Taking a retro ski tour in VT’s ‘Golden Triangle’
Call it the retro ski tour, visiting three areas that opened between the 1930s and Sixties.
Recently, I took a trip to visit three mountains in southern Vermont. I stayed in the historic village of Manchester, a town settled in 1794 when Vermont was an independent republic called “New Connecticut.”
The town lies at the base of Mount Equinox. At t 3,848-feet, it’s the highest peak in the Taconic mountain range. In the summer, you can drive five miles to the summit. Just make sure you have good brakes on your vehicle.
I didn’t stay in a high-end resort inn, but in a cozy 1950s-era motel on historic Route 7A, about three miles from Manchester Center. The place wasn’t fancy, but clean and comfortable and about 70 bucks a night. My vehicle was parked just steps away right outside the door, allowing easy loading and unloading.
The motel is a half-hour drive to three ski areas known as “The Golden Triangle.”
It’s one of the few locations in the East where ski areas are clustered together, separated only by a few miles and minutes from one another. It’s a nice option to ski a few areas without changing lodging or traveling too far. New York’s Catskills and New Hampshire’s White Mountains are ideal areas for this type of ski touring.
I chose Manchester because it was just a few hours away from “Old Connecticut” and I wanted to avoid traveling on any interstates to keep the retro experience.
A direct route for those living in western Connecticut is taking Route 22 in New York state to Hoosick Falls, where renowned folk artist “Grandma Moses,” lived here in the latter part of her life.
Route 22 seems like a forgotten road among skiers who just take I-91 to Vermont ski areas. It’s just a few miles from Route 7 in Massachusetts. But unlike the Massachusetts highway, there’s just a handful of villages with few traffic lights. There’s no fast food restaurants or Dunkin’ Donuts along the way.
Speeds average about 60 mph; Route 22 is well plowed and treated during winter storms. Before interstate highways, roads like Route 22 and Route 5 in Vermont were the main north/south highways.
Along the way on these old roads, once Native Americans’ trails, there are throwback stores from the 1950s stores selling maple syrup, Vermont cheese and tourist-trap T-shirts. Big Moose Deli and Country Store in Hoosick, N.Y. is a classic; look for the big moose on the roof. You can’t miss it.
Once in Hoosick, take Route 7 east and then Route 9 into Vermont. Once in Bennington, Manchester is just a half hour away on a limited access Route 7.
Using Manchester as a kind of “base camp” gives you lots of options from lodging, restaurants and a number of factory outlet stores (including the legendary Orvis fishing store) and locally owned shops. Cusine ranges from pizza joints to Ye Olde Tavern, a former hotel built in 1790, that offers such very retro dishes like Yankee pot roast and leg of vension.
All three nearby ski areas - Stratton, Bromley and Magic - have their own distinctive character from wide “Super Trails” from the 1980s to older and narrow runs that snake down the mountain. There’s slopeside lodging in older hotels at Bromley and Magic to condos and inns at Stratton.
The area has a storied past in New England snowsports history, including where Jake Burton Carpenter improved on the Snurfer, snow toy into the modern day snowboard.
The rest they say, is history.
On a stone fireplace at Bromley Mountain is a metal plaque in memory of its founder, Fred Pabst.
It reads: “Fred brought skiing, the sport of hardy Scandanavians, to the American family. He originated and perfected uphill transportation, trail grooming, snow making, ski schools, a fireplace to back up to, hamburgs with Milwaukee beer to restore energy and nurseries for the little ones not ready for the slopes. Fred put it all together on Bromley Mountain facing the sun. Here we have everything including the fond memories of a friend who was devoted to the idea of skiing for the whole family and he made it all come true.”
Today, most skiers and snowboarders take for granted the high-speed lifts, snow making and grooming found at ski resorts. Few care - or even know - about the history of an area or who the people who transformed a mountain into a destination.
But those who do, like myself, have an appreciation if what it took build a ski area on a mountain. Often you can see old relics where the old rope tows stood, the original layout of the lodge and decades of scuff marks made on the woodwork from ski boots.
From atop Bromley’s 3,424-foot summit, you can see the nearby Stratton and Magic Mountains, two other areas like that have weathered changes and owners over the years.
Bromley has a laid-back, family-friendly vibe. Its lodge has the charm of an old-time ski area. A few years ago, the lodge was renovated with some of Fred Pabst’s hunting trophy animal heads removed. Onc person said they the heads were taken down because they were scaring the kids.
Try to get there for the first tracks on a sunny day because you may be treated to a beautiful site: Diamonds in the snow. Since Bromley faces south, the sun sparkles off the snow crystals on the trail. It’s a magical sight that doesn’t last long once the groomed surface is carved up.
