More than an overview of the very best of the Vail Valley, what follows is a yardstick—one capable of measuring just how well you know the people, places, and rituals that make our mountain towns unique. Call it our summertime bucket list of experiences that everyone—resident or visitor—needs to tick off in order to call themselves a Vail insider. Ever yodeled with Helmut Fricker? Laid eyes on Booth Falls? Pedaled up Vail Pass? That’s 16 points for Gryffindor! Tally up your score, and see where you rank on our list. Whether you rate arriviste or native, a summer of discovery awaits.
Pitch a Fork in a Landmark
Restaurants come and go, but these eight establishments have endured time’s winnowing to become landmarks on the Vail Valley’s ever-evolving culinary map.
When Austrian speedster Pepi Gramshammer and his wife, Sheika, opened their Hotel Gasthof Gramshammer (970-476-5626, pepis.com) in December 1964, it was the only structure occupying Vail’s now-bustling corner of Bridge Street and Gore Creek Drive. The canary-yellow landmark still exudes Alpine charm—folksy wall paintings and wood cutouts adorn the exterior, while menus feature wurst and schnitzel—and Pepi and Sheika still reside upstairs; the only real difference is that the couple’s daughters now manage the family biz, with Sheika’s namesake running the front desk and Kira managing the dining rooms and history-steeped (don’t miss the wall of fame) Pepi’s Bar.
When Jean-Michel Chelain (yep, he’s French) and his wife, Kimberly, started working at The Left Bank (970-476-3696, leftbankvail.com) in 1998, it was already a Vail Village classic: Luc and Liz Meyer had opened it in 1970. But the Meyers officially passed the torch in 2006, leaving the Chelains to continue The Left Bank’s reputation for know-your-name hospitality, fabulous wines, and French-style veal and lamb.
In 1982, the Meyers helped open Mirabelle Restaurant at Beaver Creek (970-949-7728, mirabelle1.com), now owned by its Belgian-born chef, Daniel Joly, and his wife, Nathalie, who serve the likes of North Sea Dover sole meunière in an intimate, hundred-year-old farmhouse that doubles as the couple’s home, and for the first time this summer, is open for lunch.
Sweet Basil (970-476-0125, sweetbasilvail.com) opened in 1977, but over the decades founder Kevin Clair has updated the menu and dining space to keep this Vail Village classic feeling current, not stale. Today’s favorites include heritage-breed pork tenderloin and foraged greens.
Dine beneath Vail Village’s iconic bell tower, and you get more than an hourly serenade: you participate in a local tradition now run by chef-owner Paul Ferzacca and his wife, Lourdes, who bought La Tour (970-476-4403, latour-vail.com) in 1998 and ushered this beloved restaurant into the twenty-first century by lightening up its classic French dishes.
Chef-owner Stephen Virion and his Italian wife, Elisabetta, opened La Bottega (970-476-0280, labottegavail.com) in 1997, delighting Vail Village diners with truffle-graced Tuscan specialties that daughters Stephanie and Valentina now help serve. The tradition evolved in May with the opening of DeliZioso, the restaurant’s gourmet food emporium, which among other delicacies scoops Virion’s handmade gelato.
Seafood is the darling ingredient at twenty-five-year-old Up The Creek (970-476-8141, vailupthecreek.com), where Peter Stadler and his two sons serve pan-roasted ruby red trout and—for the fish-averse—beef short ribs in an unpretentious, glass-walled dining room bordering Vail Village’s Gore Creek.
Scoring: One point per restaurant visited; five bonus points if the restaurant’s owners are married and live on the premises; five more bonus points if one of those owners is also the chef
Get Lost in the Gores
The trek to Booth Falls is more than a classic Vail Valley hike—it’s practically a rite of summer. But this two-mile (one way) hike into the Gore Range is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg—or rather, glacier. You won’t find summertime ice floes nor, for that matter, any fourteeners. But you will find solitude, in spades. The Gores are famously rugged despite their “low” elevations, and they hold a wealth of attractions for hikers, climbers, and skiers. One of the favorite routes of Mike Kloser, a Vail Valley local and adventure racer, is the Gore Creek Trail, which follows Gore Creek for long, scenic stretches (including alpine meadows abloom with aspen daisy, chiming bells, columbine, and other wildflowers, which typically peak around mid-July) before topping out at Red Buffalo Pass and offering IMAX-scale views over the surrounding peaks and valleys (seven miles one way). Stop by the US Forest Service office in Minturn (24747 US Highway 24, 970-827-5715) for maps and hike descriptions.
