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Published November 1997. Italicized updates/revisions May 2011.
Vail is the largest single mountain ski area in the United States. Its variety and balance of terrain for all ability levels has made Vail the most popular area in North America over the past decade. Vail particularly stands out over its Colorado neighbors due to its vast Back Bowl open terrain and a large snowfall advantage over all but Wolf Creek, Steamboat and Winter Park.
|SNOW CONDITIONS||Altitude||Season||Standard||High Mths||Low Mths||Maximum||Direction of Exposure|
|Range||Average||Deviation||GE 90 in.||LT 30 in.||Base Depth||North||East||West||South|
|Vail, Colo. 11,250||8,200-11,450||366||71||21%||11%||89||42%||19%||21%||18%|
The key issue at Vail is the condition of the back bowls, which contain over half the skiable acreage and give the area its distinctive character. Due to Colorado's extremely dry snow and the southern exposure, one might question how often such an area would be open. Fortunately Vail's snowfall is high enough to get the Back Bowls open before Christmas about 75% of the time. A 4 foot base is usually sufficient as the terrain is not super steep and there is much less wind than at the major West Coast areas (Mammoth, Squaw, Bachelor, Whistler) with comparable open bowls. Through January, the weather is cold enough (average high temps barely 20F, average low temps in single digits) to keep the southern exposure from being a major problem.
By February the exposure is definitely a factor in Back Bowl surface conditions. However, the bowls are not a uniform south face. There are five separate bowls which all have wraparound exposures from east to west facing. Blue Sky Basin, added in 2000, is about 60% north facing. Therefore, on a warm spring day conditions will be enjoyable if you're in the right place at the right time of day. There can be occasional closures for visibility during heavy storms or in spring for icy or crusty conditions.
The innumerable groomed and mogul runs on the front side of the mountain face mostly north and snow preservation is excellent.
By April spring conditions are more widespread at Vail than at the highest and ideally exposed terrain to the east: A-Basin, Loveland, Copper Mt. and the upper third of Breckenridge.
There is a modest difference in snowfall from east (higher as you get closer to Vail Pass and the Gore Range) to west as the area is about 7 miles across at the higher elevations. The lowest 1,000 feet of Vail get less snow, but only a small part of Vail's terrain is below 9,000 feet and nearly all of it has snowmaking to compensate. The two major base facilities at Vail Village and Lionshead are about 1 mile apart. There is minimal variation in average snowfall by month from November to April.
Cruising: The classic cruisers run 1,100 vertical from the Mountaintop Express to MidVail with usually ideal snow conditions. There's another large group from top to bottom of the Lionshead gondola for 2,000 vertical. These runs are somewhat dependent on snowmaking at the bottom. Between these areas is the Avanti Express (about 1,700 vertical), where most areas will be groomed but there are some short steeper sections where moguls can grow for a few days. Riva Ridge, which runs the full 3,100 vertical, is similar in variety. For a steep cruise, often Roger's or Blue Ox off the Highline chair will be groomed.
Moguls: Vail has an abundance of mogul skiing. The most famous is Prima, with branches to Pronto and Log Chute. Highline can be comparable, about 1,500 vertical of nonstop bumps. There will also be several mogulled sections of at least 1,000 vertical dropping down popular fall lines into the Back Bowls.
Steeps: The major concentration of Vail's steep terrain drops to skier's right off Riva Ridge from North Rim to Prima Cornice. Small cornices also build up on the east facing sections of China Bowl (Genghis Khan) and Siberia Bowl (Rasputin's Revenge). The top 500 vertical of Steep and Deep is the steepest terrain in Blue Sky Basin. Nearly all of this terrain falls into the black, rather than yellow, definition of steep. There may be a cornice lip or a couple of steep turns through a cliff band. Otherwise, to draw analogies with Squaw Valley or Snowbird, Vail's steeps tend to resemble Headwall or Little Cloud as opposed to KT-22 or the Upper Cirque.
Wide Open Spaces: As mentioned above, there are 6 large bowls (including west facing and partially forested Game Creek) stretching 7 miles across and up to 1,800 vertical. The original bowls served by the High Noon chair are red to black in difficulty, while China and Siberia, added in 1989-90, include blue terrain also. Blue Sky Basin added 520 acrers of north facing bowls and glades south of China Bowl in the snowiest part of the terrain.
Trees: At the higher elevations, above MidVail and in Game Creek bowl, are some gladed areas. Unfortunately, the trees off the steep Prima and Highline areas are extremely tightly spaced. But Blue Sky Basin's trees are nearly all comfortabnly spaced.
Powder: The bowls are obviously the prime attraction. There is so much acreage back there that it will last awhile if you're willing to traverse and explore. However, as the premier area of its region with higher snowfall than most of its competitors, Vail does attract lots of expert powderhounds. On a blue sky powder day, you'll get more fresh tracks at nearby Beaver Creek, which gets 15% less snowfall but will have far fewer skiers.
Hiking and Backcountry: There are out of bounds routes to Minturn, west of Vail, and also toward East Vail and Vail Pass. These are unpatrolled and should not be attempted without a guide and avalanche gear due to cliff bands and Colorado's notoriously unstable snowpack.
Crowds: Vail leads North America in ticket sales, about 1.8 million per year including a small proportion at Beaver Creek. Fortunately, the lift system has massive capacity including 10 high speed quads. The High Noon and China Bowl lifts can get pretty big lines when the Back Bowls have good conditions. The recent Yonder chair has provided some relief. The MidVail area and Game Creek are most popular with intermediates. For experts, the Northwest Express and Highline chairs will usually have short lines. With all the high speed lifts, on an uncrowded day you can ski till you drop, or alternatively ski a normal day and enjoy a leisurely lunch in town. There is therefore a certain logic to visiting Vail during low season times in December and January (excluding Dec. 26 to New Year's). Just be prepared for the colder weather, which has the positive effect of more consistent Back Bowl surface conditions. Beaver Creek is also an obvious antidote to crowds.
Skier density is only an issue when approaching the lifts or returning to the base area. Each high speed quad has so many runs or lines to choose from that people spread out very well.
Intermediates: Vail's reputation as the best intermediate mountain in America is well justified. There is nearly infinite variety at all levels of challenge. It is hard to imagine better terrain to learn powder than China, Siberia and Mongolia Bowls.
Novices: Beginners are not left out in Vail's diversity. Some of the easy runs (Lost Boy, Eagle's Nest Ridge and the Sourdough lift runs) are up top with the best snow conditions and panoramic views. The beginner areas are scattered across the mountain and connected by catwalks. It might be a bit overwhelming for the more tentative novice.
Children: Most kids are enthusiastic about the outstanding and efficient ski school programs. Vail probably has more children's terrain gardens than any other ski area. These are open to free skiing kids as well as those taking lessons. Obviously children need to be closely supervised on such a vast mountain. On the downside, the $35 children's lift ticket is more than adults pay at some areas. Lodging close to the children's centers is also extremely expensive.
As mentioned above, walk to the mountain lodging commands premium prices. Fortunately, there are plenty of reasonably priced hotels and condos in East Vail, West Vail and across I-70 from the mountain. From these areas, use the free bus service to Vail Village or Lionshead. A second bus or a quarter mile walk is necessary to reach the Golden Peak children's center. Daily parking at the base areas costs $25.