Published by Jeremy. Last Updated on February 15, 2024.
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Before taking a trip out west to ski at Vail, I have to admit I was a little worried. I am a beginner skier, and the entirety of my skiing experience has been on slopes in western Pennsylvania which is known for being compacted and, dare I say, icy.
Everyone I spoke to said if I could ski to any basic degree on the East Coast, the slopes in the West would be a breeze. It only took a few runs at Vail for my concerns to go away, as every single person who told me this was 100% right. Even with poor, “dust on crust” conditions at Vail during my visit, I was having the time of my life.
Still, as Vail is one of the largest ski resorts in the USA, there are dozens of dozens of trails to consider which, as a beginner, was incredibly daunting for my first time. Where do you go next? How do you avoid getting on a trail that is too hard for your skill level? I had few reference points on where to start and was only lucky that I was with friends who could scope out runs for me in advance.
So in this article, I want to share the progression of trails that I would recommend taking if you are skiing in Vail for the first time. This guide will start at the absolute easiest trails and then recommend others that could be the next logical leap as you advance.
- Notes: All named trails in this guide are marked in bold for easy reference. Other elements like park sections (Front Side, Game Creek Bowl, China Bowl) or lifts (Sourdough Express, Wildwood Express) are not. Likewise, we recommend opening up the trail maps in a separate tab to reference when reading this guide.
- Likewise, for full disclosure, I had received an Epic Pass as media through an outside partnership from this website. All costs for my time in Vail were my own. I was not required nor requested to produce any content from this trip in any capacity.
A Quick Note About Color Coding for Slopes at Vail
Before getting into this article, we should note that Vail follows the conventional North American labeling system for ski slopes. Green is typically the easiest, blue is moderate, black diamond is difficult, and double black diamond is, well, insane.
The labeling system is based on many factors including the steepness/pitch of the slope, the length (overall and of the steep sections), grooming frequency, width, protection from the wind, and more.
One of my issues with this system is that while the colors are standardized across almost every ski resort in North America, you can never equate two parks in terms of level for any given color (or even two trails of the same color at the same park!).
A green at Vail may be easier than a green at your local park. It could also be much more challenging. One green within Vail could be easy for you, but the next green one hill over could be immensely challenging. Is Lost Boy in Game Creek Bowl the same difficulty as Vail Village Catwalk on the Front Side? Absolutely not, and I'd say Lost Boy was much harder than some blues at my local resorts in Pennsylvania. Why that one is labeled green, I have no idea.
Suffice it to say that the labeling system sometimes feels arbitrary and makes planning your runs tricky.
This is an important distinction because the line of where your proficiency is can be blurred. Can you do a blue if you can ski well enough on green? It really depends on the particular blue and the greens you've tried. I often wish parks would adopt a +/- system to identify where a trail is moving easier or harder within the category, but you won't find that at Vail.
This guide is my best attempt to try and select trails that I think are closer to lower/higher categories to help new skiers to Vail progress along the park nicely. It will start at the absolute beginner level and create a national progression of trails that beginners could step up to when ready- all with explanations as to what you can expect when going one degree harder. While your mileage may vary based on my own admittedly beginner opinions, this progression is how I would do things if I were visiting Vail for the first time all over again.
- Notes: Vail's signage is exceptional in all but a few areas (particularly in the back bowls). You're never too far from a sign saying blue to the left, green to the right, and there are often many signs for “no groomed trails past this point” (difficult) or “easiest way down” (when in doubt, follow this). If there is a trail intersection, there will typically always be a sign, and the maps in person and on the Vail app are very good at highlighting where to go.
- Some of the pull-down bars on chair lifts even have maps too. Truly, I never felt lost or out of my element at Vail. Maps, signs, and more maps everywhere you look.
- When in doubt, before heading up for the day, speak to a Vail representative at the park maps at the gondola access points in Vail Village or Lionshead Village. There was always someone present who was willing to help, and they had incredibly valuable advice from first-hand experience to plan your route for the day. If you need someone to be your champion to encourage you, or if you need a little reminder to be more cautious, these are the team members for you. If they say something differently than what is stated here, believe them over me. I am, after all, still a beginner.
The Best Beginner Trails at Vail
While Vail often has a reputation for being a ski resort for intermediate to advanced skiers, there are several great beginner-level trails to explore- especially if you are adventurous and willing to tackle a few that could be more challenging for your current skill level (we will talk about these in more detail, don't panic).
For the earliest beginners, whose skillsets include being able to stand on skis with the lowest level of proficiency in pizza/fry movements with minimal falling, virtually all of the green trails near the Lionshead Village lifts are a good place to start. Take the Eagle Bahn Gondola to the top of the mountain, cut over to the Practice Parkway, hit the small runs there a few times to make sure you know what you're doing, and, when ready, begin your descent down the mountain on the numerous green trails following signs back to Lionshead Village.
Many of these trails, like Cub’s Way and Lionshead Catwalk, are mostly flat and seem like they are possibly roads in the warmer months. That is to say, they have very little pitch/grade, and you can make your way down the mountain as slowly as possible. You may even have to cross-country ski to build up speed at some points- some sections are that flat!
