Think the Rocky Mountains are only good for winter activities? Think again! A summer trip to the world-famous Vail Mountain left this writer breathless – in a good way.
When most people think of Vail, CO, images of skiiers and snowboarders carving through six inches of fresh powder at high speeds is what typically comes to mind. And why not?
Vail’s reputation as a world-class winter destination is well-established and deserved, but to quote a classic tune from “Grease” – Vail could use a little more “summer lovin’.”
Up stepped P.R. executive and longtime Vail resident, Kristin Yantis. One of the jobs of Kristin and her firm, Malen Yantis Public Relations, is getting the word out about Vail as a premier summer destination. I was lucky enought to meet Kristin at a travel event in LA last year, and confessed my fondness for Colorado summers, having been there numerous times visiting a college friend who lived on the outskirts of Breckenridge. She promised to keep me in mind for a future press trip.
True to her word, I got the call from Kristin to come to Vail in mid-July for 4 days, the highlight of the trip being a guided hike up a 13,000-ft. peak. She seemes to think that after my February trek up Mt. Kilimanjaro, this mountain hike would be right up my alley. She was right.
I arrived at Denver International Airport on Monday morning and took the Colorado Mountain Express shuttle up to Vail, which takes a little over two hours with a Starbucks stop halfway. Kudos to the folks at CME for the free wi-fi in the van – a nice touch.
I was initially leery when I was told I would be sharing accomodation with two other male writers. My fears were abated when the shuttle dropped me off at the gorgeous Solaris Vail resort. It’s a beautiful building with all the amenities one could want. The three bedroom, 3-1/2 bath apartment I shared was easily 5,000 square ft., with a full kitchen, huge balcony, and well-appointed living room.
After settling in, I had some time to walk around Vail Village.
The summer crowds tend to be much smaller than the winter hordes, of course, and that leads to numerous benefits: easy reservations at the many restaurants and spas, hassle-free shopping in the stores, and best of all, hotel prices that can run as much as 50% less expensive than in the peak winter months.
Families were everywhere, both American and international. I was surprised to learn that Vail is a popular summer destination for the well-to-do families from Mexico City and South America. Along with encountering the occasional European on the street (or bar, as it were), it made for a refreshing bit of diversity.
The four other writers and myself had our orientation meeting that night, with delicious food and wine prepared by Food by Marc, and also met Don and Paula – the experts from Paragon Guides who would be leading us up Homestake Peak in two days’ time. After some instruction on what to expect and how to pack and prepare, we signed our release forms and committed to the trek.
In retrospect, drinking copious wine at high altitude my first night in Vail was probably not the best idea.
Word to the wise- alcohol hits you harder in the mountains, and so does the hangover the next morning. Feeling a bit groggy, the group met up with Ellen Miller from the Vail Vitality Center spa for a casual hike up Vail Mountain. Ellen is the real deal: She is a high altitude training specialist, a world-renowned mountain climber who summitted Mt. Everest twice, and is a coach/manager for the U.S. Women’s Mountain Running Team. Despite being far too qualified to lead a handful of novice hikers halfway up a ski mountain for an hour or two, Ellen was friendly and willing to answer all of our questions about hiking and the area.
Luckily for me and my hung-over state (drink plenty of water, folks!), a massage was scheduled for me at the Vitality Center later that day. Just a five-minute walk from Solaris, the Vitality Center is a full spa with a gym, jacuzzis, steam rooms, and of course, multiple forms of massage treatments. I enjoyed a classic deep-tissue massage and a steam, then relaxed back at Solaris for the rest of the day. Hey, sometimes you have to sacrifice for work.
I needed my energy for the following day, when we met bright and early to make our way to Homestake Peak, about a one-hour drive from Vail.
There at the trailhead, we met the real stars of our hike- the llamas.
One of the features that make Paragon Guides unique is Llama Trekking, where trained llamas carry the heavy bags and equipment up the mountain, freeing guests to hike with a simple daypack.
It turns out the llamas were excellent companions, calmly doing the grunt work without a hint of fuss, and grazing along the way whenever they pleased. It was hard not to get attached (mine was named Licorice and he was the best one, but then, I may be playing favorites.)
After about four hours of hiking with a break for lunch, we reached our home for the night- The 10th Mountain Division Hut, part of a system of 34 backcountry huts in the Rockies run by a not-for-profit organization. My mountain hut experience begins and ends with Kilimanjaro, and compared to those rustic digs, this hut was like a 5-star hotel. Two floors with beds enough for 20 or more, it seemed like the perfect place to stay at 11,000 or so feet.
We had some time before sundown to take a short hike up to Slide Lake, at the foot of Homestake Peak – a picture-perfect spot to finish the day. We then headed back to the hut, fed and tied up the llamas for the night, and enjoyed an excellent salmon dinner cooked up by Don and Paula.
While altitude tends to not bother me too much during the day (unless above 15,000 ft. – thank you, Kilimanjaro), I find sleeping at altitude rather difficult. Apparently I was not alone, as my fellow writers admitted in the morning they too were tossing and turning in their bunks. Still, we had a job to do – summit Homestake Peak.
At 13,209 ft., Homestake is neither the tallest nor most treacherous mountain in Colorado, but it is a workout to get to the top, particularly while having to navigate over the large boulders and jagged outcrops approaching the summit that give the Rocky Mountains their name. We left the hut a little after 7 AM, and most of the group ended up summiting around 10:30 AM.
Eventually, the entire group reached the peak by 11 AM. High-fives were shared and photos were taken.
From there, it was back to the hut for a quick lunch and cleanup, then a leisurely stroll back down the mountain, finishing between 4-5 PM. After bidding farewell to Don and Paula, it was time to part ways with the llamas. I promosed Licorice I’d stay in touch.
The shower back at Solaris never felt better, and it was all any of us could do to not fall asleep before dinner. To miss that meal would have been a shame, because we were treated to a full-on, multiple course treat at Matsuhisa, the world-famous Japanese restaurant conveniently located a 10-second walk down the stairs from our suite at Solaris. Each dish was better than the last, and while the sushi was excellent, don’t leave without trying some of their cooked specialties (and save room for the shaved ice dessert.)
Between the two hiking days and little sleep on the mountain, my body threw in the towel, and I hit the sack soon after dinner to prepare for my early morning shuttle back to the airport. All in all, a great few days in the mountains.
If you do fly in to Vail during the summer, my suggestion would be to give yourself at least 5-7 days to really take advantage of all the activities available. The Rockies provide just about any outdoor activity in the summer that doesn’t require an ocean: hiking, camping, fishing, golf, rock-climbing, mountain biking, rafting, etc. And for those less athletically inclined, there are enough hotels, spas, restaurants, and shopping to fill the days quite nicely.
The weather is warm with very little humidity, and cools nicely at night. Be sure to pack lip balm, bug spray, and definitely, sunscreen. Light rain gear is also a must, as weather can change quickly in the mountains.
Consider the Rocky Mountains for a summer getaway, and Vail, CO in particular. The weather is fine, and the price is right.
And if you do drink alcohol, don’t forget to drink lots of water as well. Trust me on this one…