Quick, name one thing — anything — that Bostonians and New Yorkers agree on. With the possible exception of a mutual disdain for the Los Angeles Lakers, folks from these two great Northeast cities rarely see eye to eye. Remember how bizarre it was to see Wade Boggs and Roger Clemens in pinstripes, or Phil Esposito in Rangers red, white and blue?
But there is a very short list of things they agree on, and you can add Stowe, Vermont, to that exclusive group.
Stowe Mountain Resort, situated on the eastern shoulder of 4,395-foot Mount Mansfield — the tallest peak in the Green Mountain State — and neighboring Spruce Peak, long has been known as a premiere New England ski destination. More than 25 percent of Stowe’s reservations come from Massachusetts (the most popular of visiting states). New York accounts for 17 percent, while 12 percent come from Connecticut, for a combined 29 percent. Talk about an intriguing coming together of the clans. Seems like Yankees and Red Sox fans don’t disagree on everything.
And there’s a reason for that universal attraction. Stowe, if not the quintessential Northeast ski resort, is one of the region’s most complete ski experiences, with exceptional trails, a capable lift system, outstanding après ski, and a true “ski town.”
Though known in some circles as “The Vail of the East,” that moniker smacks of hyperbole (even though Stowe came under the Vail umbrella five years ago). And generally speaking, I’m not a big proponent of hyperbole. “The Ski Capital of the East” is much more appropriate, even though you might get an argument from fans of other classic New England areas such as Killington and Jay Peak in Vermont, or Sugarloaf in Maine. But Stowe’s intoxicating mix of history, combined with first-class terrain and amenities, gives it a legitimate claim to the title.
Things got rolling at Mount Mansfield in the early 1920s, when “forester and landowner Craig Burt helped to organize the first Winter Carnival with a goal of boosting the town’s economy during the long winter months,” according to NewEnglandSkiHistory.com. Years later, the Civilian Conservation Corps got in on the action. The Bruce Trail was cut and became the site of the first Mount Mansfield ski race in February 1934. Construction of the Barnes trail started soon afterward, later becoming better known as the celebrated Nosedive trail.
Lift-serviced skiing was introduced to Stowe on Feb. 7, 1937, when Burt, the Mount Mansfield Ski Club and Sepp Ruschp (an Austrian engineer who came to Stowe to run the ski school) built a rope tow on the Toll House slope. Later that year, the Boston Globe announced that Mount Mansfield had “the best skiing in the East.”
Stowe has been calling its siren song to eastern Massachusetts and the metropolitan New York belt ever since. Trail-cutting continued throughout the late 1930s, including Lord and Rim Rock. On Nov. 17, 1940, Stowe unveiled a new chairlift — billed as the longest and highest in the world — that ran more than a mile (6,330 feet) and covered 2,030 feet of vertical.
The resort was one of a few in New England that remained open during World War II, though gas rationing meant lift operations had to be curtailed. In 1946, American International Group (better known as AIG) founder Cornelius Van der Starr invested heavily in the area, and Spruce Peak opened for the 1949-50 season. Starr eventually brought several ownership groups under the single umbrella group of the Mount Mansfield Company in 1950, launching three decades of robust growth that included trail and grooming development, snowmaking introduction and expansion, and a new gondola.
For old-schoolers like myself, those 30 years between 1950 and 1980 resulted in a Stowe that truly lived up to its reputation as a world-class resort.
“I’ve never been to Europe, but have skied just about every major area in the lower 48. And when people ask me if I could only ski one mountain for the rest of my days, it’s Mansfield, hands down,” said Dr. Kevin Dolan, a native of the Boston area. “This is, of course, more of an emotional response than a rational one.
“Growing up on the North Shore, my family and I were big skiers. Our regular day-trip rotation was Crotched, King Pine and Pats Peak, but once a year, there was the big four-day trip to Stowe,” said Dolan. “Stowe remained the highlight of every winter. There was a break to pay college and medical school tuitions, but then we were back at it. We bought a condo right off Mountain Road, introduced my wife’s siblings to Stowe, and our kids learned to ski there.”
This is a common refrain for Stowe fans, regardless of what state they call home. By the late 1970s, the very name “Stowe” inspired awe, in part because the resort was a leader in skiing innovations. But that record run hit a roadblock. The Dolans’ heyday at Stowe came during the 1970s, but the 1980s coincided with an inexplicable lull in the resort’s development. Terrain expansion was planned for the early to mid-1980s, focusing on the saddle area between the main mountain and gondola complexes, but the project never came to fruition. Meanwhile, Stowe’s aging trail footprint was beginning to feel stale, and its traditional infrastructure looked old when compared to expansions and improvements implemented by the resort’s competitors.
“This was a gem with a very, very strong brand name, but it was tarnished,” said Gary Kiedaisch, who took the reins of the Mount Mansfield Company in 1989. “It was a Ferrari race car with flat tires and they kept running it around the track. Meanwhile, all these Pintos were passing it.”
