How to Ski and Ride Vail Like a Local

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Back Bowls of Colorado's Vail Ski Resort.Courtesy Vail Ski Resort / Jack Affleck

All right, let’s get the Vail jokes out of the way: ones ribbing the fabulous fur coats seen on Bridge Street, the $18 old-fashioneds, the Wi-Fi connected gondolas and designer oxygen bars to combat altitude sickness. To understate it, there’s nothing chintzy about this Interstate 70 gem with its luxury veneer. Nearly 60 years into the roadside resort town experiment (literally named after a highway engineer), shit-talking Vail’s cultural aesthetic has grown passé as its winning streak grows longer. Even the haters have to admit, when it comes to terrain, Vail is simply phenomenal.

It’s easy to run off the mountain stats … 195 trails, 31 lifts, 3,450 feet of vertical rise. We tend to just gloss over all of that, no matter how impressive. But consider this one important number: 5,317 acres of skiable terrain. That’s just shy of Big Sky. And Big Sky is … big (the second largest in the U.S., behind Park City Mountain Resort). The front side of Vail stacks up pretty well to just about anywhere south of Alaska and then there are seven bowls (seven!) on the backside. The total package stretches more than seven miles wide, buried in 370 inches of snow per year. And that’s not counting the two “unofficial” Back Bowls in Blue Sky Basin.

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Courtesy Vail Ski Resort – Ozturk

OK, so we’re not Vail locals. We’re not working double bar shifts at Garf’s or shuttling tourists to and from the Eagle County Airport. But we do know a few. And we recently slept on their couches, caught a contact buzz off their (legal) buds and picked their brains on how to score an epic Vail experience.

Admittedly, these may not be the best kept secrets. Freshies come at a premium anywhere in Colorado, and true locals know better than to sell out their prime powder sanctuaries to be unceremoniously stomped upon by you and your crew, no matter how many cold craft brews you promise to fill the fridge with. You’ll need to put in some time to get any real intel, but if you belly up to the ‘V Bar’ (formally named Vendetta’s) you will likely find yourself shoulder to shoulder with ski patrol (or maybe even the bar owner-mayor of Vail) after the mountain closes. A round or two of shots has been known to loosen some lips.

Meanwhile, we’ve managed to pull together a few key pointers. First off, know that Vail locals don’t call lifts by their names. There’s no Tamarack Express or Bear Mountain Quad. They refer to lifts by numbers: You meet at Chair 11 at 11 (a.m.). Chair 37 can be brutal with the wind coming off the ridge on a cold day. There’s a new Chair 9 these days.

But maybe the most important local insight is when to hit the Back Bowls and when to leave them be. Some folks fly out to Colorado more hellbent on the backside than the guys sitting up front at J.Lo’s halftime show, taking the first open chair to Wildwood. Suddenly they find themselves stranded in Game Creek Bowl on a Saturday, waiting in ridiculous lift lines with dozens of Texans and a family from Philly. Bottom line, if there’s no fresh powder or spring corn to harvest, consider skipping the Back Bowls. On any given day you can do laps on the meticulously manicured frontside and cruise your way to groomer heaven. Sometimes Chair 26 in Lionshead will get you away from the crowds, or drop into Chair 10 if you brought your bump game.

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Courtesy Vail Ski Resort – Cohen

There are tons of weather reports you can check to see just how much, if any, snow fell and what’s coming across the Rockies. Most range from very vague to flat-out wrong when it comes to the notoriously tricky forecast for the Gore Range. Most locals rely on Joel Gratz, founding meteorologist of OpenSnow.com, for honest info, and the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) takes it to the next level with snowpack discussions and pinpoint forecasts at 11,000 feet. Either way, it’s always wise to check Vail’s snow stake cams for a 24-hour time-lapse once the sun comes up. A few inches on your car could translate into knee-deep crystal in Outer Mongolia Bowl.

According to our tourism industry insiders, the window between New Year’s Day and MLK tends to see fewer crowds than most other weeks. So with some flexibility, you can increase your odds of feeling alone out there. And if you’re going to ride more than five days in the season, you might as well just kick down for an Epic Pass before the season starts. There are a variety of Epic options—including the Epic Local Pass and Epic Day Pass—but just five days of walk-up window pricing pays for the full, unrestricted Epic Pass and there are some 48 other resorts around the world where you can use it (including often-overlooked Beaver Creek, just 15 minutes away).

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Back Bowls of Colorado’s Vail Ski Resort. Courtesy Vail Ski Resort / Jack Affleck

Now, let’s say you luck into a legit double-digit powder day. The Vail Village crew is lining up at Gondola One some 45 minutes, maybe even an hour before the first chair. It’s not considered poor form for a group of three or four to get in line at the base and hold a buddy’s board or planks while he makes a run for breakfast sandwiches. But beware, the lineup can get heated. Arguments can break out and before you know it, a barista and a hedge fund manager are swinging ski poles like machetes. No friends on a powder day, indeed.

When the light turns green, the race is straight to PHQ (Patrol Headquarters at the top of Chair 4), typically followed by at least one run down to Chair 5 before traffic begins flowing east toward China Bowl and the 10 a.m. opening of Blue Sky Basin. But while you’re out looking for powder, consider going against the grain, maybe lingering a little longer on the frontside, where you’re never more than a few turns away from the sprawling network of high-speed lifts. Download the Epic Mix Time app and receive real-time updates on which lifts are trending (think Waze for lift lines).

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When the backside lift mazes are wedged yet the powder pull is too strong, the Minturn Mile remains a local classic. The side-country route to Vail’s version of “Margaritaville” (at the legendary Minturn Saloon) is no longer a secret, but there does tend to be deep snow back there after the in-bounds powder is tracked out. And if the snow is deep enough to suck you in for another round, you can always cruise into Minturn and Uber back to Vail Village.

During slower snow cycles and sunny spring days, another popular Vail pastime is mountaintop grilling. There are free gas grills set up near the top of Chair 4, at Henry’s Hut and Hawk’s Nest, and a third one at Belle’s Camp atop Blue Sky Basin, where locals will toss provisions on the grill and spend the afternoon in the sun. Maybe throw some hot dogs or veggie skewers in the pack if it’s bluebird.

Bottom line, between the grooming, amenities and nature’s bounty, it’s hard to not have a good experience at Vail. Considering single day lift tickets are pushing $200, there should be something for everyone, local or not.

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Vail Village Courtesy Vail Ski Resort - Jack Affleck

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