With snow dusting the high country, winter is steadily on its way to Colorado's famed Vail Valley, triggering dreams of fresh tracks for mountain lovers the world over. And while early-season skiing has its charms, not to mention bragging rights, it's sometimes worth putting off that ski vacation until after the New Year, when bases are typically better stacked and the holiday tourist rush is over.
But this doesn't mean you should take Vail off the table for a shoulder-season visit. In fact, unless your sole motivation is sliding around the snow on a plank or two, fall is the sleeper hit: The weather's brisk – bring layers! – but often still sunny, the bugs are dead, the trails are virtually empty and the leaves are just unreal.
There's plenty to occupy the dwindling daylight hours here if you've got some unused vacation time – the perfect body and mind reset before the panic of the holidays sets in.
The resort is not scheduled to open for skiing until Nov. 16, which is good news for those who want to enjoy its terrain before it puts on its winter puffy. Hiking and trail running are great ways to physically shape up for ski season while doing the deciduous equivalent of forest bathing (aspen soaking, maybe?).
Mountaineering legend Ellen Miller has lived in Vail for 26 years, using it as her training ground for such feats as becoming the first American woman to have ascended Mount Everest from both Nepal and Tibet, and completing the Everest Trilogy (summiting Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse, all peaks more than 25,000 feet tall).
When she's not guiding in the Himalayas, she puts her USATF Level 2 endurance/athletic coach certification to work as the coach of the U.S. Women's Mountain Running Team and as the Vail Athletic Club outdoor fitness coach/specialist. So she kind of knows a thing or two about where to trot.
"I would recommend some of the trails on the upper part of Vail Mountain that you can access by the gondola," says Miller. (The gondola is closed for the season, but the mountain is still accessible by foot if you’re up for it.) "One of my favorite trails up there is called the Grand Traverse, and it is spectacular because the views are so big. On the other side of the valley is the North Trail, and that runs from east to west; it's mountain bikeable and trail runnable, and a lot of it sits up a little bit on a balcony, so you also get great views of Vail Mountain and of the valley."
If you're interested in taking a short drive (or a long walk), Technicolor meadows and true solitude can be accessed via the moderate Lonesome Lake Trail in the Holy Cross Wilderness. Beginning at about 10,000 feet of elevation, it's a bit of a burner for a flatlander, but a slower pace only extends your time to appreciate emerging from winding stands of pine to be surrounded by granite cliffs studded with golden aspen. Plus, you'll drive past Gilman, an abandoned mining town over-tangled with fall colors and spooky vibes, on your way out to the trailhead — perfect for an Instagram shot with some real local flavor.
For a hiking jaunt that will make your friends uber-jealous, hook up with Paragon Guides – a multi-sport business that's been doing trips for 40 years – well in advance of your trip. On select days, you can hire them to pair you and your crew with llamas who'll accompany you on a multiple-day backcountry trip and carry the camp treats you'll want at the close of a double-digit-mile day.
Pump Those Crazy Legs
If you'd prefer a higher-speed immersion, mountain biking is wonderfully accessible in Vail, with routes that can stretch from the lunch loop to the all-day epic. (It's also an interesting way to scope some lines and familiarize yourself with the mountains' contours before you click into your skis later in the year.)
A native Coloradan and avid mountain biker (as well as skier and paddler), Zachary Meyers loves a good spin in Vail, where he landed in 2016 after stints in Beaver Creek, Aspen and Jackson Hole, Wyoming. He's currently the general manager of The Arrabelle at Vail Square, a hotel right in the heart of the Lionshead side of the village with right-out-front access to the gondola (not to mention stunning views of golden hour on Golden Peak, which gleams with the Midas touch near sunset in the fall).
The lifts are now closed for the season, but you’re still welcome to pedal up Vail Mountain under your own power.
