Being a fan of good times, and things that roll, I have a distinct affinity for Okemo Mountain Resort in lovely Ludlow, Vermont, during the summer months.
If there are a few thrills thrown in, then that’s all the better. Consider just one weekend from last August. My wife, Lauri, and I loaded up the Subaru wagon with our two teenage daughters for a three-day, two-night visit to south central Vermont during Okemo’s high-spirited Hops in the Hills Beer and Wine Festival. When I say “loaded,” I mean the car was packed to the gills, with four bikes, two sets of golf clubs, a cooler with meals for those times we weren’t dining out, and enough gear and clothing to enjoy the myriad activities offered.
Those included a round at the exceptional Okemo Valley Golf Club, almost endless options for gravel and road pedaling, mountain biking, the Timber Ripper Mountain Coaster, allterrain Segways, and the Sawyer’s Sweep Zipline Tour. Whew! It’s exhausting just to think about.
But it’s worth every minute we spend planning and driving to Ludlow. We try to schedule an early start on Friday, which not only allows us to escape Boston’s North Shore before the traffic gods get riled up, but also gives us a chance to grab at least nine holes of golf while our girls chill out at the Jackson Gore’s Spring House Pool and Fitness Center.
The Okemo Valley course is one of the most picturesque in all of New England, twice being named by Golf Digest magazine as the top public course in Vermont. The 6,400- yard heathland-style layout promises to challenge your game and your fitness (I like to avoid using a cart whenever possible). If tee times at Okemo Valley are difficult to come by, Lauri is just as happy motoring over to Windham to play at Tater Hill Golf Club. This historic course features ancient stonewalls, fairways lined by stunning birch trees, and tremendous views, highlighted by a wonderful array of flower gardens (a big plus for my garden-happy wife).
Since all three of my girls are late sleepers, and I tend to be an early riser, mornings at Okemo are my time to get out for a solo spin. The cycling in and around Ludlow, both on- and off-road, always has been a big attraction, especially with the new generation of gravel bikes that can tame the rough Class VI “highways” that snake through the region. But Okemo’s Evolution Bike Park, located at the mid-mountain Sugarhouse Lodge above the Clock Tower base area, has taken the local two-wheel experience to an entirely different level since first being launched in 2015.
The park, designed by master trailbuilder Christian Robertson of Okemo’s sister resort in Colorado, Crested Butte, is aptly named, as it continues to improve.
“Christian’s initial vision was perfect for what Okemo needed at that time, and we have since grown and expanded upon that,” said Sean Meszkat, Okemo’s retail director.
And they’ve done it quickly.
“We’re playing catch up” compared to other resorts with long-established mountain bike programs, said Eb Kinney, Okemo’s vice president of operations. “We have a lot of trail construction ahead of us. The main mountain, at this point, is what we’re looking at for new trail construction.”
Last year, Kinney’s crew unveiled the Scrambler Trail, a roller-coaster ode to gravity that launches from the summit of the Sunburst 6 lift and crisscrosses a number of the resort’s original ski trails. This summer, they plan to introduce a more advanced trail, called Shake and Bake.
“I feel like we will be adding to the bike park every year for quite some time,” he said. “We are still working to make these trails as buffed out as possible.”
Kinney said the current plan is to add 2 to 3 miles of bike trail a year, depending on other major projects that might come along.
“Our first trails in the main base were 95 percent built in existing ski trails with 5 percent in the woods. The new trails off the top are roughly 75 percent wooded, and 25 percent in ski trail. People really like to be able to ride through the woods.”
The bike park also reflects Okemo’s year-round mantra, which “has a lot to do with progression,” said Okemo spokeswoman Bonnie MacPherson. “We’re a family resort that caters to the development of skills for young families.”
With a full line of Scott downhill rigs ready for rent, summit terrain with more than 1,600 feet of vertical over a wild mix of trails, and a lower section by the Quad A base area that’s perfect for beginner riders, the park provides for an almost infinite variety of ages and ability levels.
