Holiday crowds push mountain records |

Holiday crowds push mountain records

Matt Zalaznick

“It’s been crowded, but there’s such nice snow,” says Sprague Hinmon, a skier and college student from Edwards on winter break. “We really needed the snow this week.”

Unofficial totals from several sources, including the U.S. Forest Service, said approximately 22,000 skiers and snowboarders rode Vail Mountain Thursday, as many as 18,000 hit the slopes on New Year’s Day and 17,000 on Friday. If Thursday’s 22,000 total is correct, it would be a single day record.

Vail Resorts, however, does not release skier totals for specific days and a spokeswoman said the company would not comment on holiday business.

At one time, Vail Mountain had an agreement with the town of Vail and the U.S. Forest Service to limit the total skiers-per-day to 20,000. That’s the reason the passes held by locals are restricted from Dec. 27 until Dec. 31 and other busy times during the year, such as Thanksgiving and President’s Weekend. The agreement was designed to ease traffic congestion at the now-defunct Vail 4-way stop, keeping traffic from backing up onto I-70.

Just about everyone else is town –just ask anybody who buys groceries at one of the West Vail supermarkets – is willing to admit that Vail’s packed.

“It’s busier than the past few years,” says Bob McLaurin, Vail’s town manager. “You have to go back to early ’90s for it to feel this busy.”

Big crowds are, obviously, good news for shops and restaurants.

What’s even better news is that, though visitors can still find rooms on short notice, Vail’s hotels also appear to be pretty busy, says Frank Johnson, president of the Vail Valley Chamber and Tourism Bureau.

“It’s been a capacity crowd here,” Johnson says. “Everyone in Vail that we’re aware of is very, very busy.”

McLaurin says the parking situation this week proves there are a lot of people in hotels.

“I think there’s a good destination crowd here,” he says. “When you put 17,000 people on the mountain and don’t fill the parking structure, that says it’s a destination crowd.”

The local tourism industry is especially eager to see more people staying in hotels because they believe those visitors spend more money in Vail than skiers and snowboarders who drive up for the day from the Front Range.

Heavy snowfall, low air fares and no substantial increase in hotel-room rates have probably contributed to the crowds, Johnson says.

“It’s certainly way better than last year,” Johnson says. “It’s probably on par with two or three prior to that, which were pretty good years.”

It appears some regular visitors who stayed away last year have also returned to Vail, he says.

“A lot of people who may have not come last Christmas to use their second homes probably didn’t feel as threatened this year by the airline situation,” Johnson says. “They may have come back as well.”

The agreement to limit skiers to 20,000 is older than Vail’s roundabouts, which were built in the early 90s. The Colorado Department of Transportation was concerned traffic headed to the mountain would be backed up on Interstate 70 disastrously far by the Main Vail roundabouts’ predecessor – a notorious intersection with a four-way stop sign.

McLaurin says people feared even worse congestion and gridlock when the roundabouts opened.

“I declared victory on the Main Vail roundabout on Dec. 22, 1995,” McLaurin says. “The town was jammed, it was snowing heavily, everyone was trying to go home and it worked just fine.”

Though there have been some traffic backups and a few parking problems on the South Frontage Road, McLaurin says the town is handling the crowds pretty well.

“I think there are a few folks in town,” McLaurin says. “I think it’s been a very good season.”

Matt Zalaznick can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 606, or via e-mail at

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