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Top 5 Best Hikes In Vail, Colorado

Vail Colorado is most well known for it’s world class ski resort, but this mountain town also has easy access to incredible hiking trails.  Hiking in the Rocky Mountains is typically challenging but oh so rewarding.   And Vail Colorado has some of the most beautiful outdoor experiences anywhere.  There’s stoic peaks, alpine lakes, aspen groves, wildflowers, meadows, pine forests and the chance to see wildlife.  These are our top 5 best hikes in Vail, Colorado

Emily standing at the edge of Gore Lake, one of the best hikes in Vail.

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Booth Falls (& Booth Lake)

Booth Lake Trail is one of the best hikes in Vail, Colorado.

Trail Stats | Booth Falls Trail

Distance: 4.2 miles

Elevation: 1,358 feet

Difficulty: Hard

Type: Out & back

Permit: No

Bathroom: No

Dogs: Yes (On Leash)

Booth Falls is the most popular of the best hikes in Vail Colorado, but for good reason.  The trail is only a short distance from Vail Village and offers incredible views from start to finish.  The trail climbs steadily right from the beginning, but rewards hikers with great views of Booth Creek, aspen trees, pine forests, alpine meadows, and craggy peaks.  This is a great trail to see the aspen trees changing in Fall.

Looking over the top of Booth Falls.

Booth Falls itself is actually a little underwhelming, mostly because there isn’t a good view of the falls, especially without getting dangerously close to the edge.  You only get a view of the 40ish foot falls from above and you mostly just see the top of the falls pouring over.  But in a notoriously dry state, Booth Falls is still an impressive waterfall to hike to.  There are a couple smaller cascading falls immediately upstream from Booth Falls.

Most people will turn around at Booth Falls, but if you are up for a longer hike you can continue up to Booth Lake.  The total stats to include Booth Lake is 10 miles and 3,051 feet elevation.  So hiking to Booth Lake is only recommended for experienced hikers in good shape. It is also a great option for a backpacking trip to break up the distance and elevation. 

Booth Lake in June before the lake melted, best hikes in Vail.
Booth Lake in June before the lake melted.

Upper Piney River Falls (+ Piney Lake)

Looking out on Piney Lake from Piney River Ranch.

Trail Stats | Upper Piney River Falls Trail

Distance: 5.9 miles

Elevation: 728 feet

Difficulty: Moderate

Type: Out & back

Permit: No

Bathroom: Yes

Dogs: Yes (On Leash)

A long drive on a bumpy dirt roads takes you to one of the most special places in all of Colorado.  Way up in the White River National Forest lies the Piney River Ranch, a private forty-acre Rocky Mountain retreat that’s a favorite spot for weddings and day trips.  The ranch lies at the edge of Piney Lake with picturesque views of the Gore Range that will take your breath away.

The beginning of Upper Piney River Falls Trails, looking at the Gore Range. Best hikes in Vail.

The most popular hike from the ranch is Upper Piney River Falls Trail.  The trail begins along the left side of Piney Lake, and immediately the views are stunning.  Unlike most of the other best trails in Vail Colorado, this trail only has a relatively mellow and gradual elevation change.  After you pass Piney Lake, the trail meanders along the left side of the alpine valley with great views of the Gore Range and winding Piney River.  This is one of the best hikes in Vail Colorado to see the fall foliage when the aspen trees are changing.

An aspen grove on Upper Piney River Falls Trail.

The trail climbs some periodic switchbacks to reach Upper Piney River Falls.  Just before you reach the falls there is a great vista to see down the whole valley back to Piney Lake and the Piney River Ranch.

Upper Piney River Falls
Upper Piney River Falls

The falls itself crashes through a narrow chute between the rocks.  A large dome rock next to the falls or the peaceful riverside spots upstream from the falls are both great places to rest and have a snack (but don’t forget to Leave No Trace).  If you are willing to navigate the steep path downhill from the falls there is another smaller falls below that I find beautiful as well.

Another waterfall just below Upper Piney River Falls.
Another waterfall just below Upper Piney River Falls.

The 45 minute drive to Piney Lake is on a very rough dirt road that can be a bit of a chore to drive.  But that’s the price you pay to experience such beauty on a hike that’s relatively much easier than the rest on this list.  You take Red Sandstone Road which is only open from June to September.  The dirt road is rocky, bumpy, and washboarded.  It’s typically passable with 2wd but high clearance is recommended.

There is a restaurant at Piney Rive Ranch, so you can get some food before or after your hike!  You can also rent a canoe or bring your own canoe/kayak/raft to get out on the water, but they don’t let you launch from their dock.  So unfortunately you have to carry your kayak a couple hundred yards along the left side of the lake to the first beach area.

Pitkin Lake

Pitkin Lake is one of the best hikes in Vail Colorado.
Pitkin Lake is one of the best hikes in Vail Colorado.

