Remants of Summer in Beaver Creek
All over the Vail Valley, the call to action is unmistakable. Cyclists outnumber cars on side streets. Thousand-dollar bicycles serpentine down steep mountain trails. Vehicles surrender to pedestrians throughout most of the Beaver Creek resort, including its tony shopping village.
Hikers, bikers, paragliders, rapellers, climbers, rafters, kayakers, and yes, even golfers, flock to this area during the fall, taking advantage of the cool mountain air and cloudless blue skies before winter returns.
Everybody here seems to be engaged in some kind of active sport.
“Most of us live here because we like the outdoors; we like to do things,” a mountain guide told me. “I came here for the skiing, but I live here for the summer and fall.”
That was a refrain I heard over and over during a recent visit to Beaver Creek. No matter where you look or what you do in this part of the Rockies, you simply can’t escape the psychic pull of the outdoors.
Take the upscale Beaver Creek Lodge at the foot of the ski mountain, for example. Though its guest rooms are trimmed in plush fabrics, granite counters and cushy leather sofas, before you can plop your tush into that cush, you first pass through a 100-foot atrium that showcases an elaborate bronze sculpture of eight rock climbers ascending from the ground floor to nearly the top of a 50-foot wall. The sculpture captivates you; it calls you out, demanding an answer: Are you really going to sit on a couch when there’s a mountain begging to be tamed only two steps from your door?
If you still think that Colorado’s Vail and Beaver Creek are famous only as ski destinations, than you’re missing out on the true allure of the Valley.
Right now is the ideal time to play golf at the sister resorts of Vail and Beaver Creek.
With cooler fall weather, the mountains are quilted with a patchwork of color we don’t see in Texas. Aspens turn golden. Scrub oaks change into bright red balls of fire. Wildflowers take a last gasp of vibrancy. Yet the grass remains green, the greens roll true, and there’s no better place to watch your 9-iron fly a ball 190 yards than on the par-3 second hole of the newly redeveloped Beaver Creek Golf Club, a 100-foot downhill shot with a creek on the right and the entire village spread out below you in the distance. Last year’s renovation returned the course close to its original design after years of unscripted nips and tucks; no one seems to have told the beavers, who still like to damn the creek and chew the trees despite what may have been drawn on paper.
At the base of Vail’s mountain, skirting the narrow strip of flatlands between Interstate 70 and Gore Creek, the Vail Valley golf course serves double duty: golf in the summer and fall; Nordic ski track in the winter and early spring. Skis planted vertically at the edge of the rough mark fairway yardages. If an errant shot happens to find its way into Gore Creek, you may find that an upstream kayaker spotted your shot and will guide you to it. (The kayakers seemed as interested in how we golfers are doing on the course as we are with them.)
A few miles away from Vail and Beaver Creek, a private residential development called Red Sky Ranch offers two outstanding courses: one from Greg Norman and another from Tom Fazio. (Non-member play is restricted to guests of a few Vail hotels, including Beaver Creek Lodge and a couple of other high-end hotels.)
Red Sky’s two courses are the gems of the Valley. No detail seems to have been too small. Service is enthusiastically attentive, whether on the practice range or on the course. Cart paths were tinted to blend more naturally with the reddish soil. More than 25,000 sage plants were greenhoused during course construction then transplanted back after the courses were completed to return the land to its natural state.
Fazio and Norman took full advantage of the wide vistas from Red Sky’s elevated perch, painting the high desert with sinuous lines of green, white and brown. From a distance, tall pines and log homes lend a finger-painted texture to the more formal contours of Fazio’s and Norman’s square tee boxes and curvilinear fairways.
Red Sky is quiet and remote. The mountaintop elevation gives you a two-club advantage. From the apex of Fazio’s course, you can make out Beaver Creek’s Gold Dust ski run in the distance. Up here, the only sounds you’re likely to hear are the clicks of well-struck irons and the occasional puttering of the beverage cart as she makes her way up the hill.
But there’s another, more urgent reason you should venture to the Vail Valley this year: the pine bark beetle is quickly destroying nearly all of the lodge pole pines that make the Rocky Mountains look like, well, the Rockies.
The beetle, a pest for which there is no remedy or pesticide, has decimated miles and miles of nearby Summit County. Driving from Denver to Vail along I-70, a route once rich with tall green pines and rocky outcroppings now appears disturbingly different. Dry, red needles cover the branches of dead pines, which now outnumber healthy trees. Many of these once-towering giants have fallen and have become an unwelcome fire hazard. The land looks tortured, helpless, abandoned. Summit County, home to Copper River and Brackenridge ski areas and only a few miles away from Vail, has surprisingly few healthy pines left. If you’ve skied there before, the destruction is a horror you have to see to believe.
For now, the Vail Valley itself is still mostly green. The mountain walls are only occasionally pockmarked by clumps of dead pines, soldiers lying on the ground, dead victims of the lethal pine beetle.
That means the time to visit is now.
The U.S. Forest Service estimates that 90 percent of the pine trees in the entire Vail Valley will be dead within three years as the beetle continues its inevitable death march across the Rockies.
Beaver Creek Lodge
Beaver Creek, Colo., www.beavercreeklodge.net, 800-525-7280
(offers stay-and-play packages for Red Sky and Beaver Creek golf clubs)
Red Sky Ranch and Golf Club
Wolcott, Colo., www.redskygolfclub.com, 866-873-3759
Vail Golf Club
Vail, Colo., www.vailgolfclub.net, 970-479-2260
Beaver Creek Golf Club
Beaver Creek, Colo., www.beavercreekgolf.net, 970-754-5775
Vail, Colo., www.camelotballoons.com, 970-328-2290