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Secret is out: Vail's Back Bowls aren't just for experts — why intermediate skiers should want to drop in

February 22 2022
10 min read
Snow covered back bowls at Vail
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Editor's Note

TPG's Summer Hull spent the day skiing with a member of Vail's PR team in an effort to learn more about the mountain and its Back Bowls. TPG paid for all her travel to and from the mountain, as well as the overnight accommodations. The lift tickets for the day were provided by Vail Resorts. The opinions expressed below are entirely hers and weren't subject to review by Vail.

Editor's note: TPG's Summer Hull spent the day skiing with a member of Vail's PR team in an effort to learn more about the mountain and its Back Bowls. TPG paid for all her travel to and from the mountain, as well as the overnight accommodations. The lift tickets for the day were provided by Vail Resorts. The opinions expressed below are entirely hers and weren't subject to review by Vail.

For many, skiing is shrouded in what can feel like an unattainable mystery. This is especially true for those who are not from mountain towns and don’t have a big group of friends who all ski together.

From understanding the gear to knowing which mountain to choose, it can feel quite intimidating to ski for the first time … so much so that only 4-5% of Americans ski or snowboard, according to data from groups like the National Ski Area Association.

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I’ve been skiing for 38 years, yet I still feel like some facets of the sport are not designed or available to me. Skill level and geography are partly to blame, but logistics don't tell the full story.

For context, my trips once or twice a season started as long drives in the 1980s between East Texas and ski resorts in New Mexico or Colorado. My parents would drive through the night with us kids sleeping on top of each other so we could fit in an affordable ski vacation during a long weekend. My occasional college-era ski trips with friends looked much the same, before the average price of airfare dropped and my love of airline miles blossomed, making it possible to enjoy the mountains without overnight, 20-hour treks.

Despite all those decades as a skier, though, there’s been something that I never, ever imagined was open to me: skiing the 3,000 acres of Vail, Colorado’s Back Bowls. I thought those great, snowy expanses where you can ski almost any direction laid out in front of you were reserved for the sport's elite.

I was wrong … wrong in all the best ways.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

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What are Vail’s Back Bowls, and why might they appeal to you?

When you think of Vail, you may imagine fur coats, celebrities and extravagant wealth. And yes, there’s some of that. However, there’s a lot more to Vail than its share of high-end clientele.

At its core, Vail is first and foremost about skiing — at least, that's what the Vail that I love is about.

Vail is a well-planned mountain that opened in 1962 and was developed by a couple of men who fell in love with mountain sports while stationed with the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division in Europe.

Skiers stand in line waiting for the ski lift in Vail, Colorado, in 1964. (Photo by Slim Aarons/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Not long after, the ski town was created to support the mountain. In that respect, Vail has always been a town all about skiing, unlike others in the state that started as mining communities and evolved into ski towns.

With its impressive terrain, including a series of seven, back-side bowls that span an impressive 6 miles, the town quickly became a go-to spot for skiing.

Related: Why skiing is the best family vacation

Why I decided to try skiing into a bowl for the first time

I’m a solid intermediate skier who mostly skies blue runs, though I also enjoy green runs and easy tree trails, plus the occasional black diamond.

As far as I knew, the famous Back Bowls, which are essentially hidden from those skiing the front side of the mountain, were just for those experts who were either lucky enough to live near the mountains or wealthy enough to take more ski trips per year than I could ever dream of.

Having never previously considered turning my skis in that direction, I was recently convinced to try a bowl by a friend who had skied them for years. He was so convinced that I could do them that I started to believe it myself.

Related: How to make your next ski vacation better than your last

What my first experience skiing into a bowl was like

To start the big day, we strapped into our skis and took a series of chairlifts from the front side of the mountain in Lionshead to the peak.

Standing up at one side of that peak was the front of the mountain — which felt safe and familiar. On the other side was new terrain, beyond the iconic — and intimidating — "The Legendary Back Bowls" sign.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

In case you'd somehow forgotten, that sign reminded you that you were located 11,250 feet above sea level, or 2-plus miles off the ground.

After posing for an obligatory photo under the sign and hoping I could live up to that its promise with my actions, I stood at the top of the Sun Up Bowl and took in the expanse beyond and the blue run (known as The Slot) below.