Trail Stats | Pitkin Lake Trail

Distance: 10.5 miles

Elevation: 2975 feet

Difficulty: Hard

Type: Out & back

Permit: No

Bathroom: No

Dogs: Yes (On Leash)

Pitkin Lake is one of the most beautiful alpine lakes on this list of best trails in Vail Colorado.  The water is a stunning aqua blue color that dazzles those hardy enough to make it up to the lake.  The lake is surrounded by lush alpine meadow and craggy mountain peaks.  As you hike uphill you are treated with views back down the valley to the far east side of Vail Resort.

This hike runs parallel to Booth Lake Trail one valley over and shares a lot in common.  They both are steep steady climbs with worthy views to help keep you entertained.  And they both end with picturesque alpine lakes.  Pitkin Lake Trail doesn’t have quite as good views along the trail as Booth Lake Trail, and there are more rocky sections.

Some craggy peaks that tower over Pitkin Lake Trail.
Some craggy peaks that tower over Pitkin Lake Trail.

Pitkin Lake Trail also has a unique little canyon right at the beginning of the trail.  Just as the trail begins there will be a bridge to cross on your left.  If you continue straight instead of crossing the bridge it takes you up into a sweet canyon with cascading falls that crash down the rocks.

The shade from the trees and moisture from the river makes this little oasis feel more like the lush Pacific Northwest than dry, sparse Colorado forest.  This used to be Emily’s and my favorite place to hammock.  It’s barely 5 minutes from the trailhead and the rushing water drowns out all the noise from the highway.  But it’s not part of the maintained trail, so it can be a little tricky to climb the steep paths.

Overnight Parking Prohibited

Something to note, overnight parking is not allowed at the trailhead.  So backpackers either need to park at Red Sandstone Parking Garage Or Gore Creek Trailhead.  But luckily Vail has a free bus system that can take you from your car to near the trailhead.  My advice would be to park at Gore Creek and just hop on the East Vail bus at “Main Gore/Juniper” and get off at “Falls at Vail” stop.

Bighorn Creek Trail

Trail Stats | Bighorn Creek Trail

Distance: 6.9 miles

Elevation: 2,244 feet

Difficulty: Hard

Type: Out & back

Permit: No

Bathroom: No

Dogs: Yes (On Leash)

Bighorn Creek trail is yet another gorgeous hike in East Vail.  The steep trail has beautiful aspen groves, wildflowers, and a unique renovated historic mining cabin.  The cabin belongs to a couple families whose mining claim dates back to the 1900’s.  The cabin was in complete disrepair with a caved-in roof until 2017 when the owners rebuilt the cabin.  It now stands as a reminder of Colorado’s early mining days.

You are allowed to enter the cabin but please be respectful of this unique treasure.

If you continue on the trail left of the cabin you reach the upper cirque of Bighorn Creek.  The alpine meadow is loaded with wildflowers in the summer and has several picturesque creeks flowing through the meadow.  Hiking up to the cirque will add several miles and extra elevation.

Wildflowers, streams, and mountain peak at the top of Bighorn Creek Trail. Best Hikes in Vail.
Wildflowers, streams, and mountain peak at the top of Bighorn Creek Trail.

Gore Lake Trail

Gore Lake is a beautiful alpine lake sitting below the peaks of the Gore Range. Best hikes in Vail.
Gore Lake is a beautiful alpine lake sitting below the peaks of the Gore Range.

Trail Stats | Gore Lake Trail

Distance: 13 miles

Elevation: 2,867 feet

Difficulty: Hard

Type: Out & back

Permit: No

Bathroom: Yes

Dogs: Yes (On Leash)

This is the hardest of all the hikes on the list of best hikes in Vail Colorado.  But the payoff is, in my opinion, the most beautiful alpine lake near Vail.  And the peaks and meadows on the way up to the lake are also the most beautiful of all the East Vail hikes.  Because of the distance and elevation this hike will challenge even the most experienced hikers.

Hiking on the Gore Lake trail.
Hiking on the Gore Lake trail.

Also, every time I have done this hike I have seen mountain goats.  Most recently an entire group of them grazed nearby as we hammocked.  They actually came much too close for comfort, but we were backed up against the shore of the lake and couldn’t give them any more space.  So we calmly watched and cherished the close encounter until they moved on.

Watching a herd of mountain goats from our hammocks at Gore Lake.
Watching a herd of mountain goats from our hammocks at Gore Lake.

Honorable Mention (Easier Trails)

Vail Colorado with Aspens changing in the fall.
Vail Colorado with Aspens changing in the fall.

