Winter or summer, Vail makes an outstanding family vacation right in the heart of the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. The incredible scenery alone is worth a trip, but there are also so many fun things to do in Vail beyond just taking in the landscape.
Families will find kid-friendly activities that get you into Mother Nature for hikes, skiing, mountain coasters and more, and adults can find their share of entertainment, as well, with a vibrant dining scene and plentiful shopping, breweries and nightlife at the area’s many apres ski bars.
Since I was in middle school, my family has owned a small condo at nearby Beaver Creek and so I’ve spent many a summer — and winter — in the area for the last 25 years. Here are my favorite things to do in Vail from my time spent there as a youth to bringing my own school-age kids in recent years.
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COOLEST PLACES TO STAY IN VAIL
- Best Location: The Vail Collection at the Ritz Carlton Residences Vail is located in the heart of Vail and features heated outdoor swimming pools, free shuttle service to Eagle Bahn Gondola, a 5-minute walk away, luxury suites, extensive ski services, a fitness facility and a full service bar.
- Best Slopeside Access: Tivoli Lodge in Vail Village features accommodations with slopeside access, a deluxe daily breakfast and a cocktail lounge. This hotel is slopeside to Vail Ski Resort and adjacent to Vail Fine Art Gallery.
- Best for Foodies: The Grand Hyatt Vail offers so many great amenities, you’ll never want to leave. In addition to amazing restaurants on-site, the resort also has two heated outdoor pools, three hot tubs, a fitness center, and guests can enjoy a drink at the fireside lounge. Gessner, the resort’s signature restaurant is open breakfast through dinner, showcasing authentic flavors from the Colorado Rockies.
THE GREAT OUTDOORS
TAKE A HIKE
There are plenty of gorgeous places to hike in and around Vail, but one of my family’s favorites is the six-mile roundtrip hike to Piney River Falls. To get to the Upper Piney River Falls trailhead is an adventure in itself, as it is about a 45-minute drive on a rocky, dirt-covered road. A 4-wheel drive is most comfortable, but we’ve done it in a sedan as well.
Once on the trail, you’ll have an incredible view of the Rocky Mountains the entire time, as you walk past a mountain lake, through an aspen forest and then through a pine forest before reaching your destination at the falls. If you’re daring, you can scramble down the rocks next to the falls for a bit more excitement. Other popular Vail hiking trails include Berry Picker, North Trail and Booth Falls.
HAVE LUNCH WITH A LLAMA
If hiking sounds too boring to you, why not bring a llama along? Paragon Guides in Vail Valley offers several programs that let you bring along a llama, who will help carry your gear and lunch. Note: Llamas do NOT like to be ridden :).
The guide will take you into Vail’s beautiful backcountry for a full-day hike (roughly 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.) and bring along a picnic lunch to enjoy halfway. The program is offered mid-June through late October. Much outside of those months, there is too much snow!
Another great activity for the adventurous at heart is biking down Vail Mountain. You can rent mountain bikes from Vail Sports with locations in both Vail Village and Lionshead (the two main entertainment areas of Vail) and then purchase a gondola pass to haul them to the top of the mountain.
From there, choose from a range of trails from moderate to difficult. We tried this with our kids ages 9 and 13 and both ended up getting mildly hurt by falling off the bike on tight turns. I’d highly recommend shin and elbow pads, which I think would have solved the problem. Be prepared to go slow and put on the brakes if you’re not an expert mountain biker and choose a bike with really good shocks, because this is one bumpy ride!
At Vail’s Epic Discovery Park at the top of the mountain, you can enjoy all sorts of family-friendly fun outdoor activities like the Game Creek Zipline Tour. The tour takes you on seven different zip lines over two miles and across multiple aerial bridges all with amazing mountain views.
Plan to spend about three to four hours on the tour, which is open to kids ages 10 and older who weigh at least 90 pounds. The Zipline Tour Pass also gets you access to all the other fun Epic Discovery activities like the Mountain Coaster, summer tubing, ropes course and gondola rides.
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RIDE THE GONDOLA
A simple activity to give you a great overview of Vail Mountain is to ride the gondola up the mountain. At the top, you’ll find several restaurants, the Epic Discovery Park during summer, and plenty of skiing during winter. Hop aboard in the Eagle Bahn Gondola in the Lionshead area or Gondola One in Vail Village.
During summer months, kids ride free with a paying adult. If you bring your dog along to hike up the mountain, you can bring your pup down with you on the gondola.
