In the Vail Valley there are many versions to this title phrase but they all share the same meaning. Many people come here to ski in the winter, but after being here in the summer, they stay. The mountains are absolutely magical in summer. The temps tend to be perfect, the mosquitos are minimal and the hours of daylight invite you to explore the outdoors. Throw in world class restaurants and shopping and you have the perfect summer destination. The downside of this amazing area is high prices, which I will help you avoid!
Even the least enthusiastic hikers will smile if you plan easy hikes
First let me give you an overview of the 30 minute quadrant of paradise I’m referring to. Travelling from Denver west on I-70 you will reach the town of Vail somewhere around the 1 hour 30 minute mark if you do not hit traffic (don’t be fooled into stopping in one of the other ski towns on the way, they are not as magical). Vail is a quintessential ski town filled with charm and lots to do. On each side of it are East and West Vail which really are extensions containing mostly lodging and some infrastructure. Heading further West you will hit Eagle-Vail, which is a town that is less touristy where more locals live (think better priced food). Continuing you will hit Avon, which is a small town full of infrastructure and home to Beaver Creek Resort. If you are in Avon, prices are more reasonable and again, more local. Beaver Creek, another charming ski village is amazing to visit, but not necessarily a good place to use as your base due to its smaller size. A little further west is the town of Edwards, which is where locals live and is far enough away from the ski slopes that tourists don’t often venture here but is worth the short venture for dining or even for staying.
If money is not an issue, fly into Denver, book one of the airport mountain express vans to take you to the area and stay in Vail village. You can take the local bus between various locations and book excursions that pick you up at your hotel. There are plenty of things to do (zip lining, adventure courses, rafting, horseback riding…) and places to eat to occupy you for many days. You will leave and will have had a great vacation.
If you are like us and lack an unlimited budget, make sure you have a car so you can enjoy the towns surrounding Vail and base yourself in one of the previously mentioned spots (Avon, East or West Vail or Edwards). The best part about summer is both Vail and Beaver Creek offer free parking so going into either village for activities is easy. The other benefit to this is you can hit grocery stores for some of your meals to off set the cost of eating out every meal. West Vail and Avon both have large grocery stores.
Some of our top picks for free or almost free things to do in the area are as follows:
1. Hike, Hike and Hike Some More.
The outdoors are calling in this area, so get up early and hit the trails. Bring more water than you think you need, sunscreen and plenty of snacks because you may find yourself hiking further than you ever thought you could because you are so caught up in the natural beauty around you.
There is nothing more magical than hiking through an Aspen Grove.
If you have ski passes, you can take the gondola up in both Vail and Beaver Creek for free. The benefit to this is that you are already at a higher altitude at the start of your hike so you have amazing views and you will have less elevation gain during your hike. Our absolute favorite hike is in Beaver Creek. At the top of the gondola head away from the building and take Royal Elk trail to Bear Lake. There are a few inclines but nothing too terrible and the end goal is an amazing mountain lake that is peaceful and breathtaking. We love setting up hammocks and relaxing when we arrive. Once you are finished you can walk down the mountain back to the base (this is an easier hike than hiking back to the gondola). If you do not have a ski pass you can hike up to the lake but this hike usually results in our kids complaining quite a bit!
Beaver Lake is our favorite spot to hang out.
In Vail, a super easy hike is Fireweed. You can take one of the gondolas up, hike about a mile straight across to the other gondola and head down. You are rewarded with amazing views with very little work. This would be a great first hike with your kids because it will build their confidence. Again, without a pass you can start at the base and work your way up. We have done this with our kids and they were successful, but tired.
Another option for a free hike that is amazing is Piney Lake at the Piney River Ranch, 12 miles north of Vail Village (driving directions on their website). The views here are even more stunning and the hiking is even easier. The drive itself is part of the adventure. The road to the ranch takes about 40 minutes and can very in bumpiness depending on the year. Once you park at the ranch, the lake is right in front of you. If you have a non-hiker with you, you can leave them in chairs overlooking the lake and start exploring. There are winding paths past the lake and through meadows and forest that are enjoyable and easy to do. At about mile 3 you are rewarded with a waterfall. This is a great turn around point with kids. We have never ventured past, but have heard it gets harder as you climb to upper Piney Lake and Knee Knocker pass and onto Mt. Powell (13,580’ elevation). The trail is 7 miles to the end.