Scoring: One point for hiking to Booth Falls; five points for hiking to Red Buffalo Pass; fifteen points for summiting an unnamed Gore Range peak
Drink with Kelly Liken
One sip of any of Liken's all-original cocktail creations—and you’ll swear off a basic G&T forever. As ingredient-focused at the bar as she is in the kitchen of Harvest by Kelly Liken (970-477-5353), this celebrated chef eschews commercial mixers in favor of house-made fruit and vegetable purees that channel peak flavors into your glass. Case in point: the Margarita which adds a sliced jalapeno pepper that adds a beautiful warmth to the smoky flavor of the tequila.
Scoring: One point per cocktail
Splash in a Swimming Hole
Yes, it’s barely knee-deep in most places, and yes, it’s numbingly cold, but when you need to take the chill off that rare sweltering midsummer’s day, the perfect antidote is a dip in Gore Creek. Just down the Gore Valley Trail, not even a fifth of a mile from the Bighorn Road trailhead parking lot off I-70 exit 180, the creek has cut a chasm through a massive boulder at a gradual S-curve bend on the other side of a railroad-tie fence—and has formed a deep crystalline pool. Here, you’ll often find a knot of parents with squealing little children and barking dogs, all variously frolicking in the water, sunbathing, and picnicking on the banks. Join them. GPS coordinates N 39° 38.673 W 106° 18.576.
Scoring: Five points for taking the plunge; one eco- bonus point for packing out your garbage (and pet poop)
Learn to Growl
Beer-can collections are so Old Milwaukee. Your Vail roundup should include a collection of branded half-gallon jugs known as growlers, which hold a whopping sixty-four ounces of locally brewed suds. The five tap houses in the valley includes Vail Brewing Company (vailbrewingco.com) in Eagle-Vail, Crazy Mountain Brewery (crazymountainbrewery.com) and Gore Range Brewery (gorerangebrewery.com) in Edwards, plus Eagle’s ever-expanding 7 Hermits Brewing (7hermitsbrewing.com) Bonfire Brewing (bonfirebrewing.com), which pioneered the use of stainless steel Hydro Flasks (instead of the traditional—and breakable—glass bottles) to make their growlers better at surviving abusive raft trips and mountain campouts.
Scoring: Five points per growler purchased;one point per refill
Run a Race
Although some sandbaggers prefer to call them “events,” virtually every Vail Valley local enters a race of some kind at some point each year. And some, like professional triathlete Josiah Middaugh (middaughcoaching.com), win races nationwide. The XTERRA USA National Champion moved to Vail in 2000 and has been training on area trails (and on the CompuTrainer at Dogma Athletica) ever since. He favors Beaver Creek’s Village to Village Trail for long-distance runs and mellow rides. For long tempo workouts or interval training, Middaugh follows the service roads up to patrol headquarters, then returns via Paulie’s Plunge and the Eagle Vail trail. Practice on those, then sign up for the La Sportiva 10k@10,000 Feet (August 23, vailrec.com). The course, atop Vail Mountain, bobs between 9,000 and 11,000 feet—but stirring mountain panoramas inspire you through the climbs, and the post-race party replenishes spent muscles with high-caloric recovery foods. Or enter the 5k version, which also starts and ends at Eagle’s Nest but takes a more forgiving route that’s suitable for never-ever racers. Even kids can test their skills through racing action: the KEEN Vail Kids Adventure Games (August 10–14, kidsadventuregames.com) lets youngsters ages 6–14 pair up in teams to overcome mountain biking, hiking, tubing, climbing, and other sporty challenges. Optional skills clinics round out the competition to teach the fundamentals of outdoor sports and teamwork.
