Lifts & Terrain

Lifts & Terrain

Our Terrain Ratings

Powderhound rating = advanced/expert terrain + powder + freshies + uncrowded

Our Terrain Ratings

Powderhound rating = advanced/expert terrain + powder + freshies + uncrowded
Frontside Vail Frontside Trail Map
Back Bowls Vail Backbowls Trail Map
Blue Sky BAsin Vail Bluesky Trail Map
  • Vertical (ft)
    8,120 – 11,570 (3,450)
  • Average Snow Fall
    354 inches
  • Lifts (31)
    2 gondolas
    3 high speed 6-packs
  • Ski Season
    mid Nov to mid April
  • Terrain Summary
    Area - 5,289 acres
    Runs – 195
    Longest run – 4mi
    Beginner - 18%
    Intermediate - 29%
    Advanced - 53%

Vail Ski Terrain

Vail ski resort is huge with 2,140 hectares (5,289 acres) of varied terrain for all ability levels. The ski and snowboard terrain is essentially divided into three areas – Front Side, Back Bowls and Blue Sky Basin.

The Front Side faces north (away from the sun) and has the greatest vertical. It is mostly heavily treed, and has the vast majority of the groomed terrain and over half the lifts of the resort.

The renowned Back Bowls are seven south facing bowls that suck in the snow and soak up the sun to provide 600 vertical metres of face shot heaven. Named Game Creek, Sun Down, Sun Up, Tea Cup, China, Siberia, and Mongolia (Inner and Outer), the back bowls offer some of the most fabulous inbounds bowl skiing in the world for advanced riders. The back bowls are largely treeless.

Blue Sky Basin is for advanced skiers and boarders. Some intermediate terrain exists as well, but there are only a few groomed trails in amongst the trees. The unmanicured terrain is a bucket of fun for anyone willing to go exploring.

Due to the sheer size of Vail, the terrain layout has some shortcomings. The resort has a lot of lifts but there are still large spaces of terrain between them, so there are an annoying number of cat tracks, particularly on the Front Side. There are only two long runs that almost go from top to bottom without having to swing around onto a cat track. Vail also has lots of flat spots at the top that may irritate snowboarders.

Vail Ski Lifts & Crowds

Vail’s massive terrain is serviced by a gondola (the Eagle Bahn), 17 express quad chairs, 4 other chairlifts, and an assortment of surface lifts. The system is modern and efficient, and the lifts are 100% powered by electricity sourced from clean, renewable sources.

Four lifts (Eagle Bahn gondola and three express quads) provide the oomph to move the crowds from the base areas. They generally cope OK, except on powder days and sometimes between 9:30 & 10:30am when ski school heads up the hill.

The true test of a BIG resort is to check it out on a really busy weekend. Vail just passes that test and even on President’s Weekend, the resort does an amazing job at coping with the hordes. Sure there are some common choke points, but the mountain is huge and there are places galore to find some solace. Check out the lift sign boards that indicate how busy each lift is, and avoid the ones with queues way out past the maze. Common problematic areas can be chair #4 (Mountain Top Express) and Game Creek because various runs funnel down to the lift and there’s no other way out.

Sometimes the volume of people is cringe worthy to a powder hound, however it is possible to avoid the crowds and find secret off-piste powder stashes, particularly during a quiet midweek period. However the marked trails are highly trafficked, so moguls develop very quickly.

Lift Tickets

If Vail has a drawback, it is that a day lift pass is very exxy (particularly if you have an exchange rate akin to the Zimbabwean currency). As to be expected, all the lifts, staff, groomers, ski patrol etc don’t come for nothing.

But just when you think your credit card will spontaneously combust, the aptly named EPIC pass comes to the rescue. The EPIC Pass costs the equivalent of a 5 day lift pass, but it’s good for the entire season. The Pass is valid at Vail, Keystone, Arapahoe Basin, Beaver Creek, and Breckenridge, so if you’re heading to Colorado for a few weeks, this pass is …..well epic. There are a host of other ‘benefits’ that come with the EPIC Pass.

Vail Snow

The average snowfall per season at Vail has increased over recent years to 366 inches (9.3 metres), possibly due to their cloud seeding schemes that aim to get more precipitation out of each storm! During the 2007/08 and 2008/09 seasons, Vail scored over 430 inches of snowfall. Strangely, Vail also has about 300 sunny days per year, so it’s perfect for fair weather powderhounds (if there’s such a thing!!).

The quality of the powder is pretty typical for the Colorado Rockies, and the elevation is reasonably high so the snow quality is well retained, particularly on the north facing slopes. And in case Mother Nature is being unkind, about 9% of the terrain has snowmaking capabilities.

Vail Mountain claims that they have the most groomed terrain on the planet, and their aim every day is to groom at least one trail from every major lift. However Vail probably shouldn’t be boasting about their grooming because it’s not their strength. Vail has a trillion cat tracks that they groom, and they spend a lot of time grooming the terrain parks. They even spend a lot of time making a huge wide trail down the back bowl when a narrower one would probably suffice. So considering the size of their terrain, it doesn’t leave them much time to groom the blue runs you actually want to ski down. We were disappointed that many of the blue runs were left ungroomed for many days, and got a bit of a fright in Game Creek when a groomed blue run suddenly terminated into bumps.

For the Beginner

Novice skiers are catered for in the Golden Peak area (Gopher Hill, a short walk from Vail Village) and the Eagles Nest (at the top of the Lionshead gondola).

