While Vail is undoubtedly magical in winter, the town’s unsung glory days are often in early June — when shop windows pack colorful pansies and snow-capped ridges peek behind rooftops — and September, when the crowds have gone, the weather is warm, and golden hues cascade down the mountains.
Spring and fall are also the most affordable months in Vail: Visitors can save an average of 46% on lodging and dining. Between events like Oktoberfest (Sept. 6-8 and 13-15) and Vail Beaver Creek Restaurant Week (Memorial Day and Sept. 27 through Oct. 6), along with free live music, yoga, and hiking, there are endless ways to enjoy the valley without breaking the bank. Here are some of our favorite ways to spend shoulder season in Vail.
Hike (or bike) nearly 200 miles of trails.
Vail offers hikes for every skill level and age. Here, you'll find lakes, waterfalls, and wildlife (on a recent trip, we spotted a moose). Trail maps are available at Welcome Centers, ticket offices, and most hotels. If you are planning on hiking for multiple days, the seven-day hiking pass makes entry easy and cost-effective. Those who aren’t up for a climb can hop the gondola to the top of Vail Mountain for views that stretch across the valley ($42); kids 12 and under ride free with an adult ticket purchase.
To guarantee an animal encounter, sign up for Paragon Guides’ guided treks with llamas. On our trip, six of us (including our guide) were accompanied by two llamas, Blue and Gus. Since a single llama can carry up to 80 pounds, they did the heavy lifting (transporting our bags, water, and lunch) leaving us to enjoy the resplendent surroundings. At the halfway point, we stopped for a picnic — with a thoughtful spread of charcuterie, crackers, hummus, fruit, and veggies — looking out to the snow-capped back bowls of Vail.
The llama lunch hikes start at $450 for two people for a half-day (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.) and $95 per additional person ($55 each for kids ages three through 12; kids under three are free). The price includes lunch, water, and rain gear if needed. The trail is about two miles roundtrip and fairly easy, but the difficulty can be customized to your group. It is well-suited to families. Available from May 15–Oct. 15.
Try goat yoga.
You won’t break a sweat but doing yoga with goats offers benefits beyond the burn. The hour-long classes at Vail Stables begin with herding the animals and typically only cover a handful of poses before devolving into goat-petting and giggling — therapeutic in its own right. Leave your Lululemon at home; wear clothes that can withstand some gentle nibbles and hooves on your back. Classes accommodate up to 15, but the colder weather in shoulder season keeps it smaller. $40 per person, includes a mat.
Spend a day at Piney River Ranch.
The 40-minute drive from Vail to Piney River is enjoyable in itself: The winding dirt road, lined with Aspens and Evergreens, deposits you at this privately owned ranch located 9,350 feet above sea level amid the White River National Forest. Visitors can come for the day to hike or ride horseback, visit waterfalls, or fly-fish, canoe, or stand-up paddleboard — with the majestic 14,000-foot snow-covered Gore Range in the backdrop. Afterward, head to the lodge for lunch. The no-frills restaurant serves excellent house-smoked buffalo wings and brisket (available on a sandwich or tacos) and cocktails. (The signature is the Mountain Mule, which swaps vodka for locally made 10th Mountain bourbon.)
If a day isn’t long enough (it won’t be), opt to spend the night in one of the ranch’s stylish lakeside cabins or glamping tents, fitted with wood-burning stoves and campfires. There’s no wifi or cell service here (or private showers, for that matter), so be prepared to disconnect. The ranch is open from June 21 to the end of September, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. The dirt road does stay open for a bit after the ranch’s closing date for those who want to access trails or camp. For visits after September 30, call the U.S. Forest Service to check the road condition. Though, it's important to remember: At 2,000-plus feet higher than Vail, the weather at Piney can differ substantially.
Stroll, shop, and dine in Vail Village.
The European-style village is connected by car-free cobblestone streets (heated in winter), which make it easy for visitors to browse high-end shops, walk to one of the dozens of excellent restaurants, and bar-hop at night. Beginning in June, the lawn in front of Solaris hosts free yoga classes every Saturday morning at 9 a.m. through late September and a farmer’s market every Sunday through October 6.
CinéBistro — a movie theater that serves food and drinks — is a great way to spend a rainy day or evening with the family. Vendetta's, is a pizzeria and bar that's owned by Vail’s Mayor Dave Chapin. The restaurant is a longstanding local favorite and the after-work haunt for ski patrol workers in winter. Terra Bistro has a standout selection of cocktails and fusion dishes — try the ahi tuna tots (sushi-grade tuna, crispy rice, and yuzu aioli) and the asparagus and prosciutto (tossed with truffle oil, shiitake mushrooms, and parmesan) to start. The newly remodeled La Nonna specializes in homemade pasta, using flour flown in from Ferrara, Italy. Large arched windows let you take in breathtaking mountain views while you carb-load. On a brisk night, there’s nothing more comforting than the decadent raclette cheese fondue with a glass of Reisling at Swiss Chalet restaurant at the Sonnenalp.
