Top Things to Do in Vail Colorado! (Special Winter Edition)
There are so many things to do in Vail, I wanted to write a post about all the possibilities, and encourage you to book a trip to this winter wonderland.
One of our favorite places along our sojourn through the Western United States was Vail, Colorado. This picturesque community has so much to offer, from winter sports to fine dining, with some great shopping available to those who can splurge on some designer and snow goods!
You can also check out our Aspen traval guide! There is no way a Colorado road trip would be complete without a visit to Aspen!
About Vail, Colorado
Vail is just slightly northwest of the center of the state, less than two hours from Denver and about 3 hours from Colorado Springs. Set amongst the tall trees of White River National Forest, this town of less than 6,000 people plays host to 1.3 million visitors each year, split evenly between winter and summer.
Needless to say, tourism is the main industry here. While 70% of the homes in the area are considered “second homes,” there’s also a wealth of hotels, B&Bs, and alternative accommodations, like AirBnBs.
The main attraction during the winter is Vail Ski Resort, which boasts the largest ski mountain in Colorado and has almost 2 million skier/snowboarder visits per year. Vail Mountain is comprised of 5,300 acres of skiable terrain across its three faces (front side, back bowls, and Blue Sky Basin) with plenty of lifts and options.
Top Things to Do in Vail – Winter Activities
We found so many things to do in Vail that we really wished we could have extended our stay there but our road trip needed to continue. The majority of things do involve winter sports, such as skiing and snowboarding, but I’ve also included a few things for those who need a break or prefer something a bit more sedate.
Snowmobiling in Vail
One great way to see much of the mountain and surrounding area is via snowmobile. There are a number of companies offering rentals, and if you don’t want to strike out on your own, there are guided tours available, ranging from a few hours to half-day to full day. They include a professional guide, snowmobile, and even offer up snowsuits, boots, and helmets if you don’t have your own. (And if you’re lucky, you’ll get a snowmobile with a heated seat!)
We booked our snowmobile with Nova Guides, for 2 hours and that included helmet, suit, and boots if needed. We went right after it snowed the night before and it was actually snowing that morning as well. At first, I was a little nervous to go because everything would be white, no trail, no visible paths and that was what we got. It was a winter white wonderland. There was so much fresh snow and not that many people out and about so it kind of felt like we were on our own for most of the time. Check out the photos below so you can see how much snow there was when we went.
You could opt for a tour but since Peter and I wanted to stop to take photos and go at our own pace we decided to go out on our own. Snowmobiling was truly so much fun and you get to go out on your own adventure, it’s really of the most adventurous things to do in Vail!
Snowboarding/Skiing in Vail
Snowboarding and skiing Vail Mountain is why people come to Vail. The Vail Ski Resort is a world-renowned ski area with 5,300 skiable acres. There are a total of 193 ski runs, serviced by 31 lifts, and there’s a little something for everyone. About 18% of the runs are beginner, 29% are intermediate and 53% are advanced. There are also two terrain parks, one with a super pipe for skiers and snowboarders who want something a little different.
The most popular trail and runs on the mountain are groomed on a daily basis, making for some great snow. Vail also posts which days they groom their signature black runs if you’re a top-shelf skier or boarder looking for pristine conditions.
TIP: The slopes can get very busy…unless you know when to go. If you like want to avoid the crowds, try the first 3 weeks of December, mid-January, late January to February 14 and late February to early March.
We were in Vail the first and second week of January which was pretty busy. But we strategically planned when we would do our activities. We went snowmobiling on a Monday and snowboarding on a Tuesday when school was back in session so fewer crowds and children on the slopes. 🙂
Ski and Snowboard School in Vail
New to the slopes, ready to give snowboarding a try, or want to hone your skills? Vail Resort has a ski and snowboarding school with world-class instruction. Whether you’re 8 or 48, there’s a lesson to fill your need. There are lessons for beginners, intermediate, and advanced, as well as separate snowboarding lessons and private lessons, if you’re shy about falling down multiple times in front of other people. You can even book online on their website before you leave home.
Since I hadn’t been snowboarding in quite some time, we opted to do the snowboard school and I did beginner. Since we selected a day after school started and right after the holidays we basically had an instructor all to ourselves! I really enjoyed the classes and I’m very happy that we did it because I learned so much in just one day!
Snowshoeing in Vail
Snowshoeing is a popular winter pastime in Vail, and a great way to get your exercise and explore what most people never get to see. There are plenty of trails if you want to set out on your own. You can even rent snowshoes from a variety of places on the mountain, or visit the Vail Nordic Center at the Vail Golf Course or Eagle Ranch Golf Course Nordic and Snowshoe Center. They can rent you equipment and provide a map of trails and tracks.
