The old saying among Vail locals goes: “We came for the winter, and stayed for the summers.”
Vail is spectacular in summer. It is home to luscious green rows of Aspen trees lined against that famous Colorado bluebird sky, and tranquil mountain meadows filled with wildflowers basking in the sun. It’s a beauty unique to the Rocky Mountains, and it is one of the main reasons people come out to Vail for a summer getaway.
There are plenty of “Top 10 Things to do in Vail this Summer” guides online, but what do the locals actually love doing in Vail during the hot summer months? A local’s perspective gives access to special places and special offers that usually only people actually living in Vail are privy to, but, you’re in luck. This guide is written by a 10+ year Vail local and will allow you to enjoy your summer vacation in Vail to its fullest potential.
Here are the Top 10 Things to Do in Vail This Summer (Written by a Vail Local)
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The Best Summer Food & Drink Specials in Vail
It would only be appropriate to kick off this list by mentioning what’s probably on most people’s minds when they get to Vail: finding some great dining options that aren’t going to break the bank. Because let’s face it, Vail is ridiculously expensive even by resort town standards, and one of the best things about knowing a Vail local is that they can tell you where to go and what to order to save a few bucks and still have a blast.
Here are a few places well worth checking out during your Vail summer getaway:
Drinks at The George
The George is a well-established Vail locals’ favorite when it comes to going out for a casual drink or grabbing a bite to eat. This unpretentious British-style pub is also where you can find some of the best happy hour pricing in town. The George isn’t that expensive when it comes to food and drink, to begin with, and the happy hour pricing makes this place a massive bargain you don’t want to miss. There will also be plenty of actual locals enjoying the happy hour pricing right along with you. This place gets crowded but is so much fun. Be sure to check out all the memorabilia on the walls (it’s all the famous people of the world whose names are “George” and many of them have been to this pub over the years.)
Happy hour at the George Runs from 5 pm – 6 pm every day and includes “$5.00 you call it” well drinks (the cheapest price by far in all of Vail), as well as heavily discounted apps and entrees.
Wine & Small Plate Pairings at La Tour
La Tour is one of Vail’s best French Restaurants and has been locally chef-owned and operated by Chef Paul for over 20 years. It also has one of the best “secret” happy hours in Vail, where locals and visitors alike can enjoy some of La Tour’s amazing cuisine without having a panic attack when they see the bill.
La Tour’s happy hour runs from 3-5 pm daily and offers small plates starting at just $3.00, and glasses of wine at $6.00. These are perfect little pairings of food and drink and are a very affordable fun way to have yourself an early little date night at La Tour.
Beer & Lobster Rolls at Montauk
The Montauk Seafood Grill is another restaurant that has been in Vail for a long time and continues to thrive because of their outstanding seafood and wine selection. This restaurant is not cheap, and would usually be out of pocket for a casual bite to eat for most Vail locals, but from 3-5 pm daily, those who know can come grab an absolute bargain. Any draft beer and the signature lobster roll is only $10 (considering some bars in Vail charge close to that for a beer alone, this is a super delicious and affordable treat).
Hot Summer Night’s Concert Series
The Hot Summer Night’s Concert Series at Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater is something that Vail Valley locals look forward to every year. This activity might be on many other “Top 10” lists, but that’s for a good reason; the venue and the performances at the amphitheater are one of the biggest summer highlights for both visitors and Vail locals.
The Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater (named after the U.S. president who chose Vail as his 2nd home), is one of the most beautiful and magical concert venues in the world. Set in a pristine alpine setting with state-of-the-art lighting and sound installations, this outdoor venue is truly an architectural and acoustical wonder. Colorado, is of course, also home to the world-famous Red Rocks Amphitheater, but the Amp (what we locals call our venue) provides an intimacy that’s impossible to replicate.
There are various performances from ballet to tango to spoken word and contemporary bluegrass throughout the summer at the Amp. Many of those events command high ticket prices, but the Hot Summer Night’s Concert Series is 100% Free to attend.
Locals and visitors flock to this incredible summer venue to lay on the grass, sip a beer and enjoy wonderful musical performances. These aren’t just some random obscure acts either. The Wailers (of Bob Markey fame) have played at these events often. People have been known to drive all the way from Denver to Vail, just to attend the Hot Summer Night’s Concert Series.
The Hot Summer Night’s Series takes place from mid-June to late August. Vail transportation options to get to the event include taking the free in-town public bus or hiring a private car service to get you there and back. This series of summer events is definitely one of the main perks of living in Vail.
Hidden Campgrounds Near Vail
If you look up “camping in Vail”, on a google search, the only location even remotely close to town that’s going to popup is the Gore Creek Campground, which is located about a mile east of East Vail. There is very limited availability of sites here: 8 walk-in tent locations and 16 back-in sites that can handle RV‘s. Spots here are hard to come by. Spending a few days exploring the Vail Valley and not having to pay the crazy expensive lodging fees found in town is something that many people are searching for.
Fear not. There are actually many “locals only” campsites not too far from town that offer beautiful mountain views and cost absolutely nothing.
