#VailBen Ongoing Dispatch: My Favorite Hiking in Vail

Jun. 10, 2014

 

Spotted this little guy along the Pitkin Creek Trail.

Spotted this little guy along the Pitkin Creek Trail.

If someone asked me what I thought was the one thing they should do in Vail during the summertime, I would have to answer “hiking.”

Don’t misunderstand me; the Vail Valley is home to some incredible summer activities, including mountain biking, whitewater rafting, fly fishing, award-winning dining, and A-list performances. But this is a mountain town. So the best way to understand Vail is to venture into those mountains on foot.

Step even a few feet into the wilderness and you’ll discover a whole new world of wildflowers and butterflies, birds and elk, waterfalls and snow-covered peaks. Around every bend is another vista more special than the last. Even a city boy like myself, at home among towering skyscrapers, can’t help but be speechless looking at this awesome landscape.

That’s why I have made it a priority to hike at least one local trail during each of my 10 weeks here in Vail. Below I’ll share some of my experiences, including hike highlights and observations.

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Know of a trail I just have to hike while in Vail? Be sure to let me know on Twitter or Instagram by using the hashtag #VailBen.
See you on the mountain!

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Berrypicker

 

One of the many wildflowers I spotted along Berrypicker.

One of the many wildflowers I spotted along Berrypicker.

Don’t let the sweet-sounding name fool you. This is no walk in the park. Just making up the initial vertical under the Eagle Bahn Gondola in Lionshead can be difficult (I certainly struggled). But you’ll be glad you did. Between ski runs lies a magical world populated with babbling brooks and fields of wildflowers. Even for a seasoned Vail skier, Berrypicker will show you a side of the mountain you didn’t know existed. As a novice hiker I love how well marked it is, making it hard to get lost. And the best part? It ends at the Mid-Mountain Village where you can reward yourself with lunch or spare your knees by desending via gondola.

Hike Highlight: wildflowers

 

Booth Creek Trail

 

The imposing Booth Falls at full steam.

The imposing Booth Falls at full steam.

After seeing a photo of Booth Falls, this popular hike shot to the top of my “must hike” list. And I wasn’t disappointed. While the trail can get crowded, I found plenty of time by myself. And the hike’s consistent moderate incline means it’ll make you sweat but it won’t kill you.

Even so, the reward of seeing Booth Falls will wash away any knee pain. When I visited, run-off made the waterfall a surging monster, its cooling spray wafting over the trail. And with plenty of places to sit and marvel at this gift from nature, it’s perfect picnic spot. Though one can hike all the way to Booth Lake, snow prevented me from doing so. But I hear it’s pretty inspiring as well.

Hike Highlight: Booth Falls

 

Fireweed

 

Watching a dramatic summer storm pass by on Fireweed.

Watching a dramatic summer storm pass by on Fireweed.

This trail on Vail Mountain is like a hiking Cliff Notes: All the rewards of the trail without any of the annoying switchbacks or cramping hamstrings. Traversing through the tall pine forests between Gondola One and the Eagle Bahn Gondola, Fireweed offers scenic vistas while being accessible from either lift. My traverse across Mid Mountain was especially noteworthy thanks to a passing storm that pounded the village down below. All I could think while walking the trail, camera in hand, was: My mom would love hiking this.

Hike Highlight: Gore Range views

 

Pitkin Creek Trail

 

Pitkin rewards hikers with open fields like this one.

Pitkin rewards hikers with open fields like this one.

I didn’t intend to hike Pitkin, but a wrong turn put me on its path. I’m glad it did. By far the trail with the most flora and fauna I’ve hiked so far, Pitkin’s steep switchbacks and dense forests give way to open valleys with incredible views. And though you might not get as close to its two waterfalls as you do on Booth Creek, the variety of Pitkin’s landscape encouraged me to push past late Spring snowfall and get as close to Pitkin Lake as I could realistically get. (Which was about .5 miles away.)

Hike Highlight: Valley views

 

Ridge Route / Ptarmigan Loop

 

Mount of the Holy Cross as seen from the edge of Ptarmagin Loop.

Mount of the Holy Cross as seen from the edge of Ptarmigan Loop.

