Stowe: New England’s Cross-country Mecca

by John Symon
Nestled high on the flanks of Vermont’s highest peak (Mount Mansfield, 4,393 feet), the village of Stowe offers a wide variety of cross-country skiing and snowshoeing opportunities. Skiers can choose between North America’s first commercial cross-country centre (dating from 1968) at Trapp Family Lodge, Stowe Mountain Resort’s Cross Country Ski Center, and other centers in the region such as Top Knotch with nearby Nordic Barn, Stoweflake, Edson Hill Manor, Golden Eagle Resort, along with Stowe’s municipal trails. Between them, the smorgasbord of fabulous resorts feature activities from skate to classic to backcountry to telemark skiing. Snowshoeing and Nordic walking are also on the menu. And one of the great beauties of skiing in Stowe is the interconnectivity of most local ski trail networks.

The Trapp Family Lodge is the largest cross-country centre in the area, attracting some 60,000 visitors each winter. It is also famous for the Trapp family history as portrayed in The Sound of Music. And the oldest cross-country centre on the continent remains an innovator, recently installing artificial snowmaking that ensures a connection from the ski centre across a sunny field up to trails in the woods. The trail network includes 60 kilometres of groomed trails and 100 kilometres of backcountry trails.

“The location is perfect; my grandparents chose well. We have over 1,000 hectares and 1,700 feet of vertical here and a commanding view of Stowe Valley,” exclaims Sam von Trapp, the resort’s manager. He is also excited about the new 40 Year Trail (commemorating how long the centre has been in business) that takes skiers down a fast and furious five-kilometre descent from the Slayton Pasture Cabin at 2,100 feet to the main lodge at 1,300 feet. Von Trapp also spoke enthusiastically about mountain-bike trails that were scheduled to open (initially for resort guests only) during the summer of 2009. The Slayton Pasture Cabin serves drinks and snacks for skiers.

Both group lessons and individual coaching are available at Trapp. The rental shop carries a wide range of sizes and also has pulks (ski sleds for pulling infants and toddlers). Trapp Family Lodge markets itself as a “family-friendly” destination, pointing to the on-site presence of the Mountain Kids Club and how the trail network allows families to ski together at all levels.

Stowe Mountain Resort’s Cross Country Ski Touring Center has 45 kilometres of groomed trails and 30 kilometres of backcountry skiing. It is owned by the same company that operates the better-known alpine ski centre and fancy new five-star hotel three kilometres up the road, meaning that alpine skiers can access the touring centre without buying an additional ticket.

While the downhill centre and hotel recently benefited from almost half-a-billion dollars in renovations, the touring centre is simply housed in a double-wide trailer bought secondhand in the 1970s. Also in the same building is a small cafe, ski rentals, washrooms and a boutique so finding a spot to sit might be difficult on busy weekends.

“It’s mainly the knickers crowd here,” jokes Nordic Cross-country manager Scott Dorwart. “They enjoy our intimate and narrow classic trails. The Lycra crowd prefers skiing at Trapp, although we do have some skating trails as well.” Dorwart adds that many of the customers at his ski centre are “backcountry locals” attracted by the unique wilderness skiing opportunities at Stowe. A $20 day pass for the touring area includes a lift ticket to the nearby Tall House Double chairlift and the possibility of skiing at 3,500 feet. Some 10,000 skiers and snowshoers come through the touring centre annually, including school groups. Snowshoers also make up an estimated 15% of the visitors here.

The touring centre benefits from an eastern exposure that keeps the snow after it melts off other nearby cross-country centres. Stowe’s season normally extends from mid-December to late April. Extended-season skiing continues unofficially after that on the toll road up near the top of Mount Mansfield.

