Opening photo: Burke Mountain Academy at the base of Burke’s slopes. Photo by Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
Vermont has some of the biggest, gnarliest and best mountains in the East. You can’t argue with a day exploring the 73 miles of trails at Killington, pounding moguls on Sugarbush’s Stein’s, negotiating Stowe’s Front Four or the glades at Smuggler’s Notch. Or, after carving down Stratton’s velvety groomers, enjoying a stroll through the Austrian-themed base village. But with the advent of ever-lower-priced multi-mountain passes like Epic and Ikon, some places are getting increasingly busy on holidays and weekends.
That’s one reason why so many savvy locals head for the smaller hills. Another is that day tickets at most of these areas are at least half of what they are at the bigger resorts. Another option, a $329 Indy Pass is good for two days each at Bolton Valley, Jay Peak, Magic and Suicide Six.
Perhaps the best reason of all to seek out these smaller independent mountains is they are neighborhoods unto themselves; places where community is strong, kids are free-range, and folks stick around for après ski to share stories and raise a glass to the day.
Bolton Valley: Adventure Gateway
It may post just 300 skiable acres and 1,704 feet of vertical, but Bolton Valley punches well above its weight. That’s thanks to vast backcountry and Nordic terrain, two huts you can skin to for a remote overnight and an Adventure Center that rents backcountry gear and has lessons and clinics that teach skiers and riders how to use it.
Yes, Bolton draws expert skiers and a serious backcountry crowd, but this is still a family-run resort that caters to, you guessed it, families. Bolton Valley has long been Burlington’s after-school playground. Literally. Founder Ralph DesLauriers made it his mission to get every kid who wanted to ski on snow and put tens of thousands of kids through the Bolton ski programs. When Ralph and his children (Lindsay and Adam now run the place) bought the ski area back in 2017, they refocused on the community aspect of skiing and making Bolton Valley a Ground Zero for backcountry adventures. With 300 inches of natural snow a year and the highest base elevation in the Northeast (2,100 feet) there’s usually plenty of powder.
There’s also always some kind of party going on here, and something for everyone to do. On days when the weather is blustery and only the diehards want to ski, parents can drop their kids off to skateboard or bike in the indoor park at the Adventure Center while they do laps up Vista Peak. On bluebird days, ski until the night lights come on and catch the sun casting a warm alpenglow as it glistens on Lake Champlain before it sinks behind the Adirondacks.
On Tuesday through Saturday nights, a new crowd comes in for skiing until 10 p.m. Thursday nights the Corporate Race Series (a.k.a. Beer League) draws teams that often include former World Cup or NCAA ski racers, as well as intermediates just out to have a good time.
This winter, the Blauvelt Banked Slalom returns, a competition set up by pro rider and Waterbury local Jake Blauvelt on, yes, a banked course. The Catamount Trail Association also holds guided tours on the Catamount Trail which runs from Bolton along the spine of the Greens over to Stowe’s Trapp Family Lodge.
Because it is in Burlington’s backyard, Bolton can get more crowded on weekends than some of the other areas mentioned here. But when that happens, head to Timberline, a lodge and base area off on its own with some black diamond trails off the summit or explore the glades and backcountry.
For a getaway, book a room at The Inn at Bolton Valley which got a refreshing makeover this past year. Rooms start at just $159 a night. For dinner, go for a Fireside Pizza at the base lodge or take out ramen from the Miso Toh Kome shack – an offshoot of Jay Peak’s Miso Hungry tram stand. Nightlife at Bolton is limited but Richmond has plenty of options, Burlington is just a half hour away and Waterbury’s many restaurants and brew pubs are even closer.
Stats: 1,704 vertical feet, 300 acres, 6 lifts, 71 trails, 300 inches avg. annual snowfall. Après: Grab a beer and a Fireside Pizza and settle in at the James Moore Tavern on the mountain. Stay: Slopeside, at the Inn at Bolton Valley or one of the many on-mountain condos. Local Brew: Stone Corral’s many microbrews, all made at the Richmond brewpub. Don’t-Miss Events: Blauvelt’s Banked Slalom on March 12. Best Ticket Deals: Sign up by Dec. 15 for a Powder Pass —$300 for five tickets, good any day. Also, adults ski for just $39 on non-holiday Mondays.
