I often do my best thinking under stress, which explains why my thoughts were crystal clear on this particular Saturday afternoon last summer as I was making my way slowly back to Stowe, Vt.
On my road bike, I was finishing up a long loop that was ending on Route 108 with a 1,600-foot climb up and over the Mount Mansfield pass from Jeffersonville known as Smugglers’ Notch. With the sun burning high, temperatures in the 80s and my water supply depleted, my heart rate was pounding on the roof as my tired body struggled mightily to keep the pedals turning.
It was here that I realized what makes a place truly special. The place should have four distinct seasons, each offering a unique beauty. It should embody at its core both epic challenge and grand leisure, with diversity of weather and terrain that will test one’s mettle yet also soothe with stunning perfection. It should nourish the soul as a picturesque backdrop that brings families and loved ones closer together while at the same time beckoning solitary exploration. It should respect its history as the bedrock that will support its future.
Stowe is such a place.
I felt it was fitting that my epiphany about Stowe washed over me while I was situated in the notch between Mount Mansfield and Spruce Peak, high above the historic village where it all started more than 250 years ago. Stowe in fact was chartered as a town 28 years before Vermont became a U.S. state, which occurred in 1791. Its first settlers didn’t arrive until 1793 and, while agriculture and lumber were key economic drivers in those early decades, Stowe is unique in Vermont for positioning itself as its first international tourist destination.
“Like their counterparts in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and all over the northeast, from Newport, Rhode Island, to Niagara Falls, Stowe’s speculators discovered new potential in local scenery,” wrote Dona Brown in “Accidental Tourists,” a piece published by the Vermont Historical Society in 1997. “Here, the attraction was Mount Mansfield.”
The draw of this majestic mountain, Vermont’s highest peak, and its extraordinary views was compelling. The first resort hotel was built in Stowe in 1850, and the historic Summit House hotel was built at the top of Mount Mansfield shortly after, in 1858. Realizing the commercial potential itching to explore and spend money in this Green Mountain haven, town planners developed two important roads to accommodate tourists — an auto road to the top of Mount Mansfield and another through Smugglers’ Notch.
This 19th century infrastructure established Stowe as a premiere destination resort town, and it was envisioned many decades before the Civilian Conservation Corps — a Depression-era jobs program — cut the first ski trails on the eastern face of Mount Mansfield in 1933. Yes, Stowe was born in summer.
Today, the region is in full stride, offering a wide and eclectic range of activities and pursuits. Stowe was named by Fodor’s Travel as the “No. 1 Ski Town for Foodies.” My only quibble with that designation is that Stowe is so much more than a ski town. If you haven’t experienced it this time of year, when the mountains are deep green, then you owe it to yourself and your family to do some exploring. Here are some suggestions:
Stowe Recreation Path
If you want to get a true feel for Stowe’s universal appeal to entire families, young and old, then the perfect place to start is on the Stowe Recreation Path. This 5.5-mile paved public greenway casually winds its way from its start in Stowe Village and criss-crosses along the west branch of the Little River before reaching its end point at a vintage Vermont covered bridge near Topnotch Resort.
Designed for multi-use that caters to cyclists, runners, walkers and inline skaters — and groomed three times a week in the winter for cross-country skiers and snowshoers — the path twists its way past many Stowe restaurants, shops, parks and playing fields, all of which are directly and immediately accessible within a few steps off the path. It features several bridges, swimming holes, picnic tables and, of course, extraordinary views.
Parking and access points are available at multiple places along the path, which is open year-round, including at Lintilhac Park, Chase Park, Thompson Park and Topnotch Resort on Route 108. Bike maintenance stations at Lintilhac and Chase parks provide all tools necessary to perform basic bike repairs and maintenance.
Perfect for baby strollers, perfect for morning power walkers, perfect for training wheels and experienced marathoners, the recreation path is literally enjoyed by everyone.
Auto Toll Road
At 4,393 feet, Mount Mansfield reigns as the undisputed king of Stowe’s tourism. Of the many ways for visitors to explore the zenith of the Green Mountains, the auto toll road, which is accessible off Mountain Road (Route 108) is undoubtedly the easiest.
The drive up this tight, twisting 4.5-mile gravel road, which reaches a peak elevation of 3,850 feet, takes about 20 minutes. From the top, visitors will be treated to incredible panoramic vistas that will include views of the White Mountains, the Adirondacks, Lake Champlain and the Green Mountains.
The auto road is open to cars from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily between May and October every year, weather permitting.
Thanks to the Stowe Trails Partnership (STP), an extensive network of mountain bike trails suitable for all ability levels is available to the public for free. Stowe’s network of 50-some miles of well-maintained, interconnected trails offers fun and challenging terrain with sectors in the woods, on the roads and on paved paths. Popular trails wind through Cady Hill Forest, Adams Camp, Sterling Forest and Cottonbrook.
At Stowe Mountain Resort, a network of more than 30 miles of trails is managed by the Stowe Mountain Bike Club. These trails are accessible both from the resort and from the village. Bikers also can enjoy the 13-mile trail network at Trapp Family Lodge’s Outdoor Center for a small daily fee.
Nearby Smugglers’ Notch offers specialized clinics and camps for riders of all ages. The resort recently expand its offerings for mountain biking by adding both a slopeside features park as well as a pump track.
