Vail is known as a high-end, luxury destination – yet you don’t to spend big to enjoy its many pleasures.

Best known for its immaculately groomed ski slopes, picture-perfect Bavarian-style architecture and indulgent spas, the Vail Valley can be a challenging place to vacation on a budget. Yet the destination is also home to many free activities that showcase the region’s natural beauty and character. While creating your itinerary for an affordable getaway to Vail, be sure to slot in a few of these free things to do.

Peruse the produce at Vail Farmers’ Market & Art Show

Every Sunday from late June to early October, farmers and vendors take over East Meadow Drive in Vail Village at the Vail Farmers’ Market & Art Show. Stroll among the fresh produce, pick up a one-of-a-kind piece of art or grab a souvenir to take back home, all while basking in Vail’s glorious sunshine. The market is free and open to the public, and even if you don’t buy anything, it’s still a great way to spend the morning people watching and enjoying the summer weather.

Hike to a waterfall

There are stunning vistas nearly everywhere you turn in the Vail Valley, especially if you’re willing to hike out into the wilderness on your own two feet. By walking just a few miles in the Eagles Nest Wilderness along the Booth Creek Trail, you’ll be rewarded with views of Booth Falls, a rushing cascade on Booth Creek. Vail has other waterfall hikes to check off your list, too: Upper Piney River Trail, Pitkin Creek Trail and East Vail Falls Trail. [[ED NOTE: CAN WE LINK TO VAIL HIKES STORY HERE ONCE IT GOES LIVE?]]

Tall pine trees and golden aspens with a mountain valley beyond seen from the Booth Falls Trail in Vail, CO
The views on the hike to Booth Falls are priceless – and free © Getty Images / iStockphoto

Play pretend at Pirate Ship Park

If you’re traveling with little ones, be sure to spend an afternoon at Pirate Ship Park in the heart of Vail Village. Kids can let their imaginations run wild and act out adrenaline-pumping pirate scenarios at this free attraction, which features a realistic wooden ship, climbing nets, a seat monster, a slide and other whimsical features. They can even “walk the plank” – safely, of course. If you’re on the playground circuit, be sure to also check out Sunbird Park in Lionshead, which has funky structures that look like birds’ nests and ladders, slides and bridges. 

Get inspired by Vail’s public art

Vail is home to more than 55 murals, sculptures, paintings and other pieces of inspiring public art. Some are subtle, like artist Robert Tully’s granite sculpture Branching Pattern at the Vail Village Transportation Center. Others, like History of the Gore Valley, a ceramic-tile mural at Slifer Square in Vail Village that was designed by local children, are big and bold.

Pick up a free map at one of Vail’s welcome centers or download one online, then take a self-guided tour and see how many you can check off the list (you can also take a virtual tour to familiarize yourself before your trip to Vail).

Earn your turns by uphilling

You can skip the lift lines and save some money by uphilling, a special form of human-powered skiing that involves gliding, well, uphill. You’ll need boots, skis and skins – grippy, carpet-like strips that attach to the bottom of skis and help prevent you from sliding backward as you climb up the mountain. It’s an intense workout, especially if you’re not acclimated to Vail’s altitude, yet you might be surprised at how relaxing and serene uphilling can be.

Vail Ski Resort allows free uphill access when the lifts are not running (up to 15 minutes before they start running in the morning and starting 30 minutes after the lifts close in the afternoon) on two designated routes: Simba and Riva Ridge. Be sure to wear brightly colored, reflective clothing and call the trails hotline at 970-754-1023 before you head out for the day for up-to-date information.

Similarly, Beaver Creek also allows free uphill access on specific routes that fluctuate. Call the resort’s trails hotline at 970-754-5907 to know which routes are open to uphillers on the day you plan to ski. 

Stop and smell the flowers at Betty Ford Alpine Gardens 

Named in honor of former first lady and gardening fan Betty Ford, Vail’s gorgeous botanical gardens highlight more than 3000 species of plants that can grow at the town’s 8150ft elevation. There are four sections to explore, all for free (though there is a $5 suggested donation): the Mountain Perennial Garden, the Mountain Meditation Garden, the Alpine Rock Garden and the Children’s Garden. In addition to the outdoor gardens, an education center teaches about local plants through hands-on activities and displays; an indoor cold greenhouse features rare plants that can grow in a temperature-controlled environment.  

Explore skiing history at the Colorado Snowsports Museum

After hitting the slopes, visitors might stop to wonder, why is skiing so popular? How have skis, boots and other gear evolved over time? What’s the deal with snowboarding? Even if you don’t consider yourself a history buff, you’ll learn something new at the Colorado Snowsports Museum, which uses photos, information and artifacts to tell the stories of skiing and snowboarding in Colorado. There are exhibits about the brave skiing soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division (who trained in the Colorado Rockies), the evolution of skiing fashion and the history of skiing competitions like the Olympics, among others. The museum is free (with a $5 suggested donation).

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Get stoked at the Zeke M. Pierce Vail Skate Park

When Vail high schooler Cameron Chaney noticed that there was wasted space between parking decks in Lionshead Village, he went to city council and made a pitch: transform the unused space into a one-of-a-kind public amenity. The council members liked the then-teenager’s idea (and his initiative) and in 2016 unveiled Vail’s shiny new skate park, complete with a mini-bowl, full-size halfpipe, a “vert” feature and four mosaic murals. Chaney named the all-ages park for his friend and fellow skateboarder Zeke M. Pierce, who died in a mountain bike accident at the age of 15. The skate park is free and open to the public during the summer; helmets are required and knee pads and wrist guards are recommended. 

Hit Vail’s flow trails on a mountain bike

The Vail Valley is home to miles and miles of free mountain biking trails for all ability levels. If you’re not sure where to start, the Vail Valley Mountain Trails Alliance has detailed online maps with information about each trail’s distance, elevation gain, direction and difficulty; the group also posts up-to-date information about trail conditions and seasonal closures. Vail Ski Resort also opens to mountain bikers during the summer – you can bring your bike on the Eagle Bahn Gondola or Gondola 1 (for a fee), then cruise back down to the bottom on more than 340 miles of trails. If you don’t mind pedaling yourself up the mountain, it’s free to mountain bike at the resort.

Two smiling women snowshoeing on a sunny winter day
When you need a break from the crowded lifts, strap on the snowshoes and seek out quiet moments in nature © Jordan Siemens / Getty Images

Explore Vail’s sparkling winter landscape on snowshoes

If you’re eager to get away from the hustle and bustle of the lift lines and enjoy a quiet moment in nature, strap on your snowshoes and hit the trail. Many of the Vail Valley’s scenic hiking trails are perfect for traipsing around in the snow once winter arrives – and they’re free to use. The North Trail, which is broken up into sections and has several trailheads, is a popular snowshoe trail thanks to its easy access from I-70 and its (mostly) gently rolling terrain through pine and aspen trees.

Curl up with a book at Vail Public Library

There’s no better place to curl up with a good book than Vail’s library. Nestled among towering evergreens and aspens, the library has large floor-to-ceiling windows, a massive stone fireplace, local artwork and lots of comfy chairs and nooks for reading, studying or just taking a moment to yourself. The library’s calendar brims with free programming for children and adults, which means there’s always something going on here. Outside of the library, you can wander among the laminated pages of children’s books along a trail in Bighorn Park as part of the StoryWalk initiative or find your next read in one of five smaller libraries located around the valley.

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