More confident beginners can head up to the Sourdough Express lift which has the best beginner terrain at Vail. Beautiful wide, super groomed and tree lined sheltered runs converge at the base of the chair. There are various other green runs on the Frontside, but it may require some confidence to navigate these. Beginners will need to keep a trail map handy and their eyes peeled on signage. Unfortunately much of the beginner terrain at Vail is actually on cat tracks, which leaves little space for error. So get a lesson, learn fast and get on the bountiful intermediate runs.

Intermediate Skiing Vail

Vail is pretty good for intermediates, particularly low-end intermediates that enjoy short runs. Vail has countless intermediate runs. You’d struggle to ride them all in a week!

Many intermediates are understandably drawn to the Mid Vail area on the Frontside. There are some fantastic runs to be had, however be warned. It can get really congested. One of the fantastic advantages of Vail is that intermediates can also head down the Back Bowls and across to Blue Sky Basin. All that exploring is a lot of fun.

Vail has some limitations for strong intermediates who enjoy fast long fall-line groomers. In addition to the grooming problems outlined above, there are only a couple of runs that continue long enough to get the thighs burning (e.g. Blue Ox and Riva Ridge – see below) and lots of runs change ability rating on the way down. For example in the Lionshead area there are runs such as Simba; it’s blue then it turns to black moguls and then blue again. If you want to stay on blue trails…… you guessed it, you’ll have to head onto a cat track! And if you want to go at Mach 1 on a groomer, then your options are very limited. There are an abundance of manned slow zones and Vail proudly displays signs to indicate how many people have lost their lift tickets for speeding.

The Game Creek Bowl has some choice terrain for intermediates to progress and try a few advanced runs. On a powder day, runs like Faro, Ouzo and Ouzo Glade will get you onto some pitch, but with the added safety of being able to traverse out to ‘safer’ terrain if you get in trouble.

Vail Ski and Snowboard Terrain - Advanced

For advanced riders that relish the thought of a well pitched, super groomed, fast, long, leg burning black run, look no further than Riva on the Frontside. You can smoke down here at Mach 2 with your sphincter puckering the whole way as your legs turn to jelly. It generally only gets groomed once a week, so check the grooming reports.

For advanced riders that want to stay off the groomers, Vail is absolutely perfect. Vail has superb terrain variety including mega moguls, tree skiing, and open powder bowls.

The Back Bowls provide some of the best bowl skiing in the world for advanced skiers and boarders. The slopes are not particularly steep but the bowls are just beautiful. Boarders should avoid going out to Inner and Outer Mongolia, unless they are prepared for the torture of a long walk!

Blue Sky Basin is not super steep either and it provides fabulous tree skiing and boarding. In Blue Sky Basin there are some “must dos”. These include jumping off the extensive cornice at Lovers Leap, and hucking off the rocks in the Skree Field. Otherwise just go exploring.

To show off at the end of the day on the Frontside (or crash and burn in front of an après crowd), rip a bumpy line down Pepi's Face at the base of the Vista Bahn.

Vail Skiing and Snowboarding - Expert

Vail isn’t particularly well renowned for its expert terrain. Some people go so far as to say Vail is flat! Whilst Vail doesn’t have the steep alpine chutes of some other resorts in USA, Vail has a smattering of cornices, tight steep trees, and small cliff lines if you’re willing to do a bit of recon. The marked double black trails are not super challenging relative to some other USA ski resorts, but still a bit of fun.

Easy to get to technical trees are on the Front Side off the Gitalong Road. These include the Frontside Chutes, Mudslide, The Narrows and Pumphouse. Cover can be a bit dodgy here, so adhere to any closed signs or suffer the consequences to your body.

Also on the Front Side, long, well pitched bump runs exist off the Highline and Northwoods Express lifts. Opportunities exist to duck into the pine trees also. Various cliff lines, cornices and tight steep trees exist off the Northwoods Express. Drop in off the rim anywhere from between the top of the lift along to the Prima cornice area. However, scope out your entry before diving in!

For the Powder Hound

On powder days EVERYONE heads for the Back Bowls first (particularly Sun Up and Sun Down Bowls), closely followed by Blue Sky Basin. If you get on the first lifts this is fine, but on a weekend you’ll quickly feel the need to move on to find your own patch of paradise.

On the Front Side, if you want some turns sans people, look at the runs around the Northwoods Express. These include North and South Rim and Gandy Dancer. There are also some great ‘secret stashes’ in the trees and the old lift line to the skiers left off Cub’s Way. Some of the runs like Ledges and Minnies don’t get too much early traffic either.

The windows area in Sundown Bowl (Back Bowls) gets stacks of powder that can last a while because the entries can be a tad confusing. Siberia Bowl is distant enough that it can hold good powder even on a busy day, particularly towards Mongolia. If the Mongolia lift isn’t running early, the short walk up to ski the beautifully named Bolshoi Ballroom can be rewarding.

For freshies several days after a storm look to the trees. Riva Glade (Front Side) is fun but it gets tight down the bottom. There are great lines in the trees in Blue Sky Basin either side of the Skyline express. Explore the terrain between Heavy Metal and The Divide, and also between Montane Glade and the lower Skyline Express lift. This is expert country so buyers beware.

Vail Terrain Parks and Pipes

Vail has three terrain parks for different ability levels that are designed to allow smooth learning progression (Hah!). You can start off in the Bwana and Pride terrain parks which can be accessed by riding the Lionshead gondola. When you feel like a pro, head across to the large Golden Peak park, located under the Riva Bahn Express lift. This terrain park has a 13’ half pipe for warming up as well as an 18’ pipe once you’re a legend. The park also contains professional style jumps and enough rails and hits to leave you bruised and battered for a lifetime.