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The best things to do in Vail, Colorado during the summer

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Girl sitting on dock at Piney River Ranch outside of Vail, Colorado.

Nestled in the Rockies about 100 miles west of Denver lies a Bavarian village where life’s worries tend to melt away in the fresh mountain air. Vail, Colorado, isn’t like the other mountain towns that dot the state. From its inception, Vail was designed to transport visitors out of their everyday realities and into their dream vacation. And it did exactly that on my most recent summer trip to the valley.

From the moment I pulled up to the valet parking at the Sonnenalp Hotel, the main character vibes began. Even though I was approximately 6 hours early for check-in, I was welcomed with the warmest European hospitality as if they had been anxiously awaiting my arrival. Check-in was speedy, and my luggage was quickly whisked off to a safe location allowing me to wander around Vail Village unburdened while I waited for my room.

I arrived on a Sunday morning, which meant Vail’s Farmer’s Market was in full swing. I knew that Vail was designed to resemble the quaint mountain villages gracing the foothills of the German and Swiss Alps. But as I stepped out into the heart of Vail Village, I was enchanted by the alpine charm. The scene transported me to some far away destination – one much, much farther away from home than Colorado. The experience was surreal.

I had only just arrived in Vail, but I could already tell that it wasn’t going to be just another destination. There’s no denying that there is something special about Vail, as if it exists specifically as a reminder to enjoy life. The best way to put it is when you’re in Vail, it feels like Life is But a Dream.

Where To Stay In Vail, Colorado

The outdoor swimming pool at the Sonnenalp in Vail is the perfect place to unwind and relax during your dream summer vacation.

The Sonnenalp Hotel

When the little bed and breakfast that inspired the Sonnenalp first opened in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century, Vail wasn’t even a thought yet. As that quant German inn evolved, its founders dreamed of bringing their legacy of European hospitality to America. And in the 1960s, as word spread about the burgeoning village at the base of the Vail Ski Resort, they decided the time was right.

The Sonnenalp and Vail have been together since the beginning, and the two now feel inextricably intertwined. Since its inception over 40 years ago, the hotel has grown into an icon of Vail Valley, and like the town itself, The Sonnenalp wastes no time effortlessly whisking you off to another place and time – one where the air feels fresher. Life feels lighter. And spirits are lifted to a new high.

Each room at the Sonnenalp is appointed with a cozy gas fireplace.

While at the Sonnenalp, I stayed in a one-bedroom suite overlooking Gore Creek and the swimming pool. Custom-made Bavarian furniture, a well-appointed fireplace, and beamed ceilings imbued the space with a sense of cozy tranquility that I’ve rarely experienced during my travels. Exploring the Vail Valley held something new every day, but the feeling that I was returning home at the end of each remained the same.

The Best Things To Do In Vail Colorado In The Summer

Vail Ski Resort is a world-renowned winter destination, but in the summer, there’s another world of personal goals to achieve, dreams to fulfill, and mountains to climb. Whether you like to be pampered or push your physical limits, there’s something for everyone. The confines of reality are a mere suggestion in Vail, and the only thing standing between you and everything Vail has to offer is time. But not to worry, I’m here to help you make the most of it! Here are the best things to do in Vail, Colorado, during the summer!

Go For A Hike In The Beautiful Mountains Surrounding Vail

The Rockies are known for their outstanding hiking opportunities, and Vail is no exception. In late July, the hiking trails were awash in wildflowers so spectacular that I found myself in a constant state of awe. While I’m going to share one hike for every comfort level, I encourage you to do a little research of your own. You never know what hidden hiking gem you might find. Try visiting the Discover Vail website, ask locals, or hire a guide. The options for outdoor exploration in the Vail Valley during the summer are limitless!

In late July the mountains around Vail explode with wildflowers. Getting out on a hike should definitely be part of any dream summer vacation in the area.

Easy Summer Hike In Vail: Eagles Loop

Eagles Loop is a mostly flat 1-mile loop at the top of the Eagle Bahn gondola. This short and sweet trail is perfect for families with small kids or anyone who wants to enjoy the mountain scenery without breaking too much sweat. You will need to purchase a ticket for the gondola, but the ride is half the fun!

Moderate Summer Hike In Vail: Shrine Ridge

The Shrine Ridge trailhead is accessed a few miles up Shrine Pass road on Vail Pass. This 4-mile round trip trail starts pretty mellow as it slowly climbs through pine-studded meadows. The final push to the saddle is a bit steeper; if you’re not used to the elevation, you’ll feel it. Spectacular 360-degree views at the top will take your breath away again – but this time for a different reason.

While there were wildflowers on all the hikes I did, Shrine Ridge stood out from the rest for the sheer diversity. Pinks, red, purple, yellow, and orange. A kaleidoscope of colors made this hike particularly special in late July.

