Even in the shortest days of winter, it’s never completely dark in the Mad River Valley. Up and down Route 100, five-point stars wrapped in gleaming white Christmas lights appear on the sides of houses in the villages of Warren and Fayston. As you approach the center of town, their presence grows with increasing frequency, and by the time you’re in Waitsfield Village, you’re surrounded by them like the Milky Way on a clear winter night.
Last year, the stars came out early to honor the memory of five teenagers who were killed in a car crash. Usually, they appear before the holidays, around the time of the Country Holiday Festival (Dec. 2-4), and many stay lit all winter.
“We wanted to light up Waitsfield, and I want people to be able to see it from the sky,” says Barb Gulisano, owner of the Bridge Street building where The Peasant restaurant and The Sweet Spot bakery are located.
In 2012, Gulisano spearheaded an effort to convince Waitsfield businesses to light up the town—a venture that spawned the creation of more than 800 stars in the valley. “We got Sugarbush, then we got Moretown, and we got Warren, and they all wanted to do it. And wow—it was great! I wanted it to grow into something spectacular, and it did.”
As the snow starts to fall and the stars light up, the Valley transforms into a magical wonderland. And if you want to explore it, here are our picks for 10 great adventures:
Yes, you can cat ski in the East. On mornings after a hefty dump, Sugarbush’s “Lincoln Limo” snow cat ferries 12 advanced skiers and riders to the mountain’s best snow, well before the lifts start to turn. You’ll get first tracks as you fly through the fresh powder and across uncarved corduroy.
The guided tours may go to Heaven’s Gate, the top of North Lynx, into the Slide Brook Wilderness Area or elsewhere. While the group’s speed and route determines the number of runs, most passengers get at least three runs in before the tour’s end. Rides cost $85 per person, are by reservation only and leave from the base of Lincoln Peak at 6:30 a.m.
Before Sean Lawson became the owner of an award-winning brewery, Lawson’s Finest Liquids, he was a naturalist. With a Bachelor’s degree in Ecology and Environmental Studies, a Master’s degree in Forestry, six years of wildlife education experience and a Wilderness First Responder certification, this brewer knows his stuff when it comes to the outdoors.
Lawson leads Mad River Glen’s Naturalist Program and hosts regular events like the “Beer Lover’s Dinner and Full Moon Snowshoe.” Some tours, like “The Nature of December” tour, which focuses on plant and animal activity around the holidays, are family-friendly and fun for all ages. Others provide a taste of Lawson’s brew. madriverglen.com
3. Rocket Down Lincoln Gap
This one’s not for the faint of heart. Lincoln Gap—the steepest paved mile in America—is closed to cars in the winter. Its 20 to 24 percent near the top. It’s enough to make you groan even hiking up the hill. But the downhill—oh, baby.
Grab a group of thrill-seekers and sleds (make sure to choose ones you can control), and snowshoe or hike to the top of the gap. The challenging ascent will be well worth it when you zip down three miles of winding, snow-covered road.
4. Snowshoe to Dinner
The Round Barn Inn is already just about as classic Vermont as you can get, but add a nighttime snowshoe to a candlelit dinner at their cabin in the woods, and it becomes magical. The dinner, includes a guided 35-minute snowshoe hike, adjusted to the party’s desired difficulty level (and a snowmobile for those unable to walk).
The destination: a private cabin with a hot fire in the stone hearth and some serious atmosphere where you’ll be served a meal that includes hors d’oeuvres and a hearty dinner. On the path to the cabin, guides sink tea lights into the snow to light your way. A bonfire roars outside, and guests can make s’mores after the meal.
5. Eat Like a Local
For a small ski town, Waitsfield’s food scene is impressive. Just south of town on route 100, you’ll find American Flatbread’s flagship restaurant, housed in a rambling old building on the Lareau Farm. Made with fresh produce in a wood-fired clay oven with a whole lotta love, these flatbreads warm you from the inside out.
The Hyde Away Inn is another small gem with classic dishes that showcase meats and veggies that are often raised within ten miles of the inn. Quench your thirst at the tavern while playing a game of pool.
Continue into Waitsfield Village and find The Blue Stone, serving pizzas with flare, such as “The Bohemian” (sweet potato puree, kale, tofu, goat cheese).
