Bypass the Crowds in Vail

1. Where to Stay

The Ritz-Carlton Bachelor Gulch is modeled after a grand rustic lodge.Photo: Courtesy of The Ritz-Carlton Bachelor Gulch

Take a swim in the year-round heated outdoor pool, then warm up beside your in-room fireplace at the Ritz-Carlton Bachelor Gulch (from $195), where lodge-inspired rooms feature stone detailing and dark wood beams. You’ll save around $70 a night by booking this month rather than prime ski season in December. Stop into the hotel’s three-year-old Spago outpost for a pre-dinner cocktail between five and seven, when well drinks are just $3.

Escape mountain kitsch at the Park Hyatt (from $159), a 190-room hotel that underwent a $26 million overhaul in November 2008. Off season nightly rates are $50 to $100 lower, on average. The minimalist rooms are done up in neutral shades of gray and beige, while a massive elk-horn chandelier in the lobby lends a rustic feel.

Find little Germany in the midst of the Colorado mountains at Sonnenalp, a sprawling hotel that includes hand-carved furniture, windowsill flower boxes, and a staff clad in Bavarian dirndls and wool vests. Though rates can climb over $400 a night in December, rooms start at $245 in the off-season. The spot provides welcome winter-weather perks, like heated bathroom floors and plush goose-down Frette duvets.

2. Where to Eat

Sample house-cured meats and locally sourced lamb at Avondale.Photo: Courtesy of Westin Images

Make a reservation at least a day in advance at Top Chef finalist Kelly Liken’s eponymous 65-seat restaurant. The Culinary Institute of America grad pairs seasonally rotating sides with hearty meat and seafood dishes, like elk carpaccio and her signature potato-crusted trout.

Sample three-ounce pours of more than 40 different varietals of wine from the enomatic dispenser at Vin48 (from $3)—Western Colorado vineyard Jack Rabbit Hill is a local favorite. Chef Charles Hay sources his produce, eggs, and chickens from the restaurant’s farm in nearby Gypsum.

Plan a date at Osaki, an intimate, 22-seat sushi bar in Vail Village (100 E. Meadow Dr.; 970-476-0977). Even in the off-season, the spot fills up quickly, so call at least a day in advance. Sit at the bar and go with whatever the chef is serving, which might include yellowtail sashimi or shrimp and shiitake spring rolls.

Start with house-cured meats and a fragrant Purkisset (gin, lemongrass, lychee, lime, and rosemary) by the fire-pit bar at chef Thomas Salamunovich’s two-year-old Avondale. Located at the base of Beaver Creek Mountain, the restaurant combines valley views and market-driven, locally sourced mountain fare, like Summit Creek lamb and Jumping Goat chèvre.

3. What to Do

Scale the city's craggy cliffs during rock-climbing lessons with Vail Rock & Ice Guides.Photo: Photo by: Scott Cramer

Hike to Beaver Lake, a six-mile round-trip trek with a 1,500-foot elevation gain. (In October, temperatures climb to the mid-50s during the day, but drop below freezing at night; layers are crucial.) The well-cut trail winds through autumnal aspens, where you might see deer, foxes, and elk. Break at the sandy beach and trout-filled lake at the summit, which will be covered over with snow late next month.

Book a half-day walk-and-wade with Fly Fishing Outfitters, the area’s only Orvis-endorsed guide. Trips span one of four local rivers, where you’ll see blue-winged olives, streamers, and the occasional hopper in fall.

Scale a craggy, vertical patch near Red Cliff with Vail Rock & Ice Guides’ rock-climbing classes (from $95, including gear). Groups cover all skill levels: Beginners learn the basics of belaying and rappelling, while intermediate climbers can test out advanced hand and foot jamming techniques.

Ease into mountain biking—a local obsession—with the Village to Village trail, a wide, low-traffic path that runs three and a half miles from Beaver Creek to Arrowhead. Experienced riders can tackle Two Elk through the end of October, which offers some of the area’s most thrilling descents—6,000 feet down—and panoramic views for nearly the entire trip, particularly at the top of the Outer Mongolia Bowl. Reward yourself with post-ride margaritas at the Minturn Saloon.

4. Insider’s Tip

Loaded Joe's morphs from a coffee shop into a lively dive bar after dark.Photo: Courtesy of Loaded Joe's

Skip the $12 cocktails at tourist-slammed hotel bars in favor of the affordable local scene. Loaded Joe’s is a coffeehouse by day, bar by night, with a raucous karaoke night on Fridays and open mike on Sundays. Expect mostly solo acoustic artists, with a healthy dose of angst and $3 well drinks. Or settle into a Lay-Z-Boy at The George (295 E. Meadow Dr.; 970-476-2656), a loungey pub favored by townies for its high-end happy-hour specials, like $3.75 Ketel One martinis (daily 3 to 7 p.m.).

5. Oddball Day

Admire Impressionist paintings at Big Sky Studios and visit the outdoor art park at Aspen Meadows.Photo: Courtesy of Big Sky Studios and Aspen Meadows

In snowy months, Aspen can be a nerve-wracking drive, but in the fall, it’s an easy (and scenic) 90-minute trip. Though Vail has upped its glam quotient in the past couple of years, this sister city is still the place to shop and soak up some culture. Start with coffee and an extra-large sticky bun at Main Street Bakery & Cafe, where morning regulars trade local gossip (201 E. Main St.; 970-925-6446). Then shop for some real-deal cowboy boots—made of everything from calfskin to hippo hide—and a custom Stetson at Kemo Sabe. Peruse local artist Tania Dibbs’s vibrant Impressionist landscape paintings at Big Sky Studio. Then head to Aspen Meadows, a Bauhaus-designed resort with a scenic outdoor art park, open through November. Standouts include Andy Goldsworthy’s Stone River, a winding red sandstone wall, and Matthias Goeritz’s Big Dipper, a constellation of star-shaped pillars. Finally, stop for dinner and drinks at Little Nell’s Ajax Tavern, an indoor-outdoor restaurant with sweeping views of Aspen Mountain and a famously decadent cheeseburger, paired with truffle French fries.

6. Links is a resource for town maps and weather watches.

Vail Beaver Creek Magazine details the area’s top hikes and alfresco dining spots.

Find the area’s best happy-hour deals at VailPM.

Bypass the Crowds in Vail