On a bluebird, powder morning, one of the most popular descents on Vail Mountain is not found on any of the trail maps- it’s not within the boundaries of the resort. But this iconic trail will see thousands of skiers and snowboarders each season, many of whol set off with nothing but a friend to guide them or carefully repeated instructions of how to reach the almost mystical start to the Minturn Mile.
The Mile’s origins are unknown. It was most likely discovered by skiers with a penchant for ducking into slightly out-of-bounds places, lured by the sight of fresh powder and the promise of tree runs; it’s this sense of adventure that keeps skiers and snowboarders venturing to the Mile. After all, no two Minturn Mile experiences are the same.
For many, it’s the first taste of a really satisfying powder run, says Margaret Ritz, a former ski instructor and bartender at the Minturn Saloon who has skied the Mile—and taken others with her countless times.
“It’s usually really good (snow) on the Mile, no matter what it’s like on the mountain,” Ritz says. “It’s a good place for people to get their first fresh tracks powder run: the first part is not super long, it’s wide open and then there’s the trail that is easy to find your way through.” After this wonderful example of bowl skiing, skiers and riders drop into the trees and follow the fairly conspicuous trail all the way to Game Creek Drainage and the Beaver Ponds. With enough snow, it’s possible to ski straight across. During a low snow year, removing skis or snowboards is the norm. The Beaver Ponds are also a popular meeting spot for this reason: If you have to unclick/unstrap, you might as well stop and take a breather and perhaps enjoy a beverage that you tucked into a pack.
From the ponds, get ready for the luge. This approximate- ly two-mile section is fast, providing a feeling that’s more akin to Olympic bobsled than skiing. Stay in control and you’ll soon be eyeing the last section to Game Creek Trailhead (the official end of the Mile). If it looks particularly patchy, it’s best to walk once again. Bonus points if you remember to bring boots to change into to walk to the Saloon. The official end to the Mile is found within the Minturn Saloon. It’s possible to gauge the conditions of the trail based upon how many pairs of skis and snowboards decorate the outside of the building like colorful, precarious pieces of art. On a good day, the gear almost obscures the sides of the Saloon, its owners inside celebrating with a margarita, the (un)official beverage of the Mile.
But the Mile is not just a bucket list item for newly minted locals and more adventurous, in-the-know visitors. For some, the Mile was—and is—a commute. Kari Corbin, an instructor with Ski Club Vail who worked at the Minturn Saloon for more than a decade, considered the three mile run a more enjoyable way to start her shift. “You’d have a nice ski, enjoy a nice fire, have a cup of coffee and go to work,” Corbin says.
Though Corbin no longer works at the Saloon (her last day was the day before her oldest child was born), the Minturn Mile is still part of her winter season. “My kids ski it about five times a year,” Corbin says. Now 8 and 10 years old, her kids have practically grown up on the Mile. “They love the luge and it’s a fun adventure for them. It’s a good entry into backcountry skiing.” But Corbin reiterates the fact that she wouldn’t take just any children down the trail.
“They have to be able to ski bottomless powder in the back bowls by themselves—they need to be able to ski really deep powder,” Corbin says. “I would recommend having one person behind (the group) in case someone gets caught and one person in front, setting the tracks for the littles ones. I did it 200 times before I took my kids down it.”
Though each session on the Mile is unique, some seasons are less idyllic: Ritz shares that there was only about a month during the 2017-18 season that the Mile was enjoyable due to the snow conditions. But each day brings a new opportunity, a new possibility for the experience.
A few caveats before you take off: The name itself is misleading. The Minturn Mile is longer than a mile (it’s closer to three and descends nearly 3,000 feet) as anyone who has been forced to walk part of its length has discovered. It’s also a true backcountry experience with all of the uncertainty and potential danger that the word “backcountry” entails.
“It’s the best backcountry run you can do that doesn’t slide, that you can do without having the fear of an avalanche,” Ritz says. “You can do it without having to have a beacon and a probe, but you can still have that backcountry experience.”
(It’s true: There are few, if any, instances of slides or avalanches on the Mile. However, it’s always a good idea to err on the side of caution and either be prepared yourself or go with someone who is.)
Of course, the quintessential end-of-of-the-Minturn Mile experience includes enjoying a cold, frosty margarita at the Minturn Saloon at the end of the journey. Barring bringing a battery blender, how many back- country runs can boast that particular benefit? But perhaps the best part of the Mile is the stories. From epic gatherings of friends at the Beaver Ponds to the discovery that a former ski patroller didn’t know how to snow plow (true story), just about everyone has a tale about their time on the Minturn Mile. That’s the beauty of this particular winding trail, with its wide-open bowls, luge-like section and the potential slog: It’s ripe with potential and possibility. Even if attempted only once, finishing the Mile is a badge of honor, one that is proudly flashed at the bar of the Minturn Saloon.