World Class Skiing In A Classic New England Village

Stowe, Vermont

 

White-mantled fields with occasional patches of tall grass poking through the snow grace Route 100 as it winds its way into Vermont’s Green Mountains. White-flocked trees, still clinging to the last snowfall, stand like frosted sentries along the edges of the fields and riverbanks. It’s not wilderness, not with restaurants and stores, but the village of Stowe is rural by almost any standard. The town sits just 30 miles from the Burlington International Airport or a scenic five hour drive from Rhode Island – a place worth the trip simply for its scenic beauty and New England charm, but during the winter, there’s a special reason to visit Stowe. It is home to the top ski area in the eastern US.

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The Stowe Mountain Resort sits on eastern slopes of the highest peak in New Hampshire, the 4400-foot Mount Mansfield. Its 48 alpine trails range from the 1000-foot long Inspiration Trail for people just learning their turns to the double-diamond 35-degree pitch Goat Trail, so challenging with its double fall line, winding narrow path, and unexpected moguls that the expert skiers who dare take it say that it will make a mountain goat faint.

First time skiers at Stowe frequently take lessons and rent their equipment at the Spruce Base Lodge ski school. Their “Stowe For Starters” program includes 90 minutes of group instruction and a lift ticket for the less-challenging Spruce Peak. Even the lift for newbies is extra easy – it’s a carpet lift, where new skiers are pulled up the slope on “magic carpets”. Catching a 10 AM lesson gives neophytes plenty of time in the day to explore the mountain and to develop the skills to graduate on to the simpler green-tagged trails of Mount Mansfield the next day. Equipment is also available from Pinnacle Ski and Sports, on Route 108, midway between the town and the mountain.

The trails on Mt. Mansfield include the gentle Toll Road trail, a 3 mile trail originally built for horse and buggy traffic up the mountain to the grand Halfway House hotel. The hotel is long gone, but the old roadway lets beginners ski for what seems like forever. The trail is serviced by the Four-Runner Quad lift, a detachable four-person ski lift that gives even the least-coordinated skier time to get out of the chair and onto his feet.

The same lift, built in 1986 to replace the previous single and double-seat lifts, also serves most of the expert trails. The lift cuts a line straight up the mountainside, creating the resort’s showcase trail, the Lift Line, a double-diamond trail that embraces just about every kind of terrain a downhill slope can encompass – drops, moguls, groomed, ungroomed, steep, mild, and even a natural staircase and quite unnatural series of ski lift towers.

Bright red gondolas take eight passengers at a time up a stretch of the mountain dedicated to intermediate skiers. The trails there, Cliff Trail, Switchback, and the Perry Merrill trails, all offer beautiful views, broad turns, and enough duration for cruising the mountain. Lights on the lift towers light the Gondolier trail at night, letting the skiing day extend well after sunset. In all, the resort features 12 lifts servicing over 40 miles of ski trails and snowboard terrain parks, able to satisfy the most demanding snow-adrenaline junkies.

But winter in Stowe doesn’t have to be spent on the mountainside rushing downhill at blood-pumping speeds. Instead of downhill Alpine skiing, a growing number of skiers are opting for cross-country Nordic skiing. From its invention more than 4000 years ago in Scandinavia as a critical winter survival skill, cross-country skiing has evolved into a sport enjoyed by millions. Some people enjoy it as a low-impact whole-body exercise. Others just enjoy a quiet time through snow-covered woods and fields. The options range from a casual stroll down the snow-covered Stowe Recreation Path to a marathon trip along the Catamount Trail.

The Stowe area boasts of over 100 miles of groomed trails and over 60 miles backcountry trails. These trails connect to the 500 mile Vermont Long Trail, stretching from state border to state border. Most of these trails were constructed in the 1930’s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) public works programs as summertime hiking trails. But in the 1960’s Nordic skiing was introduced to Stowe.

The area resorts provide access to Stowe’s cross-country trails, maintaining and grooming them through the winter. Grooming for cross-country trails is called “tracking”. Groomers cut deep polished grooves for the skis to keep them pointed down the trail. This lets the skiers ignore what their feet are doing and spend more of their attention on the countryside. Nordic skiers almost universally carry ski poles to help them move forward, using their upper body strength to increase their speed and to help them up slopes.

The story of Stowe’s history as a resort destination deserves a quick side-trip to the village’s museum in the village’s Town Hall, where visitors can see the hand-drawn sledge used by the first settler to arrive in the valley in 1794, dragging his possessions behind him because there was no road. By the early 1800’s, Stowe had already established itself as a summer resort town, providing clean mountain air to city dwellers who found the area a welcome respite just a train ride away from the factories and foundries of the Northeast.

In 1851, the road up Mt. Mansfield was created and the Halfway House hotel was built soon afterward. The toll road became popular as an alpine ski trail in 1914 and the federal parks service began purchasing vast tracts of land on Mt. Mansfield the same year. The first ski tow, powered by a Cadillac engine, began pulling skiers up the road in 1937, where they used the hiking trails created by the CCC for their downhill runs.