It started off a touch steeper than I was used to, but after a few deep breaths (and internal pep talks), I dropped in.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Related: What's new this ski season

What makes the bowls so special

It's no secret that some traditional ski runs can get crowded.

When that happens, you'll have a sometimes narrow-ish run, flooded with enough other skiers and riders to the point that your job becomes collision control and worrying about steering your skis rather than just enjoying the ride.

That can happen anywhere — but with this much terrain available all at once in the Back Bowls, your odds of some room to yourself are much better.

Here on the back side of the mountain, you aren't tethered to defined trails, but rather you are free to go in your pick of directions as far as the eye can see. Even in the midst of other skiers, you have more options than you could ever count. It's freeing in a way that traditional trail skiing never could be.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

How you should approach the Back Bowls

Beginning my day with The Slot in the Sun Up Bowl was a smart move on the part of the Vail representative from the mountain's public relations office who was guiding us around, as it's one of the easiest of Vail's Back Bowls. Many skiers choose to start with this bowl before working their way to others that are more challenging.

After mastering the Sun Up Bowl, I worked my way over to Red Zinger in the Tea Cup Bowl before skiing Poppyfields in China Bowl. The latter was one of my personal favorites, as it felt wild and free while actually being quite skiable.

You can work your way around the bowls in a bit of a diagonal nature, cutting your way up and down from one bowl to another on the extensive network of chairlifts

While not technically one of the "Back Bowls," Pete's Bowl is another option you'll want to save time for. Located in an unspoiled area even further away from home than the Back Bowls is an area called Blue Sky Basin, which combines a rugged feel with a dreamy setting.

At Cloud Nine, a charming blue run, you'll see playful trees outlining runs that make you smile everywhere you turn. Since this run is a little easier than others we did that morning, we were able to truly appreciate the setting, making the experience of traversing it more fun than those that require a bit more effort.

What you need to know before attempting your first Back Bowl

Now that you know that you don’t need to be an expert skier to master a bowl, you may be tempted to give one a go. However, you'll still need some experience under your belt before you try one out.

The runs in Vail's Back Bowls are generally more difficult to ski than some on the frontside mountain, so you'll want to be able to consistently and comfortably ski blue runs outside the bowls before attempting the Back Bowl runs. This means you shouldn't try skiing the bowls on your first or second ski trip ever.

While several of the runs through the bowls are now groomed and therefore don’t require prior experience with ungroomed terrain, there's also plenty of ungroomed territory on the back side, so be sure to check the grooming report before mapping out your day.

If heading there solo sounds like a hill too high for you (and I totally get it), you can also get an introduction to the bowls at no extra cost by joining one of Vail's skiing tours of the bowls and Blue Sky Basin. These depart from the Legacy Hut at the top of chairlift No. 4 at 10:30 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Note, though, that Vail recommends participants have a skill level of at least upper -intermediate to partake in these tours.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Bottom line

Skiing is magical — and it shouldn’t only be reserved for those who are "in the know."

There is a lot of emphasis being placed on getting people to try skiing for the first time and reducing those initial barriers to entry, but that’s not the only bottleneck in the process.

Even with almost four decades of experience on the slopes, I had the misperception that things like Vail's Back Bowls were not for skiers like me. As a result, my ski trips have historically involved sticking to the busier, more well-traveled runs.

It took an experienced ski friend who had enjoyed the bowls many times to convince me that I could not only handle them -- but enjoy them.

Now allow me to be that friend to you. If you can confidently ski a blue run, you can ski at least some of the bowls. And not only can you — but you should.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

If you're keen on experiencing the sport in its simplest, purest form — the way Vail was designed to be enjoyed — head to the backside of the mountain ,where the intimidating, yet inspiring, "Legendary Back Bowls" sign sits.

When you're ready, ski through the sign, stop for a photo and then head into The Slot like you own the place — because at least at that moment, you do.

Featured photo by SUMMER HULL/THE POINTS GUY
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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The Marriott Bonvoy Business Amex is a stacked card with a rewards rate that will help you earn bonus points on everyday and business-related purchases. You'll earn 15 elite night credits each calendar year, and receive automatic Gold elite status. Finally, the free night award certificate with a redemption level of 35,000 points or less can get you hundreds of dollars in potential value each year.

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