I’ve had the opportunity to visit a bunch of Vail Resorts in North America over the last four years and explore the full gamut of great experiences they offer. However, I’m going to set the tone of this discussion by using the words "Vail" and "frugal" in the same sentence. The Vail galaxy of resorts, recently expanding like the Big Bang theory, is not exactly known for hitchhikers and bargain hunters, but there are ways to cut corners; this report is where I give up my best budget traveler secrets to help you enjoy some of North America’s finest and most upscale ski areas.
In the last few years I've logged about 50 ski days at 10 major ski areas in the Vail cosmos including Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone, Park City, Kirkwood, Heavenly, Epic Pass-eligible Arapahoe Basin, and new acquisitions Whistler-Blackcomb and Stowe. In addition to my recent visits, I have a history as far back as 40+ years with Vail, Park City, and Stowe. I'm going to share cost-saving tips, but I’m also going to tell you about great ski terrain and some of my other favorite things to do at or near these winter playgrounds.
DIY grilled chili dogs with Pugskiers @fatbob and @Michael R. outside Henry's Hut, Vail; photo by Jim Kenney
By no means do I have a local's knowledge of these resorts, but after skiing multiple days at each and applying my inherent Scotch-Irish thriftiness, I have uncovered some deals and strategies for getting the best out of them while stretching your dollar. For example, here are three opening teasers:
- Singles can stay two blocks from the main lifts at one of the biggest and brightest stars in the Vail galaxy for about $40 per night including breakfast.
- There is free and copious parking any time, any day 150 yards from a lift at the most upscale mountain in the portfolio.
- You can get guided snowshoe tours all winter at several Vail resorts including snowshoe rentals, hot chocolate, and, for crying out loud, fresh-baked cookies – all for free!
As the marquee property, it makes sense to lead with Vail. The Epic Pass allows you affordable uphill transport at Vail and the more than a dozen other resorts under the pass, but how do you keep a lid on lodging, dining, and other costs associated with visiting the Vail Valley? I do not have an easy answer for lodging. I know some folks who leverage hotel reward programs to get discounts for slopeside or near-slopeside lodging, but my strategy for visiting Vail has been to stay 5 or 10 miles away in the satellite towns of Minturn or Avon.
During the super-busy World Championships period hosted by Beaver Creek and Vail in February 2015, I stayed at the Turntable Restaurant and Motel in Minturn for $350 per week. This one is recommended for the adventurous traveler only. "Flophouse" is the term that comes to mind for this old motel and former railroader’s dormitory. Darla Goodell, the legendary manager of the Turntable, passed away since my visit, and the operation is under new management. I believe the motel may be undergoing renovation, but the adjacent restaurant of the same name remains open and continues to get rave reviews for the monstrous “Boo” breakfast burrito I enjoyed during my stay!
Skijoring competition in Minturn; photo by Jim Kenney
In 2016 a new boutique hostel opened in Minturn called the Bunkhouse. I have not stayed there, but it sounds like a promising choice for the budget-conscious visitor. Hostels are a regular consideration in my travel plans, and I’ve stayed in them near ski areas in Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, New York, and New Mexico. They are especially great for solo travelers due to pricing, single bed arrangements, and meeting places for ski partners for a day. Airbnb is another good lodging option for budget and solo travelers. My friend and Pugski member @fatbob used Airbnb to find an affordable room for an extended stay in a house near Eagle, with a flat and easy commute to Beaver Creek and Vail.
My best value suggestion for food at Vail is to do it yourself and take advantage of the three free gas BBQ grills located on the mountain at Hawk’s Nest at the summit of the High Noon Express (Chair 5), Henry’s Hut near patrol headquarters above the Mountain Top Express (Chair 4), and Bell’s Camp in Blue Sky Basin atop the Skyline Express (Chair 37). There are also some pretty reasonable and tasty places to eat in Vail proper, such as Pazzo’s Pizza overlooking Solaris Plaza, Moe’s Original BBQ in Lionshead, and Yellowbelly Chicken on Frontage Road across I-70. Don’t forget that one of the best free things at Vail is just getting out and strolling the village: it’s great for window shopping and people watching. The winter calendar in Vail typically includes complimentary concerts, fireworks, and many other family-friendly events.
