VAIL — As the town of Vail and Vail Mountain try to shape their future, the sight of thousands of people in town this weekend could foreshadow many summer days to come that don’t necessarily fall on holiday weekends.
The Fourth of July is the town of Vail’s busiest day of the year, and if the town of Vail and Vail Resorts get their way, summers in Vail could begin to rival winters here — almost.
With the passing last year of the Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act, Congress paved the way for American ski resorts to offer recreational activities beyond the typical skiing, snowboarding and hiking. The legislation allows things like ziplines, mountain bike terrain parks, ropes courses and disc golf courses, and specifically prohibits tennis courts, water slides and water parks, swimming pools, golf courses and amusement parks.
There’s a vagueness to the language in the legislation, though, which is why the U.S. Forest Service is still working on how it will implement the new policy. The process is taking longer than Vail Mountain officials anticipated, said Chief Operating Officer Chris Jarnot.
“They’re still working through that process. We’ve been communicating with them both locally and in Washington,” Jarnot said. “We expect at some point this winter they’ll conclude that process.”
U.S. Forest Service District Ranger Dave Neely, of the Eagle/Holy Cross district, said the process the Forest Service is currently in is known as the “rule making” phase.
“It’s a challenging thing to try to put enough specificity to try to capture what’s appropriate,” Neely said.
The legislation mentions specific activities that are allowed or are prohibited, but there are also different interpretations, Neely said.
“It says you can have zip lines, but you can’t have golf courses, but what about things like mountain coasters,” Neely said. “Then it uses language like you can’t have an amusement park — well, what defines an amusement park?”
Epic discovery project
These are questions Vail Mountain officials want answers to as the resort plans its Epic Discovery project, which would expand summer recreational activities on the mountain. The resort got approval for a first phase, which is currently under construction and includes two ropes challenge courses at Eagle’s Nest and a 1,200-foot zipline that goes from the top of the tubing lift to the bottom of the Little Eagle Lift at Adventure Ridge. Those projects should be completed and open for business by late July or early August, Jarnot said.
Future phases, however, include plans for an alpine coaster, which Vail Resorts is calling a Forest Flyer, and more hiking and biking trails, more on-mountain ziplines, summer tubing and a permanent climbing wall, among other activities.
But Jarnot said the biggest piece of phase two is the interpretive content and environmental education programs the resort is adding, making Epic Discovery about just as much about environmental stewardship as it is about recreation.
“That really starts to turn the mountain into a destination in the summertime,” Jarnot said. “Now we have gondola rides, hiking and biking and a few activities, but this really turns it into a destination where guests can spend a day or multiple days using much more of the mountain than just the top of the gondolas.”
Attracting more visitors
Vail Resorts remains conservative about its growth estimates for the beginning of Epic Discovery, but company CEO Rob Katz said at the announcement of the project last summer that it would totally reshape the resort’s summer business, adding that the new mountain activities could help draw in at least some of the 3 million annual road trippers visiting Rocky Mountain National Park, for example, among other destination visitors.
He also envisions the activities to stretch Vail’s peak summer season from the traditional Fourth of July through late August period to early June through September.
For now, Jarnot expects modest increases in the beginning, but that’s not the primary focus early on.
“Initially, we’re really focused on getting people to stay (in town) longer — sort of penetrating folks who are already here in Vail and giving them more to do on the mountain than attracting more visitors initially,” Jarnot said. “As we build it and refine it and make it more of a destination, sure it’ll attract more people to Vail.”
Something to ‘hang our hats on’
The Vail Valley Partnership’s President and CEO Chris Romer thinks Epic Discovery could be a “game-changer.”
“Epic Discovery could provide for the summer what the Back Bowls do for the winter — essentially, give us something completely unique to ‘hang our hat on’ and be known for,” Romer said. “The ‘soft adventure’ aspect of Epic Discovery and the connection with the Nature Conservancy could allow us to draw new guests who might typically have an affinity toward a national park visit.”
Vail Resorts’ plans want to strike the right balance between increasing visitation while also maintaining an experience that connects people with nature — something some Vail Mountain users think could be hard to do.
turning into Disney world?
“Do we live in the mountains or Disney World?,” commented Matt Jones on the Vail Daily’s Facebook page.
Others worry the summer growth will just equate to more traffic.
“Hopefully the plan also includes a train and/or teleporter to avoid four hours of I-70 traffic,” wrote Eric Singer.
In the mean time, Vail Mountain waits for Forest Service direction so it can then formally apply for the next phase of construction. Jarnot wanted to get most of that construction finished in time to operate everything in the summer of 2014, but the Forest Service’s pace at the federal level has shifted everything back about a year.
As Jarnot walked around the village this week, he could only smile as he thought about what Vail’s summers have already become.
“What an amazing place to be right now in Vail,” Jarnot said. “Everything from the climate to people riding their bikes and playing golf and hanging out in the village. We’ll just be adding more to that and turning the mountain into more of an opportunity for our guests.”