Burke Mountain: Last Little Corner of Vt
For the past decade, Burke has sat in the proverbial shadow of Jay Peak, its corporate sister. Burke didn’t get Jay’s water park, skating rink or the Jay Cloud snows. But under the ill-fated former Stenger/Quiros ownership it did build a stunning base lodge and slopeside hotel. Then, as the former owners’ EB-5 fraud scandal unfolded, development stopped before oodles could be spent on marketing. Now, the two resorts which have been under receivership, are decoupling as Jay Peak prepares for new owners.
For locals, there has been a silver lining to all of this.
“There’s that sort of old cliché about quiet mountains that you can still find fresh powder days after a snowstorm. That’s true at Burke. Even though they don’t get a ton of snow you can almost always find powder stashes in bounds in East Bowl,” says photographer Jeb Wallace-Brodeur. He lives just north of Montpelier and skis at Mad River Glen, Sugarbush and Stowe but makes regular pilgrimages to Burke. “There’s lots of interesting natural terrain, great glades, and secret woods runs, all in bounds.”
The trails on Burke Mountain were some of the earliest in the state, first cut in 1935 by the Civilian Conservation Corps and then expanded by loggers. There’s a good mix of old-school, winding trails and straight-line cruisers. There’s really just one chairlift that most people ski – the Mid Burke Express – a high speed quad. “When that went in it was a game changer,” says Wallace-Brodeur. From there, you can carve big turns on long, wide cruisers like Willoughby and Big Dipper.
Burke is also where you will come across some of the best skiers in the country. U.S. Ski Team’s top skiers —Mikaela Shiffrin, Nina O’Brien, Zoe Zimmerman — all trained at Burke Mountain Academy as did 135 other national team-level skiers. You can see the next race stars training in gates on the Academy’s practice slopes.
The Kingdom Trails network and Burke’s summer mountain bike park have also lured top mountain bikers to relocate. Catch many of them airing it out on skis or boards in Burke’s winter terrain parks.
The mix of world-class skiers and mountain bikers means that the tiny village of East Burke still has that gritty, before-the-boutiques-moved-in appeal of a true sports town where people live to ski and ride. Figuring out how to make a living often takes second place to getting first tracks. Locals fatbike here all winter, or skin up the backcountry glades off Mt. Hor or ice climb the cliffs that rise dramatically above Lake Willoughby.
East Burke is a town that knows how to eat well at reasonable prices: you can start the day with a cappuccino at Cafe Lotti and a melt-in-your mouth croissant from Auntie Dee Dees bakery and end it with a local beef burger on a brioche bun with all the fixings for $14 at Burke Publick House. Book a slopeside hotel room or treat yourself to what is easily the most luxurious new hotel in Vermont, Burklyn, set in an opulent 1900s mansion atop Darling Hill.
This part of the Northeast Kingdom looks and feels a world apart—a largely rural and agricultural area that is classic Vermont. But Burke is closer than you think: just 78 miles (largely on I-91) from White River Junction. Stowe, by comparison, is 75 miles.
Stats: 2,011 ft. vertical drop; 53 trails; 2 high speed quads, 2 surface lifts; 178 skiable acres, 70% snowmaking coverage, 217 inches annual snowfall. Après: Take a fat bike or cross-country ski tour on Kingdom Trails’ 23 miles of groomed trails, or have a beer slopeside at The View Pub. Stay: Slopeside, at the Burke Mountain Resort hotel or go luxe and check into Burklyn, a beautifully restored 1900s mansion. Local Brew: A First Flakes IPA, brewed by Dirt Church-—based in the old East Haven chapel (a 10-minute drive north). Don’t Miss Events: WinterBike, March 5, a rolling party with fatbike demos and vendors at nearby Kingdom Trails. Best Ticket Deals: If you have a pass at another mountain, a day ticket is just $65 any day of the season. On Wicked Wednesdays (non-holidays) get three adult lift tickets for $85.
Mad River Glen: A Cult Classic
To call Mad River Glen a “locals’ mountain” is an understatement: It’s more like a family or, some say, a cult. Stand in line for the Single Chair (and yes, the lines can be long), and you get the sense that everyone here knows each other, no matter if they live 5 miles away or drive here from Boston each weekend. At the Single Chair’s mid-mountain station, liftie Brian Ault broadcasts an eclectic and popular playlist and greets regulars by name.
None of this is surprising given the mountain is a co-op owned by skiers. Mad River Glen skiers (and it is still skiers only) have been coming here for generations. Take marketing director Ry Young; he’s a third-generation MRG skier who started the renowned Freeski Team which has launched some of the best freeskiers in the nation.
