How Green Is My Ski Slope: Or, Summer in Vail

More Colorado: Visit to Vail and Rafting

Having spent three fantastic days at Rocky Mountain National Park, it was time to move on, albeit with a heavy heart. Despite our pebbly-floored tent, Brian could easily have spent a week or more here exploring the parks proliferation of wilderness trails.

But he had promised Sylvia a chance to see one of the most exclusive resorts in the Rocky Mountains…albeit in the offseason when his wallet could withstand the damage. We were bound for Vail, CO.

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What is that strange sucking sound coming from my wallet?

Unlike some of the other ski hubs in Colorado – Aspen, for example, or Durango – Vail did not exist as a mining outpost or something else prior to its life as a winter retreat. It simply did not exist, period — until, in the early 1960, somebody decided to build a ski resort here. The resort was rather a success, as can be inferred, and today Vail is the third largest ski area in the United States (and the fourth largest in North America.)

The powder was rather spare when we visited, of course, with a copious base layer of grass on the north facing slopes making for quite gnarly conditions. Part of the reason we visited in summer, of course, was to take advantage of mid-season summer discounts. Brian and Sylvia are typically not skiers (Brian is saving what’s left of his ACL and MCL for hiking) and do not own the requisite oil well, gold mine or hip hop record label needed to stay here during the peak ski season.

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Sylvia, with Lancelot’s Restaurant in the background. She enjoyed Vail.
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Brian, with fu-fu fountain in the background. He survived Vail.

Even out of season, Vail is not cheap. In fact, Brian would not recommend staying here at all unless you are the type that own a gold cage for falcons. Though it advertises itself as having a ton of things to do during the summer season — from hiking to rafting to ziplining to wine tasting – in fact only a few of those things can be done right in town, and almost any of them can be done in any number of places all over Colorado. You don’t have to come here to hike, certainly. Brian’s advice for those who wish to visit is to stay somewhere else and spend one day in Vail Village. That’s really all you need. The nightlife here in summer can be pretty dead.

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Huge resorts like the Solana Hotel and Spa are the norm here

But then it is THE Vail. Sylvia enjoyed wandering about, browsing in art galleries (many of which were quite impressive both in quality and number of zeroes before the decimal place,) looking at handbags, shoes, jewelry and other luxury items in countless boutiques, and just in general enjoying the fu-fu gestalt of the place.

Vail Village was originally designed to resemble a quaint old Swiss Hamlet. While the more recent architecture has adopted a more modernist approach, the place still maintains some degree of its original European charm. Cars are not allowed on the winding cobblestone streets, which are lined with flowers, statues and fountains.

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(In fact, Brian found Vail Village to be much like Europe – it was expensive, inconvenient, much of it was old, the toilets often didn’t work, the service was often poor and the buildings had no air conditioning. Well, it IS a ski resort.)

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One of them there Swiss milkmaid clocks.

It is a charming place to walk around though. You can visit the Betty Ford Gardens, one of the highest altitude botanical gardens in the world. Former President Gerald Ford, by the way, helped popularize Vail; he was an avid skier and owned a home here long before he ever fell down a flight of stairs as commander in chief.

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One thing we both enjoyed about Vail was a cup of loaded coffee in hip, hidden Loaded Joe’s Coffee. We had breakfast here and it was good as any meal we had. You have to look for it.

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Dinner was nice here, but Brian actually thought the food in Estes Park (and later in Old Colorado City) to be as good or better. He was hoping to maybe find some fine imported German Beer, but almost every place (excepting centrally located Pepe’s) had the standard run of the mill Colorado Craft Beers. (Don’t get Brian started on his craft beer rant.)

One place we will mention in the Lancelot Restaurant right in dead center Vail Village. The food there was pretty good but our real reason for calling it out is that they helped us out of a reall jam.