Difficult Summer Hike In Vail: Notch Mountain Trail

Notch Mountain Trail is a longer, more challenging hike. It will take about 5 miles to reach the Notch Mountain Shelter, a great place to stop for lunch and take in the views before heading back down. The trail delivers sweeping, high alpine scenery featuring one of the best views of the famous Mount of the Holy Cross. Trees shade the first half, but you’ll want to bring your sunscreen for the more exposed section toward the top. It is a bumpy eight-mile drive up Tigiwon Road to the trailhead, so plan to get an early start for this one.

Tips for hiking in Vail during the summer

Acclimatize.

Nothing ruins a vacation faster than not feeling your best. Vail is a little over 8,000 feet high, and it’s only up from there. You will feel the elevation if you’re coming from sea level like me. But you can help avoid altitude sickness by taking it slow, spending a day in town before you hit the trails, and perhaps most importantly, staying hydrated!

Start early.

At higher elevations, the sun hits different. Get an early start to avoid the mid-day heat and afternoon thunderstorms. Moreover, getting an early start means that you’ll be sharing the more popular trails with fewer people!

Leave it better than you found it.

I’m constantly trying to balance the desire to share beautiful locations with people, with the need to protect fragile ecosystems. You can do your part by enjoying the outdoors responsibly and always practicing Leave No Trace Principles. If you are a photographer, I’d also encourage you to check out Nature First. Its mission is to “help conserve the places we love and photograph through wise use, education outreach, community, and research.” Both websites are great resources for minimal impact practices that will help preserve nature’s beautiful locations.

Hire a guide.

During my trip, I took a half-day hike with Paragon Guides. They’ve been getting people out into the mountains since 1978, so it’s safe to say you’ll be in good hands! A guide will deal with all the logistics and bring a wealth of local knowledge to the table. Learning about the area’s local flora, fauna, and history made for an elevated hiking experience. Next time I’m in Vail during the summer I want to join one of Paragon’s famous Llama Hikes!

Take A Photography Tour From A Vail Local.

As part of my Dream Vail Trip, I explored Vail with award-winning professional landscape and conservation photographer Todd Winslow Pierce. Not only did I learn a ton about photography during my excursion with Todd, but I was also able to get off the beaten track in a way that would have never happened on my own. Todd has lived in Vail Valley more or less from its inception. In fact, his father helped design Vail Village’s layout, the Sonnenalp, and other iconic buildings in the area. I’d venture to guess that few people are as intimately familiar with Vail’s history. If you’re looking for a unique way to discover the Vail Valley that you won’t find in a guidebook, this is for you!

As part of my Dream Trip To Vail, Colorado, I was able to go on a photography adventure. For this photograph we practiced creating motion in the water by using a slower shutter speed.

Wander Around Vail Village

Vail Village is dazzling. In the summer, brilliant flower displays hang from every window box, picturesque outdoor cafes buzz with patrons, and pedestrians wander the winding cobblestone streets on their way to everywhere and nowhere. From the scenery to the food, a stroll through Vail Village will transport you to Bavaria. There were times when I literally forgot I was in Colorado! Oh, and the people watching is immaculate.

Vail Village was designed to resemble one of the picturesque Bovarian town found in the European Alps. At sunset, it’s straight out of a fairytale.

Enjoy A Spa Day At The Sonnenalp Vail

The Sonnenalp Spa is where “Vail goes to relax.” Even if you aren’t staying at the hotel, it’s worth booking a treatment there. Off-property guests coming in for a spa treatment still get access to the entire spa facility, including the pools, whirlpools, and saunas. It’s a great way to treat yourself after hitting the trails or just because you need a little extra R&R. I was lucky enough to get a massage, facial, and mani-pedi while I was there, and every treatment was perfection. Still, my favorite part might have just been relaxing by the meticulously landscaped outdoor pool, with the tranquil sound of the Gore Creek burbling in the background.

The indoor pool and whirlpool are part of the facilities that guests of the Sonnenalp Spa get to enjoy.

Take A Day Trip Up To Piney River Ranch

If you only have time for one day trip during your summer vacation to Vail, Piney River Ranch would be my recommendation. Set on the edge of Piney Lake and nestled at the foot of the Gore Range, Piney River Ranch is a private, forty-acre retreat that is simply breathtaking. Despite its relative proximity to Vail (12 miles down a pretty bumpy dirt road), you’ll feel like you’re worlds away.

The Ranch is probably most well known as a popular wedding venue – and it’s not hard to see why. But there’s no end to the fun outdoor activities you can get up to as a visitor: canoeing, paddle boarding, hiking, and horseback riding, to name a few. The area is also home to abundant wildlife like moose, bears, deer, eagles, marmots, foxes, and loads of trout. All of which I had the pleasure of viewing – except for a bear, which I was okay with!