One of the reasons Mad River has turned out so many good skiers is the terrain lives up to the bumper sticker adage “Ski It If You Can.” The trails are old-school, unsanitized, bumpy and twisty: they force you to pay attention, use your legs and turn often. In short, they are a ton of fun. As former pro skier Silas Chickering-Ayers, who grew up in Montpelier, puts it, “Mad River doesn’t have a terrain park, but it doesn’t need it: the whole area is a natural terrain park.” In his annual pre-season talk, general manager Matt Lillard addressed a movement behind the “Stop the Brutal Grooming” bumper stickers. “We will never be a ‘groomed mountain’,” Lillard said emphatically.
Unlike other areas that have cut wide open swaths, MRG has intentionally left trees in the middle of trails to help hold the snow and provide shade so it doesn’t melt to ice. Granite cliffs and boulders that other ski mountains might have blasted reign quietly here waiting for new generations to go bigger each time they send it.
But you don’t need to be an expert skier or wait in line all weekend at the single chair to enjoy MRG. “Some of the best tree skiing is in the more open hardwoods off the Sunnyside double chair,” Jeb Wallace-Brodeur, a local skier and photographer notes. The mountain also still carries a natural, rugged beauty. It has its own mid-mountain nature center and hosts guided interpretative snowshoe hikes. For many years, naturalist Sean Lawson, the brewer behind Lawson’s Finest, led full-moon hikes.
Recently, the Basebox, Mad River Glen’s well-loved base lodge saw a major renovation, but most things haven’t changed: the Wall of Fame still features decades of photos of folks with their Ski it if You Can stickers, you can still get a Lawson’s Finest and a great burger at General Stark’s Pub and Friday night fish fries are back.
One caveat: Don’t count on skiing MRG on busy weekends or holidays as the mountain will be limiting day ticket sales this season.
Stats: 2,027 vertical feet, 5 lifts, 53 trails, 115 acres of trails/800 acres of tree skiing, 15% snowmaking, 228 inches annual snowfall. Après: General Stark’s Pub or American Flatbread at Lareau Farm, just down Route 100. Stay: At one of the classic ski lodges on Route 17. Just down the road, the Mad River Barn was once owned by longtime Mad River Glen owner Betsy Pratt and renovated recently. The Hyde Away and Tucker Hill Inn are other historic ski lodges. Local Brew: Head to Lawson’s Finest Liquid’s Waitsfield brewery to find limited releases such as the Still Single IPA as well as their award-winning Sip of Sunshine. Don’t-Miss Events: The Triple Crown events (the Mogul Challenge, Unconventional Terrain Challenge and Vertical Challenge, Mar. 26-28) are where you will see the best young skiers on the mountain. Best Ticket Deals: Season passes sell out before the season starts (although if you become a shareholder you can still get one.) A day ticket is $97 but for the best deal, sneak out early from work and you can ski from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. midweek, non-holidays for $39—a good choice during afternoon snowstorms.
Magic Mountain: Retro and Rowdy
As ski areas were gobbled up by corporate parents (see Vail Resorts, Alterra Mountain Company) Magic thumbed its nose at the mergers and acquisition trend and went the other direction. After a few rocky years, a consortium of regulars bought Magic in 2016 and with Geoff Hatheway at the helm, set out to make Magic the mountain they wanted to ski.
That meant limiting season pass and day ticket sales to avoid overcrowding and closing the parking lot when it filled up. It meant hosting wild and crazy events like New Year’s Eve’s Tuck It – a radar-gun monitored speed race; The Road to Ruin, a free-for-all mass downhill; or Master of the Mountain, a timed combo GS ski race/freeride contest—all with cash prizes. It meant bringing some of Vermont’s best bands to play each weekend (often in free concerts) at the slopeside Black Line Tavern and come spring, having the party spill out onto the south-facing deck and the slopes beyond.
It also meant not messing with some of the steepest and most interesting terrain in southern Vermont. Runs like Witch and glades such as Coniff and the Twilight Zone have earned Magic the reputation of the Mad River Glen of southern Vermont. But the mountain has also built out its beginner terrain with a new handle tow and snowmaking on two new trails, as well a conveyor lift for little ones.
Magic has also tried to keep skiing affordable with a variety of pass options including a Vermont resident season pass, unlimited, for $489, or $389 if you are a parent of a student or a teacher. As a result, passholders who are Vermont residents now make up 45 percent of its pass sales.
