Vail’s Disney-like rendition of Bavaria (you’ll understand once you see the maypole in Arrabelle Square) packs with locals from West Vail each morning, who grab coffee and egg-and-cheese breakfast sammies from the French Deli (970-476-1044) to nosh on as they queue with the crowds in the ski yard. Views of Mount of the Holy Cross won’t disappoint once you click into your bindings at Eagle’s Nest.
Your Lift to the Mountain
Pile into Vail’s original gondola—the Eagle Bahn—for the quickest ride to Vail Mountain’s sprawling summit base camp (Eagle’s Nest), or if you prefer to warm up on tamer terrain, opt for a shorter ride up via the neighboring Chair 8 (Born Free Express Lift), which drops you off atop Vail’s modest Pride Terrain Park and is a short traverse to the beginner and ski school areas located around Chair 2 (Avanti Express Lift).
Where to Park
If you’re not busing in from the neighborhoods of West Vail, arrive early to score a spot at Lionshead’s parking structure, where the price you’re willing to pay will most likely depend on the snow (same rates as the Vail Village structure; similarly, when this tolled lot fills, parking is free along South Frontage Road).
Your Frontside Strategy
If you intuit from the mountain’s lift-line readerboards (or EpicMix Time’s smartphone app; downloadable at the App Store or Google Play) that the backside is just too crowded (or isn’t open), start your day on the frontside with a few runs lapping Chair 26 (Pride Express Lift), which has two cruisy blue trails to choose from and hardly sees any lift lines. Although, if you’re trying to feel the burn and not just the wind on your cheeks, work your way over to black runs “Minnie’s,” “Ledges,” and “Old 9 Line” just off the Cub’s Way Catwalk on your way to Chair 2 (Avanti Express Lift). If you’re a strong skier, follow the locals to “Chair 2 trees,” and slash through favorite stashes off green runs like “Overeasy” and blacks like “Pickeroon” and “Berries.” You’re welcome.
Bowls to Sample on Your Way to Blue Sky Basin
Beginning your Blue Sky pilgrimage in Lionshead might be the most indirect way to get to the goods, but you’ll have plenty of time to warm up in the Back Bowls before navigating the full two miles to Vail Mountain’s most distant terrain. Take the Eagle Bahn Gondola to the top of Eagle’s Nest and cruise the cat track down to Chair 7 (Game Creek Express Lift) at the base of Game Creek Bowl. From the top of the lift, take a lap into Sun Down Bowl (Pro tip: On powder days when the Back Bowls are closed for avalanche mitigation, the gate into Sun Down off Chair 7 typically is one of the first to open) and follow the fall line as it funnels skiers to the base of Chair 5 (High Noon Express Lift). At the top of Chair 5, follow Sleepytime Catwalk as it meanders down to Chair 37 (Skyline Express Lift), or blitz over to Chair 14 (Sourdough Express Lift) via Timberline Catwalk and get one last blast of powder as you fly down China Bowl to Chair 37 (Skyline Express Lift), the gateway to Blue Sky.
When in Lionshead, do as the locals do, and elbow your way onto the patio at Garfinkel’s to prost with frosty pints of local suds and heaping mounds of nachos and wings while you watch the sky turn cotton candy pink as the last skiers of the day trickle down the slopes (970-476-3789, garfsvail.com). Margs on the slopeside patio at El Sabor (970-477-4410, elsaborvail.com) are also a crowd favorite, although if you’re looking for something a bit more upscale, the Arrabelle’s signature restaurant, Tavern on the Square, anchors Lionshead’s après-ski scene with live music and pours of Veuve Clicquot daily (970-754-7704, arrabelle.rockresorts.com). If you prefer to après with the locals, head to Bart & Yeti’s (970-476-2754, bartnyetis.com), a Lionshead landmark famous for its burgers where all heads will swivel and maybe even nod as you step inside the sanctuary of this low-ceilinged, 11-stool dog-friendly skier’s bar, named for a golden retriever that got frisky with Gerald Ford’s dog, Liberty (who birthed a pup that Henry Kissinger claimed).
Mountain Etiquette 101
Warn strangers on your shared chair before you begin pulling the safety bar down—a friendly “bar down” is always appreciated over a thump to the back of the head or helmet.
Smoke on the lift or especially in the gondolas—most skiers prefer to inhale our fresh, mountain air, not your secondhand nicotine exhaust; and think twice before you toke: using marijuana is illegal not just on Vail’s gondys and chairs, but anywhere on the mountain, which is leased from the National Forest Service (a.k.a. the federal government, which does not recognize Colorado’s legalization of marijuana).
Alternate as you board the chairlift, and make room for singles who might join you from either side of the line (and singles, make sure you ask and confirm that there’s room for you to hop aboard). Most of all, when it’s finally your turn to step up to the chair, have that cell phone squared away and pay attention: never be the hapless doofus who makes a lift stop turning; if you do, you’ve earned, and deserve, an ear-burning hazing from the crowd.
Treat the cat tracks like they’re the Autobahn! While cat tracks may function like on-mountain super highways, navigate them like we hope you do in a traffic lane on I-70—look over your shoulder before you exit onto your favorite run, find a safe pull-off to stop and wait for friends (as opposed to inviting collisions in the middle of the track), and stay in your lane instead of weaving through oncoming traffic like you’re playing Grand Theft Auto.
Adhere to SLOW DOWN signs, as these most often designate an area where ski school kids are learning their “pepperoni pizzas” and “French fries”—and unless you actually are Lindsey Vonn, there’s really no reason to fly down Flapjack like you’re cruising to break the record on a World Cup downhill.
Duck the ropes. Ever. Those few glistening turns of untouched powder you see just past the rope typically lead to gullies, unmitigated avalanche terrain outside the purview of ski patrol, and a long hike out—or a cold night in the woods or worse. If you see tracks into a roped inbounds run, they probably were made by patrollers doing avalanche mitigation below; they’re the pros keeping you safe, so don’t put them in danger just to poach some pow. If you do, be prepared to lose your ski pass; you deserve it.