“We have a pretty large ‘canvas’ to work with,” said Meszkat. “I’d say in the future, you’ll see plenty of riding for all abilities.”
After four runs, I had worked up quite a thirst and was more than ready to head back over to Okemo’s Jackson Gore area to sample the offerings at the Hops in the Hills event. This annual festival brings in craft brewers, cider makers and winemakers from throughout the Northeast and beyond, as well as some top-notch bands to keep everyone entertained. If you’re a fan of the fine art of fermentation, you won’t want to miss this weekend (don’t forget your lawn chairs and blankets).
Our teenagers were not content to simply sample sodas and listen to the musical acts, so they decided to try out the Timber Ripper Mountain Coaster.
“That’s really where our summer activities started, when we built the coaster in the fall of 2010,” said Kinney. “That set the course for the Adventure Zone. The following summer we built Lumberin’ Cal mini-golf and the Bunge Trampoline. The following summer we did the Segways and Sawyer’s Sweep Zip Line, the Big Air Bag and disc golf.
“We want to enhance our guests’ experience, giving them multiple avenues to explore, having fun the whole family can enjoy,” Kinney said.
“Fun” would be an understatement when it comes to the Timber Ripper. Our girls were howling. The coaster has more twists and turns than an Alfred Hitchcock thriller, with the two-person sleds hitting speeds upward of 25 miles an hour as they drop 375 feet over the 3,100-foot track. And while 25 mph might not sound super fast, it feels like it when you’re banking through steep, 180-degree turns.
“The mountain coaster was a blast,” said my eldest, Maddi. “Doing that with my mom was unforgettable … feeling that wind and feeling a tiny bit queasy, but still wanting to go faster.”
Sunday morning, Lauri and I snuck out for a guided tour aboard the resort’s all-terrain X2 Segways, which look like a traditional Segway on steroids.
“Generally our guests only need to see our machines before they want to try it,” said our guide, Jay “Segway Jay” Ummel. “Then, through proper instruction, folks are usually pretty surprised to see how intuitive the machines are.
“In a 90-minute package, we can take a brand-new amateur rider and have them zipping through the woods and up and down a ski slope by the end of the tour,” he said.
Which is exactly what we did, checking out every nook and cranny of the Jackson Gore property, which includes old Colonial roadways and paths and newer trails developed by Ummel.
“Every tour is different than another,” said Ummel. “As an instructor, I do a quick body and skill assessment during the beginning training, to determine what terrain would be best suited for each particular group. There are many trails and hills some newer riders can’t physically navigate, while another group might prefer to go slower and have the tour peppered with historical Vermont stories.
“We hope to keep our tours safe, light and fun,” he said. “We also hope for repeat business, so each year, we add new trails and terrain to keep things interesting.”
Afterward, Lauri rounded up the girls for the Sawyer’s Sweep Zipline Tour.
This two-hour tour boasts seven zipline segments that rise more than 50 feet above the ground, with lines that run up to 900 feet long. Zipliners can hit speeds up to 30 miles an hour as they drop 300 vertical feet back to the Jackson Gore courtyard.
“It’s kind of scary at first, with a major trust element to get over,” said Lauri. “The guides are safety minded first and foremost, but the ‘tour’ is designed to progressively get zipliners to push their limits a bit more with each line.
“Lines become higher and longer as you go,” she said. “You fly through the trees, competing to grab the most leaves, falling backward from a higher platform. The younger ‘zippers’ were twisting, turning, somersaulting on the longer lines toward the end of the course. I loved the opportunity to push myself outside my comfort zone, laughing with my two daughters.”
While the girls were zipping around the treetops, I snuck out for another session at the Evolution Bike Park, to see if I could really dial in the Scott downhill rig I had rented. These bikes are different animals compared to my cross-country steed, and much like Lauri’s zipline experience, I couldn’t resist testing my limits and pushing myself outside my comfort zone.
At the top of Scrambler, I tightened up my helmet and took a deep breath. Then I just let the bike, and the good times, roll.