Like Mad River Glen, Magic isn’t a place of high-speed chairs. The Red Chair to the top is a 12-minute ride. In 2018 Magic bought a fixed grip quad from Stratton to replace its Black Chair instead of installing a faster detachable lift. That lift has faced some technical difficulties, but Hatheway hopes to get it online and running by mid-season. Besides, aren’t long rides a chance to save the legs and keep the slopes from getting crowded and snow from getting skied off too quickly?
The other thing that saves the snow is that the mountain is closed mid-week (Monday through Wednesday), except on powder days. For $6,500 you and 100 friends can rent the mountain on those days.
Part of the beauty of Magic is that it doesn’t look or feel much different than it did in the 1960s when Swiss instructor Hans Thorner opened the ski area and installed a cadre of top instructors from the Alps. Wood picnic tables and rough-hewn posts give the base lodge cafeteria a rustic, barn-like feel. Here, you can still get—remarkably—$7 burgers. Around the base, there’s a small village of Swiss-themed chalets whose owners all seem to know each other. A room at the nearest lodge, the Snowden Chalet motel, starts at $125.
Perhaps Magic’s best trick is nurturing a retro ski area vibe that harkens back to skiing’s heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, but with a healthy dose of 1980s zaniness and a fresh take for 2022.
Stats: 1,500 ft. vertical drop; 39 trails; 3 chairlifts, 3 surface lifts; 50% snowmaking coverage. 145 inches avg. annual snowfall. Après: Black Line Tavern has live bands and a pub menu where the most expensive item, a teriyaki salmon entrée with all the sides, is still just $18. For a more upscale meal, the acclaimed Solo Farm & Table in South Londonderry does private dinners and Sunday take-out meals. Stay: Just across the road the Snowden Chalet is a retro motel with rooms that start at $125 a night. Don’t-Miss Events: Magic’s own Triple Crown of events, kicking off with Tuck It on Dec. 31; the Road to Ruin on Feb. 20 and Master the Mountain, March 19. The Local Brew: Harpoon, in Windsor may be the closest brewery and brewpub. For a huge selection of both local and exotic microbrews to buy and bring home check out Meulemans Craft Beers in Bondville. Best Ticket Deals: Buy online ahead of time and you will have a guaranteed spot. Day lift tickets start at around $65 (pricing is variable). Or get a Vermont resident’s season pass for $489 or use your Indy Pass.
Middlebury Snow Bowl: A Family Favorite
On holiday weekends when lift lines at larger resorts can snake like bloated boa constrictors, there is rarely more than a 5-minute wait at the Middlebury Snow Bowl. Nestled on the western side of the Green Mountains and owned and operated by Middlebury College, it’s a hidden gem that locals treasure.
Unless it’s a race weekend, you can usually find a parking spot just a few feet from the sprawling classic, chalet-style lodge. Boot up in front of the huge stone fireplace, then ski onto one of the three chairlifts. The triple will take you to the summit on Worth Mountain, and from there, ski down the Allen trail, where Middlebury College’s Div. 1 ski team trains. The pitch on one section of it is among the steepest you will find. Or snake off into the glades off the Ross or ski down the backside to the Bailey’s Falls chair. While the ski area is not large, there’s plenty of playful terrain, small cliffs, and fresh snow to be had, even at 11 am on a powder morning. And if you want to skin, locals might be persuaded to show you some even sweeter spots just out of bounds.
On Friday afternoons, the Snow Bowl plays host to a ski bum league where you might find former or current Middlebury College ski racers or see a stray Olympian joining a team. But alongside them will be skiers of all levels: teleskiers, snowboarders and grandparents who just want to get some fresh air and run the gates. Everyone heads to the Friday after party, often held at Two Brothers Tavern, or one of Middlebury’s other restaurants.
Olympian and current NBC commentator Doug Lewis grew up in Middlebury and learned to ski at the Snow Bowl. “Skiing in ever-changing conditions and in the woods honed my skills,” he wrote in an article for VT Ski + Ride in 2019. “I learned to look ahead, read terrain and make quick decisions. Those mental skills translated into being able to carve, hop, slide, jump and sometimes stop at a moment’s notice.” For adults wanting to improve, you can do a 10-pack of two-hour clinics on Wednesdays for just $225, lift ticket included.
Like many kids, Lewis was turned loose with his friends at the Snow Bowl, his parents knowing it was a small enough place that they’d end up at the base lodge and that there were always neighbors and friends nearby. If real help is needed, the ski patrol, run by Middlebury College students who pass the National Ski Patrol certification, are on hand. There’s also a ski shop with tuning facilities and rental gear onsite.
