Vail, Colorado, is known for its world-class skiing, dining, and outdoor adventure. But, there’s more to this Rocky Mountain oasis than a mountain. The fall in the high country brings golden aspen leaves, fresh snowmelt water, and outdoor adventures that will have you wanting to come back all year long.
1. Take A Llama To Lunch
Hiking in the Rocky Mountains in the fall is not to be missed. The changing leaves on the aspen trees are a beautiful golden sight that’s sure to please any nature lover. So, if you’re going to hike, why not hike with a llama? Llamas are known for their gentleness, and Paragon Guides offers several options to spend a few hours with these furry creatures. According to Paragon Guides, llamas don’t like to be ridden but can carry up to 80 pounds of gear, making them the perfect hiking companions. The guided experience starts at Arrowhead Ski Area, just 13 miles west of Vail. You’ll have a meet and greet with your new furry friends before heading out on a hike. What’s great about this tour group is that they will customize the hike to your group’s abilities, so you don’t have to worry about doing anything too strenuous. The llamas will carry the gear and all the food and fixings for your picnic lunch along the trail. The entire trip will take about four hours. The group also offers longer hikes with hotel transportation included. And be sure to check out the Wine and Cheese hike, which features a hike with llamas, plus a wine and cheese pairing along the way. If you’re really up for an adventure, you can book multi-day llama trekking trips. You will hike from Vail all the way to Aspen with overnight stops at huts along the way.
2. Hike By Yourself
If you don’t want animals accompanying you on your hike, there are plenty of trails for you to take in the beautiful fall colors on your own. Favorites include hiking at Vail and Beaver Creek Resorts because you know you will get great views, and it’s fun to see the ski area without all that snow. You can purchase a ticket to ride the gondola or ski lift up to the top of either mountain and do some hikes up there. Take Gondola One up from Vail Village to reach Meadows Loop. It’s a 2.2-mile loop with minimal elevation gain rated easy. You can also access Ridge Route from the top of Eagle Bahn Gondola in Lionshead Village. It’s a 2.8-mile intermediate trail that has some amazing views. Or skip paying for the gondola, and hike up to the top via the Berrypicker Trail. The trail meanders through forests and meadows filled with flowers. It’s rated intermediate to difficult and is 3.2 miles one way. You can take the same trail back down. Or save your knees and hop on the gondola for a lift to the bottom.
Hike to the top of Beaver Creek from the main village via the Overlook Trail. It’s rated intermediate and is about four miles on a steep trail. For an easier route, opt for the Cinch Trail. It’s more of a dirt road and has a more meandering approach to the 2,000-foot elevation gain, but it’s a long trail -- about 4.5 miles. Another popular hike without the elevation gain is the Village Loop. It starts from the base area and hooks into Buddy’s Way Trail to make about a mile-long loop back to the village.
A few tips for hiking in the Vail area: A lot of these trails are used by mountain bikers as well, so stay alert to oncoming traffic. And be sure to drink lots of water! You are at several thousand feet above sea level and you will get dehydrated easily! It’s also best to wait a day or two to acclimate to the lower oxygen levels at altitude before setting out on any strenuous outdoor activity. Take that advice as permission to relax and recharge on your first day of vacation!
3. White-Water Rafting
All that mountain snow run-off in the spring and summer makes for some excellent white-water rafting in the fall. The Vail area has everything from Class I (easier) to Class V (experts only!) rapids along the Eagle River. Your rafting adventure will have you paddling through rapids, all while learning about some of Colorado’s history and possibly even seeing some wildlife! Lakota Guides is one tour group to check out. They offer several rafting trips, ranging from a few hours to all day, with varying difficulty levels. They also provide everything you need, so you literally just show up ready for an adventure. Some of the white-water rafting trips even feature a rather large blowup duck. Just ask about it! Sage Outdoor Adventures is another good tour group. They also offer several white-water rafting adventures. Go for the entire day or just a few hours. Also, choose your own adventure level -- from chill to heart-pounding! They even have trips where they will pick you up from your hotel and treat you to lunch. Timberline Tours and Colorado River Runs are other tour groups that offer white-water rafting trips in the Vail area. Tip: Colorado River Runs allows you to bring your dog on the rafting trip!
4. Turtle Tubing
Want to experience Colorado rafting, but without the fast-paced atmosphere of paddling and battling rapids? Then, Turtle Tubing is for you. It’s exactly what the name implies -- you are floating on a tube going the speed of a turtle (maybe even a little slower!). It’s the perfect option for a relaxing day on the water. The tubing starts at Dotsero (about an hour west of Vail along Interstate 70) and lasts about two hours. It ends down river where a mobile pizza truck waits for you before the Turtle Bus takes you back to your car at the starting point. Or you can make it an all-day adventure. If you’re staying in the Vail area (Vail, Avon, Edwards, or Eagle), you can pay to catch a ride on the Turtle Bus in the morning. It’s a pretty fun bus that has its own liquor license. The bus has scheduled stops in each location to pick up passengers to take them to the float launch point in Dotsero. After your float, you have a chance to hang out at Turtle Beach before boarding the bus for a pizza party, then back home. This is an all-day tubing adventure. Turtle tubing is so laid back that it makes a great outdoor option if you have small kids in your party. Or, if you have a large group, you can even rent out the entire bus just for your party! Prices for float trips start at just under $60, and you should make reservations in advance if you can.
5. Enjoy A Lake With A View
Just 10 miles west of Vail along Interstate 70 is Avon. Home to the world-class Beaver Creek Resort, it also has a vibrant town at the bottom of the mountain. Right in the middle of town is where you’ll find Nottingham Lake. The lake is surrounded by epic mountain views and offers various water sports through partner company Stand Up Paddle Colorado. They are located right at the lake and have both stand-up paddleboards and traditional paddleboards for rent. Or you can bring your own board if you have one. There’s also a swim beach, but watch out -- the water is cold! The sand is perfect for building sandcastles or playing a game of beach volleyball on one of the courts. Around the lake, there are plenty of grassy areas with shade to set up for the day. The lake is part of Henry A. Nottingham Park, which features a playground, soccer fields, picnic tables, grills, pickleball courts, softball fields, and an outdoor amphitheater.
Pro Tip: If you can time it right, one of the best times to visit Vail is at the start of what’s called the “shoulder season.” This is the season in between the busy summer season and the start of ski season. You can find great deals at restaurants during this time, but be careful -- some of the activities may close down for a short period of time due to decreased demand.