Much like its broad-shouldered neighbors to the west and east — Vermont’s Jay Peak and Sugarloaf in Maine, respectively — Burke Mountain in Vermont’s stunning Northeast Kingdom requires a commitment simply to get to the hill. If you’re particular about who you’re rubbing elbows with on the slopes, and the chairlifts, you’ll understand that’s a good thing.
That’s because Burke is far enough away from the Big Apple to keep most faux skiers at bay. Yes, that statement admittedly reveals an unabashed (and unapologetic) New England bias, but I’ve had far too many “New York moments” on the slopes of southern Vermont to be a disingenuous diplomat (and, as a New Jersey native, I know the “New York attitude” when I encounter it). A major reason why I’ll happily add an extra hour or so to my drive is to get beyond Yankees fans. And, I guarantee, those Empire State skiers and snowboarders who do make the extra effort to make the trek to Burke aren’t your typical “me first” New Yorkers.
Secondly, Burke reflects my bedrock belief that skiing, at its core, reserves its greatest rewards for the bold, the self-sufficient, those who whine the least, who embrace winter and all its warts. Old Man Winter can get pretty testy in the Northeast Kingdom. That’s a double-edged sword for Burke. On the plus side, the people here tend to be more outgoing, more genuine; no-nonsense gems polished by windswept snows.
“I like that Burke’s vibe is low-key and most everyone is friendly,” said Tony Ong of Andover, Mass., who started skiing Burke after his sister bought a ski house in the area in 2014. “It’s fun to ask strangers on the lift what their Burke story is, meaning, how did they ‘discover’ Burke. It’s usually some out-of-the-way story or random happenstance that got them there for the first time. But once they come, they stay.”
Often, they stay because of the snow. Burke benefits from the infamous “Jay Cloud,” the lake effect that dumps more than 200 inches of snow on the area annually, and the dedicated grooming crew at Burke does a commendable job of keeping it on the hill. That generous snowfall is supplemented by a very good (though not state-of-the-art) snowmaking system that covers roughly 70 percent of Burke’s terrain, including 100 percent of the Lower Mountain, with manmade fluff.
Like Jay and Sugarloaf, the main roads to Burke (Interstates 91 and 93) are straight and smooth, and will get you most of the way there. But the final stretch to the ski area can be dicey if bad weather blows in. That keeps many of the crowds away from Burke, which is great for the skiers and boarders on the hill, but not all that beneficial for business. Again, it’s the tradeoff of life in the Kingdom, and it’s made for some trying times at this classic ski area.
And the word “classic” fits this ski area perfectly. Burke shares an important role in Northeast ski history along with areas like Wildcat, Black Mountain, Gunstock and Cannon Mountain in New Hampshire, Camden Hills in Maine, Wachusett Mountain in Massachusetts, and Bromley and Stowe in Vermont. According to the website NewEnglandSkiHistory.com, members of the Civilian Conservation Corps maintained a camp located near Burke’s present-day mid-mountain base area during the Great Depression. Two ski trails were cut at that time — Wilderness and the popular Class A-racing trail, Bear Den (the latter still exists today as Upper and Lower Bear Den, and of course is immortalized in the throwback pub at the mid-base lodge, the Bear Den).
“I love the Bear Den bar at Mid-Burke,” said Paul Dixon of Thetford, Vt. “It’s one of the best ski bars I’ve ever been in, and kind of reminds me of a fraternity house basement, both in appearance and smell.”
Those pioneering trails launched what can only be called a mercurial history for the ski area, with numerous unpredictable highs and lows over the ensuing 90 years. Typically, the lows would coincide with financial hardships, followed by the optimism of new ownership. New ownership often brought improvements to the trail network, lifts, snowmaking and grooming. Keeping them all up to date, however, has proved to be a challenge.
The yo-yo ownership situation at Burke has left this delightful mid-sized hill a little bit behind the times, which isn’t necessarily considered a drawback by many of its fans.
“After years of skiing some of Vermont and New Hampshire’s southern mountains, our family was looking for a quieter mountain, one with more of a chill atmosphere, a place that had like-minded skiers that were there to ski, with no attitudes, and no emphasis on crazy après-ski scenes,” said Jon Greeley of Hamilton, Mass. “Selfishly, I wouldn’t change a thing. Burke has the old-school vibe with just enough amenities that the big places just can’t match.”
Of course, opinions like that are all in the eye of the beholder, aren’t they? One person’s idea of an “outdated” lodge or limited amenities could be another’s idea of “rustic.” And what you believe is really all that matters.
“Most of the regulars really like the Mid-Burke Lodge, since it seems to scare off some of the ‘flat-landers’ that have not yet embraced the full Vermont experience,” said Dixon. “This isn’t necessarily a factor of money or wealth, since I can’t think of another place where you can see someone wearing a new Arc’teryx jacket with duct tape on it to cover a tear from skiing the woods.”
Again, the emphasis at Burke Mountain is, and always has been, on the skiing, and not any side show or creature comforts.
