Whether you’re visiting during summer’s wildflower blooms or winter’s plentiful snowfalls, Vail is a spectacular place to experience the Rocky Mountains in Colorado.
The town lies 156 kilometers west of Colorado’s booming capital city, Denver. The drive between the two cities is so beautiful that it’s almost worth a trip by itself.
Start in Denver
Denver is known as the “Mile-High City,” which refers to its elevation: exactly one mile, or 1,609 meters, above sea level. Spend some time in hip LoDo, named for its location in lower downtown. The oldest neighborhood in Denver, LoDo is home to the renovated Union Station, a train station built in 1881 that now features boutique shops, restaurants and bars.
It’s also home to the Colorado Rockies Major League Baseball team. Before heading to Coors Field for a game, stop at Snooze for a rich breakfast like Sticky Toffee Pudding French Toast, or at Milk Box Ice Creamery for a boozey post-game shake.
Travel tip: You can dehydrate easily at such heights, so drink plenty of water.
City lights illuminating Union Station in Denver
Getting to Vail
To drive to Vail (base elevation: 2,475 meters), take Interstate 70 West to Exit 176; it’s approximately 200 kilometers west of Denver International Airport. It’s a majestic drive, with snow-capped mountains around almost every bend.
For a taste of the Wild West — a period during the 19th century in which lands west of the Mississippi River were explored and settled — stop in Georgetown on your way to Vail. Take exit 228 off of Interstate 70 and stroll around the small town founded in 1859 during the Pikes Peak gold rush. Many of the 19th-century buildings remain. If you’re visiting during summer, drive the Mount Evans Scenic Byway, the highest paved road in North America. Watch for bighorn sheep and mountain goats. At the top, park and hike about 402 meters to the summit at 4,307 meters. Then you’ll have climbed a “fourteener,” meaning a mountain peak over 14,000 feet, or 4,267 meters. Colorado has 53 fourteeners, the most in the USA.
Ski slopes along the snow-covered mountains at Vail Resorts
What to Do in the Winter
Most people associate Vail with downhill skiing – and for good reason. With 2,140 skiable hectares and 193 trails, Vail Resorts accommodates all levels of skiers.
But you can also ice skate, Nordic ski or enjoy almost any other winter sport in Vail. Save some energy for Adventure Ridge, a snow park at the top of Eagle Bahn Gondola, where you can go snow tubing, ride ski bikes or soak up the solitude while snowshoeing.
The Front Side of Vail, some of the most groomed terrain in the world
What to Do in the Summer
With hundreds of kilometers of trails dotted with blue, white and yellow wildflowers, hiking is a favorite pastime in the summer. Ride the Eagle Bahn Gondola and walk through the 1.6-kilometer Eagle’s Loop or head to the Deluge Lake Trail, a 12.2-kilometer route with 925 meters of climbing that features amazing views of Mount of the Holy Cross, another fourteener.
To pick up the pace, rent a mountain bike. Again, there’s a trail for every level. Or cool down with a rafting trip on the Eagle or Colorado rivers; there are a handful of outfitters in the area. Want a more peaceful water experience? Try fly-fishing; trout are plentiful in the rivers around Vail, as are guides.
Reserve some time to visit the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens, the highest botanical garden in North America. You’ll find bluebells, columbines, waterfalls and rock gardens. Coordinate your garden visit with a performance at the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater, an outdoor venue with a lineup including everything from world-class orchestras to local bluegrass bands. Bring a picnic and drink in the views of the Rocky Mountains.
Blooming wildflowers accent a hike in Vail during summer
Where to Stay, Shop and Eat
Vail offers a wide range of accommodations. There are lodges and townhouses where you can cook for yourself, as well as luxury accommodations such as the Arrabelle at Vail Square, which offers complimentary use of GoPro cameras to document your adventures, and the Four Seasons, where you can have artisanal salami and Colorado cheeses delivered to your room as an appetizer.
There is also a wide range of retail options. Whether you're shopping for a fur coat or a raincoat, cowboy boots or ski boots, you can find them as you browse Vail Village, a mix of sport boutiques, art galleries, jewelry stores and upscale clothiers.
Dining in Vail is often an international experience. You’ll find everything from sophisticated French fare to down-home Colorado cuisine. For a fun post-ski scene, head to the Red Lion or Garfinkel's, where you can relax with a burger and Colorado craft beer.
Gathering for a pint at Denver Beer Company Brewery