders envisaged a “little Bavaria” in Colorado, based on their experiences in the Alps while serving in the 10th Mountain Division of the US Army. While Vail is huge, stretching almost four miles along the (remarkably unobtrusive) I-70 highway from Denver, the original Vail Village is a very pleasant place to stroll around, full of Bavarian/Tirolean-style buildings.
The resort village is vast but Vail has an excellent free bus service that makes it easy to get around. For easy access to the heart of the ski area it’s most convenient to stay near one of the powerful main gondola lifts out of either the Tirolean-style Vail Village base area, or the swish, modern Lionshead village.
Both Vail Village and Lionshead have pleasant, car-free streets and squares to stroll around, as well as a variety of après bars and restaurants. The quieter, smaller accommodation base at Golden Peak is another option, with access to the mountain via a fast quad chairlift.
Vail has much livelier and varied après ski and nightlife than most American resorts. There are also numerous family-friendly activities such as snowmobiling for kids and snowshoeing.
The big ski area has 5,317 acres of varied terrain over three linked sectors, which give a real feeling of travelling around. As well as wonderfully groomed pistes, there is a huge amount of ungroomed terrain in which to enjoy fresh, dry powder. As with other North American resorts, off-piste runs within the ski area boundary are avalanche controlled and patrolled.
The Vail Resorts lift pass, the Epic Pass, also covers the nearby resort of Beaver Creek around 25 minutes away by bus. It is well worth the trip for its often deserted and well-manicured pistes ideal for blasting down at top speed. Breckenridge, Keystone and Crested Butte are also covered by the lift pass and easy to visit with a rental car.
On the slopes
Vail is one of the biggest linked ski areas in the USA and has three distinct sectors; the Front Side, the Back Bowls and Blue Sky Basin. The very wide, wooded Front Side is accessed from the Lionshead, Vail Village and Golden Peak areas of the village by two gondolas and a fast chairlift respectively.
For 2022/23, Game Creek Express has been replaced with a high-speed six-person chairlift, with the lift line repositioned to make room for Vail Mountain’s Sun Down Express which connects the bottom of Sun Up and Sun Down Bowls to Wildwood, with the aim of making the journey to and from Lionshead Village easier.
From the top ridge, runs lead down into the mostly tree-free Back Bowls, at the bottom of which lifts access the third sector – the heavily wooded Blue Sky Basin. Everywhere is served by a fine network of high-speed chairlifts.
Snow quality is generally excellent on the largely north-facing Front Side and Blue Sky Basin, home to the powder snow that Colorado is justifiably famed for. However, the Back Bowls are largely south-facing and strong sun can make snow quality suffer.
Beginners can learn on nursery slopes at both resort level and higher up the mountain. And there are good long easy runs to progress to. But both the beginner runs and the easy runs can be crowded – unusual for US resorts.
Intermediates can have a whale of a time on the Front Side. This has most of the groomed runs and is criss-crossed with easy, long cruising runs such as Born Free, Simba and Avanti. Most of the Back Bowls and Blue Sky Basin are ungroomed but there are easy groomed blues there too, such as Silk Road which winds around the Back Bowls and Cloud 9 which is a lovely groomed run in the trees in Blue Sky Basin. Adventurous intermediates can enjoy the easier ungroomed runs in all sectors.
Experts will find lots of variety. The front face has some super-steep often mogulled black runs such as Prima Cornice, as well as easier black runs that are regularly groomed and a great blast. The Back Bowls are go-anywhere territory, and in fresh snow an absolute powder playground.
However, the place to be in a snowstorm is Blue Sky Basin, where the visibility is better because of the trees. Some of the ungroomed black diamond runs here are quite tight and steep.
If the snow is good, it’s worth booking a backcountry tour with Paragon Guides, who have been guiding around Vail since 1978, for a real adventure. It offers day tours around Vail as well as two- to five-day hut-to-hut touring trips.
The Avanti Terrain Park is located by Avanti chairlift and caters for freestylers from beginner to intermediate. For experts there’s Golden Peak, under the Riva Bahn chair from the Golden Peak base, which has a superpipe and hosts high-profile competitions such as the Burton US Open Snowboarding Championships.
The ski school is one of the largest in North America and has a very good reputation.
Who should go?
Intermediates will have a great time in Vail, with lots of terrain to explore. Those feeling adventurous can progress to easy ungroomed runs in all sectors, while experts will find plenty of variety and revel in the famous powder conditions. Those looking for fun off the slopes will like Vail’s lively après ski and nightlife. Vail is also one of the most glamorous resorts in North America, if not the world, with price tags to match and ample five-star accommodation to choose from.
Know before you go
International travellers going to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) are now subject to enhanced security requirements. Online completion and approval of ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorisation), along with payment of the fee, is mandatory ahead of travel for all Visa Waiver Programme travellers. For full details, be sure to go to the official website at esta.cbp.dhs.gov
British Consulate-General in Chicago: +1 312 970 3800; 625 N Michigan Ave Suite 2200, Chicago, IL 6061
Emergency services: dial 911
Tourist office: See vail.com, the website for the Vail Tourist Board, or use the Epic Mix for weather reports, lift status, webcams, traffic details and local event listings. Pick up maps, leaflets and other information from the office in the centre of Vail Village.
Currency: US dollar $
Telephone code: To phone the UK, dial 011 44 and then the number – but drop the ‘0’
Time difference: -6 hours
Local laws and etiquette
Taxis expect a 10-15 per cent tip; restaurants expect 15-20 per cent on the total before local tax (6.25 per cent). A few restaurants build in a 20 per cent gratuity; always check your bill.