US Forestry service campsites (dispersed camping) are located along the Red Sandstone Road leading up to Piney Lake. It’s about a 20-minute drive up the road (you’re going to be much better off if you have a 4X4), and the drive itself is gorgeous. You’ll see the campsites dispersed on both sides of the road as you head towards Piney Lake.
Find a spot and set up camp. There are no fees. You can grab a one-day pass at any local gym to get a warm shower when needed. Yes, this is real outdoor living, but it’s clean, fun, and affordable. You’ll likely see quite a few locals also enjoying the summer camping out here. If you’re lucky (or not depending on if you like that sort of thing, you might come across the secret all-night party called the “Pink Elephant” that the local DJ’s and party crowd put on every summer.
The Vail Farmer’s Market
Another activity that’s probably on a few other “Top 10 Things to do in Vail” lists, but is still one that the locals partake in every summer, and well worth mentioning is the Vail Farmer’s Market.
The Vail Farmer’s Market is the perfect place to pick up some organic locally grown fruits and vegetables. Vendors from all over Colorado come to showcase their offerings: Palisade Peaches? Olathe Corn? Yep, you’ll find them all here. But be aware, the local restaurateurs also get here early and they have been known to on occasion “buy the lot”, if they see something they can use in their restaurants over the next few days.
This is the “farm to table” experience at its finest. Delicious local honey, spice blends, homemade ice cream – there’s just so much on offer, and it’s easy to spend an entire day here just strolling around and enjoying all the free samples.
As well as produce of all sorts, the market also has displays by local artists. There is live music on occasion, and many food stalls to satisfy any appetite. The Vail Farmer’s Market is a great start for any Sunday and is fun for the whole family. You’ll see many locals here every week.
The Vail Farmers Market is located on Meadow Drive in Vail Village (stretching from The Solaris all the way to the Vail transportation center). The market runs from 9:30 am – 3:30 pm on Sundays from mid-June to early October.
Vail Local’s Top Eats
Not a continuation of the best local happy hour specials. This is rather a collection of eateries where, after having sampled just about everything from every menu in Vail over the years, these are some treats worth having and encompassing every budget.
Best Chili Rellenos – La Cantina
There are several good Mexican restaurants in Vail, but if you’re looking for what might be the best rellenos (and burritos) in Colorado, be sure to check out La Cantina. It’s tucked away on the ground floor of the Vail transportation center, but don’t let the modest surrounding fool you. This place serves some of the most delicious and authentic Mexican cuisine in Colorado, and their prices are some of the best in town. Justin Timberlake was seen eating here, and that guy can afford to eat anywhere, so that should tell you something.
Best Onion Rings – The Red Lion
The Red Lion is like a family name in Vail. Everybody goes there (locals and tourists just the same). They have a fun vibe, great live music, a big beer selection, and the best onion rings ever. You get a full massive onion, very thickly cut, and battered in a top-secret beer-based coating that is delicate and crispy, while also clinging to the onion. They are absolutely amazing, and everyone needs to try them (although you will probably never order onion rings anywhere else ever again – yes they are that good)
Best Tiramisu – La Bottega
For the softest, silkiest, creamiest, and just all-out delicious tiramisu outside of Venice, go to La Bottega. This rustic Italian restaurant serves an impressive gourmet menu of fine Venetian cuisine (be prepared to spend a hefty sum for a full dining experience here), but Vail locals know, that it’s also the perfect spot to stop by for just dessert. The tiramisu here is as light as a feather and will let you float away to your happy place. Have it paired with a perfectly poured espresso or cappuccino, and you have a match made in heaven.
Best Sushi – Matsuhisa
Every now and again, it’s worth it to splurge on a legendary dining experience. There are many 5star restaurants in Vail, but perhaps the jewel in its crown (for Sushi lovers anyway), is Matsuhisa. This is chef Nobu’s 2nd Colorado flagship restaurant (the 1st was in Aspen), but the grandeur of the location at the Solaris complex in Vail Village, makes this restaurant regal in all aspects.
It is expensive. Be prepared to spend at a minimum $100/head, but the ambiance, the sublime presentation of the food, the world-class service, and the chance to interact with Chef Nobu himself (who is frequently there), is worth every penny.
Hike up to Booth Falls and Booth Lake
If there is one hike in Vail that the locals love to do every summer, it’s Booth Falls. The trailhead starts in East Vail (take the in-town bus to the Booth Falls bus stop as parking here is impossible in the summer), and the hike itself is about 4.2 miles in and out, which takes about 3.5 hours to complete.
Be warned, this is not an easy or “beginner-friendly” hike. You should be in pretty good shape to take on this feat, but the rewards are so worth it. Tranquil meadows of Colorado wildflowers will welcome those who brave the steep mountain ascent. The views here are indescribable, and the quick access from Vail means that this trail can get crowded from time to time.
Those who are in good shape, and have a few more hours to spare, should continue up the trail, past Booth Falls, and all the way to the end of the trail where there is a magical crystal-clear hidden mountain lake (Booth Lake). On a hot summer day, there’s nothing more refreshing than taking a quick dip in the lake (clothing is optional); just be sure to bring at least a towel to dry off with. Getting to and from the lake is a 6-7 hour trip, so prepare accordingly.