I’m sorry there’s so many challenging trails on the list, but I find that when it comes to hiking in Vail, the biggest effort usually results in the biggest payoff.  But I realize not everyone will be capable of completing these challenging hikes.  So here are a few easier favorites that will give everyone a chance to experience the beauty of the rocky mountains.

Gore Valley Trail

A paved multi-use path in East Vail that still has great views of the surrounding valley and the Gore Range peaks.  Also an easy trail to access using the free bus system.  And great chance to see fall foliage on the aspen trees (season dependent).

Meadows Loop & Eagle’s Nest Ridge Trail

Why not take advantage of Vail’s gondola’s to take you to the top of a mountain?  No need to work so hard for the views when you can be carried up to the top.  Both of these trails can be accessed via a gondola ride and offer you epic views right from the start.   The gondola does cost $37 though.

Tips For Conquering The Best Hikes In Vail

Aspen trees in the fall on Pitkin Lake Trail, one of the best hikes in Vail Colorado
Aspen trees in the fall on Pitkin Lake Trail.

Here’s a couple tips to make sure you are ready to tackle the unique challenges of hiking in the rocky mountains.

Prepare For High Elevation

The town of Vail Colorado is at 8,150 feet, and several of these hikes will take you well above that!  And many of the hikes have dramatic elevation change.  Even the most fit individuals may get out of breath quickly.  So plan for taking plenty of breaks and hydrating often.  It’s best to give yourself a day or two to acclimate to the elevation before tackling a tough hike.

Weather Changes Quickly

Dramatic storm clouds rolling in over Gore Lake Trail.

I know people say this about nearly everywhere, but in Vail its especially true.  So make sure you prepare for anything. Bring plenty of water, sun protection, and extra layers.  It’s possible that you might need sunscreen and a winter jacket on the same hike, seriously.  The sun warms up the weather quickly, but mornings and nights are chilly!  And afternoon thunderstorms are common in the summer.

Leave No Trace

This goes for all wilderness hiking, but be sure to follow Leave No Trace principles when you visit.  Pack it in, Pack it out.  Stay on maintained trails, especially in the delicate alpine meadows.

Wildlife Encounters

Seeing wildlife on the trail can be an amazing experience, but it’s important to always keep your distance.  The primary animals to be aware of are black bears, mountain lions, and moose.  If any of them are close enough to react to you, then you are likely too close.  With both black bears and moose it’s best to slowly back away and give them space to move along, they usually keep minding their own business.

If you see a mountain lion, the strategy is a bit different.  If you have a dog, it should already be on a leash (for exactly this reason) and pick up small children.  Stand your ground and try to scare it off by opening your jacket or anything to make yourself appear larger.  Slowly try to back away if possible, but don’t turn your back on the mountain lion.

Best Time To See Aspen Leaves In The Fall

Orange foliage on aspen trees in Vail, Colorado.

The Aspen trees turning a bright golden orange is one of the most incredible spectacles in all of Colorado.  But the window to see aspen trees leaves changing is rather small.  The peak is typically around mid-late September, but it varies year-to-year and by elevation.

Hiking In The Winter

Some of these hikes can be done in the winter, but special preparation and gear is necessary.  Deep snow or ice can make these already challenging trails even harder.  Warmer winter layers are always a must.  And the difficulty depends on recent snowfall and traffic on the trail.  If other people have hiked the trail, it may be compacted enough to hike in just hiking boots.  Otherwise, a combination of snowshoes, microspikes, and trekking poles will be essential.

Limited Parking At Trailheads

Booth Falls, Pitkin Lake, and Bighorn Creek Trail all have pretty limited parking at the trailheads.  If you are in Vail, you can use the free bus system to take you to the trailhead (use the East Vail bus route).  Parking can be found at numerous garages in Vail.

Use High Quality Hiking Gear

The rocky mountains are, well, rocky.  And as are many of the trails, so for your feet its best to have a quality pair of hiking footwear to tackle the best hikes in Vail.  And many people really appreciate having trekking poles because of the intense elevation changes.  Emily and I always put an emphasis on good footwear and high quality layers to keep us comfortable on the trail.  Check out our favorite gear below.

What To Pack:

Now, what to pack on these fun hiking adventures? Depending on the time of year, the suggested clothes might change. Although we always suggest a merino wool layer, such as Unbound Merino or Isobaa.

Check out our favorite hiking gear, here! We include our favorite hiking poles, backpacks, rain layer, snacks and more!

Conclusion | Top 5 Best Hikes in Vail, Colorado

An alpine meadow right next to Gore Lake.
An alpine meadow right next to Gore Lake.

Vail has some of the best mountain hikes in all of Colorado.  Most hiking in Vail is steep and challenging, so prepare to work for your views.  But your effort will be rewarded with legendary views in the Rocky Mountains.

But there’s more to Vail than just hiking and skiing, we’ve compiled a list of Fun Things To Do In Vail During Summer

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