In 1933, the owners of the White Cupboard Inn asked the neighboring farmer if they could erect a rope tow on one of his cow pastures in Woodstock, Vt. And just like that, the nation's first lift-operated "ski area" was born. By the end of the decade, Vermont's Pico Mountain installed America's first T-bar, and Stowe built the world's highest and longest chairlift. It's been almost a century since Vermont gave birth to modern American skiing, and anyone who has skied here knows Vermont still has it going on.
The state's best ski areas run like a spine up the middle of the state along a twisty rural highway called Route 100. For me, driving Route 100 is more than just a great ski road trip; it's a stroll down memory lane. My grandfather skied Vermont in the '30s, my dad raced and ski-jumped here in the '40s and '50s, and I cut my teeth racing on these hills in the '60s and '70s. Some of my fondest ski memories are piling into my parents' station wagon with a bunch of buddies and heading out to tour Route 100's magical ski resorts.
Vermont skiing generally divides into southern Vermont and northern Vermont, with Killington in the middle. And while northern Vermont has bigger mountains and more challenging terrain, southern Vermont is easier to get to from the urban centers of Philadelphia, New York, and Boston.
One of the most polished and well-known resorts in southern Vermont is Stratton. If you want to be pampered, Stratton specializes in providing one of the most seamless "perfect" ski experiences in the state. What they don't have in pitch and challenging terrain, they make up with modern lifts, lodges, shops, restaurants, hotels, and services.
If you prefer a relaxed, down-to-earth ski experience, nearby Mount Snow has more of the ski-bum feel that's the trademark of Vermont. It's also a bit more challenging than Stratton (Mount Snow's "Ripcord" is one of the steepest runs you'll find south of Killington). If you're lucky, you might even see American gold medalist snowboarder Kelly Clark, who grew up in nearby West Dover.
Bromley, near Stratton and Mount Snow, is my favorite "local" resort, as it reminds me of the ski areas I belonged to as a child: bag lunches, kids running around having fun, an open fireplace, and a super-relaxed feel. It's also one of the few ski resorts that face south, so it has the warmest temperatures and the softest snow.
The next resort you hit heading north is Okemo in Ludlow. Like Stratton, the owners of this resort have gone all out to provide a really well-presented ski experience. As is true with most southern resorts, steep trails are not Okemo's thing; but you'd be hard-pressed to find better-groomed snow. And while its restaurants, lodging, service, and amenities qualify it as a "posh" resort, Okemo has somehow managed to retain the heart and soul of a down-home Vermont ski area.
Just a little farther up Route 100 you hit Killington and all bets are off. This "Beast of the East" rises out of the middle of the state like a looming snow giant that will challenge the best of skiers. And that's true both on and off the slopes, as there's no resort in Vermont that has a bigger party scene than Killington. Just beware; lots of people have been so hung over after a night at the infamous "Wobbly Barn" that they've never made it out on the slopes the next day.
Stowe, in northern Vermont, is the state's oldest and most famous resort, with a glamorous history that dates to the years when the Kennedy family used to ski there. And while it might be at risk of turning into an Aspen of the East and losing some of its down-home rugged Vermont goodness, a group of super-steep trails called "The Front Four" are a rite of passage for any skier.
This brings me to Sugarbush, my top pick in Vermont ski resorts. "The Bush" has the perfect mix of luxury and local. You can find plenty of perfectly groomed trails and high-end accommodations, restaurants, and services. They'll even whisk you up to the top of Gadd Peak in one of the specially designed "Limo" snow cats, and serve you and your friends a private candlelight dinner at Allyn's Lodge. But what the Bush is best known for is its super challenging terrain and awesome tree skiing. Instead of focusing only on the high-end customer, this resort also appreciates and nurtures its hard-core local ski culture. All you have to do is show up in the parking lot at Sugarbush's Mount Ellen for the barbecue tailgate lunch and you'll know what I mean.
While the Bush is a hard act to follow, Smugglers' Notch is another one of my favorites. Out-of-state "hard-core skiers" often overlook "Smuggs" because it markets itself as a family resort (it's regularly named in ski publications as one of the top family destinations in the country). However, its vertical drop of 2,610 feet and its size (the fourth-largest ski resort in New England) translates into amazing terrain, fantastic tree skiing, and great amenities. In fact, Smuggs is the best-kept secret in the state. Also, it doesn't have a lot of high-speed lifts and gondolas, so there's less traffic on the trails - all good reasons to check it out.
The last resort on this trek, although not technically on Route 100 as the road kind of ends before you get there, is Jay Peak. Just south of the Canadian border, Jay is, in a word, epic. With the state's only aerial tramway and the largest annual snowfall of any East Coast ski resort (335 inches), Jay is worth the long drive north. Heck, you can just keep on going for a couple more hours to Montreal and make a weekend out of it.
No matter where you ski in Vermont, I can guarantee you'll love it. And if you can find the time to tour Route 100, you'll have an experience of a lifetime. When you're not on the slopes, be sure to visit some classic New England towns and villages - think great cheese, maple syrup, some of the best microbrews anywhere. Some of my favorite spots are Brattleboro's Latchis Hotel and Theatre, where they play classic and modern films in the restored 1930s art deco and Greek revival theater, or Hotel Vermont in Burlington, where they feature all local products, have great live music, and one of the best breakfasts in town.
Next time you're planning a trip, take a closer look at Vermont; if you've never skied it, you just gotta.
Each of the mountain resorts offers a range of lodging options, from on-mountain condos to off-mountain inns and bed-and-breakfasts. Also "distinctive properties" are available, for a premium. Prices begin at about $100 per night and go into the thousands, depending on location and amenities.
Lift tickets and rentals vary by mountain, and discounts may be available. Here are the posted prices for a one-day adult lift ticket.
Stratton: Lift ticket and rental in November is $99, and $134 most days in December and January. ticketsale.stratton.com.
Mount Snow: $42 in November; $59.99 December; $83.99 January. www.mountsnow.com/tickets-passes.
Bromley Mountain: $49 weekdays; $68 weekends. www.onthesnow.com/vermont/bromley-mountain/lift-tickets.html.
Okemo Mountain: $82 midweek; $92 weekends. The price rises during holiday periods. www.okemo.com/mountain-info/lift-tickets.
Killington Mountain: $84 midweek; $92 weekends and peak periods. There's a discount for online purchases. www.killington.com/site/tickets.
Stowe Mountain: $108 on-mountain purchase; $89 online. www.stowe.com/ski-ride/lift.
Sugarbush: Pricing was not available. www.sugarbush.com/vermont-skiing-snowboarding/ticket-prices.
Smugglers' Notch: Pricing was not available. www.smuggs.com/pages/winter/skiride/lift-ticket-rates.php.
Jay Peak: $72. www.jaypeakresort.com/skiing-riding/tickets-passes/lift-tickets.