Fly-fishing is a beautiful way to relax, enjoy the summer weather and explore some of the most serene spots on Vail’s many streams and rivers. For your first fly fishing experience, here’s a roundup of Vail’s best fishing spots, what equipment you’ll need, and a few other tips to prepare you for a day of fun on the river.
Sure, you’ve heard of tubing through snow in winter, but did you know you can tube in the summer, as well? As part of Vail’s Epic Discovery Park, you can grab an inflatable inner tube, ride the lift up and then slide at super speeds down a special summer tubing hill.
With multiple lanes, you can race your family or even choose to connect two inner tubes together to attach your kids to you. We hear the heavier the weight on the tube, the faster you go!
THE MOUNTAIN COASTER
Many ski areas offer fun summer activities to keep visitors coming year-round, and mountain coasters, which originated in Europe, are growing in popularity in the United States. Vail has its own version called the Forest Flyer. These coasters put you in an individual car, whose brakes you control, which wraps around a steel track for a very smooth ride.
Kids must be at least 38 inches tall to ride, and if they are smaller than 54 inches, they must ride with an adult. The mountain coaster is a blast and zips you through an aspen forest for even more epic Rocky Mountain scenery. Once you reach the bottom, the coaster motors you back to the top.
TAKE A JEEP TOUR
Heading out in a 4X4 is one of the best ways to see the backcountry areas of Vail, which are some of the most gorgeous. A 4X4 can get you where ordinary cars cannot, taking you deep into the woods in search of wildlife and epic views.
Vail Resort offers open-air tours in larger jeeps that hold 10 or so passengers and get you to views of Vail’s back bowls, the Gore mountain range, and Mount of the Holy Cross. For a more personalized jeep tour, check out Mountain Wolf Jeep Tours, which takes you to some really out-of-the-way areas — like an extinct volcano — for a truly thrilling ride.
Hopping on a horse is another great way to explore the backcountry of Vail — and make a new friend at the same time. Kids will love learning how to guide the horse — and encourage it to plow ahead instead of grazing on the enticing grass ahead :).
Head out with Vail Stables, who only allows ages 15 and older, just a mile from Vail Village, or venture west on I-70 for 10 minutes to Beaver Creek Village and Beaver Creek Stables. Kids ages 7 and older are welcome to join the ride at Beaver Creek, and you can also bring younger ones between the times of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. daily for a chance to ride the pony around the corral. Horseback riding is only available during the summer months.
PLAY A ROUND OF GOLF
Imagine hitting the green surrounded by majestic mountain peaks… The Vail area offers seven different golf courses, including Vail Golf Club, an 18-hole course set against the backdrop of the Gore mountain range.
Keep in mind that playing at higher elevations can require some adjustments to your game. For example, experts recommend adding about 10% yardage to your clubs, they advise that you will lose your breath more quickly and may want to choose a cart to navigate the course, and they say to keep in mind that your ball will travel further on Colorado’s drier courses.
SURVIVE THE ROPES COURSE
Set high on Vail Mountain are two ropes, or adventure, courses that challenge you to balance, climb and dangle as you make your way through bridges, rope swings, logs, and more. Vail’s Adventure Courses offer scenic views, of course, and there is also a kiddie course for ages 3 and older, so your younger children don’t feel left out. To participate in the bigger courses, kids will need to be at least 52 inches and 45 pounds.
It doesn’t get much more exciting than having a team of dogs pull you speedily through the snow in your very own sleigh! Venture out on a peaceful trail through aspen and pine forests with Mountain Musher. You may even come across wildlife like deer, elk, coyote, and fox, so keep an eye open.
Two people can ride per sled, and up to six sleds can run at once to accommodate a family. The trail goes up and down a mountain for a more exciting adventure, and you’ll get hot cocoa and homemade pumpkin bread to warm up halfway through the excursion.
HIT THE SLOPES
Vail is a charming place to ski with its alpine-style village yet upscale accommodations and plenty of ski resorts depending on your taste. The mountain itself has more than 5,000 acres of ski and snowboarding terrain along with its famed back bowls that span seven miles. Vail boasts “the most groomed terrain on the planet” and offer runs for all skiing levels from beginner to expert.
Kids will love zipping through the many Kid’s Adventure Zones that offer tunnels, sculptures and fun activities along the way. Newbies can enroll in the Vail Ski & Snowboard School to get up to snuff on their skiing skills.
Ready to hit the slopes, but don’t have the equipment? We’ve made snowboarding a lifestyle, but before we owned our equipment, Ski Butlers was our ski (and boarding) rental service of choice. These guys deliver to your hotel or condo – and pick up- for only a few dollars more than the jam-packed shops just down the road. And the equipment? Best in the business! Check out Ski Butlers on your next vacation!