Most of Stowe Mountain’s trail network winds through state forest and skiers don’t have to worry about real estate developments encroaching on the trails here. But while the state forest wards off realtors, applications for any structures must be approved by forest rangers. Currently, there’s only one warm-up hut (actually a tent) on the trail network, and it is only permitted with the understanding that all traces of the tent disappear after the snow melts. The tent, which is called Bear Hut (anticipating an actual hut being erected one day), entices skiers with free hot chocolate and cookies. Locals snicker referring to Bear Hut as “Tarp Family Lodge.”

Events hosted at Stowe Mountain include the Nordic BKL Mini-Marathon in early January, the Stowe Derby in late February and various events organized by the Stowe Nordic Outing Club. An unusual attraction at Stowe Touring Center is a chance to reconnect with history. The land here encompasses the vestiges of old logging operations and one of the first downhill runs opened in North America. The timber camp is an historical site dating from the 1930s, while another trail was cut by the Civilian Corps in 1933 for the original chairlift at Stowe’s alpine centre. Ski history buffs can also check out Stowe’s Vermont Ski Museum.

At Topnotch Resort and Spa, luxury is perhaps an understatement. Manager Dan Oberlander speaks about how the resort attracts people who like to ski in the morning and play tennis in the afternoon. Topnotch has a partnership with the Nordic Barn, a local outfitter, to provide cross-country skiing and snowshoeing opportunities for its guests, both on 80 acres of private land and on the nearby municipal trail. The Nordic Barn also offers 25 kilometres of its own trails — open to the general public — that connect to Trapp and to Stowe’s Recreational Path trails as well as the municipal “Rec Path.” Ski rentals and lessons are available, as are snowshoe tours.

Edson Hill Manor is a country inn and restaurant that also maintains some 25 kilometres of groomed cross-country trails, including part of the Catamount Trail (480 kilometres that run the length of Vermont). Edson Hill does offer ski rentals, but the Nordic centre is apparently closed some days of the week (best to check at the Manor) and lacks a warm-up hut on the system. Some 1,000 people use the trail system each winter. Umiak, a local outfitter, partners with Edson Hill, bringing visitors for short, introductory, night-time snowshoe jaunts five times a week. Umiak similarly brings snowshoers up to the Golden Eagle Resort (also on the Rec Path) to access trails there, with expeditions terminating over a fondue dinner. Umiak also operates periodic telemark clinics five times each winter.

Stoweflake Mountain Resort & Spa similarly offers luxurious amenities and a network of groomed trails (five kilometres) that connect with the Rec Path. The trails, for guests and members, are known as a good venue for skate-skiing and attract some 300 skiers annually. Lessons and rentals can be arranged here, but call first. Also offered here is Nordic walking — both with and without snowshoes — on a daily basis throughout the winter. The general public is welcome to join Nordic walking classes for a modest fee.

Stowe’s Recreational Path is an 8.5km trail that serves as a bike path in the summer and cross-country ski/snowshoe trail in the winter. Access is free to this trail that crosses and re-crosses the West Branch River 11 times, running from the village centre up to Topnotch, connecting with Stoweflake and Golden Eagle along the way.

There is a reciprocal agreement between local centres to honour each other’s tickets, although this sometimes requires paying a small premium. Skiers starting from Stowe’s Recreational Path can still access Trapp trails, for instance, but must now pay for a $5 ticket upgrade to do so.

Collectively, there are some 3,200 beds available in Stowe, housed in country inns to five-star hotels. Prices start at approximately $70 per night, and Canadians will be glad to know that their money is often accepted at par here. The area also offers some 30 restaurants, some of which are also bars, though Stowe’s nightlife is perhaps tame compared to some other ski towns.

Mo’ Info

Trapp Family Lodge

Stowe Mountain Resort
Touring Center

Vermont Ski Museum

Topnotch Resort and Spa

Nordic Barn
$15 adult day pass

Edson Hill Manor

Golden Eagle Resort

Umiak Outdoor Outfitters

Stoweflake Mountain Resort & Spa

Catamount Trail

Vermont ski resorts
800-VERMONT; 802-223-2439

Stowe accommodation and