Scoring: One point per race kilometer run; twenty points for attaining a podium position
Run a Rapids
Gore Creek might not seem like thrilling white water—but Gore Canyon, where the Colorado River slices through the Gore Range north of Vail, presents some of the wildest rapids that commercial guides dare to run. Soaring cliffs prevent portage or rescue, meaning total commitment is required to surf this 5.5-mile, boulder-studded fire hose. Book with Lakota Guides ($180 per person, lakotaguides.com). For mellower rides, tap Nova Guides (novaguides.com) for trips through Glenwood Canyon’s chiseled rock towers, Timberline Tours (timberlinetours.com) to hit the Arkansas River’s Numbers rapids, or Sage Outdoor Adventures (sageoutdooradventures.com) for a half-day cruise down the Eagle River.
Scoring: One point per class of rapids conquered
Train with Divas
The first woman to summit Mount Everest from both sides (within a year), Ellen Miller possesses a seemingly superhuman level of fitness and an almost supernatural can-do spirit—but thanks to her Mountain Divas program, mere mortals can channel her magic. Miller’s coaching sessions help participants prep for any special race or adventure they’re eying, be it running a first 5k or tackling an 8,000-meter peak. Just want some fairy dust sprinkled on your workouts? Show up for her Outdoor Interval or Outdoor Endurance workout classes at the Vail Vitality Center (vailvitalitycenter.com; $35 daily fee for nonmembers, 970-476-7960). The inspiring outings whisk runners up Vail Mountain’s trail network on Tuesday and Thursday mornings to unlock potential they never knew they had.
Scoring: One point per Miller-led workout
Take a Spin with Brett and Tam
Calling the Donelsons’ workouts “exercise classes” is like calling Dom Perignon a “beverage.” These cycling-focused sessions command a cultlike following, thanks to the extraordinary charisma and expertise this pair exudes. Ever since the Athletic Club at the Westin Riverfront Resort and Spa (athleticclubwestin.com) opened in 2008, Brett and Tam have taught their wildly popular CycleFit classes; the addition of the Westin’s cycling studio (completed a year and a half ago) expanded their repertoire to include Computraining (in which participants pedal their own bikes and sometimes train outdoors). Bubbly and outgoing, Tam freely shares know-how developed through extensive race experience (she currently competes on international circuits), while Brett listens intently to students and gives the impression that their fitness concerns are his top priority. Even folks who aren’t gunning for a century or a gran fondo find the classes utterly worthwhile, because as the saying goes, “In Vail, you have to train hard to be average.”
Scoring: One point per class session; five points for donating to The Cycle Effect(thecycleeffect.org), a nonprofit Brett Donelson founded to help local girls develop confidence and self-esteem through cycling
Farm the Markets
Hit all of the Vail Valley’s three farmers’ markets, and you’ll come away with more than just produce. Start your Saturday morning in downtown Minturn (9 a.m.–2 p.m., minturnmarket.org) and munch a breakfast crêpe while you browse handmade jewelry, stock up on Grammy’s Jams, buy bags of fresh fire-roasted chiles, and gather Paonia-grown peaches and berries from Austin Family Farm. Next, migrate to Edwards (9:30 a.m.–1:30 p.m., edwardscornerfarmersmarket.com) for some serious food shopping in the parking lot at Edwards Corner: local honey, organic greens, artisan breads and pies, Rocky Mountain goat cheese, and Colorado beef should be on your list. For lunch, grab some tamales or a kebab hot off the grill. On Sunday, join the throngs jammed shoulder-to-shoulder along Meadow Drive in Vail Village (10 a.m.–3:30 p.m., vailfarmersmarket.com) to bedeck your body and home with jewelry, beetle-kill pine furniture, fine art photography, and—for Fido—BrewSki Bones dog treats made with spent grains from local craft breweries. Just don’t let the booths absorb all your attention: people-watching is one of the Vail market’s best attractions.
