Renowned as one of the top ski resorts in the U.S., Vail, Colorado is one magnificent Rocky Mountain destination. Strategically located about 120 miles due west of Denver, Vail is primarily considered a winter vacation destination.
We’d planned a day trip here from our home base in Breckenridge—what we didn’t plan was to fall in love with this mountain paradise. Much to our delight, we discovered no matter the season, Vail is dialed into year-round outdoor adventure.
We’d heard Vail often referred to a tourist trap and after our recent autumn visit all we can say is “You can trap us here anytime.” The charming town, the largest single-mountain ski resort in America, is filled with a myriad of unexpected surprises.
A quick drop into the Visitor’s Center provided us with the information we needed to maximize our day visit. Parking here is free, as is shuttle service that transports visitors between the two main villages of Lionshead and Vail. It’s also an easy 10 to 15-minute scenic stroll between the hamlets for those wishing to hoof it.
Vail Village is quintessential alpine-themed, reminiscent of the fanciful small villages we’ve visited in the Tyrolean Alps. A covered pedestrian bridge, the iconic symbol of Vail Village, traverses over the crystal-clear rushing waters of Gore Creek. Cobblestone streets, heated in the winter add to the village’s magic, and fascinating boutique shops abound here.
An easily walkable village path along scenic Gore Creek led us to the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens. President Gerald Ford and the former first lady had deep lifelong connections to Vail, even owning a condo here. The former president and his family were avid skiers and their presence in Vail was profound.
The alpine gardens are the loftiest public botanical gardens in North America, situated at 8,250 feet. This magnificent property is renowned for its alpine horticulture, education and conservation.
Columbines, alpine plants, colorful perennials, and wildflowers cling to rocky outcroppings throughout the hilly park surrounded by the majesty of the Rockies. Meandering pathways pass along mountain streams and stunning waterfalls. The gardens are free to the public, open year-round, and guided tours are available by request.
A visit to the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum and Hall of Fame is a treasure trove of ski history. Although tracing the sport throughout the world, the museum emphasizes Colorado’s contribution to skiing and snowboarding. It specifically honors many of the individuals who’ve made significant contributions to the sport.
We loved exhibits covering the evolution of ski wear and Olympic highlights, but tops on our list were the film and displays representing “Climb to Glory,” the befitting motto of the U.S. Army’s renowned 10th Mountain Division.
Designated as a mountain warfare unit, the division is the only one of its size in the U.S. military to receive intense specialized training for fighting in mountainous and arctic conditions.
Colorado played a special role in WWII as the training site where members of the 10th spent most of their time honing their skiing, fighting and survival skills at nearby Camp Hale. This specialized division fighting in the European Alps helped to tip the balance of the war in the Allies favor.
Dining in Vail Village
It’s impossible to be in Vail Village and not lunch at the Austrian-themed Pepi’s Bar and Restaurant, located in the Hotel Gasthaus Gramshammer.
Sitting in the heart of the town, the restaurant not only serves up incredible alpine cuisine, but it also provides spectacular views of the surrounding mountains from its outdoor patio.
Not being the biggest fan of Bavarian food, I chose the Heirloom Tomato and Burrata salad topped with spicy sunflower seeds, which was incredibly flavorful. But my hubby ordered the traditional Weiner Schnitzel, a house favorite. The juicy mouthwatering veal cutlet smothered in mushrooms and gravy was so tender and delectable, that when he offered me a bite, I too was hooked.
With its winding walkways and European facades, the village of Lionshead is completely closed off to all traffic, making it easy to navigate and explore more of the alpine destination.
In summer and fall, Arrabelle Square is the setting for several art and music festivals, but, in winter, it boasts an outdoor ice rink with skate rentals.
Lionhead’s star of the show has to be the Eagle Bahn Gondola. Hitching a ride in the spacious enclosed cars lifts riders to a 10,300-foot elevation before arriving at Eagle’s Nest. Views are mind-blowing from the top.
Riders can either take the gondola back down after exploring the stunning vistas or hike or mountain bike back down the mountain. From this lofty perch, aspens burst with hues of carrot-orange and gold providing a stunning contrast to the towering verdant pines.
Riders should check schedules at the Visitors Center or the Eagle Bahn ticket office, but during the summer through the end of September, riders can purchase gondola ride tickets for $36. After 5 pm, however, tickets are reduced to only $15.
The trip was so worth it as autumn colors were at their peak. For those with winter season ski passes, scenic gondola rides are free.
Tavern on the Square, sitting at the base of the Eagle Bahn Gondola, was a great place for cocktails after our mountain adventure. It almost felt like a dream sitting slope-side watching bikers and hikers descending the trails under a magnificent setting sun.
My hubby savored one of Colorado’s craft microbrews and with the recommendation of our server, I ordered a Ginger Fresh. Made with Ketel One cucumber vodka, ginger, lemon, mint and simple syrup, it was a delightfully-refreshing concoction on a warm autumn day.
One gentleman at the tavern had fond memories of former President Gerald Ford when he said, “Ford loved Vail and Vail loved him right back.” In just a day’s visit, we were able to catch a glimpse of why the Fords were so enamored with Vail and why so many others love coming here.
There’s no shortage of natural wonder in the Vail Valley. It’s a treasure trove of stunning vistas filled with expansive mountain ranges and sparkling creeks meandering through the town. Since we are not avid skiers, a visit here had never really been at the top of our travel list, but are we ever glad we finally discovered just some of what Vail has to offer.
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