The Tough List – Vermont’s Toughest Trails

Want to amp up the level of difficulty? We name the best trails for the thrill seekers. 

By Evan Johnson/Angelo Lynn

With names like Devil’s Fiddle, Ripcord, National, Goat, Rumble, Middle Earth, Black Magic and Black Hole, some of Vermont’s toughest trail names are as enticing as their terrain. A few have pitches of up to 50-degrees and technical features that really ramp up the difficulty, including cliff bands, huge bumps, ice falls, narrow chutes and trees — but we’re not talking about skiing the woods, here, just the named trails on the trail maps.

On Vermont’s classic advanced terrain, bailout routes are few (if any) and the narrowness means there’s no stopping for turns. If you’re looking for bragging rights, look no further. Corduroy lovers need not apply.

Mount Snow: At the southernmost mountain in Vermont, look to the North Face for the most challenging terrain. Freefall and Ripcord, both located on the northern aspect, plunge down the fall line with pitches at 37 degrees. While Ripcord has large, unpredictable moguls, Freefall is steep and fast. On icy days, be sure those edges are sharp!

Stratton: Stratton’s double black diamond selection includes Grizzly Bear, Bear Down and Upper Tamarack off of the Ursa Express lift. For a longer run, take the gondola to the summit for a fast, carving run down Upper and Lower Spruce to get to World Cup, a steeper bump run that was the site of the 1978 FIS moguls competition on the World Cup.

Magic Mountain: One of southern Vermont’s smallest areas has some great terrain for advanced skiers and riders looking for a challenge. Black Magic, under the chairlift, is only about 15 yards wide with 40- to 50-degree pitches at the upper section. You can look forward to two major rock cliffs and a third major headwall with large rock features, and pine trees. After 500 vertical feet of that fun, Black Magic opens up into Black Line where you confront another cliff area and a steep face covering an added 800 feet of vertical drop.

Okemo: While Okemo is not known for its steeps, some of the resort’s gnarliest terrain is located at the Jackson Gore Peak, where you can find trails like Big Bang, Rolling Thunder and Eclipse. These long black-diamond trails drop almost 3,000 feet to the bottom of the Jackson Gore Express Quad, where you can loop these runs over and over. On Okemo Mountain peak, be on the lookout for Nor’Easter, Outrage and the aptly-named Double Diamond.

Killington: At Killington, head to the Bear Mountain area to scope out Outer Limits and its next door neighbor, Devil’s Fiddle. While Outer Limits is steeper and usually has bigger bumps, Devil’s Fiddle has no snowmaking and is rarely, if ever, groomed and can get pretty gnarly. At the main Killington peak, Ovation, especially the lower third past the headwall, is another great steep along with Cascade, which has the steepest fall line from Killington peak to the K-1 base area.

Downdraft, Flume, Escapade, Double Dipper and East Fall are the other steeps in the K-1/Canyon area. The Canyon Quad chair gives you access to run hot laps on those steeps without having to do a full K-1 Gondola trip each time. Honorable mentions go to Conclusion and Vertigo.

Sugarbush Resort: With three terrific mountains at Lincoln Peak, Castlerock  and Mt. Ellen, each with vertical drops of 2,400, 2,237 and 2,600 feet, respectively, the steeps are everywhere. Mt. Ellen has two double-black runs dropping straight off the eastern face of its 4,082-foot tall summit: Black Diamond and FISBlack Diamond is a narrow, steep, rocky run with some significant boulder drops and big moguls under the summit chair. FIS is the broader run adjacent to Black Diamond and is known for the steep, often icy top, big moguls and consistent pitch. Down on the mountain’s skiers’ left, you’ll find the double-black Exterminator and Exterminator Woods, the trail being a classic bump run with steeps on the upper half. Neighboring Bravo (under the lift) also is a black diamond bump run with a broken cliff face half way down that you’ll need to navigate or bound down in a couple leaps.

At Lincoln Peak, take Heaven’s Gate Triple chair to the summit and ski the double-black Ripcord or skirt skier’s left off the chair into the double-black Paradise glades. Off of the Valley House Double Lift, or Super Bravo lift, reach the famous double-black bump run, Stein’s, named after Stein Erickson. The run is notorious for its steep, off-kilter entrance that leads to a consistently steep, long and slightly off-angle slope to the run-out below; a leg-burner top to bottom. Adjacent to Steins, is the single black run The Mall, a much narrower but straight-on pitch filled with bumps with the added stakes of being on Broadway directly under the low-riding Valley House Double lift, which prompts plenty of hooting and hollering on a sunny spring day when the bumps are soft.

That still leaves everyone’s favorite on a powder day, Castlerock. The double-black Lift Line is a classic run full of rocky outcroppings to catch ample air. Rumble may be one of the narrowest, steep and windy trails in Vermont. It is old-time Vermont skiing, but take your rock skis. Everywhere is good up there, but the single black Middle Earth is a world of its own on a powder day. It features moderate steeps, lots of bumps on a winding, narrow trail cut through the dense woods. Once you commit, you can’t bail on this one, and it can get rocky and icy in a spot or two about half way down. Honorable mentions go to black diamond trails Tumbler, Hammerhead, Twister and Morning Star.