You see, Blucifer’s curse (aka Brian waning cognitive abilities) struck again. After eating dinner at Lancelot, Brian left his prescription sunglasses, seen in many of the pictures hereabouts, on the table when we left the restaurant. As we were about the embark on a rafting trip the next day, Brian urgently needed these shades; after figuring out what happened the next morning, he rushed down to the restaurant only to find it closed, not to re-open until 5 PM the that evening. We had to be long gone by 11 am at latest.

We thought we were screwed – or rather Brian was screwed – for even our hotel could not help us. Brian prepared himself for attempting the rafting trip basically blind, because he could not risk taking his regular glasses on the river. But at the last minute, thanks in part to Sylvia’s persistence, we were saved.

Sylvia insisted there must be someone inside – and a doubtful Brian agreed one last try, and so we split up, each taking a door and banging on it. Brian, at the back door, was surprised to see someone inside – as it happened, a delivery truck was dropping off goods and BOTH of us got in through different doors, Brian through the back and Sylvia, a short time later, through the front with the delivery man. Brian found his glasses perched on a wood pile where the waiter had left them – all was saved! Back at you, Lancelot and crew.

(That was twice on this trip we were saved from Blucifer’s curse by a helpful Samaritan, by the way. Way to go Colorado!)

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Rock. Paper. Scissors.
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A ride on this painted swing was about the only thing free in Vail.

After departing Vail with our wallets barely intact and credit cards near to implosion, we headed south toe Buena Vista and a day of rafting at Brown’s Canyon on the Arkansas River. On the way we passed through Leadville, America’s highest incorporated town at 10,152 feet (It’s nicknamed the two-mile high city.) We did not have time to stop and sight see though, as we were on a tight schedule. We will have to return to the Two Mile High city to check out the saloon Doc Holiday once shot and killed a man in.

We also passed the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness, where the Colorado Trail passes through on its way west. Visible from the road was Mt. Elbert, Colorado’s highest peak, and second highest in the lower 48 to Whitney. Brian would definitely love to do a multi-day hike back in there.

Of the rafting itself, Brian and Sylvia are sad (and perhaps glad) to report that no pictures of it exist. We had no desire to take any selfies wearing the silly looking wet suits we were provided, nor could we reasonably take any camera or phone on the river without risk of losing it, nor did we particularly feel like shilling out the money for the official exit via giftshop tour photographs where were in the case of our raft subpar. (The second raft in our group, on the other hand, looked great, perhaps because they got stuck on every rock and gave the photographer plenty of targets.)

We thought the rafting trip in general was a bit underwhelming. While it was supposed to be one of the highlights of the trip it ended up being somewhat of a letdown. This was probably because we visited late in the year when the water level was low, and the Arkansas was simply not very energetic. We also felt that heavily visited Brown’s Canyon itself, while nice, was not greatly scenic. This is not the Colorado nor the Grand Canyon I guess is what we’re saying.

Though we booked a class III rafting tour (Brian swore he would never do Class IV again after one memorable trip on the Androscoggin in Maine) it felt more like Class II. The raft didn’t fly over the waves it sort of undulated. The trip was essentially a technical exercise in rock avoidance, challenging for our guides but nothing for us. We seldom paddled at all. Our guide, a very skilled youth named Malcolm, hit almost every passage spot on, and so the trip for us was pretty boring. As mentioned our companion raft, either less ably piloted or less ably crewed, hit almost every passage wrong and got stuck several times, often for minutes at a time.

(Sylvia by the way also criticized Brian for ‘sitting in the back of the raft’ and not ‘up front where it’s more fun’. This is a charge which Brian, who does not float well and has no desire to be thrown out of a boat into swift water, fully admits to being guilty of.)

After the trip we continued on to our final destination for the trip – Colorado Springs. This was yet another scenic drive through pleasant country, through not quite as nice as the drive from RMNP to Vail it was fun.

We went to ground in Colorado Springs, considered to be America’s Fittest City. The next day, we planned a hike that, by its name anyway, would seem to be fit for the Gods.

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