Vail Ski Resort opens for business today — but it’s no ordinary season for one of the world’s largest and most iconic snow sports destinations.
This year, Vail celebrates its 60-year anniversary with a lineup of special events and vintage tributes that take inspiration from six decades of evolution.
From its roots as a frontier outpost, Vail has become one of the most illustrious ski destinations in North America, regularly drawing skiers and travelers from places like Mexico, Argentina and Australia, not to mention Hollywood.
On opening day, Dec. 15, 1962, it cost just $5 to enjoy a day on the snow with the resort’s one gondola, two chairlifts, nine runs and eight instructors, plus condos and base facilities.
Now, that walk-up price is as high as $275, though you can pay significantly less by planning ahead with an Epic Pass, which also has single-day passes available for less than half that rate.
This significant inflation is perhaps unsurprising, but it begs the question: After 60 years and a pandemic, has Vail retained its roots as a western mountain paradise for snow-seekers in search of the best powder, or has it become an après-ski playground for the elite?
A surprising origin story
As Colorado ski towns go, Vail’s history is short. Though it has an old-world — some say Disney-ish — feel, it’s decidedly not old. For comparison, Breckenridge was founded in 1859, Telluride in 1878 and Aspen in 1879. In other words, there was no Vail until Vail Mountain.
Its inception has roots in World War II when the U.S. Army set up Camp Hale south of the Vail Valley to train the 10th Mountain Division for alpine combat in northern Italy. (President Biden designated that training center a national monument in October 2022, and the restaurant Margie’s Haas at The Hythe, a Luxury Collection Resort, Vail pays homage to an affable home cook who regularly fed the soldiers nearby.)
Vail was the vision of a former 10th Mountain Division soldier named Pete Seibert, who founded the resort with friend, rancher and business partner, Earl Eaton.
After returning home, many of the 10th Mountain veterans entered the burgeoning ski industry, including Seibert. He dreamed of finding a ski area to develop with a European ski culture vibe a la Bavaria, just as he had experienced during the war.
Seibert and Eaton climbed Vail Mountain in 1957, then the property of the U.S. Forest Service, and searched for investors to purchase the million-dollar permit needed from the USFS to start the ski area. Amazingly, early investors paid only $10,000 for a condo plus a lifetime season pass.
“While it has changed, grown, evolved over the years, I do think it’s stayed true to its inception,” said avid skier Jonathan Reap, Four Seasons Resort and Residences Vail director of sales and marketing.
“The mountain was created and founded by 10th Mountain soldiers — skiers that became soldiers that became entrepreneurs. Why? Because they loved to ski, more than just about anything in the world.”
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How a unique setting quickly set Vail apart
Vail has what virtually no other resort in the world offers: seven iconic back bowls that are now more accessible than ever thanks to new high-speed chairlifts.
To a non-skier, bowls may sound unremarkable, but these massive natural vessels for powder provide free-wheeling thrills to those in the know.
Then there are the 300-plus days of blue skies annually and Blue Sky Basin (with self-service grills for cooking your own mid-ski meal) a whopping seven miles from Vail Village — that’s how truly gargantuan the resort is.
For zealous skiers, it doesn’t get better.
To Bill Hanlon, 87, who moved from Boston to Vail in 1966 and never left, Seibert was “a visionary” for figuring out that Vail, at the apex of two snow patterns, had the perfect confluence of factors for a ski resort.
And not just any snowy hill, but “the finest ski area in the world,” said Hanlon matter-of-factly on the phone from his Vail shop of 54 years, Wild Bill’s.
By the way, today there are two gondolas, 33 lifts and 195 trails; the 4-mile run Riva Ridge is named for the location of a hard-won 1945 battle between the skilled 10th Mountain Division and the Germans.
“Anybody that came here, they came of their own free will,” shared Hanlon — whose goal is to ski Vail when he’s 90 — of the early days. “Everyone came here full of enthusiasm.”
Two weeks after opening day 60 years ago, 22-year-old Paul Testwuide moved from Breckenridge to Vail after getting to descend Cow’s Face with a friend on the ski patrol.
“I said, ‘I’m in the wrong ski area!’” the 82-year-old local recalled. “None of us came out to Vail thinking we were going to make any money; we came for the adventure of it. Everyone enjoyed the little wins we had, whether it be a new lift or a new trail or a new bar or restaurant or a new person moving to town.”
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Creating a superb ski resort from scratch
As modest as its first golden years may have been, Vail was not exactly an accidental achievement. It was developed with specific, strict regulations — such as a town center with only two-story buildings — like one big master-planned community.
Hanlon says they had fun in the process. “We could look at what was bare ground and see the development and be proud of what we accomplished.”
The ‘60s were an active time of speedy growth, with high-profile visitors such as former President Gerald Ford (who eventually purchased property) and the first — still standing — hotel, The Lodge at Vail.
In the ’70s came a transit system, new lifts and trails, an ice arena and a library. Four high-speed quad chairs were installed in 1985, and in 1988, the China Bowl opened with a new quad chair, putting Vail on the map as the largest ski area in North America. The Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater opened in 1987, which these days attracts the likes of the New York Philharmonic.
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Appealing to the masses in style
The last 35 years have been even busier and include the opening of Blue Sky Basin in 2000.
