When I think of Vail I think of lush ski resorts complete with gorgeous fireplaces and expensive furniture. I think of epic skiing, hot chocolates and faux fur scarves, hats and coats. Having never been to Vail in the winter, I can’t properly attest to how accurate my mental picture is. I can however tell you that this is not what Vail is like during the summer.
Instead, during the summer Vail offers green hillsides, gorgeous pine trees and a bounty of non-snow-related outdoor activities. There’s hiking, fishing, golf, mountain biking, rafting, adventure courses and more. And that’s if you’re not content just walking around the gorgeous downtown area.
While the ski-resort may be Vail’s claim to fame, the town doesn’t go dormant during the off-season. Rather it maintain’s the luxury of the resort while trading in powdered slopes for hiking trails. In doing so it becomes a summer-time wonderland.
Where is Vail?
Vail is a European oasis tucked away in White River National Forest in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. The architecture is Swiss chalet meets old-town Germany and the whole town seems to exude luxury. If you can’t afford to get across to Europe than Vail is a beautiful substitute — although in many cases Europe may actually be the cheaper option of the two.
I stopped in Vail for just a couple hours during my trip out West to stretch my legs and explore this unique part of the country. When I pulled off the highway I didn’t have any plans. It was a spur of the moment decision to stop and check the town out, so I followed my nose and the signage that directed me to the downtown village and subsequent information center.
The town is actually made up of two main alpine base areas — Vail and Lionshead villages. I started and parked at Vail Village, but from what I saw the two are pretty interchangeable. Each has it’s own bars, restaurants, lodgings, parking, information center and shops. There is a free bus that runs a loop between the two that you can jump on and off whenever. It took me just under 25 minutes to walk from the information center in Vail Village to central Lionshead Village. There is also a third business district in West Vail that you can explore as well.
What can you do there?
While Vail may not be a budget-friendly place to stay — with hotel prices beginning around $200 + per night — there is free public parking all summer in both Vail and Lionshead villages, which makes it a pretty affordable day trip or rest stop. What pulled me off the highway and convinced me to check the town out was that I could see the Gondolas traversing up the mountainside. As I said earlier, I’ve always thought of Vail as a winter destination and therefore didn’t give too much thought as to what may be going on in the town during the summer. Turns out, quite a lot.
By complete chance, the town happened to be celebrating Oktoberfest and so the whole place felt especially European. Unfortunately, because I was driving, I was unable to properly partake in the festivities, but nonetheless I enjoyed the mini-Oktoberfest. There was live music, Bavarian decor, food, drinks and an atmosphere of general merriment.
Apparently Vail keeps pretty busy year round and the weekends are full of festivals, concerts and other activities. A full event calendar for the town can be found here.
At the information center I grabbed a couple brochures and asked about the gondola rides. I will say, the two ladies working there were especially helpful and friendly — in that really genuine way and not just because it’s their job to be polite to you.
There are actually two Gondola’s that run up the mountains during the summer. Gondola One is located in Vail Village and for most of the summer season it is open from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Although this one is closer to where I started, because I didn’t arrive in town until 2:30 p.m. or so the ladies working advised me that I was better off walking down to Lionshead Village where the Eagle Bahn Gondola runs — as this one is open until 6 p.m. throughout the summer.
The ticket cost $36 which for me is a tad pricey, but the views at the top are spectacular. At the top of the ridge is Epic Discovery which offers a range of adventure activities such as zip lining, tubing, bungy-trampolines, adventure courses, mini golf, 4×4 mountain tours and a climbing wall. There is also an abundance of hiking and mountain biking trails you can explore as well. While I didn’t partake in any of the activities, they looked like great family-fun in this beautiful setting. There is also a restaurant at the top which again I didn’t try but it looked delicious — although slightly out of my budget. However I definitely wouldn’t mind grabbing a drink and some appetizers on it’s balcony overlooking the mountain views.
What do you need to wear?
As I said this whole adventure was a spur of the moment decision and I didn’t do any planning beforehand. This includes not having the forethought that the top of the gondola is at an altitude of around 11,000 ft. I can therefore recommend that even if you are visiting in summer, 3/4 leggings and a t-shirt more than likely won’t quite do the job on this mountain ridge. I would suggest an extra layer or two, regardless of how sunny and calm it may seem down in the villages.
Travel faux-pa I know, but I definitely won’t be making that mistake again.
Even in summer Vail can get pretty cold, especially at night. While I was fine walking around down in the village in the sunshine of the early afternoon, by the time I was leaving (around 5 p.m. or so) it was already getting pretty nippy. If you plan on making a summer trip to Vail, keep in mind that you’re still traveling to an alpine destination. You’ll want at least one warm jacket and long pants that you can throw on for the colder evenings.
Overall I had a great time exploring Vail in the summer. It was a perfect place to stretch my legs and I would love to return and be able to spend some more time experiencing everything this little wonderland offers — be it in summer or winter.