Scoring: One point per market; five bonus points for hitting them all in one weekend; ten bonus points for cooking a meal for friends with exclusively Colorado-grown ingredients
Vail Valley denizens adore their pooches, and strolling leash-in-hand (or, more likely than not, off-leash) with four on the floor is a surefire way to broadcast your local bona fides. Join the doggie devotees in Edwards at Freedom Park, an off-leash Valhalla near the field house where dogs can frolic, leap, and swim in a pond with a sandy beach. For a post-play growler, head across the road to Crazy Mountain Brewery, where dogs have the run of the brew house and patio.
Scoring: One point per tennis ball retrieved from pond
Pedal the Pass
Vail Pass is one of America’s classic rides. To add this feather to your cap, rent a bike from Vail Bike Tech (970-476-5995, vailbiketech.com) and begin the uphill grind on the frontage road for 2.4 miles, passing a gate barring auto traffic from the rest of the route (which follows the old Highway 6, then a paved bike lane for 8.7 miles to the Summit Rest Area at 10,603 feet). Or bypass the aerobic part and board a shuttle with Charter Sports (888-295-9797, chartersports.com), which drops you and a bike at the summit of Vail Pass so you can simply coast into town. Or tool around on a cruiser: the flat Gore Creek bike path connects Vail Village to Lionshead, all the while meandering through the shoreline’s dappled shade.
Scoring: Ten points for a Vail Pass out-and-back; five points for the downhill-only version; one point for pedaling through Vail Village
Bike a Mountain
Singletrack may as well be the Vail Valley’s circulatory system: great riding extends away from the pavement of population centers, making a pair of fat tires almost obligatory for backcountry exploration. For low-key intermediate fun, ride the thirteen-mile Meadow Mountain Loop that starts and ends at the Ranger Station just off I-70’s Minturn exit. The initial three-mile climb tests lungpower rather than technical savvy, and the gradual descent juxtaposes views across the jagged Gore Range with sinuous tracks through wildflower-filled meadows. Experts should tackle the legendary Commando Run, which rolls across Vail’s Back Bowls and packs in 3,000 feet of climbing before hurtling downhill into Minturn. From Vail Pass, climb Shrine Pass Road and follow Commando Run to Two-Elk, which drops into Minturn. Make sure your phone’s fully charged: once in Minturn, you’ll want to call everyone you know to beg for a ride back to Vail Pass.
Scoring: Ten points for Meadow Mountain; twenty points for Commando Run
Trek with Camelids
Backpacking is lovely—but if you really want to dance through alpine meadows à la Maria von Trapp, hire llamas. Looking like pygmy camels, these fuzzy critters love mountain walking as much as humans do, only their knees don’t balk at carrying the weight of a pack. Paragon Guides (970-926-5299, paragonguides.com) leads llama-assisted day hikes and multinight adventures, sometimes incorporating stays at 10th Mountain Division huts that offer niceties like cushioned bunks and enclosed outhouses. Prefer not to walk at all? Swing into the saddle with AJ Brink Outfitters (970-524-7344, brinkoutfitters.com), which leads pack trips into the Flat Tops Wilderness (home to the world’s largest elk herd) as well as day trips to backcountry fishing holes and hourlong rides suitable for lil’ buckaroos.
Scoring: Ten points per overnight trip in the backcountry; five points per llama-assisted trek; one point per day riding horseback
Join the FAC
Unless you’re the one serving the drinks, cut out of work early on Fridays and join the Friday Afternoon Club, one of the weekend kickoff parties that crop up across the Vail Valley starting around 3:30. Avon hot spots include the Castle Peak Grille (970-748-4848, castlepeakgrille.com), where revelers play cornhole on a concrete patio bordered by tiki torches, and the all-new Maya at the Westin Riverfront Resort (970-790-5500, richardsandoval.com), which just expanded its riverside patio to accommodate the crowds of locals fond of flocking here for live music and margarita specials. For family-friendly FACs, hit McCoy’s Café (970-949-1234, beavercreek.com) in Beaver Creek Village or Eagle’s Nest (970-496-4800, vail.com) at the top of the gondola at Lionshead; both let adults sit, sip, and chat while the kiddos romp within sight at nearby play parks.