TIP: The Nature Discovery Center offers guided snowshoe tours with an expert naturalist at 2 p.m. daily or nocturnal tours Tuesday-Saturday at 5:30 p.m. If you have time to take advantage of one of these, we highly recommend it. You’ll see animal tracks, and learn about the flora and fauna of the area.
Ice Skating in Vail
Vail has several options for ice skating. Our favorite was the outdoor rink in Vail Square, located in Lionshead Village. Open from Thanksgiving until the end of the ski season, this small rink is perfect to twirl around and have some fun. The rink is open from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m., so head on down and skate under the stars and when you’re done, you can finish off the day in one of the many cafes, bars, or restaurants.
If you’d prefer to be indoors or would like lessons, head over to Dobson Ice Arena, the largest rink on the Western Slope. It’s only $6 to skate, with skate rentals being a reasonable $3, and they have drop-in free skate times in the morning, around lunchtime and the later afternoon. They also have four professional instructors if you’d like to hone your skills on the ice.
Ski Biking in Vail
For the adventurous among you, ski biking at Vail is a once in a lifetime experience. I mean really, have you ever even heard of a snow bike? I’m not talking about a hefty bike with nubby tires; this is a bike frame on a ski, and you wear your skis at the same time. Vail offers nighttime guided tours for intermediate to advanced skiers and snowboarders. We did not have time to take advantage of this unique winter mode of travel, but it looks seriously interesting.
Scenic Gondola Rides
The scenic gondola rides at Vail Resort will give you the very best views of Vail Valley. It honestly doesn’t get much better than this. The Eagle Bahn Gondola starts in Lionshead Village and takes you up, up and away, landing at Eagle’s Nest. The climb is 2,197 feet, and you end up at an elevation of 10,322 feet.
Once you disembark at the top, you can wander around and take in the views down the front side of Vail Mountain. If you’d like some nourishment, there’s Gondoly’s Pizza for a slice, The Grand Press for your favorite hot beverage, and Bistro Fourteen. The bistro offers sit-down dining and a full bar.
TIP: The gondola ride is photographer’s dream, but we do recommend that you enjoy the scenery on the way up, making mental note of picture postcard possibilities, and then do your shooting on the way down.
After a long day on the slopes, it’s nice to treat yourself to an après-ski cocktail, and there is no shortage of venues for such an event. And yes this is a must-do and one of the top things to do in vail even if you’re not a skier! Whether you just want a beer, a single malt scotch or a warm and toasty Snuggler to take the chill off, here are some of the best places to catch a drink post-slope:
- Altitude Bar: Bar food, plenty of sports on the television, and a crowd that you probably shared the slopes with earlier in the day.
- Bart & Yeti’s: For an old Western theme, hit the oldest bar in town and sit amongst the cut logs that line the walls, along with wagon wheels, ancient snowshoes, and a stuffed head or two.
- Garfinkel’s: Some tasty appetizers await you here, along with some really great fried chicken.
- Samana Lounge: Take advantage of the nightly specials and get your dance on. And if you haven’t had the joy of drinking a fernet cocktail, now’s the time to try one.
- The George: Happy hour food that offers cheap eats until 9 p.m., along with $3 beers and $5 call drinks.
Best Restaurants in Vail, Colorado
After a long day on the slopes, and maybe an après-ski cocktail, it’s time to fuel up, and Vail has no shortage of restaurants. And you know we couldn’t leave out eating as one of the top things to do in Vail! One of our favorite things about this mountain town was the delicious food available!
We were able to test out quite a few on our trip and here are our recommendations:
If you want to eat here, you have to do it in the winter, as they close down when the ski season ends. The food is standard pub fare, but the quality is top notch and the portions are generous. It’s a pretty happenin’ place, with a large bar, but perfect for a casual dinner.
The Little Diner:
This is THE breakfast spot in town, conveniently located in Lionshead Plaza, right by the shuttle stop. Pop in to load up before you hit the slopes. You name it and they serve it: crepes, blintzes, breakfast sandwiches, omelets, egg platters, even cream chipped beef! Friendly staff, great food and a must-try spot. (They also serve lunch and dinner.)
This is wood-fired cooking at its best. Everything is made on site and cooked over an open wood fire, including the coal roasted olives, wood roasted bone marrow, Rocky Mountain trout and rotisserie leg of lamb. You won’t be sorry about anything you order off this menu.
For a more refined experience, Sweet Basil is the go-to restaurant. Despite its name, it is not a Thai restaurant. It features New American cuisine using fresh ingredients, locally sourced when possible. Try the Foie Gras Snow, Roasted Mushroom Salad, Bison Papparedelle or the Colorado Lamb T-Bones. (And maybe an order of their Hot Sticky Toffee Pudding Cake!)
