Vermont's Ski Highway to Heaven

Vermont's Ski Highway to Heaven

Published by Brion O'Connor

12 Resorts on the Skier's Highway: Vermont's Route 100.

If there's a separate heaven for skiers and snowboarders, I'm convinced the roads there will all look like Vermont's Route 100. Not the soaring super highways like Interstate 70 that runs to Colorado's Summit County and up past Vail, but this twisting north-south two-lane through serrated hillsides, littered with quintessential Vermont villages, vintage farmhouses, babbling brooks, and some of New England's finest ski areas, restaurants and accommodations. You'll also pass a number of ski clubhouses, some in better shape than others, that stand as a testament to the history of the sport, and the sobriquet of Route 100 as Vermont's "Skier's Highway."

As a youngster growing up in northern New Jersey in the 1960s and '70s, I longed for our winter treks to the Green Mountain State. Our clan (a robust Irish-French Canadian gang of eight) would pile into the family Ford LTD wagon and, along with our Austrian neighbors, the Aguras, and motor up Route 100 to ski Sugarbush ("Mascara Mountain") and Glen Ellen in Warren. The drive, compared to the major highways we would take to see our grandparents in New Hampshire, was almost magical.

I remember feeling incredibly safe during these long road trips, with surreal snowflakes that looked like fireflies in the street lights (no doubt my dad, if he were alive today, would have a much different recollection!). We'd come in by way of eastern New York, through Rutland, and banking north onto Route 100 by Killington. Little did I know of the treasures that Vermont 100 offers in its first 100 miles to the south, like Mount Snow, Stratton, Magic Mountain, Bromley, Haystack/Hermitage Club (RIP, 2005) and Round Top/Bear Creek/Plymouth Notch (RIP, 2018).

I made up for that oversight in the 1990s, during my early years as a ski writer getting reacquainted with the sport. Today, I could spend weeks exploring Route 100, which dates back to the 1700s, as it neatly splits Vermont into two tidy halves, running a shade more than 216 miles from Massachusetts to the Canadian border, much of it hugging the eastern slopes of the Green Mountain National Forest. With a wife and two girls of my own, I love the idea of reconnecting with the ghosts of my own not-too-distant past.

The South Route 100

Some say the first 100 miles of Route 100 is the best. I'm not ready to make such a bold proclamation, but they have plenty of "talking points." For starters, two mega resorts – Mount Snow and Stratton – that need no introduction, a superb mid-sized hill in Okemo that continues to improve with every year, and two wonderful smaller hills in Bromley and Magic Mountain.

1. Mount Snow

Mount Snow VT
The 3,600-foot Mount Snow in West Dover is the state's southernmost ski areas, and one of its best, both on and off the mountain. Now under the umbrella of Vail Resorts, Mount Snow boasts 83 trails over 1,700 feet of vertical and almost 600 acres, including almost 100 acres of tree skiing on all four faces (Main Mountain, North Face, Sunbrook and Carinthia), and eight terrain parks and a superpipe with 18-foot walls. With a crazy lift capacity of more than 31,000 skiers and riders an hour, you won't be standing in line for long. More than 150 inches of annual snowfall is complemented by snowmaking that covers more than 80 percent of the trails. On-site lodging includes the 200-room Mount Snow Grand Summit Hotel plus a gaggle of condos and townhouses, and several inns close by. Big Bears Lodge, for example, is only 1500 feet from the base of Mount Snow. For on-mountain après ski, saunter over to Cuzzins Bar & Grille, with giant picture windows to match the hearty portions, or 1900' Burger. Later, check out the Maple Leaf Brew Pub or the Snow Barn.

2. Stratton Mountain

Stratton Mountain VT
Not to be outdone by its southerly neighbor, Stratton Mountain is an ode to the wonders of intermediate terrain. I say that as an unqualified compliment. Yes, it has expert trails, and challenging glades, but those are unquestionably in the minority. The trails that shine the brightest most often are the playful variety of blue-square routes, from wide-open cruisers to gentle serpentine tracks that let skiers and boarders work their turns without picking up too much steam. The breakdown at Stratton looks like this: There are 99 trails spread out across almost 700 acres of terrain – with another 160-plus acres if you include the glade areas – spilling off the 3,875-foot summit, the highest peak in southern Vermont (with fabulous views to the north and east, including Bromley). Top to bottom, the resort offers 2003 feet of vertical drop to its base, and the longest trail – Mike's Way to Wanderer – is three miles long. To say the least, Stratton has come a long, long way from ski hill that opened in late 1961 with eight trails, three double chairs, a three-story base lodge, and a pockmarked access road that terrified drivers. Getting everyone up the hill is a collection of 11 lifts, highlighted by the 6-person gondola (a godsend on cold, windy days), four 6-pack chairlifts, and three quad chairlifts. All combined, the resort can move 34,000 skiers and boarders up the mountain every hour. Don't know where to start? The resort offers free tours with a Stratton ambassador at 10 o'clock every morning. And the Stratton Mountain School is one of the Northeast's premier ski academies. Apres ski, Stratton's village shines. Mulligan's is a long-time favorite, and bourbon fans have got to try the bacon-infused maple Old Fashion at the Fire Tower Restaurant.