Free concert by the Barenaked Ladies at Vail's Solaris Plaza; photo by Jim Kenney
Finding free parking for a day visit to Vail takes study, but it’s there. Giving up info on free parking at Vail is like giving up the best powder stashes, but a lot of Pugskiers are personal friends, so here goes. The very best free parking I’ve found is at the moderately used Donovan Park Pavilion lot a few hundred yards west of the quiet Cascade Village chairlift (Chair 20). You can actually drop your gear off at the lift, park your car at Donovan, and do the easy, level walk in just a few minutes. I believe they download on this lift at the end of the day, but there is also a runout called Cascade Way that enables you to ski to the base of the lift and walk back to your car. Sometimes the Donovan lot is inaccessible due to special events.
If you arrive before 8:15 am, you can also get free parking at various legal spots along Frontage Road on the north side of I-70. These spots are served by a free, if tedious, shuttle bus to the slopes. I should note that in case you just want to visit Vail in the evening for a dinner or stroll, there is no charge after 3 pm for many of the pay lots near the village. More details on free Vail parking can be found here.
Terrain-wise, Vail is huge, and much of its 5,289 skiable acres is completely contiguous on the front and back sides of one giant ridge. This means ready access to 3,000 vertical feet of treelined runs on the front side and nearly 2,000 vertical feet in six expansive bowls on the back side with no tricks, convolutions, or disconnects. Throw in the journey to the remote-feeling terrain of Blue Sky Basin, and you’ve got a ski area that takes weeks, if not seasons, to fully explore.
The big cornice behind Pugskiers Mr. and Mrs. @Steve is Blue Sky Basin's Lover's Leap; photo by Jim Kenney
Some of my favorite advanced terrain at Vail can be found underneath and to skier’s left of the Northwoods Express (Chair 11, front side), the trees and cornices off the Skyline Express (Chair 37, Blue Sky Basin), and Sun Up Bowl off the High Noon Express (Chair 5, back bowls). When Vail’s back bowls are in prime condition, their immensity is one of the most distinctive skiing experiences in North America.
The good life in Vail's Back Bowls; photo by Jim Kenney
In 2015 I did the Minturn Mile backcountry run from Vail’s Game Creek Bowl to the town of Minturn. It takes about 20 or 30 minutes. The first 10 minutes are a glorious romp down an open hillside, but the rest is a long and occasionally sketchy runout. It’s best to do this one with a group of friends and make happy hour at the Minturn Saloon your prime motivation.
Most folks, me included, would rate Beaver Creek as the most upscale of all Vail's resorts. It’s a gorgeous destination designed to pamper the well-heeled and to separate them from their dollars. My key tip for doing this mountain affordably is staying 2.5 miles down the road at the Comfort Inn in Avon. I’ve lodged here more than once over the years; it’s beginning to show some wear, but the price is right ($115 to $125 per night including breakfast with advance booking) and the location is great, next to a stop for the free bus to Beaver Creek. You know you might be onto a bargain when the place is packed with ski racing families from Denver and other Colorado localities. It’s also within walking distance to the Avon bus station for an inexpensive ride to Vail via Minturn. My aforementioned suggestions for cheap lodging in Minturn or Eagle also apply for visits to Beaver Creek.
There is a wide range of restaurants in Avon and nearby Edwards, from inexpensive Vietnamese at Pho 20 to pricier wild game at the Gashouse. One night in 2017 after dinner at the Gashouse, my wife and I made the 45-minute drive to the Glenwood Hot Springs Pool. You don’t notice the age of this facility at night. It’s quietly romantic and the 9-10 pm swim costs about $10 a person.
Night at Glenwood Hot Springs Pool; photo by Jim Kenney
The situation for free parking for day visitors has become more challenging at Beaver Creek in the past year. The formerly free Bear and Elk satellite lots (served by a shuttle to the slopes) now cost $10 a day before 1 pm. Therefore, the last, best place to my knowledge for free parking at Beaver Creek is in Arrowhead Village. This lot is about 150 yards from the base of the Arrow Bahn Express chair, but because it is located at the remote western edge of the huge Beaver Creek trail layout, it is often overlooked by the masses. In the past I’ve found open spots here well past early morning. I believe there is now signage along Highway 6 providing the status of this lot.