Ouch. Fortunately for Stowe fans, the Mount Mansfield Company got its act together during the late 1980s and 1990s. Infrastructure shortcomings were addressed starting in 1986, when the original single chairlift and parallel double chairlift were replaced with the Forerunner Quad, the first high-speed detachable quad in New England. Five years later, the signature Stowe gondola was replaced with a new Poma gondola. Significant snowmaking and grooming upgrades were made for the 1994-95 season, as new tower guns were installed on Life Line, Perry Merrill, Lord, Sunrise and Standard.
The new century brought a wave of modernization to Stowe. The core of the real estate development was constructed at the base of Spruce Peak, which was enhanced with two new high-speed quads and eventually tied to the rest of the ski area with the installation of the Over Easy Gondola for the 2006-07 season. In an almost comical marketing move, Stowe’s trail count grew from 48 to 116 when the resort abandoned its long-held trail count system and adopted the industry trend of splitting top-to-bottom routes into separate trails (typically marked by “upper” and “lower,” or some similar variation).
For the 2011-12 season, the original Forerunner Quad was replaced with a new high-speed quad (named FourRunner), and the Little Spruce area was revitalized following the 2013-14 season, with the Alpine and Easy Street doubles replaced with a new fixed-grip quad. In June 2017, Stowe underwent another seismic change, when Vail Resorts scooped the resort up for a cool $71 million.
The Vail difference has been met with mixed reviews among the locals, which shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone who knows the mindset of your archetypal New Englander.
“Everything is just a bit more restrictive, meaning that the true locals and long-term Stowe folks don’t like it,” said the owner of an AirBNB property near the resort. “Because, you know, change.”
According to Jeff Wise, Stowe’s communications manager, “One of the biggest changes in Stowe over the past five seasons is the expanded access skiers and riders have to the mountain through the Epic Pass suite of products.”
“Before Vail, a season pass to Stowe topped out at over $1,800,” Wise said. “Now with the Epic Pass, an unlimited, unrestricted pass to Stowe was available starting at $783 for the 2021-22 season. The Epic Day Pass has also become an incredible value for Stowe, with prices as low as $67 for one day.”
There’s no question that Stowe has maintained, and some might say enriched, its lofty reputation under Vail’s ownership. The accolades have followed. Stowe was rated the No. 1 ski resort in Eastern U.S. by Ski Magazine, No. 1 in the East by Freeskier Magazine, No. 1 winter destination in Yankee Magazine’s Reader’s Choice poll, a top five U.S. ski vacation by Yahoo! Sports, a top 10 best ski town in America by Forbes, and one of the world’s best ski towns by National Geographic.
So, let’s see what we’ve got, shall we? For its 88th season, Stowe offers a total of 116 trails (or more than 40 miles) covering 485 skiable acres over a 2,360-foot vertical (the highest lift-access skiing is 3,625 feet). That trail network breaks down to 16 percent beginner, a lush 55 percent intermediate, 15 percent advanced, and 14 percent expert. You’ll also find six glade sections and three terrain parks. Snowmaking, which was introduced at Stowe for the 1967-68 season (initially covering 30 acres on the west and east slopes of Spruce Peak), now covers more than 80 percent of the terrain, supplementing more than 315 inches of annual snowfall.
Access to those trails is very good, with a total of 12 lifts — one inter-mountain transfer gondola, one high-speed summit gondola, four quad chairlifts, two triples (one which will be upgraded to a six-pack next year), two doubles and two surface lifts — providing a lift capacity of more than 15,500 passengers every hour. Not too shabby.
For the skinning crowd who prefer to avoid the lifts altogether, uphill access is currently allowed only at Spruce Peak on the Sterling trail and will be available outside of the Sensation chairlift operating season, before Dec. 18 and after March 27. Which, in short, means Stowe is much more welcoming to skiers and riders who opt to take the lifts.
Where you decide to ski or ride, of course, usually depends on your ability level. The 3,390-foot Spruce Peak is definitely tailored to be more family friendly, with myriad gentle green and blue runs (with a handful of expert runs to keep things spicy). Lower Spruce Peak, home to Stowe’s ski school, is a natural starting spot for beginners. The Meadow Quad accesses the bunny trails Meadows and Easy Street, while the Adventure Triple lift leads to Inspiration. Novices looking to push the envelope can head up the FourRunner Quad on Mount Mansfield to navigate Toll Road, the long, well-known green circle that winds through the woods.
Lower-intermediate skiers can start with the easier blue runs at Spruce Peak, while more confident intermediates who gravitate toward blue cruisers should head over to the groomed runs off the gondola like Gondolier or Perry Merrill — named after a resort pioneer. The Lord trail — a nod to Charlie Lord, another resort pioneer — at the Mansfield base is another favorite blue, as is the scenic Ridgeview. Both are accessed via the FourRunner Quad. Stowe’s new Adventure Zones are accessible low-angle gladed areas designed for entry-level tree skiing and riding. These zones are located throughout Mount Mansfield’s most popular blue and green trails for a laidback sidecountry experience.
