Stowe remains perfect place to hit slopes before summer arrives
by Eric Wilbur/
Well-traveled New England skiers and riders would argue there are probably no two ski area approaches that rival the intensity of Cannon Mountain, where the craggy Franconia Notch suddenly bursts into slopes that seemingly want to envelop motorists, and Sugarloaf, where “Oh, my gosh” corner — that point where the snowfields hover into the sky — grasps you with a gasp of beauty.
But for my money, nothing gets my alpinistic anticipations higher than that turn off Vermont Route 100, past the Vermont Ski Museum, and just before the fabled Green Mountain Inn, onto Mountain Road, heading to Stowe Mountain Resort.
Though I grew up skiing in the White Mountains, I technically learned to ski here, having frequented the historic mountain countless times during my four years of college just up Interstate 89. I still remember my first time at Stowe, navigating challenging, unique terrain I’d never been privy to and cultivating a whole new understanding of what skiing meant. As I drive along Mountain Road, memories of old haunts begin to percolate. Some are long gone, most recently The Shed, the popular brewery which found its lease expire last year; many remain, including The Bagel, the Matterhorn, Rusty Nail and Top Notch Resort, where my wife and I celebrated our marriage a decade ago.
Memory lane may be a cliché, but that’s Mountain Road to me.
As you approach the summit toward Smugglers’ Notch Park, the mountain comes into view, the imposing, classic view of Stowe that so many have come to know as the norm for decades.
And then … what’s this?
If you haven’t been to Stowe in 10 years or so, the approach certainly will surprise you.
In addition to the grand Stowe Mountain Lodge, the Spruce Peak base area is a wonderment of arts entertainment at the Performing Arts Center, a children’s adventure center, and, a new base lodge that is as much noted for its comfort and style as it is its usefulness in getting prepared for the slopes. In essence, it’s a new world at Stowe, where skiing history oozes from most every nook, trail and secret stash.
It’s all part of the resort’s ambition to become the Beaver Creek of the East, if you will, an all-encompassing, family-friendly destination that caters to skiers and riders looking for it all — and frankly, more.
Yet, if you end up at Spruce Peak, take the Easy-Over gondola across the Mansfield parking lot, and you’re back in familiar territory, just a schuss from where The Den, the venerable base lodge, at the base at the “steps from hell” remains virtually untouched. Its bare-bones surroundings are almost a signal that Stowe understands that though it’s undergone vast changes, it has a history to uphold. This is where the first ski patrol in America was formed, after all. It’s where names such as Charlie Lord and Perry Merrill still resonate. The old base lodge is as if Stowe is telling the world, “Yes, we’re changing, but there is no way we will ever forget our past.” And despite the ambitious changes taking place at the base of Mount Mansfield, that’s a welcome message for many.
That’s because frankly, there’s nothing like Stowe in the East, a mantra that thousands who have skied it have preached to others. Wildcat has the views, Killington has the party scene, and Sunday River has the variety, but … it’s Stowe.
Take the new Forerunner Quad (which rips up the mountain, and based on what I noticed, limits lines at the base dramatically) and you’re transported into some of the finest terrain in the Northeast, from the legendary Front Four to smooth cruisers such as Lord, Sunrise and the meandering Toll Road to the wavy Hayride, a black-diamond delight that makes a meandering, bumpy turn into the contour of the mountain. Ski Vermont president Parker Riehle calls it Stowe’s “most underrated trail.” In the spring, mushy, corn bumps abound, making it an irresistible repeat contender, despite the other available options.
After tackling some of Stowe’s most gnarly terrain, head over to the gondola and reach the Cliff House restaurant at the 3,625-foot summit, where you can recharge with a lunch featuring their daily crepe specials, lobster mac and cheese, and fondue. And don’t sleep on the burger either, an all-natural beef serving served on focaccia bread, which is definitely the best you’ll find at this altitude. Work off lunch by tackling Chin Clip, the sometimes icy yet always challenging piste, or meander down two of Stowe’s most noted cruisers, Perry Merrill or Gondalier, both of which will bring you right back to the gondola area and Over Easy, where you can continue back to Spruce.
This is where the Mountain Lodge comes into full play. It is the main event in the Spruce area, a luxurious, six-story lodge with a staff seemingly trained in Disney friendliness and service, that just opened a new South Wing this past winter, the latest development in an ambitious expansion that will include more partial-ownerships in the future, including in its luxurious, four-bedroom, two-floor, Front Four penthouses, which is truly luxury to behold. There’s a spa, of course, an all-season outdoor pool and hot tub, and the fabulous Solstice restaurant, where fresh, local produce is served in delectable fashion. Much like the rest of the lodge, the tone is divine, yet fits into the natural, Vermont surroundings.
Because … well, this is Vermont, of course. Modern deco just won’t do. And while some locals thumbed their noses at the thought of Stowe becoming a destination resort such as Beaver Creek or Aspen — their Stowe — the fact is, the changes the resort has made seamlessly have combined the needs and wants of vacationing families and hard-core Mansfield addicts alike. The mountain, after all, is still the mountain, and it offers something for everyone. Still.
But as much as I love a Stowe powder day, for me, there’s nothing in New England that can beat a warm, spring morning at the mountain. Yes, I’m a sucker for spring, when the snow is in glorious corn mode, but it’s also a time to reflect and understand what’s at stake. They may be the best of days, but they’re about to come to an end. It’s a melancholy most skiers and riders revel in and cherish each day.
With that said — with all apologies to Sugarbush, Sugarloaf and the aforementioned Wildcat — there may be no better spring skiing than there is at Stowe.
Combine the softening snow with challenges such as Goat or Starr, and everything just seems to combine itself into a few hours of glorious memory. Skiing in a parka on National may be one thing to remember. Ski it in a T-shirt, sunglasses, the aura of sun tan lotion, and the few other skiers and riders around you sharing the glory, and it’s incomparable. Those are the days you take a breather, look over to see someone else do the same, and share a knowing smile: The mountain is uncrowded, and those not here have no idea what they’re missing.
At the end of the day, a beer at the summit’s Octagon Café won’t hurt as you sit and sun on the deck, where on a clear day you can see as far East as Mount Washington, which seems so far, so close. The same can be said about spring days at Stowe. They’re upon us, and yet, the next time we ski there may be a ways away.
That’s the road we take as skiers and riders. That’s never going to change.
Not so for Stowe, where change seemingly is evolutionary. Yet, it’s still my Stowe. It’s still yours.
When I leave the mountain in my rearview mirror, back down Mountain Road, it always feels like bidding a friend goodbye for a few months, knowing he or she will always be back in your life at some point. The Shed may be gone, Waterbury’s Alchemist (lost in last fall’s flooding due to Hurricane Irene) too, both noted après spots after a day on the hill.
Stowe remains, never the same, but always as she was.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of New England Ski Journal.
Eric Wilbur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org