I remember reading an interview with Morrie Shepard, the original director of the Vail Ski School, about the mountain resort’s early days. He said his first visit to the valley took him to what would become Sun Up Bowl. “The bowl had a crust of corn snow, and we skied all the way down to the aspens. Those tracks became Vail’s Forever trail—because it took forever to get back up the mountain.” The name Vail already seemed to promise some kind of extraordinary experience, but that description really captured my imagination. I have always wanted to go—and I know Aron felt the same way.
Whenever he has a work conference someplace special, I try to tag along. Vail would certainly be no exception—particularly because the meeting schedule gave everyone the middle of the days off to hit the slopes!
The reality of making the trip happen—and be successful—can be less glamorous, however. Usually in the excitement of booking the trip (months in advance), I pay only minimal attention to details like flight times. Our wake up call came very early for this one: 3:45am for our 5:30 flight out of Sacramento. From there we flew into Denver and drove into Vail. With traffic it took us just under three hours.
We arrived to deep powder and some amazing vistas!
We checked into the Marriott—just off Lionshead village, one of the four main villages (there’s Lionshead, Vail Village, Golden Peak, and Cascade). We were actually too early for the room at that point, so we went off to grab lunch and find some space to get everyone moving.
The villages are modeled on European ski towns, and the whole Alpine vibe with its Swiss Chalets and gabled roofs was completely charming. And the entire village is pretty much ski-in/ski-out. Everything was still decorated for the holidays—which made it even prettier—but I could see how it would look so beautiful in the summer, too. The town is partially pedestrianized, so it was great for strolling with the kids—if they aren’t complaining about the cold.
You see, when we arrived, snow was falling and we learned that those soft little four-year-old cheeks we so love to kiss are extremely sensitive. (I’m trying to be generous.)
So we stopped into the Blue Moose for pizza and all was improved with some warm food and a miniature bucket of crayons. (And some local brews for the adults.) Tip: You can order everything here by the slice. Even the specialty pizzas!
We spent the afternoon getting our bearings: Aron went to his meeting and we learned about lift tickets, ski school, and childcare options. In a moment of optimism based around Hudson’s excitement for trying on ski boots, we agreed to enroll him in the all-day ski school for the following day.
Here’s some of the things I’d pass along to anyone else thinking of trying this for the first time: A. Skiing is so expensive. It’s been a long time since I went skiing and it was a little shocking. Most normal people would know those figures in advance, but be prepared. and B. You can buy lift tickets in advance and then get refunded for periods you don’t use. You’ll want to confirm the details (like by when you need to cancel, etc.), but we were able to get him a day-and-a-half of school and then apply that time as we wished. We could have also bought more days in advance (potentially significant if there’s an online discount or it’s a holiday/peak period) and then gotten refunded.
A full day of ski school for Hudson’s age starts with a 9:30am dropoff and goes until 3:15. A half day stops at noon, so if they seem too tired you can stop early and get the refund. It includes lunch and the lift ticket but not equipment. You have to be at least 3 years old and potty trained; younger kids (starting at 20 months) can do a 30 minute “micro mice” lesson. Or, for kids not skiing, you can see if there’s space at the Golden Peak Small World Nursery center.
It all started so well! I was so excited for our little guy! No parents are allowed into the ski school play area (because they clearly think we’re all nuts and that’s probably true), so we waved an enthusiastic farewell (he’s giving me a thumbs up!) and then hid by the side of the slopes to sneak a peak of his group coming out. Little kids in their puffy winter gear are the sweetest kind of awkward. I felt all emotional when we spotted them.
This is the point, by the way, when all of the other parents go skiing themselves. We were crossing our fingers he wanted to do it again the next day so that we’d get our chance.
We watched him making pizza pies and riding the magic carpet. They were so cute!
And that’s probably when we should have been on our way. It started to snow a bit more heavily; I noticed he was lying down a lot; and then I saw it: he was crying. My heart just fell! We left in hopes that the teachers would be able to make it so fun that that was just a temporary thing, ordering brunch at a slopeside tavern at the Arabelle, but 20 minutes later we got the call.
Hudson “missed mommy too much.” I rushed over and he came up the stairs all red and tear-streaked. The instructor said they just couldn’t cheer him up.
He looked like he was going to fall asleep and we realized that starting him off on the first day after all that travel, and at the higher altitude—the base is at 8,000 feet!—in the falling snow was not the wisest move.
We felt really bad for the little guy. I confess we also felt a bit sorry for ourselves. If he didn’t want to ski, and couldn’t brave the cold, what we were going to do? All huddle together in our hotel room? It was a bleak moment.
But we took some naps, checked out the hotel’s hot chocolate bar, and went out again. We put on our brave faces, because it was just so incredibly beautiful there.
It also happened to be Hudson’s half birthday! And half-cupcakes really do make everything better!
That afternoon we made a plan: The Small World Nursery day care was the safest bet, so we would enroll both kids for the day and—gosh darnit!—we were going to go skiing in Vail. I took the kids to the indoor pool while Aron went to meetings and then, while having a second night’s dinner in the hotel lobby bar, we took turns running over to the hotel’s rental shop to get our equipment fitted (skis for me and a snowboard for Aron).
The town operates a free shuttle bus system and we rode it across the villages to Golden Peak for dropoff the next morning.
Skyler was a bit hesitant to part ways, but a stick of lip balm did the trick. She’s obsessed.
We were hoping the kids would be together—knowing that they’d find comfort in that—but there are distinct infant, toddler, and big kid areas (which makes sense).
And within the hour we were up on the mountain!