3. Bromley Mountain

Bromley Mountain VT Rte 100
Bromley in Peru, is one of those outstanding little hills that sometimes get lost in the shadow of the bigger resorts. Don't make that mistake. Called the "Sun Mountain," due to its southerly exposure (bring the sunscreen), Bromley has 1,334 feet of vertical and 47 trails (covering 178 of the area's 300 acres) divided equally between beginner, intermediate and expert, plus three terrain parks. Uphill capacity is less than 11,000, but you won't find the crowds, either. In short, many ski areas offer “something for everyone,” but few deliver on the old cliché. Bromley does, which is the main reason my family loves this mountain. Same goes for the user-friendly Bromley lodge. Off-hours, we can't come to Peru without stopping by Johnny Seesaw's for a bite, while the pet-friendly Bromley View Inn provides an outstanding overnight stay.

4. Magic Mountain

Magic Mountain VT
When Swiss native Hans Thorner was canvassing Vermont to start a ski area in the late 1950s, he found Glebe Mountain. Its ridge lines and steep topography reminded Thorner of his native Swiss Alps. The trails he cut for Magic Mountain in Londonderry are naturally narrow and twisting, descending 1,500 white-knuckle vertical feet to two summit lifts – true vertical skiing. Magic today has 40 trails and 11 glades over 135 acres. Combined with tree-skiing from boundary-to-boundary, Magic's terrain is what separates this little ski area from all others in southern Vermont and the East Coast, virtually unchanged since the 1960s. If you finish the day hungry (as I often do), there are a number of excellent dining options close by, including the New American Grill, SoLo Farm and Table, and Red Slate. Check out the Taylor Farm in Londonderry for sleigh rides. If your travels take you north along Route 100, be sure to stop at the Vermont Country Store in Weston for an unequaled collection of rare treats and pure kitsch.

5. Okemo Mountain

Okemo Mountain VT
Over the past quarter century, the Mueller family has transformed Okemo in Ludlow from a quaint-but-vanilla hill into a stunning four-season resort, with a premium on learn-to-ski programs, snowmaking and grooming. Recently acquired by Vail Resorts, Okemo is a dream for skiers and snowboarders. With six terrain parks and a superpipe, more than  650 acres of terrain (121 trails and glades) spread over five peaks and a 2,200 vertical drop (more than 90 percent of which is covered by the resort's superlative snowmaking crew), and 20 lifts to get you back up the mountain quickly, Okemo will make sure you'll get a full day of turns. The resort's Summit Lodge and mid-mountain Sugar House Lodge both got interior makeovers. The Summit Lodge, beside the top of the Sunburst Six Bubble Chair, features an open floor plan with a décor that pays homage to the iconic Vermont barn, while on the lower level, Robin's Roost evokes a sense of entering a vintage speakeasy with pressed-metal ceilings, a new, spacious bar and fireside area. At the Solitude Day Lodge, Epic is now 43° North, with a northern French-inspired menu.  Afterwards, rest easy at the Jackson Gore Inn, which combines the allure of a Vermont country inn with the refinement of an upscale hotel. For libations, retreat to the Coleman Brook Tavern at the resort, The Loft Tavern on the access road, The Killarney downtown, or Sam's Steakhouse on Route 103.

The Middle Route 100

This 58-mile section of Route 100, between Killington and I-89, will always have a cherished place in my heart, since its woven into the fabric of my youth, and few memories are more powerful than that.

