At 8,200 feet, Vail, Colo., serves up a relatively short golf season. That's a shame, because the Vail golf experience is long on quality, and is Dustin Johnson-long on scenery. In early autumn, the value soars as well, with courses less crowded and peak green fees reduced. Of course, call ahead. Some courses close for the season earlier than others. Here are the highlights of Vail golf in the fall.
Where to Play
Vail and its surroundings are loaded with wonderful, if pricey, trophy tracks. Start with the Norman and Fazio courses at Red Sky Ranch ($195-$250; 866-873-3759, redskyranch.com) in Wolcott. Technically they're both private, but guests of Vail Resorts have access to each course, every other day. The Fazio hairpins through sagebrush and aspen forests, its forgiving fairways traversing precipitous peaks and valleys next to an alpine lake. The savage, if gorgeous, Norman holes soar higher in the hills than those on its Fazio sibling, amid vistas of mountain peaks and ski runs, with dry gulches, hardy scrub oaks and clusters of Alister MacKenzie-style bunkers along for the ride.
Without question, the region's most complete facility is Cordillera ($150-$250; 970-926-5950, cordillera-vail.com) in Edwards. Cordillera's instructional programs are superb, spearheaded by Dave Pelz and Tom Stickney, both Golf Magazine Top 100 Teachers, and its course variety is unparalleled. Ranging in elevation from the Tom Fazio-designed Valley course at 7,150 feet to the 9,200-foot altitude enjoyed at the aptly named Summit course, a Jack Nicklaus design, Cordillera also sports the Hale Irwin-designed Mountain course and the 10-hole Dave Pelz-designed Short course.
Another Vail-area favorite is Keystone Resort ($85-$170; 970-496-1520, keystoneresort.com), whose two courses, the Robert Trent Jones Jr.-designed Ranch and Hurdzan/Fry-authored River course entertain from start to finish. The 31-year-old Ranch begins with a couple of tightly forested thrillers, then moves into meadowland. Lakes, streams and bunkers combine with dazzling vistas of the Gore Range at 9,300 feet to produce a memorable test. The newer River features top-of-the-world tee shots, mounds topped by wildflowers and a fistful of holes that hopscotch the Snake River.
Not far from Vail are two additional world-class layouts, the Raven at Three Peaks ($45-$165; 970-262-3636, ravenatthreepeaks.com) and Breckenridge ($62-$125; 970-453-9104, breckenridgegolfclub.com). Located between the Vail Valley and the Eisenhower Tunnel is Three Peaks, a Hurdzan/Fry creation with Tom Lehman consulting. The Raven features fingered bunkers, mountain streams and aspen copses, along with a pair of dizzying plunges at holes 8 and 9. Jack Nicklaus crafted the municipally owned Breckenridge track, whose three nines sport sloping fairways that skirt beaver ponds and bold bunkers.
Nonetheless, I have a soft spot reserved for Vail's value tracks. For those, we start with Vail Golf Club ($45-$99; 970-479-2260, vailgolfclub.net), situated practically in the heart of Vail. A longtime favorite of President Gerald Ford, Vail is a walk-able, 7,026-yard, par-71 spread at 8,150 feet that ambles gracefully along the flattish valley floor with a full in-your-face view of the Gore Range. Rocky Mountain streams and wildflowers further spice the play. Sure, there's one too many inverted saucer greens and the design is hardly imaginative, but thanks to the stellar views, firm fairways and slick poa greens, there's no such thing as an average hole [MDASH] they're all fun to play. The wild dogleg par-4 sixth, a 452-yarder that heads left, culminates in a boomerang-shaped green with a strategically placed fronting bunker that sees plenty of action. On the back nine, the 416-yard, par-4 14th is a beauty, menaced by Gore Creek, while the next hole is a drop-shot tease, at 97 yards from the blue markers.
The Vail Recreation District includes the golf, top-notch tennis, a nature center and ice skating, among other attractions. The family-friendly golf experience features a First Tee program and the nearby Willow Creek par-3 layout.
You'll likely encounter some attitude in the pro shop at Eagle-Vail Golf Club ($60-$98; 970-949-5267, eaglevailgolfclub.com), but get past that and you'll enjoy some of the most spectacular Rockies golf scenery in existence. Admittedly, a few holes at this 6,590-yard, par-72, 1975 Von-Hagge/Devlin design wobble between weird and just plain awful, but a fistful of really memorable tests more than makes up for the bad ones. Leave your chipping clubs in the trunk, as there's not much interest or variety in the green surrounds, but pack an extra sand wedge, because you might wear out your first one. Also, pack an extra camera. Elevated tees, mountain panoramas and holes that skirt the Eagle River make for photo ops throughout.
Finally, check out my favorite value in the Vail area, Sonnenalp Golf Club ($80-$155; 970-477-5372, sonnenalpgolfclub.com), 15 minutes west of town, in Edwards. This 30-year-old Jay Morrish/Bob Cupp creation exudes a Western ranch feel, with sagebrush roughs and split-rail fences on several holes. The flattish front nine yields to serious elevation change and broken ground on the back, but throughout are some of the slickest public-access greens you'll ever play. A terrific post-round bar and grill called Balata awaits as well. Best of all for fall golfers, Sonnenalp's down-valley location extends the playing season, where the afternoon rate of $80 will keep you coming back.
Best Side Trip
Make time if you can for the winding trip up to Leadville, where Mt. Massive Golf Course ($23-$36 for nine holes; 719-486-2176, mtmassivegolf.com) resides, North America's highest-altitude golf experience. Fairways are flat and the greens are almost laughably tiny, but the pine forests are soothing, the pioneering spirit is refreshing, and the 9,680-foot elevation at the first tee is exhilarating.
Historic Leadville, at 10,300 feet, is worth exploring for half a day. This mining town boomed in the 1880s, but there's plenty of character to soak up among the current offerings, such as the Silver Dollar Saloon, which dates to 1879. Check out the old photos of former residents Doc Holliday and the "Unsinkable" Molly Brown as you quaff a cold one.
Where to Stay
If you can swing the tariff, stay at One Willow Bridge Road (970-477-5757, onewillowbridgeroad.com), whose ultra-plush condominium units enjoy the finest service, amenities and location in the Vail Valley. I can't even imagine another destination anywhere that offers such comfort and privacy, yet is only steps from dozens of attractions, shops and restaurants in Vail Village. As an added attraction, the development's Marketplace on Meadow Drive dishes out some of the best sandwiches in town.
If your tastes run to a more traditional hotel experience, look no farther than right next door, at the Sonnenalp Resort of Vail (866-284-4411, sonnenalp.com). Besides a world-class spa and four diamond accommodations, Sonnenalp has at least two restaurants I can personally recommend: the Swiss Chalet for some gooey, tasty fondue and Bully Ranch. Try Bully's Buffalo Burger with Bleu Cheese [MDASH] you can thank me later.
Where to Eat
Vail Village is a virtual buffet when it comes to superior dining options. Among my favorites are the classic Pepi's for Austrian sausages and beer and Larkspur for upscale, refined, yet still casual dining [MDASH] I loved the pork belly starter, and yes, it's hard to go wrong with the Summit Creek Colorado Lamb. Much as I tried to turn away, I had to sample the Saigon Cinnamon Doughnut, accompanied by dulce de leche. It was that good.
I never did get to try the gourmet offerings at Kelly Liken, but I enjoyed an absolutely superb lunch at Sweet Basil, an amazing herb-marinated venison chop at Terra Bistro for dinner and a final meal at Russell's, which serves up wonderful comfort food, ranging from steaks to wiener schnitzel.