It was the perfect mix of fresh powder and blue skies that day—easily some of the best skiing I’ve ever experienced. A friend of mine had raved about the incredible (legendary) back bowls of Vail, and I had to look it up: According to Snow.com “Spanning roughly 3,000 acres, these vast, open slopes fall off of Vail’s backside and funnel into some of the most scenic drainages in ski country.” I couldn’t describe it better. I was pretty intimated by them at first—lots of black diamonds—but I worked up some nerve and realized there are plenty of ways to make the terrain comfortable for my confidence. It just might mean a lot of turns and burning muscles.
We stopped for an early lunch at Wildwood, near the summit, to beat the crowds (which grew significantly by noon) and then stayed up on the mountain until around 3pm. We needed to be back for the kids by 4 o’clock.
The kids did great—though I think it’s probably a better option for babies and toddler than older children. We asked Hudson about his day and got the report: “I watched Bambi and Lion King… and something else.” Hmph! Wasn’t super impressed by that. Weeks later, I’ve gleaned that Cinderella was the other one.
On the upside, he asked if he could try skiing again. I think three movies may have proved too boring, thank goodness.
And for our part we felt like the vacation had taken a sharp turn for the better! We even went out for dinner that night!
Someone recommended Vendetta’s for Italian food and strong drinks. Done and done.
That’s not to say we didn’t also live it up a bit in the hotel: Sharing a small room with the kids meant watching Making A Murderer on the Ipad with headphones and a splitter. The kids got a morning cartoon and bananas on a tray while I scarfed down cup-o’-oatmeal and searched again for that one glove that was always orphaned. And we rushed to the lobby for hot chocolate and cookies every afternoon!
Tuesday was perhaps the best day of all: the holiday-weekend crowds had left (though even on MLK weekend it never felt cramped), and Hudson was legitimately excited to give ski school another try. We had shown him photos of his friends on skis and built up some more excitement; that and the fact that it was sunny and he was over any of the sleepiness/altitude effects from before gave me the sense he was going to stick with it.
So in an impulsive move, we split up: I rushed back to the daycare with Skyler and Aron got us our equipment back (though he switched to skis, that show-off) and another day of lift tickets!
Time was so precious, we didn’t even stop for lunch.
It was a perfect day on the mountain.
Made even better when we skied to the base and met Hudson coming off of his lesson and beaming!
He’d gotten to go up the mountain in the gondola (“four times,” he told us, clearly so proud) and do the bunny slopes near the summit. His instructor told us he was great at pizza and they could work on peaches (whatever that means… I gathered peaches are turns). And he was thrilled when we offered that Aron go up with him to do one last run. I was bummed to miss it, but I would go and pick up Skyler.
The two headed up in the Eagle Bahn gondola around 3:30, half-an-hour before closing, and did a short run only to find that the motor on the beginner chair lift was out of service for the next 20 minutes. They could wait or hike back up to the gondola for a ride down, or traverse the mountain down on green runs. They opted for the latter.
By around 4:15, as Skyler and I were watching everyone leave, I was getting pretty worried. But Aron texted that all was well and 15 minutes later I watched Hudson ride in on a snowmobile beside Aron. Apparently they made it almost all the way down before the ski patrol (who was following to make sure they got off the slopes) offered them a ride. It was a pretty spectacular end to the day.
I was so proud of Hudson! I love that he got out there and tried again.
We decided to skip the reservation we’d made at Mountain Standard and go back to the tavern at the base of the slope. I think we were all starving and we wanted to capitalize on the happy adrenaline high of coming off the mountain before everyone crashed. I have to say: the food at the Arabelle Tavern was delicious—both at brunch and at dinner—even if I felt a bit bad about not exploring more of the town’s offerings.
On our last morning we got out and explored the village a bit more. Some favorites: The Swedish Clog Cabin in Lionshead—a wonderful Scandinavian boutique specializing in clogs and all things Nordic; Skipper & Scout—a trendy children’s shop; the Gilded Spruce—a year-round Christmas emporium with real German arches (and nutcrackers!); and Kemo Sabe—which specializes in “all the things that go along with bein’ a Cowboy” and had an incredible (if pricey) selection of new and vintage leather goods and blankets.
A running theme of the trip was the kids’ desire to eat snow. Luckily we got fresh snow every night and there was plenty of new stuff to greenlight, because they were consuming it nonstop.
Aron and I opted instead for coffee, at Loaded Joe’s just after the covered bridge as you’re coming into Vail Village.
It turned out to be a wonderful quick trip and I was sad to see it end so quickly. We obviously just got a taste. I think of the night we had reservations at Terra Bistro and pulled up only to look inside and see evidence of “fine dining”—at least three or four glasses per setting at the table—and then looked over at our kids who were practically bouncing off the backseat and deciding to skip in in favor of pizza. That kind of visit will just have to wait for another time. But this one ended up being just what I was hoping for: a family ski weekend in one of the most beautiful parts of the country.
P.S. We did get some other very kind dining suggestions on this post from some Denver residents. The names I heard most often were Mountain Standard, Sweet Basil, Terra Bistro, Campo de Fiori, and Larkspur. There are also many places to eat on the mountain (you can take a scenic gondola ride—or in some cases a snowcat—up even if you aren’t skiing), and The 10th came recommended for its lunch views of the Gore range. Also notable, we stopped at Elways in the Denver airport (following one of those recommendations) and had the best pre-flight meal in ages. And we realized we had driven through Vail on our cross-country move to New York years ago, stopping at Moe’s Barbecue for lunch!