Get acquainted with America’s alpine history.
The Snow Sports Museum in the center of Vail village is worth a stop, especially if the weather isn’t great. The exhibit, which is dedicated to the 10th Mountain Division — the locally trained mountain troopers who led one of the most successful surprise attacks on the Germans in World War II — is fascinating. Another neat section features the evolution of the sport’s fashions and equipment, with skis and boots dating from the 1800s. Best of all, it’s free — so you can spend an hour or pop in more than once when you have smaller blocks of time.
See live music and comedy.
As soon as the city thaws, the calendar is flooded with live music performances — between late June and September, you can catch a show almost every night of the week, and many are free. Vail’s most scenic venue, the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater, hosts the Bravo! Music Festival (June 20 through Aug. 4), which features world-renown orchestras. Lawn seats range from $5 to $29 and are perfect for a scenic picnic.
Whistle Pig, which runs through mid-September, is more modern; this year’s acts include comedians Steve Martin and Martin Short, Steve Miller Band (Aug. 14), and Gary Clark Jr. (Sept. 5). The 10-week Vail Jazz Festival features top artists from around the world from June through September. In June and July, the Summer Bluegrass Series is entirely free, and the three-day Bonfire Block Party in early June features three stages with live acts on the streets of downtown Eagle.
PRO TIP: If you’re planning to picnic, order a gourmet picnic box from the Grazing Fox. The local company specializes in artful displays of cheese, charcuterie, and seasonal treats (such as nuts, olives, fruit, preserves, vegetables, and crackers) and they deliver to your hotel or vacation rental prior to your show (or hike). All boxes are 100% recyclable and include compostable bamboo cutlery. Prices start at $20 (minimum five boxes, which are ideal for families); $30 for up to two people, and $56 for up to three. However, the portions are generous and can feed more if you’re planning to have dinner after.
Between the Eagle River, Gore Creek, the Colorado River, the Roaring Fork River, and the Yampa, the Vail Valley offers some of the best fly-fishing in the country. While it’s truly a year-round activity, fall (September to early November) is one of the best times because the weather is still warm, flows are generally low and clear, crowds are nil, and trout are in abundance. Gore Creek, which runs through Vail village, offers Gold Medal fishing waters (meaning it can produce 60 lbs of trout per acre) and isn’t crowded.
Perhaps the best-kept secret, though, is Piney Creek. As the Piney River approaches its confluence with the Colorado, it flows through the sprawling, 30,000-acre Piney Valley Ranch. Sage Outdoor Adventures is the sole fly-fishing outfitter with access to these hard-to-get-to waters (they are not otherwise open to the public). They offer excellent half- and full-day tours ($449 for one, $649 for two people; and $749 for one, $949 for two people, respectively). Trips include ATVs to navigate the ranch, high-end fly-fishing gear, and a gourmet lunch. Space is limited to maintain a high-quality experience.
Visit the botanical gardens.
Set at 8,250 feet above sea level, the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens are the highest in the U.S. It offers trails for hikes and leisurely strolls past perennial flowers, rock gardens, and waterfalls amid Colorado's Gore Range. Beyond the flora, the gardens host classes and exhibits. Exposed: The Secret Life of Roots, which features spectacular 20-foot-tall, floor-to-ceiling root systems — is on view for the first time since it debuted at the US Botanic Garden in 2015 (on display through Nov. 2). Yoga classes are held several times a week below the waterfall ($15). The gardens are open year-round from dawn until dusk; however, the paths are not maintained in winter. Public tours are available on a first-come, first-served basis on Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays ($10).
Good to Know
Vail can be cool and rainy in spring. On our recent trip, the weather alternated between a hot morning sun and chilly, rainy afternoons. Fortunately — from a visit to the Ski Museum to spa packages with heated pools — Vail operates as a year-round destination with ease. There’s still plenty to do.
How to get a deal
Pick up a copy of the local paper, The Vail Daily, for free and inexpensive happenings during your stay. Some hotels, like the Sonnenalp, will deliver it to your room upon request. Another great resource for current deals and offers is the free Vail app, which lists daily deals on dining, drinks, and parking, plus an events calendar and GPS navigation.
How to get around
If you don’t want to rent a car, Epic Mountain Express offers affordable van-pooling between Eagle County (Vail) Airport and Vail/Beaver Creek for $39 one-way, and $59 round-trip. The company is also offering discounted rates between Denver Airport and Vail through October 31.
Once in town, Vail’s free bus system — the largest free bus system in the U.S. — provides reliable, easy-to-navigate service between the mountain, Vail village, and other points of interest, like the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater, year-round.