Fall is Vail's Epic Secret Season
Beat the crowds and enjoy leaf peeping in Vail, Colorado. There's plenty of free and inexpensive things to do including hiking, visiting gardens and a road trip.
1. Free Fun in the GardensSitting at 8,200 feet above sea level, Betty Ford Alpine Gardens are the highest botanical gardens in North America. Open daily from dawn to dusk, it’s free to visit the outdoor gardens with more than 3,000 species of alpine and mountain plants. The gardens are named after former first lady Betty Ford. As you stroll through the four distinct sections of Mountain Perennial Garden, Mountain Meditation Garden, Alpine Rock Garden, and Children’s Garden take a few reflective moments to sit by a cascading waterfall or small pond. Every time I’m in Vail, an early morning at Betty Ford Alpine Gardens is a must, but especially in the fall when the gardens are filled with an autumnal palette of colors from a vibrant yellow to reddish rust.
2. Leaf Peeping and Military History on a Scenic Drive
US 24 runs 33 miles between Minturn and Leadville. It’s the epitome of taking the scenic route on a spectacular road for leaf peeping and military history. From Vail, do the short drive to Minturn. Make Sunrise Minturn your first stop for breakfast. You can’t miss the old rusty car out front. Founded in 1904 as a railroad town, Minturn is a colorful and eclectic small town. There are multiple areas to pull off and take in the views as you drive US 24. Before driving across the cantilevered steel arch bridge over Fountain Creek, take a short detour to Red Cliff, a mining town founded in 1879. After you cross the bridge, there are several stops to learn about the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division. These alpine soldiers, or ski troopers, trained at Camp Hale in the early 1940s during World War II. Camp Hale National Historic Site is in scenic and wide Pando Valley. This mountain and winter warfare training camp had more than 1,000 buildings and structures along with weapon ranges. You can still see the concrete foundations and pillars of some of the buildings as you go on a self-guided tour while imagining what it was like to train at 9,200 feet in adverse winter conditions. Continue driving US 24 and cross the Continental Divide on Tennessee Pass at of elevation of 10,424 feet. At the summit is the 10th Mountain Division Memorial. On the red granite monument are the names of nearly 1,000 soldiers killed on battlefields in Italy and the Aleutian Islands during World War II. This somber stop is a good turnaround point for the drive back to Vail. Once back in town, see the “Ski Trooper” statue near the covered bridge. It pays tribute to the soldiers who trained in the 10th Mountain Division, including Pete Seibert, who was severely wounded in World War II. Along with Earl Eaton, Seibert founded Vail in the 1960s.
3. Retreat to a Ranch
It takes about 45 minutes to drive north on an uber scenic but bumpy dirt road to Piney River Ranch, a 40-acre Rocky Mountain retreat nestled in the Gore Range. You can rent a cabin or go to the ranch on a day trip. If you’re a hiker, take the trail to Piney River Falls. The hike takes you past the lake as it meanders across the valley and through aspen groves and pine forest to the cascading falls. Because of the plethora of golden aspens in the fall, it’s popular so go early. The hike is six miles round trip. After the hike, enjoy lunch with a view. You can bring your own picnic or grab something at the Lodge Restaurant and Bar. You can also enjoy paddling around the lake by renting a canoe or paddleboard. The ranch does close for the season in early October, but you can still do the hike to the falls and enjoy the picturesque valley.
4. Take a Llama to Lunch
For a unique hiking excursion, Paragon Guides offers “Take a Llama to Lunch” hikes. This was one hike that had me laughing from start to finish as I hiked with Handies and my guide Jim hiked with Franklin. Llamas are nimble and gentle pack animals making them excellent hiking companions. We went on Pitkin Trail. The trailhead is easy to get to in East Vail. With dense aspen groves and grassy meadows, it’s an excellent fall hike made extra special with a llama hiking buddy. As Jim and I hiked along with Franklin and Handies, I learned about the animals, including how they “speak” to each other by humming. We covered about seven miles on our out-and-back hike, that included a top-notch picnic. Going with a guide is the best way to see secret stashes of fall colors and get away from any leaf-peeping crowds. Hiking with a llama makes it even more memorable during Vail’s most colorful season.x:1766224