BIKE GORE CREEK
A wonderful summer activity for families is to rent cruiser bikes at Vail Sports in either Lionshead or Vail Village and follow the trail along Gore Creek, which runs at the base of the mountain. The creek itself is lovely with snowmelt rushing over rocks and fragrant pine trees lining the rivers way. You can take the mostly-flat path from one side of Vail to the other and back to burn off a few calories while avoiding intimidating mountain hills.
When in the mountains, go ice skating! Vail offers a number of opportunities to go ice skating both indoors and out. Beginning Thanksgiving Day, take a spin in the outdoor rink at Vail Square, which also has skates available for rent. To stay a bit warmer, you can visit the Dobson Ice Arena, which offers year-round skating. Check the website for the schedule of days and times.
TAKE A PLAYGROUND BREAK
Let the kids unleash some energy at one of Vail’s well-designed playgrounds, including Pirateship Park in Vail Village or Sunbird Park in Lionshead. Each playground is custom designed, including an artist as part of the design team to develop whimsical elements and a unique concept. Travel + Leisure even named Sunbird Park, which is inspired by area bird habitats and is also known as the “Vail Nests,” one of the world’s coolest playgrounds.
Colorado is known for its adventurous outdoor sports, skateboarding included, and Vail has an outdoor skate park in Lionshead village that is worth a stop. At the Zeke M. Pierce Skatepark, designed by California Skateparks, known as one of the top skatepark builders, skateboarders can take their turn on components for all skill levels, including a halfpipe, various ramps and a mini-bowl. The park also features four mosaic murals designed by artist Valerie Theberge.
For some reason, doing yoga with goats has become a “thing,” and yes, you can do it in Vail, too. Guests of Manor Vail Lodge can do yoga with the goats at Vail Stables as part of the Goat Yoga package, which also includes a daily breakfast buffet and transportation to and from the stables. Why would you want to do such a thing? I’m not sure, but if you do, please fill me in!
ATTRACTIONS IN VAIL
BETTY FORD ALPINE GARDENS
A great year-round activity is a visit to the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens. Betty Ford, the wife of former U.S. President Gerald Ford, loved the Vail area and had a home in nearby Beaver Creek. With a fondness for flowers and gardening, she lent her name to the botanic gardens in 1988.
The highest elevation botanical garden in the world, which is located at more than 8,000 feet elevation, it features a collection of alpine and mountain plants and makes for a wonderfully peaceful stroll through the stone-laid paths, bridges and water features.
VAIL NATURE CENTER
Another educational spot to get an understanding of area flora and fauna is the Vail Nature Center, a farmhouse located on seven-acre property. Only open in summer, the Center hosts guided tours focused on birds, beaver ponds, and wildflowers (which are beautiful in June and July). The center also offers backcountry hikes for families, as well as hikes centered on autumn color when the aspens turn a luminous shade of gold.
COLORADO SNOWSPORTS MUSEUM
Want to learn more about winter sports? The free Colorado Snowsports Museum, located on the third level of the Vail Village parking garage presents exhibits covering all things skiing and snowboarding. Inside, you can learn about the 10th Mountain Division ski troopers of World War II, the history of the U.S. Ski Team, the 140-year history of skiing in Colorado and see the evolution of skis over the years and don’t miss the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Hall Of Fame.
WALK THRU VAIL VILLAGE AND LIONSHEAD
One of the best parts of Vail are its absolutely delightful villages. Vail Village is the classic-style alpine village designed to look like a quaint European town with plentiful shopping, eateries, ice cream and more. On the other side is Lionshead, which has been entirely renovated in recent years and offers a more modern style mountain entertainment district.
Both are car-free areas so you can stroll to your heart’s content along heated streets (yes, they are heated!), and the two villages are connected by a free bus transportation system that makes it easy to get between them. During the summer, you can alternately rent and ride bikes between the villages for some additional exercise.
PLAY AT IMAGINATION STATION
Fire up little brains at Vail’s Imagination Station just above the Vail Welcome Center in Lionshead. The play area offers children a chance to actively engage their senses and problem-solve through interactive displays. Imagination Station is open daily during winter and Monday through Friday during summer.
SHOP TILL YOU DROP
You can literally shop till you drop in Vail with two distinct villages each full of local boutiques and national chain shops. You’ll find Patagonia, Gorsuch, Oakley and the North Face, but I’d advise exploring some of the unique stores with offerings like cowboy boots, western art and souvenirs with the iconic Colorado flag. Charlie’s T-shirts is a great spot for affordable Vail-branded apparel. Oh, and don’t leave without a gold-dipped aspen leaf to hang on your Christmas tree!
