Christmas morning arrives on Bridge Street every time the Blue Sky Basin snow stake registers more than six inches overnight, and shuffling packs of skiers and snowboarders clump across the covered bridge and cobblestone walkways on a pilgrimage to Gondola One. There’s a certain cheer in the chilly air on a bluebird morning, and an anticipation that builds as you wait in the queue for the gondola drive wheels to start spinning. Fuel up by grabbing an egg-and-cheese breakfast bagel and a hand-pulled Americano from Loaded Joe’s (970-479-2883, loadedjoes.com), on your right just after the covered bridge, and you’ve just completed every local’s avant-ski rite of passage.
Where to Park
The parking structure located at the base of the Vail Transportation Center is Vail Village’s Grand Central Station, although if you have an acquaintance, old roommate, second cousin—anyone—who lives on any of the free Town of Vail bus lines, we’d suggest rekindling the friendship to avoid the line of cars jockeying for a coveted space here (free for the first two hours—and after 3 p.m.—or $30 for the day; on weekends and powder days, arrive early or risk the purgatory that is “LOT FULL”). But here, even traffic has a silver lining: When the parking structure fills to capacity by 10 a.m. on a powder day or a big weekend, you may be lucky and score overflow parking along South Frontage Road, free until 11 p.m. (vailgov.com/parking).
Your Lift to the Mountain
On its 50th anniversary in 2012, Vail Resorts inaugurated Gondola One, which replaced the Vista Bahn Express Lift (Chair 16) at the top of Bridge Street. You can’t miss this limousine of ski lifts (with heated seats and cabins equipped with Wi-Fi—one is even sheathed in gold). This is Vail, after all!
Your Frontside Strategy
If you’re starting fromMid Vail and you’re not quite ready to hit Vail’s backside (or if the Bowls and Blue Sky are closed due to a dearth or abundance of snow), you can content yourself with the plethora of blue and green cruisers (“Whistle Pig,” “Slifer Express,” “Cappuccino,” “Swingsville,” and “Christmas”) located under Chair 4 (Mountain Top Express Lift). But if you just have time for one run before your 90-minute free parking window expires, that run should be Riva Ridge (and neighboring Riva Glade), a black-diamond trail honoring veterans of the 10th Mountain Division that’s not just the frontside’s signature run, it’s also the mountain’s longest.
Already wondering where to relive (and toast) all that powder day glory? Relax! You’re in Vail Village—if you want to literally rub elbows and clink pints of Coors Light with ebullient tourists, then your bar is the Red Lion (970-476-7676, theredlion.com), a Bridge Street throwback from the resort’s earliest days that attracts a lively, and often raucous, crowd into the wee hours. If you’re fond of pizza (and keeping score of the game du jour via wall-mounted TVs), then duck into Vendetta’s (970-476-5070, vendettasvail.com), another landmark Bridge Street watering hole long a favorite of ski patrollers, who get their first off-duty pint free. For a more refined after-ski experience, try Root & Flower (970-763-5101, rootandflowervail.com) around the corner on Wall Street, where instead of vodka shots, regulars sip Genepy des Alpes, the liqueur of Chamonix. Into local beer? Head to Vail Brewing Company’s Solaris tasting room for a pint of Pete’s Stash (an homage to resort founder Pete Seibert), paired with nibbles from an upscale, albeit abridged, menu courtesy of downstairs neighbor Bol (970-470-4622, vailbrewingco.com). But if you only have time for one Vail Village bar, locals will steer you to Pepi’s (970-476-4671, pepis.com), a soulful place with a wall of fame of photos autographed by astronauts and presidents and other famous patrons, including the bar’s namesake, Austrian ski-racing legend Pepi Gramshammer, whose home address is the inn upstairs.
Bowls to Sample on Your Way to Blue Sky
Decisions, decisions—and they all have to do with what the snow’s like, and how many people are on the mountain (Pro tip: on Saturdays, when Front Range skiers and snowboarders converge like cruise missiles on the Back Bowls and Blue Sky, you might want to stick to the mountain’s frontside). But when conditions are optimal (meaning it’s knee-deep powder on a Wednesday), your surest route to Blue Sky is to the summit via Gondola One to Mid Vail, then neighboring Chair 4 (Mountain Top Express Lift). From the top of Chair 4, you have a few options. If you’re feeling good (and you’re comfortable skiing blacks), drop into Sun Up Bowl and work in some warm-up turns before hitching a ride on Chair 9 (Sun Up Lift). From the top of Sun Up, take a ride down the steep, black Genghis Khan—just be ready for plenty of hooting and hollering (and an occasional “Send it!”) as you pass under the lift. Other options? Let’s go back to Chair 4; instead of dropping into Sun Up Bowl, cruise down the Timberline Catwalk to Chair 14 (Sourdough Express Lift). At the top of Chair 14, you’ll find yourself above China Bowl near Two Elk Lodge (good for any last-minute pit stops). From there, you can either cruise the blues down to the bottom of Chair 37 (Skyline Express Lift) to Blue Sky Basin, or you can up the ante and huck the cliffs on “Dragons Teeth” en route to the very back.
Sweet Spots (Free Parking!)
Can’t stand the idea of circling for a space in one of the village parking structures when you should be shredding pow? You can roll the dice and vie for a (free!) spot at one of the more informal (and much smaller) parking areas around town, but beware—these sweet spots fill up fast and early: North Frontage Road (100 free spaces west of the West Vail roundabout; free bus service from the Chamonix stop); North Frontage Road (75 spaces across from the Safeway, free bus service from the West Vail Mall stop); Red Sandstone Park (725 N Frontage Rd, 15 spaces, free bus service from the park stop); Donovan Park (1600 S Frontage Rd; 90 spaces when the Pavilion is not in use; walk to free bus service from the nearby Matterhorn stop, or hoof it east along the creekside path to Hotel Talisa’s lift to Chair 20, one of the resort’s best-kept secrets, especially on a powder day).
Get a Wax, Bro!
There’s nothing more heartbreaking than seeing a fellow snowboarder unstrap his or her board to walk—or worse, ski pole—the distance on Vail’s myriad of cat tracks. A good (and frequent, temperature-appropriate) wax will keep boarders sliding even on the stickiest snow. A Vail Village landmark (founded by Buzz Schleper, father of Olympic ski racer Sarah Schleper) since 1982, Buzz’s Boards is a local favorite for everything from a quick wax to a base grind and edge work. And despite its name, the shop maintains skis, a.k.a. boards, too ($10 for a wax, $30 for a wax and edge sharpening, full tune starting at $40; 970-476-3320, buzzvail.com).