The History of Vail
On opening day - December 15th, 1962 - three lifts were in place; a Gondola and two chairlifts. Within seven years, Vail had become the most popular ski resort in Colorado. Coupled with the construction of Interstate 70 from Denver, this popularity spurred the development of a European-style base village. Today, that village consists of two distinct areas - Vail Village, and Lionshead.
By 1985, the resort had installed five high-speed detachable quads, allowing skiers and snowboarders to travel farther in less time. Vail Associates bought Vail in 1996, along with Breckenridge, Keystone, and Heavenly. In 2000, Vail opened the Blue Sky Basin area, an environmentally controversial expansion that added more than 600 acres to Vail's already expansive spread.
Today, Vail is the largest resort in the U.S. and the second largest in North America, with only Whistler/Blackcomb eclipsing the ski area in size. Now owned by the Vail Resorts Management Company, the resort began offering The Epic Pass in 2008, which allowed skiers and riders to visit all of Vail Resorts ski areas for just $579.
The Town of Vail
Vail's demographics paint a picture which should not need painting. Breaking down the population of 4,500+ reveals a population that's 94% white, with only 11% of households with children under 18, nearly 65% are non-families, and almost 63% of the town's residents are between the ages of 18-44. In other words, it's a town for ski bums and by ski bums!
Both Vail Village and Lionshead are wonderful, impressive places. The variety of restaurants is incredible - for a native New Englander who understands that "fresh" fish is bought directly from the guy who caught it and before it ever leaves his boat, it's been in Vail that I've had some of the tastiest seafood cuisine I've ever experienced. Throw in the ubiquitous spas, luxury shops, and enough ski shops to service the Winter Olympics, and you've got the makings of a great vacation experience. The town of Vail falls down, in this writer's opinion, due to the words vacation experience. As great a place as Vail is (and it's one of my top-three favorite ski resorts, period), nothing there feels real. It's very similar to Disney World - it's the happiest place on Earth for sure, but Main Street U.S.A. it ain't.
The Mountain - The Frontside
The easiest place to begin is the Frontside, where everyone's day must begin. At over 1,600 acres, Vail's Frontside is bigger than most resorts, and offers as much variety as one would expect from 1,600+ acres. The Golden Peak area is perfect for beginners, with miles of wide-open trails that are groomed to perfection every night (Vail grooms 20 hours a day, seven days a week throughout the season).
Riding off the Avanti chair is heaven for intermediates and advanced skiers and riders alike. Featuring more pitch than the beginner trails at Golden Peak, the runs off Avanti are perfect for laying out huge carves and pushing the limits of centrifugal force. Intermediates should also check out the trails served by the Eagle Bahn Gondola and Born Free chair, both of which run out of the Lionshead base area.
Advanced and expert skiers and riders will love the Northwoods (Chair 11) area, which has some of the steepest shots on the frontside (Prima Cornice is one not to miss). The Northwoods chair also provides access to the Back Bowls, meaning long lines can form on powder days and busy weekends. Hit Northwoods early, then head farther out into the bowels of the beast.
The Mountain - The Back Bowls
Standing at the entrance to the Back Bowls, the seven bowls in order are: Sun Down, Sun Up, Teacup, China, Siberia, Inner Monogolia, and Outer Mongolia. Even though most of the runs out back are designated as single or double-black diamonds, there's plenty of runs within the reach of strong intermediates. This is especially true given the herculean grooming effort Vail puts forth; it's not uncommon to see a fleet of 20+ groomers working together in the Back Bowls, laying down a lane of corduroy the width of a five-lane highway. Before the purists cry foul, remember that each bowl is roughly the size of most Eastern U.S. ski resorts!
The great thing about the grooming out back is it allows the whole family to ski and ride together - the more adventurous can charge down the ungroomed stuff while the tired, poor and weak amongst the group yearn to catch a glimpse of Lady Liberty. Just kidding...the less adventurous will have a ball exploring the corduroy lanes in the Back Bowls, and it's a real trip for the groomer-crowd to be able to experience Vail in its entirety.