Photo: Jonas Tufvesson /Shutterstock

How To Plan The Ultimate Day in Vail's Legendary Back Bowls

by Tim Wenger Mar 19, 2024

In Colorado ski lore, few terrain zones are as iconic as Vail’s Back Bowls. Comprising more than 3,000 acres across more than a dozen fall lines and offering skiing on nearly every aspect, the seven Back Bowls offer backcountry-like lines in a controlled setting that draws skiers worldwide. They offer wide-open glades, chutes, and steeps, all with incredible views of the surrounding Gore Range and Holy Cross Wilderness. Skiing or boarding Vail’s Back Bowls is a must-do for any who consider themselves dedicated to the craft – here’s how to plan your day for the best experience.

Traveling to Vail? Check out Matador’s guide to the best Vail Airbnbs.

About Vail’s Seven Legendary Back Bowls

mount of the holy cross near vail

Photo: Neil Podoll/Shutterstock

Vail’s Back Bowls draw inspiration from the Far East. Most notably, there’s China Bowl, named after the massive rock band atop the bowl affectionately called China Wall, because it dominates the surrounding landscape like the giant wall itself. Rounding out the terrain are Sun Down and Sun Up Bowls, Game Creek Bowl, Tea Cup Bowl, Siberia Bowl, and Inner and Outer Mongolia Bowls. The terrain is different at each. China Bowl offers both open powder fields and loose trees, while others specialize in one or the other. All are unique, and each is worth spending time on – and you can traverse the entire zone in a full day, retiring to Vail Village afterward with legs so tired that only a pint at Vail Brewing can heal.

Tips for the best experience

  • The wind tends to blow in from the west across Vail, stripping west-facing slopes of powder and depositing that snow on the east-facing slopes. This is a primary reason to ski the bowls west to east – you can spend as much time as you wish on easy-facing slopes this way, maximizing your return of face shots.
  • Vail’s Back Bowls is one of the only areas in the state where you can ski nearly every aspect (east-, west-, south-, and occasionally north-facing slopes), often on the same run. Many of the bowls offer about 270 degrees of available terrain, ranging from east through south to west facing. At least one of those aspects is likely to have powder — and you can access that powder on most of the bowls. This is particularly true in Sun Up Bowl and China Bowl.
  • If time allows, take a couple of mid-day runs at Blue Sky Basin. Here’s where you’ll find steep and technical tree skiing on runs like Steep and Deep and Little Ollie.
  • The Back Bowls are primarily for expert skiers and snowboarders only, though easier terrain is available The Slot in Sun Up Bowl (which is groomed nightly for intermediate skiers) and Sleepy Time Road, which starts at the top of Sun Up Bowl, traverse down through Tea Cup Bowl, and finishes at the base of the Orient Express Lift in China Bowl.
  • Conditions: The Back Bowls are typically the last place on the mountain to open in the morning and the first to close in the afternoon. This is because they are the most exposed terrain on the mountain and are more likely to be affected by wind, snow, and cold temperatures.
  • Safety: Because of the challenging terrain and remote location, it is important to be aware of the risks involved in skiing or snowboarding in the Back Bowls. Be sure to check the avalanche forecast before you go, and always ski or snowboard with a buddy.

Planning your day: Start west and head east

vail back bowls trail map

Photo courtesy Vail Resorts

3000 acres of terrain await you. To cover it as much of it as possible, you need to come in with a plan that optimizes the terrain and the snow conditions, and does so in a manner that optimizes the way lifts are laid out. The best way to do this is to start on the far west side at Game Creek Bowl. To get there, ride up Gondola 1 and take the quick traverse to the Wildwood Express lift. Take this up, head south across the plaza, and prepare to drop in.

The furthest west of Vail’s Back Bowls, Game Creek Bowl, is more easily accessible since the 2023 opening of the Sun Down Express Lift, which accesses the bowl’s six runs by exiting the lift and traversing across Ptarmigan Ridge to a line that calls you. Morningside Ridge and Ricky’s Ridge drop into open expanses of white, while further runs like Never and O.S. offer the option to dip into the glades. To the right of the lift as you exit is Sun Down Bowl. The most underrated line here is Windows, which offers the chance to drop into an east-facing ridge if the sun’s softened the hard pack, take the west-facing aspect if it’s untracked, or the gulley straight down the middle.

Regardless of the line you choose in Game Creek Bowl, you’ll end up at the bottom of the Sun Down Express and High Noon lifts. To stay in Game Creek and Sundown Bowls, which often provide the best conditions first thing in the morning, hop on the Sund Down Express lift. To head further east, get on High Noon. You’ll arrive at the top of Head Wall Ridge and Sun Up Bowl. The ridgelines due west of the lift tend to offer excellent conditions by 10:00 as the sun melts the overnight freeze and the snow rides either as powder, packed powder, or loose corn. If conditions are pristine, hit Cow’s Face or the trees through Chicken Yard to return to High Noon Express. Or, a shorter run down Milt’s Face offers the same aspect and puts you at the Sup Up Express.

Zap down under the Tea Cup Express lift and head west on Sweet N Sour before ducking into the small and well-hidden Tea Cup Bowl, the most well-preserved of the Back Bowls. The powder here starts to loosed around mid-day.

Mid-day delight in China Bowl

vail back bowls

The powder is seemingly endless. Photo: Tim Wenger

China Bowl is the most well-known and trafficked of Vail’s Back Bowls. It’s also the largest. This is to your advantage because you can choose an aspect from east through south to west to hit, based on conditions. As you make your way up the Tea Cup Express, scout the conditions and compare them to where the crowds are – this is how you’ll decide where you won’t go. You should have good luck on Ghengis Khan, and on the following lap after riding up the Orient Express Lift, on Poppyfields East (trees and west-face) or Poppyfields West (wide open powder, baby). It can also be easy to find powder stashes on Shangri-La Glade, as many skiers opt not to ski under the lift.

If you’re a fan of leaning back and letting out an enthusiastic “Whooo-ey!” as you slash through a wide-open face of snow, central China Bowl is your spot. Watch out for wind-swept terrain as the wind tends to compile snow in the center of the basin, but other than that there’s no better spot at Vail to let ‘er rip.

Take The Silk Road to Mongolia

the platter lift at vail

Make it up “the platter” and you’ve earned your stripes. Photo: Tim Wenger

The Far East references continue as you head, well, further east on Vail’s Back Bowls. The Silk Road is a Blue-rated traverse trail that connects the top of the Orient Express Lift with the Mongolia surface lift, commonly known as “the platter,” and then from the top of that lift to the furthest east reaches of the ski area boundary, down the east side of the resort, and back down to the bottom of the Orient Express. Take this entire route and you’ll have completed one of the longest continually-named ski runs in the world. Before hitting the platter, duck into Gorky’s Park or Red Square in Siberia Bowl, however, and slap some pow before returning to the top.

Arriving at Inner and Outer Mongolia Bowls after skiing across the other five bowls is preferred because there’s seemingly endless terrain out here – and even if China Bowl and others are skied out you’ll typically find powder. It’s possible to bail off the platter early – without riding all the way to the top – and head into Bolshoi Ballroom from the side, where you’re very likely to find an untracked line down. From the top of the platter, Bolshoi or Inner Mongolia offer a long descent with loosely-spaced trees that make for fun turns. Outer Mongolia offers more of the same, and here, local riders are known to put up kickers and post up for the day with lunch and drinks in tow, sessioning the furthest east bowl all day with minimal disturbance from the western world.

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