These Vail Mountain-top trails features some of the best views of Mount of the Holy Cross from anywhere in town. Weaving across the top of Game Creek Bowl from the top of the Eagle Bahn Gondola, Ridge Route dumps you into Ptarmigan Loop and its almost 360 views of both Holy Cross and the Gore Range. And though some snow remained during my hike, especially on Ptarmigan, a short detour to the access road  just above the trail provided easier, if slightly less picturesque passage.

Hike Highlight: Mount of the Holy Cross views

 

Bighorn Creek Trail

The craggy peaks near the end of Bighorn Creek Trail.

The craggy peaks near the end of Bighorn Creek Trail.

My final East Vail trail didn’t end at a lake, but rather a rundown shepard’s cabin in the middle of a beautiful high-mountain bowl. The trail leading you there winds through mature Aspen forests, marshy meadows, and wildflowers fields. But it is this final bowl, with it’s majestic peaks that really took my breath away.

Hike Highlight: The creepiest cabin since Evil Dead.

 

Missouri Lakes

Walking along a waterfall on the way to the lakes.

Walking along a waterfall on the way to the lakes.

A local had told me that this hike, just off of 24 about 45 minutes outside of Vail, was her favorite hike in the area. And the relatively moderate three-mile trail to the first of several high-mountain lakes provided a wonderful variety of terrain and wilderness. Park in dry dessert before hiking through dense forest that would look more at home in the Pacific Northwest. After some scenic stream crossings and narrow waterfalls you emerge in alpine meadows before stumbling upon the lakes in question. The way the lakes abut the steep cliffs of the Sawatch Range screams “Instagram me!”

Hike Highlight: High-mountain lakes

 

Vail Trail

Wildlife near the entrance to the Vail Trail.

Wildlife near the entrance to the Vail Trail.

I’d been hearing about this unmarked trail near Golden Peak in Vail Village all summer. But it wasn’t until my final week that I actually found it. Just beyond the ski school lies a Boy Scout-built bridge that marks the beginning of a relatively easy trail that winds its way behind the mansions of the Vail Rec District Golf Course and through stunning Aspen forests. It’s a perfect beginner or family trail and great little Vail secret.

Hike Highlight: Aspen forest

 

Homestake Peak

Colombine on the trail up Homestake Peak.

Colombine on the trail up Homestake Peak.

Though America’s Best Summer Job didn’t take me up a 14er, it did get me to the top of the next best thing: a 13er! And not just any 13er, but this historic peak that was once a major training ground for the Vail Valley’s own 10th Mountain Division. Our backcountry hike (read: no trails) meant some of the best wildflower sightings of my whole adventure. It also included a stay at a 10th Mountain Hut, Colorado’s unique system of non-profit run lodges that house hikers and skiers alike.

Hike highlight: wildflowers

 

Racquet Club Chute

You can sit behind this waterfall!

You can sit behind this waterfall!

Another unmarked trail in the Town of Vail, this short East Vail hike (half a mile, max) rises above the Vail Racquet Club to a wide waterfall. But this is not any waterfall. A ledge makes it so you can crawl behind the waterfall and enjoy the rushing water overhead. I hear in winter waterfalls like this one become the site of some excellent ice climbing.

Hike highlight: A waterfall you can sit behind.

 

Piney River Trail

The view of the Gore Range at Piney Lake might be the best in the Vail Valley.

The view of the Gore Range at Piney Lake might be the best in the Vail Valley.

Quite possible the most magical place in Vail, Piney Lake is an isolated high-mountain lake only accessible by a rough dirt road. But if you—and your vehicle—can makes the 45-minutes journey, you’ll be rewarded. Hike around the lake, or rent canoes from the seasonal Piney River Ranch at the trailhead. Most will just hike the easy Piney River Trail to the top of a nearby waterfall. Almost every angle provides fairytail views so be sure you stop enough to enjoy them.

Hike highlight: Piney Lake.

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Click here for details on these hikes and others in Vail.
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Vail America's Best Summer Job BenBenjamin Solomon is the winner of America’s Best Summer Job, a 10-week, all-expenses paid summer job exploring what summer in the Vail Valley has to offer. A freelance writer based in New York, Benjamin has contributed to publications such as Vanity Fair, New York, Travel + Leisure and is the former editor of Next Magazine. Follow his journey on Blog.Vail.com as well as on Twitter and Instagram using the hashtag #VailBen.