6. Killington Mountain

Killingtons Bear Mountain VT
At the intersections of Route 100 and 4, in the heart of Vermont's serrated midsection, is Killington. The resort is New England's largest (or, as my daughters like to say, "ginormous"), with the character and reputation to match its endless terrain possibilities. Killington, is one of those resorts that doesn't require any introduction. People know about the Beast of the East. The place is massive, encompassing five peaks, topped off by Killington Peak at 4,241 feet. That adds up to 22 lifts servicing 155 trails and six terrain parks covering 73 miles and 1,509 skiable acres (including roughly 750 acres of "Natural Woods Areas"). In a word: Huge. The single biggest benefit of Killington's multiple peaks and ridgelines is that you don't need to ski everything. You can almost always find a trail (or five) that suits your style, where you can find the sun and softer snow, or escape the wind. The resort's two gondolas provide relief from biting temperatures, but expect to spend some time in a lift line. And the legendary snowmaking capacity of Killington (there's a very good reason why the resort is typically the first to open each winter, and one of the last to close each spring) is unparalleled.

7. Pico Mountain

Pico Mountain VT
Next door, sister mountain Pico may not have the same eye-popping stats as its big brother, but it's got a rich history that few ski areas can match. It first opened as Pico Peak in 1937, on Thanksgiving, with the 2½-mile Sunset Schuss Trail, and held its first race the following January. Today, thanks in part to its partnership with Killington, Pico is a "big mountain" in its own right, with 1,967 feet of vertical spread over 50 trails (totaling 17 miles) and 214 skiable acres serviced by six lifts, including two high-speed quads. And everything, from the glades to mogul runs to groomed steeps, all funnels back to the main lodge, where the warming flames of a giant stone fireplace await. With the Killington lift ticket, you'll have 212 trails over almost 2,000 acres, serviced by 29 lifts, to explore.

8. Sugarbush and Glen Ellen

Sugarbush VT Heaven's Gate
In Warren, my old stomping grounds of Sugarbush and Glen Ellen still rule the roost, though they hardly resemble the mountains of my youth. In fact, the resort just celebrated its 60th anniversary last year. How did that happen? In the interim, Sugarbush absorbed Glen Ellen, now known as Mount Ellen. Combined, they offer arguably the best skiing experience in New England, The resort features six “peaks” – Mount Ellen, Lincoln, Castlerock, North Lynx, Gadd, and Inverness – covering roughly 4,000 total acres, with 111 trails totaling 53 miles across 581 skiable acres, 97 acres of wooded runs and three terrain parks. The breakdown across ability levels looks like this: 26 beginner trails (almost 19 percent), 47 intermediate trails (34 percent), 30 advanced trails (21.6 percent), and eight expert trails (5.8 percent). Adding the 28 wooded areas brings the total to 100 percent. The average snowfall of more than 250 inches, combined with a dedicated snowmaking and grooming crew, allows Sugarbush to boast fairly predictable conditions. Now add 17 lifts, including five high-speed quads, capable of hauling more than 24,000 skiers up the hill every hour. That translates to fewer crowds (however, don't plan on skiing both in the same day; you're much better off planning to spend a full a day at each, and avoiding the connecting lift). The 4,083-foot Mount Ellen still offers a compelling mix of gentle and tough, tough lines, while the peaks of Sugarbush to the south have more variety. Kudos are also apropos, as Sugarbush puts the "green" in Green Mountains with a bevy of environmentally cognizant programs to compliment an impressive snowmaking and grooming operation. The nightlife at Sugarbush, and the surrounding communities, is still a bit underwhelming, but locals don't seem to mind. The Green Mountain Lodge at Mount Ellen, the Wunderbar at Lincoln Peak, and Castlerock Pub are still big hits, with a vibe all their own. The Pitcher Inn in Warren is a special treat.

9. Mad River Glen

Mad River Glen VT
Conversely, Mad River Glen on Route 117, just a few miles west off of Route 100, is happily stuck in a time warp. Skiers here like it that way (don't even think of bringing you snowboard). Perhaps the only ski-related bumper sticker – "Mad River Glen: Ski It If You Can" – to rival Sugarloaf stickers in the Greater Boston area, it speaks to the mountain's burly, no-frills attitude. You won't find snowboarders on General Stark Mountain, but it's a telemark haven. That tells you all you need to know about this rough-cut area and the Mad River Glen co-operative that has asserted its independence since 1995, nurturing the vision of founder Roland Palmedo. Mad River Glen first unveiled its famous Single Chair on Dec. 11, 194. That spirit of Yankee innovation not only survives today, but thrives. There are 45 marked trails over 2,037 feet of vertical, plus 800 acres of boundary-to-boundary off-piste access. Contrary to popular belief, there is a decent amount of beginner and intermediate terrain, though the expert terrain is what Mad River Glen is best known for. Just don't expert groomed corduroy.

