This is it. Two weeks of skiing, parties, and non-stop snow fun kick off tonight in Vail and Beaver Creek with the 2015 Alpine World Ski Championships, held February 2-15. And for those of you new to ski racing, this is a huge event. Only the Olympics is bigger in size, and attendees can expect over 600 athletes from 72 countries. It's the third time that Vail has hosted the event, but never before has the U.S. boasted such local favorites as Lindsey Vonn and Mikaela Shiffrin on their home mountains. We've got the insider's guide on the whole shebang, everything from where to park, to where to eat, and even which events you can't miss. And the best part? The races, corresponding events, and a whole slew of first-rate concerts are all free.
Traffic: Be aware that getting to Vail and Beaver Creek from Denver requires a drive on I-70, Colorado's most notorious high-traffic ski highway. There will be an increase in volume on I-70 and if the weather is bad, be prepared for delays. Check Open Snow's I-70 forecasts for weather updates, and the Colorado Department of Transportation for road conditions.
· Most races (except for the qualification races for giant slalom and slalom and the Team Event, which all take place at Golden Peak in Vail), are happening at Beaver Creek. Know that the Beaver Creek parking garages (Village Hall and Villa Montane) will be closed to the public.
· The main parking area at Beaver Creek will be the Rodeo Lot between Walmart and City Market on East Beaver Creek Blvd in Avon. These parking lots will be free and shuttles are available.
· The Bear Lot at the base of Beaver Creek will serve overflow parking.
· All lots open at 7:30 am
· Award ceremonies and concerts take place at the Solaris building in Vail Village. In Vail, the paid parking garages at Lionshead and Vail Village will be open, with overflow operating on the Frontage Roads like normal.
Shuttles: Event organizers want people to take shuttles rather than drive to events. A free express bus will run between the Vail Transportation Center, Avon Station and Beaver Creek every 15 minutes from 7 a.m. to midnight daily. The ride from Vail's transportation center to Beaver Creek Village will take about 30 minutes. You can also expect the town of Vail, Avon and Eco buses to be running their normal routes.
Getting to the races: Because all of the races finish at mid-mountain, you need to figure out how exactly you're going to get up the hill. The best options are to ski, hike, or take a bus. Free buses will run between the covered bridge in Beaver Creek Village to the finish area (expect a big climb up several flights of stairs into the stadium) every 10 minutes before and after the race. Cardio lovers can snowshoes or hike up 45 minutes to the finish area on the 2015 Trail (Dally) from Beaver Creek Village. If you opt to hike, you don't need a lift ticket, snowshoe demos will be available for free, and a halfway cafe will be stocked with warm treats. And the best way to see the races is by skiing, duh! Be warned, this will require a lift ticket. From Centennial Chair, ski down Redtail to the finish area. From the Westin Gondola, take Chairs 15 and 18 and then look for signs. From Arrowhead, ski to Bachelor Gulch and then take chair 16 or 18 and then look for signs.
Watching all the action: Beaver Creek built a huge stadium that seats 3,500 people on a free and first-come basis. If you want a good (or any) seat for the big races, plan to arrive about an hour early. You also might want to bring some blankets, and it goes without saying that you should dress warmly. There will also be a large standing area in between the stadium and finish area. Want to see the skiers a bit closer up? There will be standing areas along the race courses from the Redtail jump down; access them by hiking up the fence line.
Security: Be aware that this is a major international event and security will be intense. You can expect bag checks and each person is allowed one bag (9-by-10-by-17 inches or smaller). You are allowed to bring cameras, mobile devices, binoculars, cowbells, water bottles, snacks, and clothing and blankets if carried by hand. You are not allowed to bring illegal drugs, weapons, knives, glass bottles, alcohol, umbrellas, or air horns.
Closures: Almost everything will be open, except for the Birds of Prey chairlift and the trails under it used for the Birds of Prey men's course and Raptor women's course. Talons Restaurant will be closed to the public throughout the races. At Vail, only the lower part of Golden Peak will be closed.
Goodies: Like at most big events, look for giveaways everyday. Event organizers will be handing out temporary tattoos, flags, foam fingers, and limited edition collector's pins.
Family Activities: Families should head to the Kids' Fun Zone in Lionshead, which will be open on weekends (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and Feb 13 and 14 from 1 to 4:00 pm). You can expect free activities in a heated tent including art and craft areas, live music and presentations, and other surprise events.
Don't-Miss Events: Beyond the races, don't miss all the extra events that will make these two weeks one long party in the mountains. Opening and closing ceremonies will take place in Vail's Championship Plaza (normally called Solaris).
Minturn is hosting their annual (and free) skijoring event on Thursday, February 5th from noon to 4:00 pm. Hit up the Minturn Saloon (one of the best and oldest bars in ski country), afterwards.
Each day, head to Après Avon from 2:00 to 5:30 pm for live music, performance art, food, craft brews, distillery tastings, and athlete signings. The event is located at the base of Beaver Creek and will serve as the post-race transition into Vail's evening festivities.
There will also be an epic number of free concerts to attend. Shows are held at Solaris in Vail Village, start at 6:30 pm, and feature Michael Franti & Spearhead, O.A.R, Barenaked Ladies, and Ceelo Green, just to name a few of the artists. Head over here for the full list. Be warned, although these events are not ticketed, there will be capacity limits, so arrive early.
Be on the lookout for athletes! All of the racers and their teams will be staying in Vail and Beaver Creek, so have your autograph books and cameras ready.
Drinking & Dining: In honor of the races, we'll be updating our food and booze guides for Vail and Avon this week.
UPDATE: Behold, the brand new guide to boozing and dining in Vail.
If you need breakfast, head to the InterX Pavilion in the center of Beaver Creek Village. Starting at 7:00 am, there will be grab and go items like breakfast burritos, oatmeal, yogurt, smoothies, juices, and a full bar.
· Vail Beaver Creek 2015 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships [Official Site]
· Your guide to navigating the 2015 Alpine World Ski Championships [Vail Daily]
· Your Guide to the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships 
· I-70 Traffic Is So Bad You Can Ski Faster Than You Can Drive [Curbed Ski]
· 10 Fast Facts On The Ski Industry's Biggest Player: Vail Resorts [Curbed Ski]
· Mapping the 25 Best Après-Ski Spots in North America [Curbed Ski]