“I’ve lived in Vermont for pretty much my entire life, and pre-COVID was traveling 75,000 miles a year internationally and was exposed to all of the wealth and riches the world has to offer,” said Dixon. “Most Vermonters have an appreciation for well-made things that are sometimes also expensive. We spend money on things we find value in but are also pragmatic, and know that a roll of duct tape is cheaper than a new $900 jacket.
“This is what I like most about Burke — It seems that this philosophy holds true,” he said. “They put the money in the mountain operations and grooming first, which is what most people are looking for in a mountain. The Mid-Burke Lodge is great, and we all love it and keep adding duct tape to hold it together.”
Today, Burke Mountain continues to dig itself out of one of the most notorious chapters of New England’s storied ski lore, and the largest fraud case in Vermont’s history. Last August, Ariel Quiros, the former owner of Burke Mountain and Jay Peak ski resorts, pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and money laundering that arose from a failed plan to build a biotechnology plant in nearby Newport, using tens of millions of dollars in foreign investors’ money.
Roughly four years earlier, Quiros had been forced to relinquish his ownership in both Burke and Jay Peak when his complex Ponzi scheme and abuse of the federal EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program came to light. Under Quiros’s ownership, Burke had been rebranded as Q-Burke (really, what kind of egomaniac renames a resort after his own name?), and it was obvious from the get-go that it was an awkward marriage.
“We started coming to Burke during the infamous Q years, and immediately recognized the awkwardness and juxtaposition they had to the rest of the Burke community,” Ong said. “When they were ousted, there was a huge and immediate change of spirit and energy toward the good. That said, I’d say the one positive legacy left behind from that era was the arrival of the hotel.”
In truth, Quiros implemented a number of positive changes. Flush with money (albeit ill-gotten), he set about improving the trails, the snowmaking and grooming operations, and the lift system. Most importantly, Burke broke ground on a new hotel near the Mid-Burke Lodge that promised to bring the ski area into the 21st century.
“I feel like it bolsters the mountain in several important ways, from adding sorely needed lodging capacity to providing a needed base lodge alternative to the venerable Mid-Burke Lodge, and provides a new and hopefully sustained four-season revenue source that stabilizes the finances and will be helpful in attracting the next owner,” said Ong. “As long as the hotel and, of course, Burke Mountain Academy, are around, Burke Mountain will continue to survive and thrive.”
But Quiros almost immediately butted heads with the East Burke community. Most notably, he took Burke’s mountain biking trails out of the Kingdom Trails network, a four-season system of almost 200 miles open for snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and fat biking in the winter — that has been a lifeline for the struggling area. Eventually, though, the federal Securities and Exchange caught up to Quiros, and both Jay Peak and Burke went into court-ordered receivership. Finally free of the clutches of Quiros, Burke is rebounding in a big way.
The Burke Mountain Hotel & Conference Center is making good on its promise of a high-end lodging option right at the slopes. Then there’s Burke’s terrain. The uncrowded, well-designed trails, short lift lines, solid (but not grandiose) amenities, and a courteous, engaging staff, all of which have been a longtime calling card of the area, remain. This is your reward for making the extra effort to come all the way to the Northeast Kingdom.
Today, Burke boasts 52 runs and three terrain parks across 178 skiable acres spilling from the 3,267-foot summit. The trail breakdown across the 2,011 feet of vertical is 9 percent beginner, 47 percent intermediate, 30 percent advanced and 13 percent expert. Here, I have to point out that Burke, unlike many New England ski areas, deserves a “truth in advertising” award. A number of family resorts to the south artificially inflate their trail ratings (Admit it: How many times have you heard some snot-nosed 6-year-old bragging how they’ve been ripping up double-diamonds all morning?). It seems the further you head north, the less pervasive that practice is.
As a result, you’re more likely to hear comments like “That was a pretty tough run for a blue” while you grab a sandwich at the Mid-Burke Lodge. The flip side, of course, is that if your quads are burning after ripping turns along “intermediate” trails such as East Bowl, Upper Dipper and Big Dipper, you can appreciate why. I’ve always been partial to the Upper Mountain’s eastern flank, which really shines when the natural snow builds up in the glades, such as Dixiland (sic) and Caveman. But, to be perfectly honest, there’s no bad way off the top of Burke, especially early in the morning following a night of grooming.
“I love the variability of terrain at Burke where you can choose to make GS turns on a high-speed groomer or jump in the woods and ski some steeps,” said Dixon. “One of my favorite runs is pretty much straight down the middle of the mountain. You start on Upper Bear Den making some dynamic racer turns and then jump into Ledges to rip some bumps down the treeline. You catch your breath going across Lower Bear Den and drop into the low-angle glades on Hibernator and then pop out onto The Gap to make some turns in the ungroomed snow.
“It’s one run but with four very different types of turns,” he said. “It takes my legs until about mid-February before I can ski it top to bottom, but when you do it’s a total rush.”
As a bonus, Burke’s compact size means that it’s really difficult for anyone to get lost, a big benefit for families or large groups. Dixon, whose daughters also attended Burke Mountain Academy programs, said: “Skiing at Burke with kids has been great as pretty much all paths lead to the bottom. If you need a quick breather or to make a bathroom pit stop, you can sit out a lap and wait at Mid-Burke for your group to come by and sync up.”
