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Planning a Family Ski Trip to Vail

ski vail with kids

Skiing Vail is all about numbers. How much are the lift tickets? A lot. How fast is the gondola? Fast. How many acres are there to ski? More than possible in a week. And there's more: What's the speed limit in a "slow zone" and just how long will it take to wait in that ticket line?

Vail is a BIG resort. Make that HUGE. There's 5,200 acres of skiable terrain. Which is both amazing and overwhelming. If you're used to high-touch experiences (and we are), you need to prep for this trip. The best decision we made was to stay at the Sonnenalp. The small scale and top-notch service at this resort made mapping out our ski days so much easier.

Let's start with navigating the hill. There are three base areas--so make sure you know where you are headed before your family splits up. You need a plan to handle Vail. The three bases are Golden Peak, Vail Village and Lionshead. Within Lionshead there's a little sub-village called Cascade Village. Make a plan and bring your cell phone and charger.

adventure zone for kids vail

For beginners, Vail can be intimidating. There are no gentle bunny slopes to be accessed down low. On the upside if you can get your beginner over to the Sourdough lift, you'll be in heaven. It's big rolling greens once you get up there (via a gondola and two lifts). Don't miss the Vail Kids' Adventure Zones on the mountain--we giggled along the glade skiing off of Boomer. Beginners are in luck when it comes to dining--the newly renovated Two Elks lodge is a huge dining facility with glorious views of Big Sky Basin. Try the hearty bison chili and my girl loved the pasta bar.

For intermediate skiers, try the Northwoods Express Lift. The black diamond groomer over there was the perfect place for me to get my ski legs back for the season.

Our 7-year-old loved the blue runs off the Mountaintop Express Lift. Cappuccino, "Expresso" , Christmas, and the bumpy Whistle Pig keep her happy and busy. We had a quick lunch one day at Buffalo's Henry's Hut--get a chili, coffee or soup.

buffalos break

If you're starting your day at Lionshead Square take the Eagle Bahn Gondola to Simba for a challenge or Born Free to warm up. Be warned, again both of these lead to heavily policed "yellow jackets" zones. The dudes in yellow remind you loudly to SLOW DOWN. We did hear tales of folks getting lift passes revoked for blatant disregard of speed zones--so heed my warning.

Ok, now on how to avoid the masses. Skip the cat tracks and take Gondola One back to the Vail Village base. Mr. Momtrends learned the hard way that skiing down leads you to Bear Tree a blue that was not only icy, but frustratingly slow since it was an infamous "slow zone." Vail would be a great place to get a private lesson for a day--getting an insider's view on how to ski this mountain would be a great investment.

My biggest issue with Vail are the converging trails. Much of the blue and black terrain funnels into green areas--this causes a bit of chaos. I saw a little girl get plowed into by an inexperienced adult trying to navigate the slow zone. WARNING: the cat tracks are chaos. And there are a lot of cat tracks. You must train your children to merge carefully. We wish Vail allocated some of the "yellow jackets" to manage these tracks instead of slowing people down on wide open runs. I'm by no means speedy (I like to keep it pretty), and I got a warning. It was the first and only time someone has told me to slow down on a ski hill!

slow down vail

The last area to ski was closed to us. Early season means Golden Peak is given over to the racers. When we were there, many international teams were training and the area was closed to the general public.

Vail gets great early season snow and that's why the race teams start the season here. On our Thanksgiving visit, about 40% of the mountain was open--that's pretty amazing so early in the season. New snow and snow-making increased the offerings to 50%+ by the end of our visit. Next time we stay, we'll come in peak season when we can ski The Back Bowls and Blue Sky Basin.

Now let's get to it. It's expensive to ski Vail. We spent over $1200 for three-day passes for two adults and one child...and that's with an early season discount. To get the most of your day plan ahead. TIP: buy your tickets in advance. We suffered through a 45-minute wait on a blue-bird day. Torture to someone who wants to get up and running. And if you're going to ski more than three days definitely look into getting a season ticket. But once you're up and running the skiing is heavenly and they get SO MUCH SNOW! While the West Coast and East Coast seem to be at the whims of Mother Nature, Vail is a reliable place to book a family holiday. Knowing you're going to have good snow on your visit counts for a lot!

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You know we love to talk about ski school. Since this wasn't an affiliated trip and I had to pay for everything we opted out. Vail touts the Max 3: full day or half day lesson with a maximum three people per instructor. We love that lessons start Vail Village and Lionshead. So you only have to schlep kids if you are staying in Cascades. Friends sing the praises of the ski school and we hope to try it out on another visit.

There's another way to make sure you get the most from the mountain: Be sure to download the EpicMix app before you ski at Vail. It's the best on-mountain ski app I've ever used. Not only will you get trail maps and alerts, you'll also get a running total of your data and stats from the day.

epic mix screenshot

I loved seeing the verticals at the end of the day. Another cool thing offered from EpicMix is the photos. Whenever you see an EpicMix flag pop on over and have them take a picture. All the social share photos are free. Plus you can purchase a package of unlimited high resolution photo downloads this season for about $50.

epic mix photos

Get all the details  be warned--this app is a suck on your battery life. We tried powering up at the Sprint charge station at the Two Elk lodge, but station barely worked. TIP: You might want to carry a portable charger with you.

As for things to do, see and eat in Vail Village, you'll want to reference our review of the Sonnenalp here--they've got some great restaurants and a lovely spa in the hotel. Here are some more picks...

cute baby gear

Shop for the kids at Skipper & Scout. This boutique is better than shopping in NYC. The owners have assorted the store to perfection. I treated our girls to a new outfit apiece. The sales team helped put together two winners. The store offers clothes and accessories for ages 0-tween. And they have the MOST adorable winter gear to snuggle your babies. Big kids will love the stylish selections from Egg and more. It's right next to the Vail Village skating rink--you shop while they skate. Everyone wins.

For fine dining make a reservation at La Bottega (970.476.0280 Phone).We had our most memorable dinner of the trip at this casually elegant Italian restaurant in Vail Village. They've got an excellent wine list and a full bar if you want a apres cocktail. I ordered some exquisite Colorado lamb and our table also had a gorgeous osso buco. Save room for profiteroles for dessert. Yes, you can bring children here, the elegant server was more than happy to customize some kid-friendly pasta.

nordic vail

If cross-country is your thing, head over to the Vail Nordic Center ( be warned--you won't get much help or a warm and fuzzy vibe, but this is the place to rent skis and find marked trails. Pick from 17km of trails--not the most scenic in the world since they run parallel to I-70, but it's a heck of a good workout.

As you can see, Vail is never boring and totally high end. They delivery excellent snow quality and a vast array of lodging. Bottom line: if you have a family who loves to ski and is already up and running with lessons you can't miss.

Here are some more numbers:

Peak elevation 11,570'
Vertical 3,450'
195 runs (18% beginner, 29% intermediate, 53% advanced)
Average snowfall: 354"

During our November visit the The back bowls and Blue Sky Basin were closed and we still had plenty of terrain to cover over 4 days. Vail says they get blue skies 300 days a year. Well, we got 5 of them on our trip, plus two days of snow. Now that we know how to manage Vail, we'll likely be backed and ready to go big.

This is not a sponsored post. We paid for all these experiences.

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