Tavern on the Square:
This restaurant is located inside the Arrabelle at Vail Square. Treat yourself to a craft cocktail to start off and then go crazy with the small plates and appetizers. So many to choose from! They have an assortment of flatbreads, salads, poke, munchies and shares and..poutine!
Vail Travel Tips
How to Get to Vail, Colorado
Plane: While Vail has no airport of its own, there is a small airport 30 miles to the west near Gypsum. The Eagle County Airport is serviced by Air Canada, American, Delta and United airlines. Shuttle service can take you directly to Vail. Alternately, you can fly into Denver International Airport, via a large number of domestic and international carriers. From there you can rent a car, take a shuttle, or a car service. You can also fly into Colorado Springs Airport via Allegiant, American, Delta, Frontier or United. Your transportation options to Vail are the same as with Denver International Airport.
Train: Alas, the train is not an option. You can take a Ski Train to Winter Park on winter weekends, but you’d still have a 1.5 hour schlep to get to Vail.
Greyhound: While this is a popular way for many to travel around the country, it’s not often used to get to the elite community of Vail, and that’s probably why there isn’t even a station. The bus drops you at the roadside, where there isn’t even a shelter. Not very glamorous, but certainly an affordable option.
Car: This is, by far, the most popular means of transport to this mountain town. Given that you are probably bringing a mountain of warm clothing plus ski equipment, it’s also the most practical.
Upon arrival, no matter your means of transportation to get to Vail, you can take advantage of their free shuttle bus system. Utilizing a fleet of primarily hybrid-electric buses, you can get just about anywhere you need to in a quick and timely manner. The buses come every 5 minutes or so in the winter, meaning you don’t have to stand and freeze for too long.
Weather in Vail, Colorado
Due to the high elevation (11,520 at the top of the peak of Vail Mountain), the winter weather is mighty cold. Daytime temperatures average between 28 and 33 degrees, while nighttime drops down to 6 to 8 degrees. Snowfall begins in late September and can go into early May, with the heaviest concentration between November and February. Rain is a rarity.
This type of weather requires layers…lots and lots of layers. And don’t forget the gloves, hats, and the sunglasses to protect your eyes from the harsh winter rays reflecting off all of that snow.
Travel Wisdom for Vail, Colorado
Cost of Traveling to Vail
Vail is not for budget travelers.That being said, you can find some reasonable accommodations. We stayed in an AirBnB, which allowed us to cook a few meals and save on restaurant costs. If you check travel sites, you can often find better deals, but even then you are looking at about $200/night. We paid $1200 for 7 nights in a town near Vail, Avon Colorado. We loved our AirBnb and driving to the center of Vail only took about 10 minutes. We did have our own car as we were on a road trip but do keep that in mind when booking your trip if you will need a vehicle.
Skiing is a costly endeavor no matter where you go and Vail is no exception. Single-day lift tickets are a whopping $175. A better deal is the Epic 4-Day Pass ($439) or the Epic 7-Day Pass ($669). Both include access to a total of 24 resorts, including Telluride, Crested Butte, and Breckenridge, and they can be used anytime during the season.
Since Peter and I did the snowboarding school it came with the single day lift ticket and snowboard rental, it was a bundled package and I believe that came out to about $700+.
Dining options abound in Vail, and cheap eats are not that hard to find. There are also plenty of Happy Hour specials, where you can nurse your sore muscles and bulk up for the next day.
Peak Seasons in Vail
Winter and summer are the peak seasons in Vail. If you plan on going during the winter like we did, its best to go before the Christmas/holiday break, or immediately after. Steer clear from MLK Day to President’s Day, but then you’re good until early to mid-March, when Spring break kicks in.
Holiday Events in Vail
If you do choose to visit Vail during the December holiday season, there are a number of events that take place each year that are fun to attend.
- Kris Kringle Market: A holiday marketplace that runs for one weekend in December. Great to get last-minute gifts.
- Tree Lighting in Vail Square: You can enjoy live holiday music, take a spin around the ice rink, stare in wonder at the ice sculptures, and watch the tree lighting over by the covered bridge.
- Winterfest Ice Theater: Typically held the weekend before Christmas at Gore Creek Promenande, you can watch movies outdoors while sitting in oversized ice chairs. Movies are held each night until the chairs melt.
- WhoVail: Head over to the Four Season Resort to witness WhoVail, a life-sized Dr. Seuss Whoville-inspired gingerbread house. Enjoy caroling, eggnog, and snap a pic with the Grinch.
As you can see there are plenty of things to do in Vail and they are all plenty of fun! From outdoor now activities to warming up by the fire with mulled wine or enjoying a fine dining experience it all adds to the one of a kind experience that is Vail!
We loved our time in Vail, Colorado and we will be back!
P.S. If you’re trying to decide between Vail or Aspen make sure to check out The Best Things to Do in Aspen!
Always great stuff Noah. I always resonate and am inspired