Beaver Creek is famous for the free chocolate chip cookies handed out daily at 3 pm around the main base of the Centennial chondola. They are good, but there is an even better deal for free cookies: guided snowshoe tours, which begin at the Beaver Creek Nordic Center at the base of the Strawberry Park chair. The family-oriented program is free, but requires reservations. The tour lasts about 60 to 90 minutes and includes snowshoe rentals. When you’re finished, the guides serve free cookies and hot chocolate; see here for info. Vail runs a similar program that operates out of the Nature Discovery Center, high on the mountain near the Eagle’s Nest lodge. See here for details.
Complimentary snowshoeing at Beaver Creek; photo by Jim Kenney
The ski terrain at Beaver Creek is aimed at intermediates, but there is a challenging side, too. Beaver Creek has an amazing elevation spread from 7,400 to 11,440 ft above sea level with all aspects of exposure. From my nine ski days there between 2015 and 2017, I can tell you these physical gifts combined with moderate crowds and state-of-the-art snowmaking and grooming present a strong chance of good to excellent ski conditions all winter. If you happen to be in Colorado when snow conditions are less than optimal, Beaver Creek is likely to be one of your best options.
Nice bumps beside Beaver Creek's Rose Bowl Express; photo by Jim Kenney
My favorite advanced terrain at Beaver Creek includes the Stone Creek Chutes on the far looker’s left of the mountain, the steep race trails off the Birds of Prey Express chair, and all of Grouse Mountain including Royal Elk and Black Bear glades. But this is an area that is large enough for many good opportunities. I caught a foot-plus storm on a Tuesday in late February 2017 when the snow kept falling lightly all day. In the spirit of the old saying “Never leave good snow to find good snow,” I hung around the Centennial chondola for six or seven runs. Even though it was in plain view of the base village, I was one of the few people having a blast tracking out single black diamond Helmut’s trail while riding empty chondola cars to escape the elements between each powder run.
Helmut's, Beaver Creek; photo by Jim Kenney
I was rather late to discover Breckenridge, first skiing there for seven days over two months in 2015. I also had a great day there in March 2017. It’s been one of America’s most visited ski areas for decades. Considering low-cost lodging, there are some dorm and hostel options in Breckenridge including the Fireside Inn and the Bivvi, but I’ve never stayed at either. When I visit this part of Colorado (Summit County), I usually stay in the Frisco/Dillon/Silverthorne area because it is centrally located to several other ski areas and offers reasonably priced motels and condos. The county is served by the free and wide-ranging Summit Stage bus line.
Shopping day with the Mrs. in Frisco; photo by Jim Kenney
In 2015 I used VRBO to find a nice townhouse in Silverthorne with two bedrooms, garage, and backyard hot tub; my 30-day rental cost about $115 per night. The concentration of second homes and vacation properties in Summit County makes it a good area to try inexpensive room-letting through Airbnb. There are also many dining spots at various price points. Frisco’s Butterhorn Bakery has got the goods.
Pugskier @Michael R. discovering Needles Eye beneath Breckenridge's Peak 9; photo by Jim Kenney
I think the town of Breckenridge right at the base of the slopes is one of the most budget-friendly of the major resorts in Colorado with copious free parking in the “airport” satellite lot and several bars offering an après ski burger and fries for $10 or $12. Also, the Breck Connect transport gondola is free and can take nonskiers and sightseers on a lengthy ride to the bases of Peaks 7 and 8 for a slopeside lunch in the middle of the action. Other dining choices include upscale at Victorian-themed Hearthstone, midscale at the Canteen Tap House, or lighter fare at La Francaise French Bakery. In-town parking is free after 3 pm.
Main Street, Breckenridge; photo by Jim Kenney
While the lower mountain at Breckenridge can be hectic at prime times, I find the advanced upper mountain terrain much less busy and more interesting than that at either Vail or Beaver Creek. The frosting on the Breck cake is the hike-to stuff above Peaks 6 and 8, North Chute and Zoot Chute, respectively. Once you’ve given your lungs a couple days to adjust to the high altitude, all visiting experts should check out this terrain. The climbs aren’t that bad, and the payoff can be really memorable above-treeline skiing.
Dropping North Chute at Breckenridge; photo by Jim Kenney
Coming soon, Part 2: Keystone, Arapahoe Basin, and Park City
Hitchhiker's Guide to the Vail Galaxy of Resorts: Part 1 of 3