Scoring: One point per FAC; ten points for hitting all four in one summer
Picnic on a Mountaintop
Toting a gourmet lunch to the top of the Vail or Beaver Creek ski area is one of those rare experiences that locals love as much as visitors—because whether it’s your first time or your twentieth, the combination of pointy-peak panoramas and epicurean delights never gets stale. In Vail, hike the Ridge Route (from Adventure Ridge, via the Eagle Bahn gondola) for huge views over the Back Bowls, the Gore Range, and the Mount of the Holy Cross. Nosh on foie gras, rotisserie chicken, and tiramisu from La Bottega's DeliZioso, which also assembles picnic baskets for Vail’s summer festivals, or tote prêt-à-porter bouillabaisse, French cheeses, and pastries from The Left Bank Gourmet Foods (leftbankvail.com), the iconic restaurant’s just-launched mail-order/takeout business. In Beaver Creek, ride the Centennial Lift and stroll down the mountain via the Overlook Trail, which offers panoramas over the knifelike peaks of the Sawatch Range—the perfect backdrop for cheeses and salads from the Beaver Creek Market (970-949-0742).
Scoring: One point per brown-bag picnic; five points per catered spread; ten points for making your own chèvre and charcuterie
Yodel with Helmut
Since 1974, German-born Helmut Fricker (helmutfricker.com) has made the Vail Valley his home—and his stage. Wearing lederhosen, playing the alpenhorn or accordion, and yodeling like a barrel-chested sparrow, Fricker turns the Beaver Creek Plaza into a dance party, Bavarian style. Although he’s an official spokesperson for Paulaner (one of Munich’s six main breweries), Fricker cheerfully endorses zestful consumption of anything in a stein, especially one emblazoned with the Beaver Creek logo. Join the sing-along from Thursday through Saturday, noon–3 p.m.
Scoring: One point per stein emptied; five points for attempting to yodel
Save a Life
Volunteer with Vail Mountain Rescue Group (vailmountainrescue.org), which makes most of its summertime missions in the Holy Cross wilderness plucking the unlucky and unprepared off the mountain pictured at right. If you’re too busy to join the team as a new recruit, or just visiting, donate to the effort: nobody on the team gets paid, but you can make sure they have the equipment they need because one day, the life they save may be yours.
Scoring: Twenty points for completing search-and-rescue training; one point per $100 donated
See a Sign of the Cross
Every July since 1976, worshippers from Mount of the Holy Cross Lutheran Church (970-476-6610; mountholy.com) have made a pilgrimage to their sanctuary’s 14,005-foot namesake, hiking up Notch Mountain to the overlook where William Henry Jackson stood in 1873 when he snapped a photograph of the perpetual cross of snow just below the mountain’s summit. The church hike happened on July 16 this year, but don't fret, you can find sanctuary on the trail yourself with this handy guide. Need to summit? Beaver Creek Hiking Center (970-754-5373, beavercreek.com; from $170) guides hikes to the treacherous mount and can keep you from getting marooned.
Scoring: Five points for joining the pilgrimage; ten points for summiting; minus 50 if you go it alone and require a rescue
Take Asanas Outside
Om, free: every Saturday morning at 9, locals in spandex converge on the Solaris lawn for a free seventy-five-minute yoga class led by a rotating cast of instructors from the Vail Vitality Center(970-476-7721, vailvitalitycenter.com). Slather on some sunscreen, bring your own mat, and join the community in a Vinyasa flow practice geared to all ability levels.
Scoring: One point per class
Catch a Falling Star
Of all the naturalist programs offered through Avon’s Walking Mountains Science Center (970-827-9725, walkingmountains.org), the summer stargazing is the most dazzling: monthly meetings of the Eagle Valley Astronomical Society help participants identify what they see in the glittery night spectacle—which is particularly thrilling during August’s Perseid meteor shower (at its peak on August 12, when sixty to eighty “falling stars” streak across the sky every hour).
Scoring: One point per meteor spotted, twenty-five points for wishes granted