Despite being a historic New England village, but in the winter, Stowe seems to exist for skiing. Stowe bustles during the winter. With only 4300 permanent residents, Stowe’s population explodes with tens of thousands of winter sports enthusiasts filling the hotels and resorts.

The remote ski chalet standing solitary at the base of the slopes with its roaring fires and hot drinks may be may be extinct. Skiing’s popularity means that excellent ski slopes no longer exist in isolation – they quickly begin to rub shoulders with a crowd of restaurants and outfitters and nightspots and condominium developments. Stowe village has extended the seven miles from its original location up Mountain Road to the ski lifts on Mount Mansfield, lined almost all the way with businesses that cater to skiers.

When skiers aren’t skiing, they’re shopping in Stowe’s 45 unique stores for stylish clothing, local art, and Vermont foods. The state is famous for its maple syrup and rustic crafts, but it also home to widely-recognizable brands like Cabot Cheese, Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, Green Mountain Coffee, and Lake Champlain Chocolates. For local shopping, check out Green Envy for fashion or Stowe Kitchen Bath and Linens for just about everything else!

At night, visitors to Stowe congregate in the village’s nightspots. While practically every lodge and inn has its own lounge, after the first couple nights’ stay visitors usually want to get out and explore the area’s nightlife. Probably the most popular nightspot is the Rusty Nail. While it sounds like a great name for a cowboy watering hole with country music playing on the jukebox, it is actually one of the best places in Stowe to get a drink and good meal, with Cajun-inspired dishes like blackened seafood or Creole sauces on their menu. As the evening moves on, live music begins, usually a cover band that plays well-known rock tunes, and the main room converts into a dance floor. A small cover charge pays for an evening of music and dancing.

The Stoweflake Resort and Spa is a great home base for a trip to Stowe, with 200 rooms, townhouses, spa, conference facilities, and sports & wellness center. The resort pampers its guests, with attentive staff, well-appointed rooms, and welcoming public spaces. The spa features 30 treatment rooms, 120 signature services, and features an indoor waterfall in the aqua solarium — the perfect place to soothe out the aches and pains from the double-diamond runs. Charlie B’s Pub is not only a place for draft and bottled beer, it’s also a place for steaks, seafood, traditional New England foods, and creative vegetarian entrees. Sitting on 108, Stoweflake is one of the stops for the Stowe Shuttle, which carries skiers up to the mountain, but also making a convenient way to explore the town without driving.

But describing Stowe as a ski destination doesn’t encompass the entire winter experience. Certainly Stowe gets 20 feet of natural snowfall a year, but snow doesn’t have to mean skiing. Tour guides offer snowmobile tours of the Mount Mansfield State Forest in either the mild or wild flavors – a slow scenic nature tour of the winter woods or a more adventurous jaunt through more challenging terrain.

Perhaps the best way to connect to nature during the winter is snowshoeing. The sport has been revived by the advent of easy-to-wear aluminum-framed snowshoes requiring negligible maintenance. Snowshoeing allows nature lovers the opportunity to wander wherever they please through the blue spruce and hemlock forests surrounding Stowe, absorbing the sights and scents of the woodlands. All of the ski outfitters in Stowe offer snowshoes too, making it easy to find equipment.

Important Links

Stowe Mountain – Skiing – www.stowe.com/ski-ride
Pinnacle Ski and Sports – www.pinnacleskisports.com
Catamount Trail Association –catamounttrail.org
Stoweflake Mountain Resort and Spa – www.stoweflake.com
Stowe Shuttle – gmtaride.org/stowe/routes-schedules-stowe.html
Green Envy Boutique – vermontenvy.com
Stowe Kitchen Bath and Linens – www.stowekitchen.net
The Rusty Nail – rustynailvt.com
Umiak Outfitters – Dogsledding – www.umiak.com/htm/dogsled.html
Gentle Giants – Sleigh Rides – www.gentlegiantsrides.com/sleighrides.htm
Go Stowe – www.gostowe.com

Dogsledding can be classified as an adventure, not just a winter experience. As anyone who has tried to walk an over-anxious dog can attest, even a single modestly-sized dog can pull hard on his lead. With a proper harness and training, a single sledding dog can pull a sled weighing a full ton with little difficulty. With a dozen hearty, snow-loving Alaskan huskies pulling just for the joy of getting outside for a run, a lightweight toboggan rockets across the snow. Umiak Outfitters offers a 20-minute dogsledding adventure throughout the winter at Stoweflake.

And for the least athletic visitor to Stowe, there’s still a chance to get out into the snow for a little adventure. Horse-drawn sleighs pulled by heavy draft horses can take whole families on a sedate adventure along quiet pathways and fields. These big horses pull sleds during the springtime maple syrup collection, but during the winter they get their exercise by providing a thrill for the young, old, and romantics who visit Stowe. Rides are available at several of the area’s lodgings.

There’s plenty of snow in Stowe, so consider the drive to the mountains. Dress warmly!

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