Swimming holes and waterfalls
Wherever you travel in Stowe during the summer, be sure to bring your bathing suit and sturdy shoes. The region offers numerous swimming holes and waterfall. Many — like the few listed below — can be accessed quickly and easily from their parking areas.
Moss Glenn Falls: From the small parking area off Moss Glenn Falls Road (about 3 miles north of Stowe village), this waterfall and swimming hole is only a 10-minute walk. The best viewing is from the base of the waterfalls. Experienced hikers might want to climb to the top.
Bingham Falls: About a half mile after the Inn at the Mountain (Route 108), park on one of the dirt pull-offs you’ll see on either side of the road to access the trailhead on the east side of the street. The 1-mile hike climbs about 200 feet to a viewing area of Bigham Falls, a 40-foot cascading waterfall with deep gorges and pools to swim in.
Ranch Brook: Park just before the Adams Camp Bridge at the end of Ranch Brook Road to access the trail. Visitors can hike in as little as 100 feet or continue on for up to a mile along the brook to find a suitable place to cool off.
The Notch along Route 108 between the resorts at Stowe and Smugglers’ Notch offers some of New England’s most popular natural features that attract rock climbers from all over the world. Formed thousands of years ago by the receding glacier, the Notch’s massive boulders, outcroppings and scattered caves are a veritable playground for traditional climbers, sport climbers and bouldering.
Many challenging boulder “problems” are accessible within moments from parking areas along Mountain Road (Route 108) at the top of the notch. The Workout Boulder, for instance, presents between eight and 10 problems with mostly flat landings. Other popular boulders include The Bone Doctor and Pac-Man, both near the parking lot of the visitor’s center.
Hiking Mount Mansfield
Of the many ways to enjoy Mount Mansfield, hiking along numerous trails that approach the summit from both its western and eastern flanks are among the most popular. The mountain is situated along Vermont’s Long Trail, a 265-mile trail system that runs through the state, which traverses both Mount Mansfield and Spruce Peak. The typical hiking season in Vermont extends from Memorial Day to Columbus Day.
Both the Long Trail and Haselton Trail, the two most common approaches to the summit from the eastern side, can be accessed near the base of Stowe Mountain Resort’s gondola. The 1.6-mile Haselton Trail climbs up through the resort and finishes at the top of Stowe’s Nose Dive ski trail. Nose Dive places you beneath Mansfield’s “Nose” and behind the Stone Hut, the warming hut built in 1936 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Overnight stays in the rustic hut can be reserved at noon each day.
The Long Trail route ascends 2,800 feet along 2.3 miles, beginning with a jaunt through a hardwood forest that will take you to a classic alpine ridge. Eventually you’ll reach the rocky New England summit, one of only three places in the state to find alpine tundra.
Another option to Mansfield’s summit from the east side is to climb aboard the gondola, which will carry you two-thirds of the way there.
Vermont is the craft beer capital of the United States, according to a report, “The State of Craft Beer,” released this year by C+R Research. Supporting evidence includes that the state is home to 11.5 breweries per 100,000 people, equating to 151 pints of beer produced per adult older than 21. The number of craft breweries in the state jumped from 1,500 in 2007 to more than 6,600 in 2018. If you’re in Stowe this summer, there are a few worth sampling:
The Alchemist: John and Jen Kimmich originally opened The Alchemist as a 60-seat brew pub in the village of Waterbury in 2003. In 2011, they built the Alchemist Cannery, a 15-barrel brewery and canning line, for the production of its flagship IPA Heady Topper. And in 2016, they opened The Alchemist Brewery and Visitor’s Center in Stowe, where they provide samples of beer for tasting, retail beer sales, merchandise and more. Focal Banger is brewed in Stowe, as well as seasonal beers that rotate throughout the year.
Idletyme Brewing Company: The history of Idletyme’s grounds date back to the early 1900s when local farmers would visit what was then Foster’s Cider Mill to sample the fermented beverages. Camp Idletyme, a gasoline station, variety store and tennis camp, was established in 1938, and in 1965, visitors would visit the Shed Restaurant for its food and local brews. Today, that legacy continues as Idletyme features Vermont-made products on its menu, with beers that include lagers, ales, double IPAs, Belgian-influenced ales, limited seasonal experiments and classic Bavarian weizens.
Von Trapp Brewing: While the craft brewing craze mostly emphasizes IPAs, the von Trapp Family’s passion was to build an Austrian-style brewery and share a love of lagers. Built in 2015 with a modest capacity of 2,000 barrels per year, the variety of year-round and seasonal Austrian lagers brewed on site at Trapp Family Lodge include golden, light, dark and unfiltered lagers, Bohemian and Austrian styles, wheat beers and an India pale lager.
Spend an afternoon at ZipTour Adventure at Stowe Mountain Resort for a unique mountain experience, one that will launch you from the top of the gondola station at speeds reaching 60 mph on your descent. Two side-by-side lines will guide you and a companion on a series of point-to-point ziplines back to the base area. A bit to the north, ArborTrek Canopy Adventures at Smuggs operates nearly a mile of ziplines (among other treetop adventures) consisting of nine interconnected lines ranging from 50 feet to nearly 1,000 feet, two suspension bridges and two rappels, all that give guests a bird’s-eye view of the Green Mountain forest.