Check out these hiking and biking itineraries made for all levels this summer.
By Melanie Wong
Of all the national forest land that surrounds the town of Vail, none may be better traveled than Vail Mountain itself.
The sprawling resort and its famous Back Bowls are obviously wintertime playgrounds, but the mountain offers plenty of outdoor adventure during the summer months.
Eagle’s Nest – a popular stop for hikers, mountain bikers and afternoon gondola trips – affords spectacular views of the surrounding ranges. The top of the gondola, which sits at 10,350 feet and runs throughout the summer, is merely a gateway to even more trails.
Whether it’s your first warm-weather trip to Vail Mountain or you’re a longtime local who has every back-woods path memorized, there’s fun to be had and new routes to discover.
SneakPEAK compiled several itineraries for a day on the mountain, with choices ranging from mellow strolls to adrenaline-pumping bike rides. Even though you’re at a resort, still be prepared for a day outside – bring plenty of water, a rain jacket and energy-packed snacks. Keep in mind that rain showers are common in the summer, so it’s best to get out before late afternoon.
If a trip up Vail is your first introduction to hiking, off-road biking, or planning excursions of the whole family, you might want to check out one of the mountain’s guided hike or bike tours.
Join a certified naturalist from Avon-based nonprofit Walking Mountains for a guided hike, starting at the Nature Discovery Center at Eagle’s Nest near the top of the gondola. Two different tours are offered in the morning and afternoon.
The morning tour takes hikers on a mellow walk along the edge of Game Creek Bowl to the Wildwood lift, a gentle uphill that weaves in and out of pine forests. During the two-to-three-hour hike, your guide will show you wildflowers and animal tracks, as well as explain the mountain’s ecosystem. A second hike leaves from Adventure Ridge at 2:15 p.m. and takes hikers on an hour-and-a-half jaunt down the front side of the mountain.
Costs range from $35 to $55 per person, and one package even includes a mountain-top picnic for lunch
Want to move a little faster? Vail also offers mountain bike tours, rental equipment and basic instructions on dirt riding. Your guide will take you down Big Mamba, a brand-new mountain bike trail featuring perfectly manicured dirt and gently banked turns, as well as Lion Down, a wider route that ends at Lionshead Village. Bike tours range from $45 to $90, depending on rentals and dining add-ons. For more info, see www.vail.com.
For the adventurous
For those who want to blaze their own trail, there are plenty of intermediate options for adventure, especially with the leg-saving help of the Eagle Bahn gondola. Adventure Ridge general manager Jeff Althage says to keep in mind that Vail’s elevation will always be a factor for folks from out of town, so add extra time to what you’d normally need.
Vail’s Berrypicker hiking trail is burlier than its innocuous name suggests. It’s the warm-weather equivalent of Northstar ski run off Chair 11, making it a perennial favorite for veterans and newbies alike. Berrypicker leads up the front side of the mountain, beginning at the bottom of Eagle Bahn gondola and ending at Eagle’s Nest. On a crystalline afternoon, the root-infested singletrack can get a little crowded, but it’s the ideal combination of solitude and friendly traffic that hikers expect at Vail. Don’t be fooled by the seemingly short distance of 3.2 miles. The trail boasts a steep first mile and plenty of switchbacks, so it’s not recommended for small children.
Berrypicker has one major advantage over other trail systems in the area: You’re never too far from civilization. Once you reach Eagle’s Nest, grab smoky barbecue and a locally-brewed beer from Talon’s Deck, the outdoor restaurant in the middle of Vail’s marquee outdoor hub. Hike the trail on a Friday and get to the deck by 4 p.m. for the popular Friday Afternoon Club. Each week brings a different local band, along with food and drink specials. No matter what day of the week, if you stay past dark or are too whipped to hike down, downloading on the gondola is free for hikers and dogs.
Ride Radio Flyer and Big Mamba via the gondola
The gondola will cart you and your bike to the top of Eagle’s Nest, where you can enjoy panoramic mountain views before bombing down the mountain’s newest trails, Radio Flyer (just opened this summer) and Big Mamba (which debuted last year). Both are flow trails, meaning they are designed to follow the natural curve of the mountain. You can really get going on these, thanks to smooth dirt almost entirely devoid of roots or rocks, and banked turns that will rocket you into the next stretch of trail. Radio Flyer also boasts a giggle-worthy pump-track portion, a series of small rollers that is so long it borders on ridiculous. Both trails have the benefit of downhill-type features that will challenge your biking skills, but are completely manageable on a cross-country bike.
Ride Grand Traverse
If you’re looking for a longer ride, check out Grand Traverse, the mountain’s signature cross-country trail. This one starts at the top of Eagle’s Nest (take the gondola up) and disappears into Game Creek Bowl. From there, the singletrack traverses the ridge of the mountain along rolling terrain. The trail then leads through the open meadows and inviting forests of Sun Down Bowl before ending at ski patrol headquarters mid-mountain. To end, take the dirt roads back to Eagle’s Nest or down to Lionshead Village, or turn around and do the whole thing backwards.
The beauty of this ride is in the remote back bowls. Few people venture beyond the front-side in summer, so you’ll feel like you’re a million miles from civilization and get unobstructed views of the surrounding peaks.
Calling all daredevils
This category will appeal to two groups: those looking for an adrenaline rush and those looking for an endorphin rush.
Vail Mountain has several downhill biking trails, and although they remain relatively untouched during the week, offer plenty of speed and challenge. Riders should have a downhill-specific bike with beefy suspension, along with a full-face helmet and body armor. (All are available to rent at bike shops located in Vail and Lionshead villages.)
PMT is the mountain’s signature downhill trail, a steep route featuring roots, rocks, various drops and plenty of places to catch some air. Also try Magic Forest, which starts at Adventure Ridge and works its way down to Cubs Way. It meanders through the woods, with several drop-offs and challenging terrain features. Old Nine Line is probably the most challenging of the downhill routes, with a combination of steep pitches and very technical terrain. Keep in mind that you’ll need a gondola pass and bike haul to do these options.
Cross-country by pedal power
For those who like to earn their views with serious cardio, a ride to Eagle’s Nest from Lionshead Village will have you plenty warmed up for the descent down Big Mamba and Radio Flyer, or as a starting point for the Grand Traverse.
From the Lionshead gondola, make your way up Lion Down, a combination of dirt road and singletrack that zigzags its way up the mountain and through thickly-wooded aspen groves. It’s a lung-buster, but you are rewarded with great views of the villages below and the Gore Range beyond.
For more information on Vail Mountain trails, bike rentals and gondola times, check out Vail’s website.