Capped by soaring peaks with majestic views as far as the eye can see, it’s no wonder why Vail, Colorado, is world-famous for its skiing. As one of the largest ski resorts in the U.S., the idyllic mountain town earned its ranks among the upper echelons of winter locales. But beyond the snow, Vail boasts a wide variety of destination-worthy activities year round, and considering how strikingly beautiful the region is in the spring, summer and fall, there’s never an off time to visit. From zip lining on one of the largest courses on the continent to hiking through foliage-illuminated meadows, here are some of the best activities that solidify Vail as the ultimate destination for outdoor adventure.
There are endless zip line options in the U.S., many of which inspire awe as they soar through forests and over rivers, but none are quite as enchanting as the zip line course atop Vail Mountain. The Rocky Mountain vistas alone, from an elevation of about 10,000 feet, are worth the gondola ride in and of themselves. But then you add in the adrenaline rush of flying over deep valleys, tall trees and mountain peaks, and you’ve got a recipe for a memory-maker. Vail’s zip line course is among the largest in North America, measured by the length of its runs and the terrain it covers. Of the several runs along the course, some reach lengths upwards of 3,000 feet—that’s like zip lining the entire height of the Empire State Building twice. The course, which traverses about two miles and takes between three and four hours, glides over steep drop-offs, through lush trees (and bright-yellow aspens if you do it in the fall) and if you keep your eyes peeled, near wildlife like deer.
If you can cope with the altitude, Vail is a veritable mecca for hikers. The sheer concentration of trails and mountains in the region makes this the kind of place you could spend months exploring and discovering on foot. In addition to Vail’s namesake mountain, rising steeply from Vail Village and Lionshead Village, nearby trails provide plenty of options for all skill levels. Leisurely day hikes or longer, more in-depth excursions are all accessible. Among the highlights, especially for visitors looking to add hiking to the itinerary, the Lonesome Lake trail is a must. Located near Red Cliff in White River National Forest, the trail is about 10 miles at moderate difficulty. Whether you hike the entire length, culminating at the shimmering namesake lake, is up to you, but there are plenty of picturesque places to stop for lunch along the way and drink in views of serene meadows and hillsides. Another unique option is a llama hike. Paragon Guides offers a llama hiking program, wherein you hike alongside these gentle (and adorable) creatures as they carry your equipment—these are pack animals, after all. A popular option for families especially, the guide company does llama lunch hikes, which entail easy day trips to designated forest spots for lunch.
For those looking for a less arduous experience outdoors, fly fishing can’t be beat. The sport has been a Vail pastime for decades, with much of it anchored by the Gore Creek that flows right through town. The beautiful river at the base of Vail Mountain is so bounteous that it’s been designated a “Gold Medal Stream.” That means the creek can contain up to 60 pounds of trout per acre, making it an almost surefire bet for anyone casting a line. This most fruitful part of the river is situated near Red Sandstone Creek, leading all the way to Eagle River. Whether you’re a novice or a seasoned pro, it’s recommended to hire a guide; they’ll know the best parts of the rivers to set up shop, how to cast, where to cast and what kind of flies to use. Ultimately, though, no matter where you wade or even if you catch any fish or not, fly fishing in and around Vail is among the most tranquil ways to immerse oneself in the area’s scenic beauty.
Basically real life Mario Kart (minus the onslaught of shells and banana peels), Vail’s Forest Flyer Mountain Coaster is a dream for kids and adults alike. In spite of the name, this mountaintop activity is not a roller coaster, so those with fears of heights shouldn’t shy away. Rather, it’s a close-to-the-ground cart that zips down a track as fast or as slow as you’d like—riders control their own speed with easy-to-use hand brakes. Along the way, you’ll whirl through trees while zig-zagging and looping down the 3,400-foot course. Once you reach the end of the track, you’ll be automatically pulled back to the peak. It may sound daunting, but the track is smooth-as-silk, and carefully engineered to allow passengers to travel as fast as they’d like, all while maintaining safe distance from other carts.
Considering Vail’s famed topography, mountain biking goes hand-in-hand as a must-do local activity. Sure, there are plenty of trail options at ground-level around here, but your best bets are atop the mountains. Cyclists can take one of the gondolas up to the top of Vail Mountain to hoof it down any number of bike trails. Embracing Vail’s “something for everyone” ethos, trails range from leisurely treks through mountaintop forests to white-knuckle rides straight down the mountain. Similar to ski trails, bike trails are classified by color to designate level of difficulty. For instance, the “green” Village Trail is an easy jaunt along the eastern side of the mountain, while Hank’s Hideaway is a “blue” option that weaves through aspen groves. There are also “blacks” and “double blacks” for the Evel Knievels out there.
Around these parts, river activities are just as prominent as mountain ones. Thanks to such a wide array of waterways, from the serene Gore Creek to the famous Colorado River, each one offers totally different vibes, sights and activities. And rapids. The Eagle River is a popular destination for rafting, thanks to white water that reaches Class V. Numerous guides throughout Vail provide excursions and options, from the calm, family-friendly waters of the Upper Colorado, to the riveting rapids of the Eagle, Shoshone and Gore Creek. Class V is designated for experts only, and for good reason—large waves and rocks are prevalent in places like Pine Creek and Gore Canyon. For those looking to go it solo, kayaking is another option on all of these waterways as well.
Of course, all of this is just scratching the surface of what Vail has to offer, both indoors and out. From rock climbing and tubing (both of the river and mountain variety) to the skiing that made Vail world-famous, there are no shortage of opportunities, and more than enough reason to visit time and again.
All photos by Jack Affleck