8 things to do in Vail besides skiing
A former local outlines all the best things to do in Vail besides skiing, from fat biking and snowshoeing to gondola rides and spa days
It might be best known for its world class Rocky Mountain skiing, but there are plenty of good reasons you might be looking for things to do in Vail besides skiing: perhaps the conditions are poor, maybe you tweaked your knee yesterday or quite possibly your quads are just screaming for a rest after all that powder skiing. So what can you do besides wander round the shops examining fur coats you’ll never be able to afford and eating in very expensive restaurants? Having lived there for 12 years, I can confirm that the place is largely centered around skiing, shopping and après skiing, and that’s fair enough, but there are still lots of fun adventures you can have in the snow without a ski pass, and some slow-paced leisurely pursuits for when you’re too tired to pull your ski pants on again. Here are my top eight favorite recommendations for things to do in Vail besides skiing.
1. Take a hike
If your legs are fried from skiing, this obviously won’t hold much appeal, but bear with me here, because not all Rocky Mountain adventures have to be fast paced to be epic. If you’re tired, you can stroll alongside Gore Creek on a trail which is flat and beautiful. For snowy days or steeper terrain, grab a pair of snowshoes and check out some of these great snowshoe trails in and around Vail. And if you’ve got the gas in the tank, you can put traction devices on your hiking boots, pick up some trekking poles and hike up the mountain before it opens or after the lifts close for the day. My favorite way to time this is to start an hour before the lifts open so you can enjoy the morning light, then you get a free gondola ride down from the top and can warm up with hot coffee and a good breakfast in the village.
2. Stride and glide
The skiing on the mountain is truly marvelous, but sometimes it’s not so much that you don’t want to ski as you can’t afford a lift ticket, or you don’t want to deal with crowded cat tracks and getting on and off the chairlift. For a more peaceful and affordable experience, and a much better workout, head over to Vail’s Nordic Center on the golf course and try some classic cross country skiing or skate skiing on their 17 miles of track. They’ve also got 10km of snowshoe trails and 13km of fat bike trails for a really novel snow adventure. Best of all? The golf course has unobstructed views of the Gore Range, and it’s heavenly at sunset.
3. Sling some axes
Sure, your legs are tired from shredding gnar, but that doesn’t mean you can’t sling an ice axe or two. East Vail is renowned for its phenomenal mixed and ice climbing routes on the frozen waterfalls that form on both sides of the valley, around the Vail Racquet Club and Booth Creek. This isn’t something you can just rock up and try if you’re inexperienced, but if you’re an avid ice climber, don’t come here without your crampons.
4. Get your skates on
If your fantasy winter vacation involves you slicing and gliding across the ice and spinning like a ballerina, Vail has several outdoor ice rinks to choose from, including the rink at Solaris in the heart of Vail and another over in Lionshead Plaza. If you’re good, other holidaymakers will love sipping hot chocolate and watching you, but no pressure!
5. Discover the botanical gardens
Botanical gardens definitely don’t seem like something you’d find at such high altitude, or a place you’d visit in winter, but the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens make for a surprisingly lovely winter adventure. These are some of the highest botanical gardens in the world and though lots of the alpine plants they protect will be covered in snow, you can still visit these beautiful gardens in winter. Find the gardens over by Ford Amphitheater. The trails are not maintained, but they have free snowshoes you can borrow to explore (a donation is suggested) and do a spot of bird watching, and they also have frequent guided snowshoe tours and other educational programs.
6. Get high
No, I don’t mean drive down to Eagle-Vail to visit one of the multitude of marijuana dispensaries, although that is a valid activity in Vail. Just because you don’t want to ski doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get on the gondola and get up high. Hop on one of the heated cabins of Eagle-Bahn Gondola out of Lionshead village and be whisked 2,200ft up the mountain in just eight minutes. From the top of the gondola at 10, 250ft, you’ll have splendid views of the surrounding mountains and wilderness, including the Gore Range and Mount of the Holy Cross. There are also places to eat with a view, and Adventure Ridge where you can go snow tubing.
7. Learn the history of Vail’s ski heritage
The Colorado Snow Sports Museum is housed in the transportation center, and I’m ashamed to admit that I walked past it for 12 years and never went inside. Last year, when I went back to Vail for a week of spring skiing, I finally paid it a visit and it was stupendous. It’s free to enter, and in addition to all the cool old ski equipment going back over the decades, you can learn all about the history of the famed 10th Mountain Division, who trained at nearby Camp Hale, went away to fight in World War II, then came back and started a ski resort. The story is wonderfully captured in a short Warren Miller film called Climb to Glory. Don’t be an idiot like me and make sure to spend half an hour there.
8. Have a spa day
Finally, if all of the above is sounding a bit too high octane, why not stay in the village and pamper yourself? Vail Village is absolutely rammed with spas, and as someone who worked in one of those spas for years, I can tell you that they have some of the best massage therapists in the world. The prices are, well, what you’d expect for this neck of the woods, but the treatment will be top notch. Most places give you full use of the facilities when you book a massage or facial, so you can take a yoga class before your treatment then soak in one of the outdoor hot tubs afterwards with the snow melting as it lands on your head. Go on, you’re worth it.
All the latest inspiration, tips and guides to help you plan your next Advnture!
Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Advnture.com and the author of the book Restorative Yoga for Beginners. She loves to explore mountains on foot, bike, skis and belay and then recover on the the yoga mat. Julia graduated with a degree in journalism in 2004 and spent eight years working as a radio presenter in Kansas City, Vermont, Boston and New York City before discovering the joys of the Rocky Mountains. She then detoured west to Colorado and enjoyed 11 years teaching yoga in Vail before returning to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland in 2020 to focus on family and writing.