Many Vail locals have discovered that tons of edible and delicious fungi grow in the high elevations of the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Prized Porcini and Slippery Jacks are common throughout the Vail area. The summer months, (July onwards) are when these tasty specimens start to make their appearance.
Foraging locations are closely guarded secrets, however, a little hint is to make your way along Red Sandstone Road (on the way to Piney Lake). You’ll find plenty of patches out there 🙂
Restaurateurs from Vail are known to include locally foraged mushrooms in their summer menus. What doesn’t get used up fresh, can also be dried or marinated to use later on in the year.
As with mushroom hunting in general, don’t pick something (or eat something) if you don’t 100% know exactly what it is. There are plenty of mushroom foraging books available as well as online communities where you can post pictures to ask for mushroom identifications. Please use some common sense.
Bowling at “Bol”
Not many small mountain towns have a bowling alley. Well, Vail has “Bol”, which can only be described as luxury bowling.
Yep, only in Vail will you see people going bowling dressed in their best designer clothing. You see, “Bol” is not just a bowling alley; it’s also a nightclub with resident DJs, a high-class cocktail lounge, and a 5star restaurant to boot. The bowling lanes are the main draw, of course, but going to “bol” is an experience, unlike any other bowling alley you’ve ever been to.
The locals love it also, just because it’s so much fun. The bowling alleys here are very high-tech and create a futuristic atmosphere that everyone enjoys. And yes, you can just go bowling, and not partake in all the other eccentricities that “Bol” has to offer.
Watching a Movie at CineBistro
“Dinner and a Movie” used to mean going to a restaurant first, and then continuing your date at the movie theatre. Recently movie complexes have been popping up across the country, where you can order some very decent food at the theatre itself, and enjoy a full meal with a dedicated tray for your food and beverage.
Most of the time, the food offerings at such establishments are limited to burgers, fries, some hot sandwiches, and maybe a few draft beers and house wines by the glass.
Not in Vail. Here, the CineBistro offers a full fine-dining experience while you watch the latest summer blockbuster on the big screen. Multi-course meals can be paired with a wine list that would make many sommeliers jealous.
Servers are in attendance throughout the presentation and can be flagged down for another cocktail or to inquire about dessert. It is best, however, to plan out your meal before the movie starts to avoid disrupting the other guests.
Vail locals love CineBistro because the screens and sound system are amazing, and while the restaurant menu items might be a little steep for just “going to the movies”; being able to sip on a big glass of reasonably priced Chardonnay along with your popcorn, is a nice treat.
Hanging Out at The Red Lion and Shakedown Bar or Dancing at Bridge Street
For some late-night boozy fun, both Vail locals and visitors usually come together at one of three spots: The Red Lion, Shakedown Bar, or Bridge Street Bar. Each venue is typically completely packed every weekend night during the peak summer season.
Often, locals will simply walk from one venue to another to see what’s looking good that night. Shakedown and Red Lion are live music-focused. The Red Lion has a rotation of resident musicians (Vail locals) who rock the night away with popular hits. Shakedown, books more bands from out of town, but really these two places are very similar in vibe.
Bridge Street Bar has the biggest dancefloor in Vail (including a pole for anyone who wants to get a little wild), and typically has DJs playing various genres of dance music. You’ll usually find a younger crowd here.
Most Vail locals got all their “going out” done when they first arrived in town, but from time to time, when friends are visiting, or they just want a bit of fun, you can catch them at one of these three spots dancing and singing right next to the tourists. We’re one big happy family here.
There is so much to do in Vail every summer, that’s it’s impossible to include everything the locals love doing in one “Top 10” list.
So, I’ll just drop just a couple more notable mentions that are definitely worth experiencing the next time you are in Vail during summer:
The Duck Race
The Vail Duck Race is organized by the Rotary Club of Vail and takes place every Labor Day. What is it? Well, imagine 12,000 yellow rubber duckies floating down Gore Creek (which flows right through Vail Village) and hundreds of excited spectators cheering on their duckies to cross the finish line 1st.
It’s all great fun, and the proceeds go to charity. There are prizes for the top finishers, but really everyone just loves looking at all the toy ducks swimming down the creek.
Free Gondola Ride up to Eagle’s Nest with a Milkshake
Riding the Gondolas is free in Vail during the summer months. On a beautiful summer day, a nice little treat for yourself or as a couple is to enjoy the scenic ride to the top of Eagle’s Nest and stroll around a bit taking in the captivating mountain-top views.
For an extra special treat, grab a decadent Belgian chocolate milkshake from the Haagen-Dazs shop at the base of the gondola before you head up – it takes the experience to a whole other level.
Enjoy Vail This Summer!
So there you have it. The Top 10 Things Vail Locals enjoy doing every summer, and a couple of other notable mentions. The fact of it is, that even after over a decade of living in Vail, I still love it now just as much as that 1st season. There’s so much to do and see, that it’s simply not possible to ever get bored here.
Vail has something to offer everybody, and the summers might actually be even more fun than the winters. So come visit Vail this summer, and see for yourself why so many of us locals have decided to make this place our home.