The North Route 100

10. Stowe Mountain

Stowe Mountain VT
Up the road from Ben& Jerry's is the Stowe Hollow covered bridge, built in 1844, which leads to the "Ski Capital of the East." This world-class four-season destination has earned its moniker: Stowe is the original ski resort, and by many standards, still the ultimate New England ski town. Stowe's original front four – National, Goat, Starr, and the Nose Dive – still get my blood pumping like few trails can. And they're just the beginning. From the 4,395-foot summit of Mount Mansfield (top ski elevation, 3,625 feet), you can explore almost 500 acres of mixed terrain over the 2,360 feet of vertical. That's 116 trails totaling 40 miles in all, with 16 percent beginner, 55 percent intermediate, and 29 percent expert. Lift capacity, which includes a summit gondola and inter-mountain gondola, can transport 15,500 skiers and riders an hour. Now a Vail property, Stowe continues to unveil improvements. Long gone are the old clunky lifts, and outdated lodges. The Stowe Mountain Lodge, complete with a top-flight spa and wellness center, is a quintessential mountainside luxury hotel. Après ski at Stowe enjoys a similar status, and you can get your fill at the Matterhorn, the Round Hearth at Stowe, Piecasso, The Roost at Topnotch Resort, Harrison's Restaurant, Tres Amigos, The Bench, Doc Ponds, and Whip Bar & Grill at the Green Mountain Inn, all found on Stowe Mountain Road. “Sound of Music” fans may want to drop by the Trapp Family Lodge. If time allows, treat the clan to a dogsled ride with Peace Pups Dogsledding.

11. Smugglers' Notch

Smugglers Notch VT
The final stretch of the Skier's Highway, meandering 55 miles north from Stowe to the border town of Newport, is special because it requires more effort to get to, and as such tends to draw a more dedicated ski crowd. Smugglers' Notch in Jeffersonville has made its name as a "family friendly resort." Now that it's perfected the family ski vacation, “Smuggs” has branched out, with exceptional new trails that will keep expert skiers on their toes. The resort's three interconnected peaks – Morse, Madonna, and Sterling – boast a tremendous mix of trails, from cruisers to expert, including the East's only triple black diamond. There are 78 trails in all (27 miles!) and roughly 1,000 acres of terrain and 2,610 feet of vertical, including glades and six terrain parks. The lifts and snowmaking (62 percent) could use updating, though more than 23 feet of annual snowfall helps. You'll think there are just as many programs for the kids, highlighted by Smugglers' Snow Sport University. Post-ski activities include a FunZone 2.0 recreation center, tubing, snowmobiling, snowcat rides, zip-line canopy tour, and snowshoeing. For a little rest and relaxation, look to the Mountain Massage Center or the Smugglers' Notch Inn & Tavern.

12. Jay Peak

Jay Peak Mountain VT
Since Route 100 ends near the Canadian border, it's only right to spotlight a ski area that's as popular in Quebec as it is in Boston. Jay Peak, home to the famous aerial tram, is a skier's hill, pure and simple. Big and cold, with more natural snow than any Northeast ski area, Jay is at the top of the Vermont ski chain, figuratively and literally. Its reputation has been bruised in the past three years due to the federal fraud case filed against its former owner, and the resort remains in receivership as the courts look for a buyer. But that's behind-the-scenes intrigue. Due to its loyal employees and exceptional location, Jay maintains a genuine Old World, Old School atmosphere that simply can't be manufactured. Fifty miles of trail, and almost 400 acres of terrain (plus more than 100 more for off-piste carving) over 2,153 feet of vertical makes Jay a veritable winter wonderland. Add more than 350 inches in annual snowfall, and you won't think you're in northern Vermont; you'll think you're in heaven. Après ski, join friends – new and old alike – at the Bullwheel Bar at the Stateside Hotel, or The Foundry at Hotel Jay,  the Tram Haus Lodge, or nearby Inglenook Lodge. For a fun off-mountain retreat, check out The Belfry or Bernie's Restaurant in nearby Montgomery.

In truth, no matter what your idea of the perfect resort, you're likely to discover it somewhere along the Skier's Highway. Each area is unique, but all capture, to some extent, the spirit of New England skiing. And that's what keeps us coming back to the mountains of Vermont's Route 100.

Images: Vermont Tourism

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