I arrived at Piney River Ranch a little before 9 am (when the property opens) and had the lake all to myself for about an hour. After watching a couple of moose wander along the far edge of the lake from the safety of my canoe, I headed out on the 6-mile Piney Falls trail. While I didn’t have time to complete the hike, I still enjoyed abundant wildflowers, shady aspens, and prominent views of Mt. Powell in the distance. Having worked up an appetite on the trail, I grabbed a yummy lunch at the restaurant. Then it was time to head to the stables for my horseback ride.

Piney River Ranch has a unique way of making you feel like a kid again. There’s a distinctive summer camp vibe that feels both nostalgic and playful at the same time. I left the Ranch that day feeling fulfilled in a way that only a day of completely disconnecting from the outside world can do.

Shop Local At Vail’s Sunday Farmers Market

Every summer Sunday, from 9:30 am – 3:30 pm, You’ll find what feels like the entire population of Vail Valley at the Vail Farmer’s Market and Art Show. The market stalls are located in the heart of Vail Village, and it’s a scene not to be missed! Support local artisans, grab some goodies for a picnic, or grab a coffee and enjoy a stroll through the stalls. There’s a lot to see, and it’s hard to imagine a more picturesque setting.

Best Places To Eat In Vail, Colorado

Vail is full of great food! Here are a few places from my trip worth mentioning:

  • Ludwig’s – Famous for its breakfast, you can choose from a full menu or enjoy the European-inspired buffet. For the best atmosphere, snag a table on the beautiful glass-enclosed terrace.

  • Swiss Chalet at Sonnenalp – “Toto, I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Colorado anymore.” Nothing will transport you to the Swiss Alps as quickly as some hot gooey cheese. Get the whole experience at the Swiss Chalet!

  • Alpenrose – This Bavarian-inspired restaurant serves all the classics, including schnitzel and giant pretzels, in one of the best settings in the village. Make sure to reserve outdoor dining if available.

  • La Nonna Restaurante – I’d classify this as elevated yet authentic Italian food. The fresh pasta was particularly yummy.

  • Mountain Standard – A Gastropub offering New American fare along Gore Creek. A large portion of the menu is prepared over an open and live wood fire. That being said, the Kampachi Crudo is not to be missed.

Take A Vail Dream Trip

Sometimes planning a trip is half the fun. Sometimes it’s not. And if that’s the case for you, Discover Vail has you covered with their Dream Getaway Packages. They’ve curated a handful of exclusive, one-of-a-kind packages to inspire you as you plan you summer vacation to Vail.

While in Vail, I was able to experience the “Vail Photography Excursion” getaway. Not having to deal with the logistics of planning a trip was lovely. But for me, what made the excursion a dream was the unique experiences with locals that I wouldn’t have otherwise had. I rarely leave a destination feeling like I did more than just scratch the surface. On this trip, I was able to dive deeper with the help of all my local guides. And because of those dream experiences, I know that Vail will stick with me long after returning home.

Win One Of Three Dream Trips To Vail!

This summer, win one of three Dream Trips to Vail. Select from the Vail Photography Excursion, Dream Golf Experience or 10th Mountain Package for one of these special giveaways that are valued starting at $14,000. Rules and restrictions detailed on the entry page.

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  1. Kirtan Patel says:

    Amazing post, Jess! I was able to experience the “alpine charm” through the words. Love the tips and submitted my entry 🙂 What was the name of the horse you rode at The Ranch?

    • Jessica Dales says:

      Thank you so much Kirtan. It was a great trip! Really transported me back to the European Alps, which is always a magical experience. I hope you’re doing well and enjoying your summer!

  2. Ron Rose says:

    Jess, I’m so happy you are posting again. I love to read about your adventures around the world. I’ve been to Colorado but not to Vail. After reading your post I added Vail to my bucket list. It does look like Europe Alps and has the same friendly people and atmosphere. This place will have to be added to my list and I thank you for providing information about great hikes, places to eat and visit.

    • Jessica Dales says:

      Thanks so much Ron! I’m excited to get back into it as well. I always get a lot of satisfaction from completing a blog post. Thanks for sticking with me! And I do hope that you make it to Vail at some point. It’s definitely a special place.

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Hi, I’m Jess, an outdoor enthusiast based in Seattle. I grew up exploring the Pacific Northwest, and early on was infected with the travel bug. I tried to suppress my wanderlust in pursuit of a traditional career path, but after a short stint as a lawyer, I left the confines of my office to get back in touch with my roots. Now, I wander the world taking photos, making memories, and sharing my love for travel with others!

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