These will be the most effortless runs to start at Vail ski resort, and if these are a challenge, I would recommend practicing here until you are more comfortable- the trails only increase in difficulty.
The biggest risk on these trails is when you cut across others positioned down the mountain as you have to watch out for other skiers when passing/merging. Signs are typically present at these points, so you know when to look up the mountain before cutting in. These areas may also have small slopes but are quite doable for just about everyone- even those new to skiing. Take it slow, watch for others, and you should be fine.
For the beginner who wants to step up from there, we'd head further east to the Vail Village side of the resort. This would cover almost all green trails from Gondola One to the east on the Front Side (to the left if looking up the mountain from the village or on a map).
The best greens here are found higher up on the mountain from lifts like Avanti Express (The Meadows trail), Wildwood Express (also The Meadows), Northwoods Express (Timberline Catwalk), and virtually all of the green runs at the top of Sourdough Express to name a few. They subsequently connect down through more green trails and catwalks of varying difficulty back to either Vail Village or Lionshead Village.
If you're looking for a good green in this area to start and see how you feel, The Meadows is one of the more attainable trails to try as it is a slightly longer run with some steeper but manageable slopes. If you do not like this one, you can hop on one of the many green catwalks back down the mountain. If you are feeling okay but want more practice, you can ride Wildwood Express up at Mid-Vail to do the run again. If you are ready to advance to something more challenging while still being on green, you can head further up the mountain towards Sourdough Express.
If you fall into the latter category and want to move on to something slightly more challenging, I would then take the Mountaintop Express up from Mid-Vail, skip Swingsville (it is far too difficult for this stage), and take the Timberline Catwalk (a flat and gorgeous trail) over to the base of Sourdough Express. The runs at the top of Sourdough Express, Sourdough, Boomer, Tin Pants, and the upper section of Flap Jack were my favorite greens at Vail and are excellent practice for beginners looking to improve.
These are all fairly wide, not too long, have a decent slope, and let you practice your moves at varying speeds based on your comfort. All of these runs also end with a slightly steep pitch before leveling out at the Sourdough Express lift. Do not be afraid of this– it is incredibly short and makes for great practice. Stay as far right as possible when looking down the slope to avoid the steepest parts that are found on the left side. (Start with a run on Tin Pants or Boomer to see this better- they feed directly into the hill we are discussing; however, you can also see this from the lift after arriving from Timberline Catwalk. Look to the left when riding the lift up.)
- If you make it up Sourdough Express, you can enjoy some stunning views and food/beer at Two Elk Lodge- my favorite lodge on the mountain, where I had lunch and a mid-day beer daily.
If you make your way up to the Sourdough Express section of the park, it is worth noting that you will be committed to taking the lower Flap Jack trail back down the mountain. This trail continues past the Sourdough Express lift and has a long, semi-steep section down to the Northwoods Express lift. This one may be challenging for some beginners due to a decent pitch/length combination. If you are comfortable on The Meadows, this is the next logical step for a slightly more intense pitch/length, but keep in mind it is a bit of a challenge the first time.
Although I do not think this trail is too complicated by green standards, the key here is to not tire yourself out at the Sourdough area before heading down the mountain. The first time I took this one down, I was exhausted, and after dealing with that slope's length/pitch, I could barely stand up when I finished. After a few days, I felt like I had mastered it fairly well. That said, once you make it to the Northwoods Express lift, you can hit green catwalks all the way back to Vail Village or Lionshead Village from there (head to the left of the lift when facing downhill and look out for the signs).
Finally, although the back bowls are often considered to be more advanced, there are two beginner-friendly trails you may want to consider if you found Flap Jack to be acceptable for your skill level- Game Trail (green) going into Game Creek Bowl from the top of Eagle Bahn and Sleepytime Road (blue) going through several of the back bowls from the top of Northwoods Express or Mountaintop Express.
Both are pretty casual rides and let you get epic views of the back bowls before ending at a gondola that will take you back to the Front Side. Game Creek Bowl's lift will drop you off at the top of The Meadows run. Sleeptyime Road leads to the Orient Express, which will drop you near Two Elk Lodge at the top of Sourdough Express (so, while fairly easy, make sure you are comfortable on Flap Jack before doing this one- you'll need to ride it back down the Front Side when returning).
So now that we've covered some of our favorite beginner trails, let's discuss some of the more intermediate options if you have enjoyed all of these and are looking for what to try next!
The Best Intermediate Trails at Vail
For those who think they have a good handle on the greens mentioned in the previous section, your next move is to try more intermediate trails at Vail- including progressing towards more blue runs. This is where the resort thrives, so working to make it to the next level will open up much more of the resort to you.
While green trails are often considered the easiest, at Vail, there are a few runs that we think push more towards the intermediate side of things that could rival some blues- particularly due to a sharp pitch that you have to contend with for a short portion of the run. If the resort could offer more degrees within the rating scale, we could consider them Green(+) or Blue(-), as mentioned in the introduction.
