Few seem to know this, but it’s true, Vail offers close to 400 free parking spaces in nine different lots this ski season.
Sixty-six of them can be used all week, the other 320 – at schools and offices – are reserved for weekends only.
But all of them are free and within a short walk of a bus stop to Vail’s free shuttle system.
While the town is trying to publicize the existence of these lots, some locals would prefer to keep them private.
“I don’t think you should tell the world,” says a groggy-looking Josh, who says he works in Vail and doesn’t want to give his last name “because that would be trouble.”
He is shouldering skis on this Sunday morning and getting ready to walk across Interstate 70 via the overpass, a 10-minute jaunt “max” to the Eagle Bahn Gondola, he says.
He is one of the last to garner a parking spot at Red Sandstone Elementary School on this busy morning in the midst of a 3-day holiday weekend. It’s a little after 9 a.m.
An hour later, cars are being diverted to park on the sides of the spur road. Though those on the Frontage Road won’t have to pay, they will have to walk.
On Saturday, when close to 700 cars were parked on the Frontage Road, skiers and snowboarders walked or took the free shuttle buses from as far as the Cascade Club and the Vail Golf Course, according to Vail Parking Supervisor Tim Otte.
Josh, who is still a bit grumpy, acknowledges that he is familiar with at least two of Vail’s free parking lots.
“I can always find a free spot in this town,” he says, now sounding cocky.
Josh is one of a select group of locals and a few out-of-towners, who have found the word “free” on Vail’s parking brochure and located the lots listed.
Some just found their way to these lots by default.
“We have always parked here,” says a surprised and chagrined Todd Bower, who is helping his wife, Liz, with their two boys, Marcus,12, and Madison, 10.
Their mini-van is parked at the west end of the parking lot of the Vail Mountain School in East Vail. It’s close to 10 a.m. and the family is off to a day on the slopes.
Bower admits, he didn’t know that this lot is free officially. He says he assumed it was “tolerated” parking, since he’s never gotten a ticket in the past two years.
Bower, who lugs most of the family’s gear, says he likes that the lot is close to the bus stop.
With buses running every 15 minutes, he says, parking in Vail isn’t a hassle for him.
“Now the lines at Mid-Vail, that’s another story,” he adds.
A tour of all nine lots, reveals they enjoy varying degrees of popularity.
“It looks like some of these lots are just too far out for people to perceive them as convenient,” says Vail Public Transportation Manager Mike Rose during a tour of the free lots.
The free satellite lots were instituted as part of the Vail Parking Plan in November. Task force members said the free lots were a way to encourrage locals to come to Vail even on crowded weekends, but leave the parking structures to paying visitors.
At the Vail Mountain School, the Bower’s van appears to be the only ski-related vehicle. A few other cars are huddled in front of the school building, suggesting some teachers are working a weekend shift.
Thirteen cars are parked in the neighboring East Vail Interchange Trailhead lot, just off Interstate 70. The lot is available seven days a week – though technically only for 12 cars – but appears to be used by people on going on the trail more than to the slopes. It’s shortly after 10 a.m. and the lot is half full – maybe locals staying off the slopes and chosing the quiet backcountry instead.
Moving west, the resourceful motorist may find a spot at the Spraddle Creek Trailhead, just northeast of the Vail Main Roundabout on North Frontage Road. There are 18 spaces available for anyone at any time.
It’s now10:30 a.m. and the lot is half full. Only empty ski racks point to some skier parking, tough users have to undertake a 5-minute walk through the underpass and down Vail Road to get to the free in-town shuttle.
Going west on North Frontage Road, there are two free lots at Red Sandstone Park and Red Sandstone School. The school’ 40 spaces have been “very popular” Rose says.
“It is so popular we actually got into some trouble with the school,” he says adding that local skiers have been parking in the fire lane and during the week when the lot is used for school purposes. “It’s important that people know this one is only for Saturday and Sunday,” Rose says.
It’s the lot, Josh would like to keep under wraps. “I’ll be calling you if this lot is full next time,” Josh yells over his shoulder before he takes off.
“If it’s full it’s your fault.”
Farther west on North Frontage Road, motorists can park all week at the Red Sandstone Park. On this Sunday morning the lot’s 15 spaces are taken. “I think some Vail employees are using this one,” says Rose, noting several pairs of skis still locked into the racks. Like the school lot, the 15 spaces are within a short distance of the I-70 overpass and only a few steps from the bus stop.
The biggest and best-kept secret for free parking is home in West Vail.
Motorists go west along North Frontage Road past Wendy’s and ignore the tow-away sign. A second sign announces that the town allows for 180 cars to park on both sides of the dead-end Frontage Road on Saturdays and Sundays. The bus stop is just next to six spaces belonging to the North Trail Trailhead at the western end of the dead-end North Frontage Road. The trailhead spaces can be used throughout the week,.
While cars on the other side of I-70 are now backing up toward up to Ford Park and inching towards the Cascade, there are only three cars in the trailhead parking lot and none on the street as the morning progresss towards noon.
“It’ hasn’t been used much at all,” Rose says of the West Vail parking option. “I guess people just don’t want to wait for the bus and then ride in.”
Switching sides there are two more free lots on the south side of I-70.
There are 15 spaces at Stephens Park on South Frontage Road just east of the Intermountain neighborhood. The park’s parking can be used seven days a week.
Turning back east on South Frontage Road, the tour ends at the 40 spaces belonging to the office of the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, but only on the weekends.
The sanitation office is located on South Frontage Road and Forrest Road going east toward Lionshead going east toward Lionshead. The lot isn’t used heavily, Rose says. On this Sunday there are five cars parked here just before noon.
Rose says he can’t guarantee everyone a free spot in Vail, but with a little luck, planning and a bit of extra time, long walks and parking fees can be avoided.
“Parking for free in town is possible,” he says. “It just takes some time to learn the system and see which lot works for your needs.”
Geraldine Haldner can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 602, or at email@example.com