Burke’s “Lower Mountain” consists of primarily beginner terrain and is accessed by a high-speed detachable quad. There also is a “Bunny Slope” accessed by a J-bar surface lift. A beginner “carpet ride” was installed in 2010 to make the learning progression easier for first-timers. There are a couple of terrain parks and a beginner glade (Enchanted Forest) here as well. The main Sherburne Base Lodge, complete with rental shop, restaurant/bar, retail shop and cafeteria, services this section of the resort.
Lift capacity isn’t exceptional, with only a pair of express chairlifts and two surface lifts (plus a “magic carpet”), but it doesn’t need to be.
“You’ll never need to wait in lift lines at Burke,” said Greeley. “Often times, you’ll feel like you’re skiing on your own private mountain.”
Ong readily agreed.
“On most days you literally have the mountain to yourself. Only if there’s a powder day on a holiday weekend are there significant lines, but still less than 10 minutes,” he said. “There aren’t many places in the East where you can get 1,700 of continuous vertical feet of skiing without a long runout and ski 25,000 vertical in under three hours.”
On a powder day, though, it’s best to get to the hill early.
“I’ve found myself getting a little territorial when a bunch of day skiers show up on powder day at ‘our’ hill when, in my mind, they haven’t put in the time skiing early season on icy trails or the days when you only go out in freezing rain or the bitter cold because your kids are at race training and there’s nothing else to do,” said Dixon. “In the end, though, it’s great for the mountain, and I welcome them all. Without this revenue, the mountain would struggle to survive.”
Asked his favorite part of Burke, Ong replied: “East Bowl on a powder day. There’s nothing quite like it anywhere.
“Beyond that, I love the variety of trails and mix of terrain,” he said. “Fast and steep corduroy one run, fresh tracks in the woods on the next run, and then naturally formed bumps over rocks and stumps on the run after that.”
Still, no matter how jazzed you might be to set off on your run, take a moment to appreciate your surroundings as you slide away from the lifts. The views to the north of Lake Willoughby wedged between Mount Hor and Mount Pisgah — known as Willoughby Gap — are absolutely breathtaking (just in case you needed added incentive to set your clock for an early wake-up call).
Another constant, since the 1970s, is the presence of Burke Mountain Academy, one of the pre-eminent ski academies in New England. In addition to 2014 and 2018 Olympic gold medalist Mikaela Shiffrin, the academy has produced 118 U.S. Ski Team members, 144 national team athletes and 36 Olympians, including five competitors at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games and six competitors at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games. Burke has gone bankrupt twice — in 1990 and 1999 — and many believe the school, with its core of well-to-do alumni, was crucial to the ski area’s survival.
For many parents, though, the academy’s greatest accomplishment is cultivating a lifelong passion for the sport among the 70 students.
“Our daughter Libby had fallen in love with ski racing after being introduced to it in our own backyard at Bradford,” said Greeley. “We enrolled Libby into Burke’s weekend junior club race program at the U-10 level, and moved her into their five-day program at the U-14 level.
“The Burke race program has provided Libby with the tools to navigate the complex sport of ski racing,” he said. “Trusting the process to learn how to continually better yourself as a racer, physically and mentally, involves a lot of hard work for anyone, let alone a teenager. The coaches at Burke make this easier by focusing on fun with the emphasis on making the kids lifelong skiers.”
Looking ahead, Burke is in the same predicament that most skiers and snowboarders find themselves these day — the relentless coronavirus is making any long-range planning an exercise in futility.
“Burke is focused on making it through to the other side of this pandemic,” said Jessica B. Sechler, Burke’s director of guest experience and marketing. “At this point, our capital projects are year to year, and nothing major like a five- or 10-year plan is in the works.”
Any future improvements are further complicated by Burke’s ownership question. The ski area is still in court-ordered receivership, and the search for a permanent owner continues. However, Burke continues to invest in its on-hill experience with improvements to the snowmaking infrastructure including new piping, air controls and a new pump at the river. Just this past year, Efficiency Vermont recognized Burke for its energy projects that resulted in greater efficiencies throughout the resort.
Those advances are undoubtedly welcomed by Burke enthusiasts. Some folks would like to see more lifts, more terrain on the mountain’s western edge, more snowmaking, lights for night skiing and even food trucks alongside the Mid-Burke Lodge. But that’s strictly a wish list. No one, it seems, is clamoring for any major changes at this raw diamond that has remained true to its roots.
“Both of my kids have aged out of the race program, or at least it got more serious than they wanted it to be,” said Dixon. “We looked around at lots of options this year for where to get passes. We also looked at the Epic Pass and Ikon. In the end, we came back to Burke, and I’m happy we did.
“The snow has been good and getting better,” he said. “We get to pick and choose where we want to go based on conditions and also who we will ski with. We’re always happy to go to Burke and still feel like part of the community up there. I have every intent to build a house there at some point in the next 10 years and live out the early years of my retirement skiing, mountain biking, snowmobiling and patching my jacket with duct tape.” ′