The Mad Taco dishes up some of the best Mexican around (and their margaritas aren’t bad, either) along with an extensive menu of local beers.
At The Sweet Spot your mouth will water simply looking at the cases of pastries, muffins, scones, bagels and turnovers.
For an occasion, stop by The Common Man on Sugarbush Access Road. Michelin star-rated chef and Vermont native Adam Longworth reopens this season (following what was going to be a closure last spring,) and he won’t let you down. Though the menu rotates, he’s plated grilled octopus, pork chop schnitzel, vegetable ramen, all served in a 19th century barn.
Finally, for an authentic taste of France—a cheese fondue or a bouillabaisse—Chez Henri, just off the Lincoln Peak base area, is a Sugarbush institution that’s been in place since 1964, and it’s not to be missed.
6. Explore The Backcountry
Slide Brook Basin, a 2,000-acre expanse of woods between Lincoln Peak and Mount Ellen, is part of what makes Sugarbush so appealing for extreme skiers. During the summer, the area is blocked off and marked as critical to wildlife, particularly for black bears, but during the winter, it’s open for thrill-seekers. Access the area by taking the North Lynx Triple lift. Hang a right and find the gap in the trees.
Sugarbush strongly recommends exploring this part of the mountain with a guide, and besides, it’s best to go with someone who knows how to find the sweet spots. sugarbush.com. At Mad River Glen, if you’re looking for Paradise, ask a local. It’s not always easy to find the unmarked, steep, tight shots that duck and dart away from the trails. But when you do, the shots of powder and drops between the trees will remind you why this place is the birthing ground for some of the best skiers in the world.
7. Drive A Dog Sled
Just north of town, at Little River State Park you can take a ride on a sled pulled by October Siberian’s 10 registered Siberian Huskies along the Waterbury reservoir. Your host and driver, Rob Farley, will tell you stories about the rich history of the park (a historic settlement founded in the 1800s), the dogs and the sport while you and a few friends ride on the sled with a blanket. Or, opt to help Farley with the driving—the sled can be controlled by two drivers.
The two-hour tour costs $350 for two. Farley started the tours to share his love for the huskies, which he calls friendly, hard-working clowns. octobersiberians.com
8. Cozy Up
The Mad River Valley is chock-full of great places to stay, so these are just a few of our favorites. For a treat, try the Pitcher Inn, where each individually themed suite feels like your own private lodge. The “Ski” suite is a post-and-beam room decorated with actual skis, toboggans and trail signs. Cozy up to the brick fireplace, lodge-style. Rooms start at $350 a night. pitcherinn.com
Renovated in 2013, with mixtures of clean white linen and sliding barn doors, The Mad River Barn offers cozy, rustic rooms for a polite price (starting at $125 per night.) Head down to the bar and pub for some of the best bartending in the valley and home-style cooking or the restaurant for fancier fare. madriverbarn.com
If you’re on a budget, Hostel Tevere is about as hip as a hostel can get and it won’t empty your wallet. For as little as $40 per night you can check into a dorm-style room. And with a full-service bar, you’re bound to find some good company, and maybe a ski buddy or two. hosteltevere.com
9. Visit a Quirky Museum
Tucked in a corner on Bridge Street, you’ll find the Madsonian, a museum of industrial design that celebrates artistic manufactured objects. Founder David Sellers, a renowned architect, has chosen to feature toys, games, items from designers and architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Gehry, Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe and others.
The museum is open weekends and by appointment. madsonian.org Or, check out what is on display at the Bundy Modern, a stunning Bauhaus-style structure on a hillside in Warren that’s been turned into both a private home and art gallery. Just off the cross-country trails of Ole’s, it may be the only museum you can ski to. bundymodern.com
10. Dine at the Top
A private dinner at Allyn’s Lodge high up on the slopes of Lincoln Peak is an experience you won’t easily forget. You can either skin up or ride to the top of Gadd Peak in one of Sugarbush’s snowcats. Once there, you’ll be served a three-course menu that starts with local cheese fondue as you warm up in front of the floor-to-ceiling fireplace.
When the meal comes to an end, you can opt to ski down the mountain by headlamp back to Timbers Restaurant, where dessert and coffee are served. Cost for the evening is $150 and includes a glass of sparkling wine. sugarbush.com