These greens include the lower section of Flap Jack (discussed above), Swingsville (off of Mountaintop Express or Northwoods Express), and Lost Boy in Game Creek Bowl (this one should be a full blue if we're honest). These three are ordered by increasing difficulty. We call these three greens a bit more intermediate because the steeper pitches are much longer overall- you have to use skiing techniques to manage your speed as opposed to letting the mountain's geography slow you down with a flat segment after a short hill (like the bottom of the hill at Sourdough Express, mentioned above).
Most sections in these trails are quite wide and have plenty of slight grade variations to look for easier ways down. That said, looking at them from the top can be intimidating the first time (or three). This is particularly important at Lost Boy as the drop-in pitch is the most intense of any green I tried at Vail and was harder than some blues! Thankfully, you will never have to take that run to get down the mountain unless you choose to take that run specifically. With Swingsville or Flap Jack, you may be fully committed at some point, depending on the lifts you take up the mountain- they're the only greens down on some routes.
My first true blue was Whiskey Jack on the Sourdough Express lift. It was not much more challenging than any of the greens nearby and was only a bit more difficult due to one very short segment with a slightly steeper pitch (much more manageable than Lost Boy's pitch, if I am honest). If you can deal with the last section of the greens at Sourdough Express and are comfortable enough on Flap Jack or Swingsville, the steepness on Whiskey Jack will be the perfect starter blue for you. As this run levels out quickly after the pitch, you can work on speed control a great deal here while also relying on a flat section to slow you down right after the hill if needed.
For more blue runs, most of the lower slopes on the Front Side near Lionshead could be a good start (Simba, the lower section of Born Free, etc). These rival Lost Boy in terms of pitch and length, and they can be quite the workout to get down but have the benefit of ending near the town if you are tired and need a break. I found these to be a fair bit more difficult than Whiskey Jack, but if you're comfortable on that run, they could be good options to try after that.
Once you have a handle on a few of these blues, and if snow conditions are good (ask around at Two Elk Lodge to see what others think), heading into China Bowl for Poppyfields West could be a good introduction to back bowls on a fairly challenging blue. If you have already successfully hit Lost Boy in Game Creek Bowl, you should be ready for the pitch of this one.
Remember that this one is a true bowl, so it is much longer, has alternating steep pitches and flat sections, and has minimal signage until you get further down the mountain. On my first run, I had to ask someone nearby for the most accessible place to drop in, which was immensely helpful at the start.
After taking Poppyfields West, you can either hop on the Orient Express lift back up to Two Elk Lodge or follow signs to Blue Sky Basin to hit another back bowl and try Cloud Nine from the Skyline Express lift. This run feels like a blue catwalk that is slightly harder than Sleepytime Road, with only one narrow section at the top that you could pick up a bit of speed on as it is hard to turn when crowded and/or on compacted snow. Take it slow at the beginning, and you should be fine the rest of the way down- this is one fun trail!
Admittedly, I found Cloud Nine to be much easier than Poppyfields West. So, if you want to try that run first, take Sleepytime Road into the back bowls, and right before the Orient Express lift, take the fork in the trail pointing to Blue Sky Basin (there is a sign). You'll get on the same trail that heads to the Skyline Express lift here to try out Cloud 9.
On your way down from Cloud 9, you can either follow signs to the Orient Express lift to head up to Two Elk Lodge (you can get on the Poppyfields trails from here, too) or take the Tea Cup Express to another area near Two Elk Lodge that is a bit closer to the start of Whiskey Jack and the other greens nearby. In either of these cases, keep in mind that the back bowls tend to close a bit earlier than the Front Side, and no matter what, you'll still need to head down some of the upper slopes by Sourdough Express, including the lower section of Flap Jack to make your way down the mountain.
As such, hit the back bowls early in the day and save some energy for the long trip back.
If you manage to do all of these trails and feel comfortable, you likely are at the point where you may be willing to attempt other blues at the park. This is where my experience ends, so I cannot offer first-hand recommendations in this regard. So, for those looking for more trails to try beyond what is included in this introductory guide, speak to the Vail reps at the signs in Vail Village or Lionshead Village, share what all you have done so far, and see what they recommend to try next!
For all beginners reading this, my final (and biggest) recommendation for skiing at Vail is not to get overwhelmed by the color coding system to stop you from exploring the mountain.
Some blues are quite easy. Some greens are incredibly difficult. One run may be challenging because of a steep pitch, but only on a very short segment (Whiskey Jack), whereas another may have a slightly less steep pitch but is challenging because it is much longer (Swingsville and Flap Jack). Some have a bit of everything, too (Lost Boy and Poppyfields)! As you improve as a skier and attempt more challenging runs, you'll likely start to get a feel for the areas you struggle with and can decide accordingly on what run you want to hit next based on these challenges.
So, if you are feeling up to it, give yourself a challenge and try the next more advanced slope on this guide. Then keep practicing until you master it. Do that, and you will have a truly epic time skiing at Vail!
What trails did you work your way up to when skiing in Vail? Comment below to share!
About the Author: Jeremy is a full-time travel writer based in Pittsburgh and primary author of this site. He has been to 70+ countries on five continents and seeks out new food, adventure activities, and off-the-beaten-path experiences wherever he travels.