It seems clear that at Vail, high-speed lifts aren’t a sign of selling out. They’re precisely the point of it all: better access for the skiers and riders who come hungry for 5,317 acres of powdery half-groomed, half-natural terrain — much of it geared toward expert or advanced skiers.
Hanlon admits things “have gotten very expensive, yes, but our biggest crisis is employee housing.” It’s an issue at virtually every ski resort come wintertime.
There are bougie lodging options to be sure, such as the Biedermeier-styled, all-suite hotel and spa, The Arrabelle at Vail Square, A RockResort, complete with a daily Signature Hot Chocolate Cart, plus 60th-themed cocktails for this season.
There are high-end art galleries and reservations for upscale white tablecloth lunches with Gore Mountain panoramas at The 10th restaurant, which nods to the 10th Mountain Division in its name.
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None of this is actually too much of a departure from the early years. In 1971, my father worked as maître d’ and sommelier at The Lodge at Vail’s Salt Lick restaurant while spending his daylight hours skiing.
He wore a tuxedo to prepare tableside dishes such as steak Diane, Caesar salad and bananas foster for well-dressed diners.
“One thing about the town is that we never wanted to shoot low,” explained Hanlon. “Everything we did was done in a first-class manner.” Vail was intentionally upscale from the beginning and has remained as such.
While Aspen is the place with standalone Gucci, Prada and Louis Vuitton outposts, Vail has boutiques stocking high-end labels dotting pedestrian-friendly villages of restaurants, spas and luxury hotels. Somehow paparazzi are rare, allowing recognizable faces to stay somewhat off the radar.
A legacy worth celebrating
Vail’s Dec. 15 birthday — celebrated over an entire week — will include a cake, of course. Additionally, ice bars, the ultimate après-ski tradition that pays homage to a mid-‘60s concept that originated on the mountain, will once again make an appearance.
Testwuide, first a ski patrolman and later a chief executive, remembers drinking at the first ice bar, built by early Vail pioneer and investor Bill Whiteford, who he describes as “always looking for something fun to do.”
The very first one was rudimentary, literally piled-up snow with a sign reading “ICE BAR,” plus a menu featuring crepe Suzette, pizza, pastrami, corn beef and milkshakes. The fare is different today, but the idea is charmingly similar, with the addition of live music and signature cocktails.
This season there are two ice bars: one at Wildwood beside two new chairlifts, and the other at Eagle’s Nest, which can be reached by anyone via gondola (and also offers four private Snow Bungalows).
The physical forms will constantly shape-shift as the grooming team piles fresh snow atop sculpted ice block bases after each storm.
Local small-batch distillery 10th Mountain Whiskey created two bourbon collaborations for the occasion, too, including one named for Vail’s first avalanche rescue dog, Henry. (A portion of all proceeds goes to K9s for Warriors, which provides service dogs to veterans.)
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Speaking of Henry, a new partnership with ski clothing retailer Helly Hanson is reviving a Saturday lunchtime meet-and-greet called Dine with the Dogs.
Another special happening is the free limited-edition Vail Après Passport, which will be dropped throughout the season and unlocks special events and giveaways to those who make it to Signature Après stops around town.
Last season, aerial travel photographer Gray Malin shot two new fine art series at Vail, including a vintage one to be launched in January. The photographs will be previewed at the mountaintop Bistro Fourteen, which opens mid-December with a refreshed gallery-like design and an elevated menu of classic cocktails. Malin’s artwork is also being integrated throughout Vail.
Additionally, the sleek àpres spot Remedy Bar at Four Seasons Resort and Residences Vail has a new 60 for 60 menu that includes options for an appetizer, entree and dessert for, you guessed it, $60.
Even before this anniversary, Vail has always made an effort to illuminate its history.
During free Legacy Tours, hosts take groups of skiers around the mountain to share the backstories of how runs were named. At the Legacy Hut, skiers can write and address free fine-art photography postcards to be sent from Vail’s highest mailbox.
Mountain restaurants are also bringing back old-school dishes, including chicken and wild rice soup and pork green chile. There’s even an amateur “Look Ma Mogul Challenge” scheduled for early spring, with prizes for vintage-themed ensembles and hot-dogging ski style.
Looking ahead to the next 60 years
In true well-planned Vail form, the resort has also unveiled a blueprint for the next 60 years, including focuses on equity, inclusion and diversity; sustainability efforts; and adaptive skiing and snowboarding.
Most notably, it is working toward operating at net zero by 2030, with a custom recycling center and resource-efficient snowmaking. Vail’s soul has and likely always will be entrepreneurial in spirit, as pioneering comes with the territory in Colorado.
“Has Vail changed? Yes, it has changed,” said Hanlon, summing it up: “We had mud streets in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Now we have heated streets. That’s how far we’ve come.”
The warm, clear roads are certainly not dissuading travelers these days.
“Even though it’s a traffic jam of humanity, I think the ambiance of downtown has kept its character,” shared Testwuide. “They do a wonderful job of decorating it in both winter and summer, and it’s still a magical feeling when you walk down Main Street.”
With 60 years under its skis, as the lifts fire up for the first time this season, it’s shaping up to be a great year to visit the mountain.
Vail remains true to its roots as a world-class ski destination, but with a dose of posh flair so when you’re done for the day in its famous bowls you can relax in style and comfort — before doing it all again the next morning.
Read on for more help in planning the perfect trip to Vail: