In an era where bigger is believed to be better, where the latest is considered the greatest and where commercialism is king, a classic ski town tucked into the heart of the Green Mountains dares to do things a little different.
There’s something about the Mad River Valley that flows counter to the “pamper me with more, now” mainstream, much the way its namesake river flows uniquely north. Here, in the historic towns of Warren and Waitsfield, the mountain terrain is legendary yet the lifestyle remains purposefully more relaxed.
The valley’s two ski destinations — Sugarbush and Mad River Glen — are just a few miles apart, yet they hardly consider themselves competitors. They’re more like sisters — one a “resort” and one an “area,” who always have lived next to one another and who always have insisted on forging their own identities. Accept them for who they are.
Together, they offer some of the most challenging terrain in all of New England, yet they often take a back seat to their notable neighbors situated along Vermont Route 100: Killington (“The Beast”) to the south and Stowe (Vail Resorts) to the north. As such, the Mad River Valley often is overlooked by those skiers chasing a perception, when, in fact, the Holy Grail might be closer than they think. Be warned. If one day you decide to take Exit 5 off I-89 and twist your car to the top of the Roxbury-Warren mountain road known as “the Gap,” when the Mad River Valley suddenly opens up below, you might soon discover that you never want to leave the place.
This is the precise way, the “right” way that so many skiers not only envision their sport, but also choose to participate in it. It’s where kids who barely come up to your waist will launch themselves with confidence off mandatory drops, then literally fly en masse down the mountain, adeptly navigating variable snow conditions and hungrily making turns through tight old forest trees. Try to keep up. You might never see those kids again, until maybe at dinner, when their posse and yours unites again somewhere in the valley for dinner, perhaps at American Flatbread — the locally owned, locally grown restaurant featuring wood-fired pizzas.
It’s a place where you’re far more likely to share a chair with legendary extreme skier John Egan than you are with a decked-out New Yorker complaining about the lack of grooming. Egan holds the secret to tapping into the soul of skiing, and he’s shared it with virtually everyone in the valley open to discovering it. You can tell by the way most skiers handle themselves on this terrain. “Be better here,” Sugarbush challenges.
“Ski It If You Can,” Mad River Glen counters. Take it as a challenge of your skiing ability or an invitation to not pass up the opportunity. Spend some alone time on MRG’s historic single chair (one of only two still operating in the country) or sit for a while among friends and soon-to-be-friends in General Stark’s Pub in the area’s vintage “basebox” and you might find your own answers.
Founded in 1947, MRG today is cooperatively owned (since 1995) by shareholders who collectively manage the area. Not much has changed since the early days, when the now iconic single chair was installed on General Stark Mountain, and trails like Catamount, Chute, Fall Line, Porcupine and Grand Canyon were cut, giving skiers 2,000 feet of thrilling classic Vermont drop. You will not find all of the favorite powder stashes on the map. But put in your time and this too might open up to you.
The ski area was uniquely among the first anywhere to embrace the new snowboarding movement in the 1980s, but issues with flat runouts and disembarking from the single chair have since led to snowboards being banned. It is a haven for traditional alpine skiers and free-heeling telemarkers alike, the back and forth between both classic skiing communities healthy and productive. Both possess the ability to enjoy all the terrain has to offer — powder, moguls, ice, corn, rocks and everything in between. It beckons those who appreciate that the mountain takes center stage and everything else takes a step back. You will not find spacious lodges, slopeside condominiums, base hotels, bubble sixpacks. Hell, you won’t even find a paved parking lot. But what you will find at Mad River Glen is excellence stripped down.
Not all of the valley clings to simplicity like MRG, however. Nearby Sugarbush Resort is one of the largest in New England, encompassing some 4,000 acres and 16 lifts with a vertical drop of 2,600 feet. Opened in 1958, Sugarbush features two mountain areas separated by Slide Brook Basin. During ownership by the American Skiing Company in the mid-1990s, Mount Ellen (Sugarbush North) and the main part of Sugarbush, Lincoln Peak, were connected by the Slide Brook Express, a two-way quad chairlift that when it was installed was the world’s fastest. It is still the world’s longest detachable chairlift.
Lincoln Peak is where most of the resort real estate is located, including two new base lodges (Gate House and Farm House), as well as the Claybrook luxury condominiums and hotel, and Rice Brook residences. Those projects completed between 2010 and 2013 are part of the vision of current ownership, Summit Ventures, a group led by majority owner Win Smith, who serves as president.
Like its smaller sister up the road, Sugarbush offers some of the most challenging skiing in all New England along Gadd Peak, Castlerock Peak and North Lynx Peak. Castlerock Peak, accessed by an intentionally slow-moving fixedgrip double chair, is known for its steep, narrow, winding runs. Even when the lift isn’t running, Sugarbush skiers young and old will hike the ridge 20 minutes from the Heaven’s Gate chair along the Long Trail to access Castlerock’s natural snow terrain.
Mount Ellen is the home training site for Green Mountain Valley School, which was founded by locals in 1973 and has long since developed its own curriculum to become a full-time school. Now an elite academy that has produced nearly 30 Olympians, its focus is developing alpine, nordic and biathlon racers.
Mount Ellen adds a decidedly more casual feel to the resort with its oldschool base lodge and absence of development, but it is another serious option for the hard-core skier. The Summit Chair tops out as Vermont’s highest at 4,083 feet, and steep runs like Black Diamond and FIS, bump runs like Exterminator, and woods runs marked and otherwise challenge the best.
Defined by the Mad River along the valley floor, this ski town is also defined from above by both the Long Trail and the Catamount Trail. Both provide backcountry skiers, hikers and backpackers with the opportunity to summit three of Vermont’s 4,000-foot peaks.
Some more leisurely things to discover in the valley include:
Mad River Distillers | This craft distillery, founded in 2011, is situated on the 150-year-old Cold Spring Farm in Waitsfield at the intersection of routes 100 and 17. Mad River Distillers produced its first spirit — Mad River First Run Rum — in 2013. Since then, more than a half-dozen different award-winning craft spirits have been distilled there, including Mad River Malvados and its flagship, “Wicked Vermont Apple Brandy.”
Lawson’s Finest Liquids | After 20 years of home brewing beer, Warren resident Sean Lawson’s specialty maple beers and IPA’s have garnered awards at the World Beer Cup, Great American Beer Festival and at two IPA national championships. Today, two of its favorites, Sip of Sunshine IPA and Super Session, are brewed at an alternating proprietorship at Two Roads Brewing in Stratford, Conn.
The Big Picture | Founded in 2006, The Big Picture has become a vibrant café, first-run and art-house theater, concert and live event venue. It is a hub for the valley’s cultural, social and community events and programming.
Ole’s Cross Country Center | On Airport Road, Ole’s features easy skiing right out the door on 30 miles of ski trails, half of which are in open fields and half in the forest.
Blueberry Lake Cross Country & Snowshoeing Center | In East Warren, the center features 11 trails (35 km) for classic skiing, skating or snowshoeing, easy to expert.