KNOCK THEM DOWN AT BOL
If you need some time indoors to warm up in the winter cold, Bol entertains families with a combination of fine food and bowling. The modern-designed bowling alley has 10 lanes, as well as a 60-foot bar with a wine list and custom cocktails, and a full-service restaurant. You might even happen when they have a DJ!
While they do offer a children’s menu, Bol aims to surprise patrons with food you would not ordinarily find at a bowling alley. Selections include Ahi Tuna Poke, Heirloom Tomato Tartine and the Ragin’ Cajun Pizza.
VISIT NEARBY BEAVER CREEK
Just 10 minutes west on I-70 is Beaver Creek Village, a much smaller ski area and resort town, which also has an alpine feel. You’ll find fewer crowds in Beaver Creek but the same access to ski runs, shopping, and a handful of restaurants. Our favorite is Toscanini, an Italian restaurant that sits just outside Beaver Creek’s ice skating rink (open both summer and winter).
Another great dining experience is the gourmet Beano’s Cabin higher up on Beaver Creek mountain. I highly recommend taking the horseback ride to the cabin during summer or a snowcat ride during winter.
Finally, Beaver Creek has the excellent, newly-renovated Vilar Performing Arts Center that hosts artists like musicians Bruce Hornsby, Bela Fleck, and comedian Jim Gaffigan for a perfect adult date night.
FOOD & DRINK IN VAIL
EAT AT BLUE MOON PIZZA
There’s plenty to eat in Vail and one of my family’s go-tos is Blue Moose Pizza, which also has a Beaver Creek location. They serve quality hand-tossed crust pizzas that will satisfy any kid and keep the adults happy, too. Blue Moose has a good selection of beer and wine, including some Italian favorites like Chianti and Prosecco, and local ales. When they get too crowded during busier months, you can choose to pick up a pizza and take it back to your Vail hotel or condo.
TAKE A CRAFT BREWERY TOUR
Colorado has some fantastic beers that you should sample while in the Centennial State. The Vail Valley Craft Brewery Tour from Vail Valley Food Tours takes you to three different Vail breweries where you can sample up to 20 craft brews in your provided tasting glass. The tour guides drive so you don’t have to worry about having one too many beers! The tour is for ages 21 and older, of course, and you’ll enjoy some snacks along the way, including local pretzels, popcorn, and tacos.
DINE ON THE MOUNTAIN
Enjoying an evening meal on Vail Mountain is truly magical and a memory your family will long cherish. The chalet-style Game Creek Restaurant sits mountainside with views of the Game Creek Bowl, serving a Five-Star gourmet meal. The Prix Fixe menu is an outstanding option with four courses, including a starter, soup or salad, entree, and dessert.
There’s also a children’s menu with grilled cheese, grilled chicken, pasta noodles and a few other selections. Much like Beano’s Cabin, you’ll need to take a snowcat in winter or a four-wheel drive vehicle in summer to access the restaurant.
TAKE A WINE TASTING CLASS
Want to improve your knowledge of wine? Take a wine tasting class or cocktail class at Root and Flower in Vail Village. At the one-hour class, you’ll have the opportunity to smell, view and sample four different wines to learn about their different flavors. You’ll also get a crash course in wine lingo!
RELAX IN AN APRE BAR
After a day of skiing, which can exhaust the body like nothing else, kick back and relax in one of Vail’s many apres ski bars. Choose from local favorites like The Red Lion, The Fitz Bar and Larkspur.
ARTS & CULTURE IN VAIL
SEE A SHOW AT GERALD R FORD AMPHITHEATER
At Ford Park, also the site of the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens, you’ll find Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater. The lovely amphitheater makes a perfect spot to enjoy outdoor concerts and festivals hosted by the Vail Valley Foundation and Bravo! Vail. During the summer months, visitors can attend free weekly concerts, as well as the Vail Dance Festival.
GO ON AN ART WALK
Vail has many public works of art that it would be a shame to miss. Taking an art walk with Art in Vail during winter or summer is a great way to see many of these and witness firsthand Vail’s dedication to the arts. There are more than 45 different public installations ranging from painting and murals to sculptures and even artistic playgrounds.
If you don’t want to go on a guided walk or no tours are happening during your visit, you can pick up a map of public artwork from the Vail Visitors Center located in both Lionshead and Vail village and explore on your own.
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