“For those looking to earn their downhill time,” says Meyers, “a 7.9-mile, 3,100-vertical-foot uphill ride from Lionshead via Gitalong Road, then Mid-Vail Escape, will land you at the top of Chair Four and Patrol Headquarters. You'll be rewarded with more than 10 miles and 3,000-plus vertical feet of flowy intermediate downhill riding back to Lionshead on trails that can include the Grand Traverse, Radio Flyer, Big Mamba, Hank's Hideaway and Son of Simba. Beware, the last 1,000 feet on this route is a bear of a climb, but will make the singletrack coasting and sweeping views of the storied Vail Back Bowls all the more rewarding.” Comprehensive info about Vail’s bike-trail network can be found here.
"For those wanting to get out of the resort, look into Cougar Ridge, which can be accessed from the Grand Traverse out of Game Creek Bowl,” Meyers adds. “This rowdy little downhill ends in the old mining town of Minturn, which is an easy 5-mile ride back to the town of Vail and is a great excuse to stop for a beer at the famous Minturn Saloon – former watering hole for John Wayne and members of the 10th Mountain Division."
Speaking of the 10th Mountain Division, a distillery paying homage to those brave souls opened a tasting room in Vail Village and offers a hearty flight of their wares, from bourbon to moonshine. 10th Mountain Whiskey & Spirit Company occupies a cozy space filled with authentic memorabilia (co-owner Christian Avignon's grandfather was a medic in the 10th, and his uniform is part of the décor). There’s full-size bottles of spirits to take home and branded swag that you'll gladly open your wallet for.
Replenish, Relax, Repeat
Vail boasts plenty of high-end dining options, including Matsuhisa, a divine Japanese oasis opened by chef Nobu Matsuhisa in 2011 – yes, that Nobu. If you're going to splurge, this is the place; the views of Vail Mountain will conveniently drop your jaw, into which you can place their magical Broiled Black Cod with Miso.
For a unique-to-Vail scene that covers all of your beverage bases, head to Root & Flower. Locals Samantha Biszantz and Jeremy Campbell have tucked an astonishingly well-curated wine selection and menu of handcrafted cocktails into an intimate space that manages to feel completely identified with the community while able to woo (and educate) five-star visitors with curiously developed palates. The bar snacks are just as elevated; if the smoked-trout spread is available, do not hesitate.
Root & Flower is a go-to for Ellen Miller – and not just in the evening. "In the morning, it's called Two Arrows Coffee," she explains. "A woman named Lindsea Stowe, who used to be at Yeti's [another coffee shop in Vail, which Miller recommends as well], started her own little craft coffee business out of Root & Flower. My fitness class would go in there a lot in the mornings and have a coffee."
For a solid meal that won’t cut into your walking-around money, “I love Mountain Standard,” says Miller. “Its sister restaurant is called Sweet Basil – a high-end, more expensive, formal-type restaurant; Mountain Standard is kind of like its little brother, and it's more affordable. There’s small plates, big plates and gluten free [options].”
Looking to eat clean? Check out Green Elephant Juicery in Lionshead. Beyond an incredible selection of organic cold-pressed juices, they serve everything from Thai peanut soba bowls to muesli to Mexican walnut stuffed peppers, and black bean burger and guac wraps. They’ve even got the sweet stuff covered, with vegan cacao cheesecake, lavender lemon parfait and more.
Whip It Good
Fly-fishing is available year-round in the Vail Valley. You'll need a license, and to stay clear of private waters unless you're with a guide service that's obtained permission. But even the public waterways offer a serene, meditative experience that is worth pursuing, especially if you're a first-timer. The Eagle River runs alongside busy I-70, but once you wade in (carefully – those river-bottom rocks are slippery) and start rhythmically casting and following your drift, we swear the quiet beauty of the current drowns out even the loudest passing 18-wheelers.
Guided trips are decidedly the best option if you're new to both the valley and the sport. Outfitters like Sage Outdoor Adventures can take you from bumbling beginner to proud (though perhaps temporary) owner of a rainbow trout in a matter of hours. (Don't worry – even a 4-incher counts if you hook it.) Fly-fishing is a deeply nuanced endeavor; it's all about details as specific as why you'd want to cast a certain fly at 10:48 a.m. on this particular Sunday when the weather's been full of rain and you're working a deeper pool next to a swift flow. It will suck you in if you ask…
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