Blue Sky Basin

At Vail's New Area, the Mountain Is King
  |  Gorp.com
Free skier Chris Anthony cuts it up in Blue Sky powder.
Swimmin' In It!

Vail has once again raised the bar for new terrain in the Rockies. Its Blue Sky Basin opened in early 2000, and resembles a ski area within a ski area — there's a different look to the terrain, and a sense of being in the backcountry instead of part of one of the most heavily developed resorts in the U.S. The basin's 520 acres offer great tree skiing and represent a level of development that is low-key in the context of Vail.

At the southernmost reach of Vail's permit area, Blue Sky Basin's got modern up-the-hill muscle with three high-speed quad chairlifts serving the 1,910-vertical-foot basin. But otherwise it provides a retro skiing experience. Instead of boulevard-wide runs, clear-cut so that grooming equipment can operate edge to edge, Blue Sky Basin features mostly glades and natural tree-free meadows. Swaths needed to be cut through the trees to accommodate the lifts, but otherwise, trees were selectively thinned rather than mowed down. Part of this was the result of stringent new environmental requirements, but part was due to changing ethics and aesthetics in the Colorado Rockies.

Most of the runs are general routes rather than specific, defined trails. Signage is directional, pointing to a destination rather than funneling people onto specific trails. Skiers and snowboarders can stick to groomed sections, dance through the powder in the trees or mix and match. In fact, even the snowcat operators have been instructed to groom where it"feels" right. In that manner, every trip down Blue Sky's slopes can feel and look different.

This year's lift development is concentrated on one beefy ridge and the two drainages on either side. The Skyline Express climbs the crest of the ridge, providing tantalizing views in both directions. Earl's Bowl, to the west side, features grandiose open snowfields and islands of trees, mostly moderate enough to be marked with blue squares. Earl's Express hauls riders back to the top. The east side, dropping into Pete's Bowl, is considerable steeper, including sheer drops into the top of the bowl, outstanding glade skiing and another steep drop at the bottom. The third new lift, Tea Cup Express, returns skiers the Vail Mountain side. (A fourth lift goes up the other side of Pete's Bowl next summer.)

Blue Sky Basin was a long time in the making, and the price tag was steep--$14 million. This area had been identified as potential lynx habitat, suitable for reintroduction of the small wildcat to Colorado, and when Vail announced its development plans, environmentalists reacted fiercely. There were numerous protests, and a splinter group from Earth First!, on the radical fringe of the environmental movement, burned Two Elk Restaurant to the ground and vandalized several lifts in October 1998. There were some problems when a work road was constructed across a wetland, resulting in a mammoth stack of lodgepole pines that will have to be dealt with when the snow melts — which can take a long time in this north-facing basin. The Two Elk Restaurant has been rebuilt and the arsonists are still at large, but the expansion that took eight years in the approval process and a harried summer of construction has happened.

Other amenities? Not many. Snowmaking? Not a hose or snow gun to be found. Food service? None, but it's just one high-speed lift from the base of Blue Sky Basin to Two Elk Restaurant. The amenities at Belle's Camp, at the 11,480-foot summit where two lifts converge, are confined to indoor plumbing and outdoor electric grills on the large terrace beside the attractive but free-free warming hut so you can cook your own food. Of course, Two Elk will sell you sack lunches, but there's something refreshing about B.Y.O. at Vail, the resort that virtually made brown-bagging own obsolete.

Vail was so excited about Blue Sky Basin, its latest expansion area, that it put up a special website even before the terrain's January 6, 2000, opening. The website is a through-the-goggles view of the new territory, which enabled cyber-surfers to make a virtual run even before the"snow surfers," on skis or snowboards.


Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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