Piney Lake starting point views are amazing
2. Betty Ford Alpine Garden, Ford Amphitheater and Ford Park
Located east of Vail, with it’s own parking lot, this garden holds the title of the world’s highest botanical garden. The gardens are beautiful and a lovely way to spend half of a day. You can wander, pick up the kid scavenger hunt or join a scheduled activity like weeding, cooking, yoga or nature walks. The gardens are situated on the Gore Creek, where you can spend time splashing around and playing as well. The gardens also have a wide open space for running around and an amazing playground. In addition there is a children’s garden area that will keep your toddlers and preschoolers engaged.
You can pose for photos all day in the alpine garden
Next to the garden is the Ford amphitheater where you can see free concerts on Tuesday nights. Bring a picnic and a blanket and join all of Vail for this highlight of the summer. There are many other ticketed events at this gorgeous venue as well but the vibe during the Hot Sumer Nights series on Tuesday is not to be missed.
Enjoying a free concert like a local
3. Free Events in Vail or Beaver Creek
Both ski resorts offer incredible festivals throughout the year. We have never been disappointed at any of them. Chances are there will be something going on when you are there and the vibe is usually relaxed and fun. Two of our favorites are Vail Oktoberfest and Beaver Creek Blues, Brews and BBQ. Beaver Creek also hosts yoga events, movie nights and music at the Creek so check local info to see if you can catch one of these. Vail has a run club and walking art tours. Even if there isn’t an event, the villages are fun to explore. The ski museum in Vail is a fun quick stop as is the children’s museum in Beaver Creek. If you don’t want to spend a fortune shopping, check the sale racks located outside of the stores. Most of our sweatshirts and t-shirts have come from these.
Vail Village has sculptures galore
4. Vail Farmer's Market
The place to be on Sundays in the summer is the Vail farmer's market. There are tons of food stalls and craft booths to explore. Our kids love going for all of the free samples and sticker, lip balm and sunscreen giveaway booths. We buy our fruit and veggies here as well. If you have never tried a Palisade peach, buying some should be your first priority.
If there's a line at the market it is probably really good
5. Nottingham Lake in Avon
Colorado may lack water but when you can find some, it is usually at the base of something beautiful. This reservoir in the middle of Avon is no exception with its ski slope views. This is a great afternoon hang out. Rent a paddleboard, bring snacks and enjoy the extremely cold water or the sand around it. There is a path around the lake, a playground and a music venue here as well where they have events throughout the summer.
Nottingham lake is a great place to spend a hot day
The rest of these are not free, but we think they are a good value and are worth checking out.
6. Good Deals in Edwards
The Thrifty Shop store in Edwards can be chock full of great deals so it’s worth a look. We usually stop a couple times during a week while up in the mountains. If you stop by on Tuesday, you can also get the best ice cream deal, $2.00 for a heaping cup or cone at Sundaes which is close to the thrift store. Other things to check out in Edwards are Village Bagel, which is in the same strip as the thrift store, and the movie theatre.
Sundaes homemade ice cream is awesome, especially on $2.00 Tuesdays
7. The World's Most Best Tacos
Vail Brewery and Rocky Mountain Taco Truck in Eagle Vail- This is our favorite food in the valley and it’s cheap which is why you will see a constant flow of locals there year round. The truck is parked outside the brewery and serves 5 kinds of tacos, quesadillas and tortas. Each of us has a different favorite so I can honestly say they are all good. At 2/$5 for tacos you can try them all. After ordering at the window, head in and grab a beer and enjoy your afternoon, or evening. There is both outdoor and indoor seating for the brewery so you are covered in all temps. You can decide if they live up to their slogan of World's Most Best Tacos
Does this make you crave tacos?
8. Simply Massage
Many of our favorite places have been shared with us by a local we meet on a chair lift, including this gem. This is the massage place that locals go to, because the prices at the fancy resorts are not what normal people spend. An hour massage costs around $75 and everyone we have ever had knows a whole lot about hiking, biking and skiing pain and digs in deep to relieve it. There are locations in Avon and in West Vail.