Mad River Glen: With the world famous motto, “Ski It If You Can,” Mad River Glen has some of the most challenging terrain in the state, made doubly hard because much of the steepest terrain has no snowmaking or grooming. This leaves the natural terrain natural and provides jumps and obstacles to flirt with. Take the single chair to the top and take your pick of runs: Chute, Fall Line or Paradise. Chute is under the Single chair and as the description says, “it’s do or die bumps in front of a highly opinionated audience.” Ski it well, or maybe warm-up on Catamount Bowl, then hit Fall Line or strike out for Paradise. Fall Line features lots of twists and turns through dense woods, bumps and narrow chutes so that two trips are never the same. Paradise is a remote romp along the ridgeline with lots of temptations to drop in early, and to your own peril. As the description says: “Many ski resorts would demand that you hire a guide to lead you down this hidden gem. At Mad River, if you can find Paradise, you are welcome to enjoy it. But beware! A snow serpent lurks in Paradise and has been known to tempt many a hapless skier into an early decent into hell.” That is no exaggeration. Ice falls lurk everywhere and open can chutes disappear after a few joyous turns.

Gazelle, under the Sunnyside Double, is super-steep and scratchy at the top, but good moguls the rest of the way. Partridge is the most challenging trail off the Sunnyside Double with “steep bumps, rocks and trees.” There are 21 black diamond trails at Mad River, compared to 10 short greens, and 16 blues. Bring your game and romp. Sorry, no snowboarders, skiers only.

Stowe:The Front Four (or five) at Stowe are legendary. Take the Quad to the top and head down, from skier’s left to right, Goat, Lift Line, National, Starr and Lookout. The upper parts of each trail are generally steep, narrow and often icy, with plenty of rocks to hop around and large moguls. The upper sections of each trail are rock-strewn and steeper, demanding quick turns to stay where it’s skiable, with the lower majority of the trails featuring tight bumps ’til your legs scream stop. With one of the longest vertical descents in the state, on the tallest mountain, you get more vertical skiing looping these five trails than anywhere. Then add the classic black diamond runs Hayride and Nosedive (or vary this run with a jaunt down double-black Bypass) for variety. There’s also Hackett’s Highway under the Triple and Waterfall and Chin Clip off the Gondola.

Bolton Valley: This resort is more known for its neighboring backcountry, racing leagues and night skiing, as well as its convenience to  Chittenden County, than it is known for its steeps, though it has a few steeper sections. Located on Bolton’s Vista Peak, Spillway is one of the steepest runs and features occasional bumps. Off of neighboring Timberline Peak, Adam’s Solitude is partially gladed with multiple chutes.

Smugglers’ Notch: At Smuggs, look no further than these three located on Madonna Mountain: Upper Liftline, located under the Madonna chair, is a mean and narrow chute with a band of ledges that drop off at steep headwall. Both this and nearby Freefall boast pitches of over 50 degrees. If those aren’t tough enough, located between the two is Black Hole, the only triple black diamond trail in the East.

Q Burke: Burke is known as a racer’s mountain, with the famous Burke Mountain Academy at its base. But it also has some remarkably good narrow, windy terrain that features some shorter, but pithy steeps. Off the top of the mountain, the trails that will challenge you are the double-blacks Sasquatch, Dixiland, Fox’s Folly, Lower Powerline and two runs in the glades, The Jungle and The Birches. Half the upper mountain is rated diamond or black diamond with most of the rest intermediate. The beginner area is located on the lower half of the mountain, which has its advantages. There are also 100-plus acres of glades that hide powder for days.

Jay Peak: Up at Jay, advanced skiers look to a series of advanced chutes near the summit. The Face, The Saddle and Tuckermans Chutes are strewn with rocks and tree stumps, forcing you to pick a careful line all the way to where some of the best snow lies. And remember: you’re in full view of the folks riding up the Tram. The Jet, Exhibition and River Quai also offer some steep and fast skiing. The powder glades, of course, are legendary with Jay’s 400-plus inches of annual snowfall.

3 thoughts on “The Tough List – Vermont’s Toughest Trails

  • February 5, 2016 at 12:38 PM

    The authors really needed to look up slope angle measurements before writing this. None of the trails exceed 40 degrees, with Outer Limits under 30 degrees

    • February 10, 2016 at 2:54 PM

      Hi Alan,

      Good point but steeps alone don’t necessarily make a tough trail. We’d love to hear what your picks are? –Lisa

  • March 30, 2016 at 7:41 PM

    Ovation & Outer Limits may be notorious, but mostly due to their accessibility. For challenging lines Killington skiers head to the woods – Julio/Juanita, Devil’s Den and The Throne make OL rock stars take off their skis & walk.

    Similarly, Jay Peak’s Staircase is narrower, steeper, and with a more technical entry than the Face or Tucks.

    I concur with Alan about slope angles. Nothing at Smuggs hit 50 degrees, unless you’re counting individual turns. By that measure, anything with a mandatory air is over 80.

    Of course, we’re only writing about “on map” runs here. For a real challenge, prove to a local that you can ski, then go exploring at Mad River Glen. Tip – don’t do it unless you know where you’re going. Some of the toughest terrain *anywhere* can be found there and it’s easy to get in over your head.

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