The FourRunner Quad is also a great launching pad for advanced skiers and experts looking for some serious pitch. Nosedive, the iconic black diamond cut by the Civilian Conservation Corps back in 1934, is a master class of big, carving turns. After warming up on Nosedive’s twisting terrain, serious powder hounds can test their high-end skills and stamina on the adjacent “Front Four” — Starr, Liftline, National and Goat — the famous double blacks streaming down Mount Mansfield’s face. These runs deserve their reputation and have been exposing imposters for decades. But taming the bumps on the narrow and steep Goat — complete with its diabolical double fall line — is guaranteed to earn you bragging rights at any après-ski session.
The lift lines also might dictate where you want to ski. New this season, the EpicMix Time app forecasts lift line wait times, allowing you to find the lifts with the shortest wait times throughout the day. But that’s not all. The EpicMix app also provides interactive trail maps with trail grooming status, real-time weather, snow totals and mountain cams, on-mountain GPS location and stat tracking, and resort updates and safety information. Think of it as high-tech meets traditional Vermont skiing.
“Fortunately, when it comes to Mansfield, you can go home again,” Dolan said. “Classic New England skiing which has not changed a bit in three decades — nooks and crannies, forced right-angle turns, little-to-no run out. My 60-year-old knees prevented me from tackling the Front Four, but Nosedive was doable.”
In a very odd but very real way, Stowe, for me, embodies another great Northeast institution — the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry — with a very specific wrinkle. There aren’t any games that New York and Boston fans care more about than Yankee-Red Sox games. Whether those games are played at Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park, they simply matter more than any other game during baseball’s long season. But in this instance, Yankees and Red Sox fans both love the resort, if not each other.
“Stowe is great if you go midweek,” chuckled one longtime Stowe skier now living in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. “Otherwise, it’s overrun with New York and Connecticut (expletive deleted).
Classic. A coming together of the clans. That’s Stowe.
As you’d expect from a ski town with close to 100 years of ski history, Stowe has plenty of alternatives for where to shop, eat, drink and sleep. Here are just a few favorites:
The Beanery at the Spruce Peak Village always has fresh java, as does Black Cap Coffee & Beer. Even if you’re staying at or near the mountain, Butler’s Pantry on Main Street is a fun option, offering traditional New England breakfasts. On a nice day, grab a seat outside.
Great on-mountain options on the Mansfield side are the Octagon Café at the top of the FourRunner quad and Cliff House Restaurant at the top of the gondola. Piecasso is an ideal stop, offering hand-tossed pizzas and craft brews.
Trattoria La Festa, specializing in Italian dishes made using ingredients from an on-site garden, is definitely worth a try. Edson Hill, Plate, Cork Wine Bar & Restaurant and Hen of the Wood are great choices for fine dining and interesting cocktails. For ribs, brisket and other Southern delicacies, stop by Black Diamond Barbeque. Prefer Asian take-out? Umami is a great choice.
Three decades ago, my friends and I would hit The Matterhorn Bar and Grill after a long day on the slopes, and the place is still hopping today. I just love the Matterhorn’s “Back to the Future” vibe (though if you told me that it would be serving sushi these days, I wouldn’t have believed you). The Hourglass Lounge has everything from microbrews on tap to classic cocktails and wine by the glass. Doc Ponds offers a retro après-ski atmosphere with vinyl records spinning on two turntables and 24 rotating taps. Want something really different? Check out Stowe Bowl, a private bowling alley on Mountain Road with full bar and dining menu (advanced reservations required).
Where to stay
The Lodge at Spruce Peak at Spruce Peak Village is the epitome of ski-and-stay convenience reminiscent of many Western resorts. The property offers everything from a typical studio hotel room to four-bedroom penthouse suites, plus a spa and heated pool. A current expansion calls for 27 new residences, townhomes and penthouses. The village wraps around a public ice-skating rink and boasts restaurants, shops and lounging areas in the WhistlePig Pavilion. There’s also the Stowe Adventure Center, which houses the Stowe Rocks indoor climbing facility (check ahead for availability, due to COVID concerns)
The fabulous Trapp Family Lodge is still owned and operated by the descendants of Maria and Baron Georg von Trapp of “The Sound of Music” fame. Likewise, The Stowehof is a wonderful tribute to Stowe’s Austrian heritage, though not quite as ornate the Trapp property.
Sun & Ski Inn and Suites (home of the Stowe Bowl) is a solid option for families, with plenty of off-mountain activities. The inn has partnered with Mad River Sled Dog Adventures and Umiak Outfitters for some really cool experiences, like dogsled rides and moonlight snowshoe hikes.
For something brand-spanking new, check out Tälta Mountain Lodge on Mountain Road.
Stowe Mountain Resort
5781 Mountain Road
Brion O’Connor can be reached at email@example.com.