Dry for a long time, the base lodge recently started offering beer and wine and its cafeteria serves up dishes developed and catered by Hancock General Store. For many locals, a weekend means skiing the Bowl in the morning, grabbing a chili and cornbread in the lodge and then driving a mile down the road to work it off on the 55 kilometers of cross-country trails at Rikert Nordic Center, also owned by the college.
Stats: 1,000 ft. vertical, 3 chairlifts, 17 trails, 600 acres, 200 inches annual snowfall. Après: Go for a cross-country ski or fatbike ride at Rikert Nordic Center. Then head to town and grab a beer at Two Brothers Tavern, run by ski racing brothers Holmes and Beal Jacobs. Stay: On the Goshen-Ripton Road, charming classic Blueberry Hill Inn opens onto 70 miles of ungroomed trails for backcountry touring. The Waybury Inn just down Route 125 was the set for the classic Vermont inn featured in the 1970s TV sitcom, The Bob Newhart Show. Don’t-Miss Events: Middlebury College’s Winter Carnival (Feb. 18-19) draws the best NCAA racers in the East. Local Brew: Middlebury is home to two top brewers: Drop In and Otter Creek, both with tasting rooms downtown. Best Ticket Deals: Adult ticket prices are $60 weekends ($40 weekdays) but new this year, if you buy a season’s pass ($529) you get a punch card good for five free tickets for friends.
Suicide Six: Outdoors for All
Suicide Six is the old money of Vermont ski areas, but not in a lockjaw, raccoon-fur-coat kind of way. It’s ‘old’ because it had the first uphill lift in the country, a rope tow that was cobbled together using a Model T engine in 1934. In 1936, Bunny Bertram, a Dartmouth College coach, moved the improvised tow from Clinton Gilbert’s nearby farm to land he purchase for $3 an acre on Hill #6 in Woodstock. The hill was so steep one writer claimed it would be “suicide” to ski it. The name stuck and the wide-open face of the mountain still offers some great places to straightline it, if you dare.
The “money” part comes in because Bertram sold the ski area to Laurence Rockefeller in 1961. Seven years later, Rockefeller set up The Woodstock Foundation, which still owns Suicide Six and his former mansion, now the elegant Woodstock Inn. The Foundation also owns the Billings Farm and Museum and is a partner in the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park, Vermont’s only national park. It’s hard to think of another Vermont ski area that has changed hands fewer times.
While the ski area benefits from the genteel oversight of the folks at the upscale Woodstock Inn, Suicide Six remains a true locals’ mountain and it is far from stuffy. It recently changed its name from “ski area” to “recreation area” in recognition that the hill is home to a lot more than just skiing.
In 1982, the ski area hosted the first national Snow Surfing Championship and this February, founder Paul Graves is paying tribute by bringing back a 40th anniversary event honoring the pioneers of the sport. Last March it hosted the Red Bull Slide In Tour, drawing stars such as Vermont X Games gold medalist Zeb Powell. It’s also played host to the longest running ski race in North America: the Fisk Trophy ran for 83 straight years until in 2021 the pandemic put it on hiatus. In December 2021, the area hosted Krampuslauf – a series of runs up and around the mountain ranging from 5K to 50K.
One of the gems of Suicide Six is its classic base lodge where Perley’s Pourhouse is named for the former lodge-keeper, a character with a long white beard and hand-carved pipe. Stop in.
Stats: 650 ft. vertical drop, 3 lifts, 24 trails, 100 acres, 50% snowmaking, 110 inches annual snowfall. Après: The Woodstock area has any number of great places to eat, drink ranging from burgers at the Worthy Kitchen to upscale farm-fresh fare served with a view of the river at Simon Pearce’s flagship store in Quechee. Stay: The Woodstock Inn which owns Suicide Six is one of the most luxurious inns in New England and was recently updated. The Inn offers several lodging packages that include skiing, dining and even spa treatments. The All-Sports package includes rentals and lift tickets for alpine skiing or boarding, Nordic and fat biking. Don’t-Miss Events: On Feb. 12, the OG Invitational celebrates the early days of snowboarding with a competition, vendors, tunes and a Red Bull after party and rail jam under the lights. Local Brew: Long Trail’s brewery and brewpub is just down Route 4 in Bridegwater and has a rotating beer menu with specialty brews. Best Ticket Deals: A day pass is $79 ($89 on holidays but just $49 on weekdays.) Kids under 18 enrolled in Vermont or New Hampshire schools or certified home-school programs get a season pass for $99. n