In all Bromley has 47 trails; 60 percent either green or blue. The steeper trails like Havoc, Corkscrew and Pabst’s Peril run under the Blue Ribbon quad. The difficulty of skiing these trails depends on whether the surface is groomed. They could be either ego boosting or leg burners.
The high-speed Sun Mountain quad is the fastest way to the summit. From there you can ski down nearly all its trails. Once lift lines get long, head over to the Blue Ribbon Quad.
Spend a full day at Bromley and you’ll ski everything and get a nice face tan with goggle raccoon eyes on a sunny day.
Magic Mountain is another “throwback” ski area that has had its ups and downs with changing owners, not having enough snow making in poor snow years and finding its niche in a market dominated by large big resorts in southern Vermont.
It’s an area that’s off the grid for skiers who want the fastest lifts, most aggressive grooming and more than 100 trails.
Its storybook beginning starts with Hans Thorner, a Swiss-born ski instructor who opened Magic in 1962 and built a Swiss-styled village at the base. He even had Swiss instructors teach the classic Euro technique of learning to ski correctly.
Magic’s biggest draw then - and now - is its terrain, some of the most challenging in southern Vermont both on narrow, winding trails and in the trees. The trail layout remain unchanged since its opened.
About half of its 50 trails are rated intermediate, 26 percent green and the rest advanced or expert runs. The longest run is 1.6 miles long. Most of the steeper, more difficult trails like the Black and Red line trails and Twilight Zone trails are in the upper middle of the mountain. Wizard is an enjoyable cruiser that starts the summit and winds down to the base. Beginners have an easier way down from the top on Upper Magic Carpet and the Wand trails.
Mounting debt, lack of snow making and turnover of owners have worked against the area for years.
Two years ago, the area got new owners that have invigorated the mountain. This group of 13 investors have added a new lift and upgraded snow making to cover 60 percent of the mountain. There’s also improved grooming.
Unlike Mad River Glen in Vermont, Magic allows snowboarders. Yet, it’s very similar to MRG in appealing to those who love skiing in its purest form. Its web site calls says area is “Where Skiing Still Has its Soul” … somewhere to “Take the Road Less Traveled’ … a place with “Laid Back Vibes” … “Rugged and Wild” … that has “1,500 feet of Real Vertical.”
Magic isn’t for everyone, but it’s worth a visit for those who want to an area that’s been off the radar for a few years. It feet like the Magic is back.
Ideally, it’s best to be here on a powder day midweek
Magic is open Thursdays - Sundays plus holiday periods. Magic also opens Monday, Tuesdays, Wednesdays for powder days when it gets 6 or more inches of snow by 6 a.m. and there’s at least 50 percent of its trails open.
The best ticket deal is $29 on Throwback Thursdays on non-powder days.
Stratton, the biggest of the Golden Triangle is entirely different than Magic and Bromley. It’s a huge resort with 99 trails, a nearly 2,000-foot vertical 110 trails, hundreds of slope-side homes, condos and a faux alpine village with heated sidewalks.
With 11 lifts including six- passenger chairlifts; four, four-passenger chairlifts; three, three-passenger chairlifts: one, two passenger lifts, one gondola and one magic carpet.
Stratton was the first major resort to welcome snowboarding in 1983 and opened the first Burton Snowboard School.
Critics say the trails are too groomed, the terrain too easy, too crowded and with far away parking lots. Its collection of shops in a Bavarian-styled village (with clocktower), has also been called too commercial.
Yet, those things the purists scoff at are what many people love and a full list of winter events Stratton offers like moonlight snowshoe hikes, romantic dinners and even a walk with your dog at the summit.
Lots of people like because of its groomed trails.
Statton is what you would expect an at high-end ski resort in the 21st century. To read a previous story on Stratton.
A few miles from Bromley is the Wild Wings nordic center. It’s about two miles from the J.J. Hapgood’s country store, a spot where Sir Paul McCartney had lunch (vegetarian, of course) after skiing at Bromley three years ago. How cool is that!
The center has rentals and tracked cross country green, blue and black trails for beginners to experts. It can be a humbling experience for downhill skiers not used to Nordic.
The area is in snow belt that provides plenty of natural snow.
It sells a $17 half day ticket for four hours on the trails - plenty of time to enjoy this beautiful wooded area.
Cross country skiing here is wonderful, quiet escape from the downhill ski areas.
It’s was the most way back experience of the three days staying in Manchester area.
So retro - right down to the big pot of soup - that’s kept warm on the wood stove in the lodge. For five bucks you get a hearty bowl of soup.
Five bucks for homemade soup; something you don’t see often in a 21st century ski resort. And if you do, expect to pay more than double the price.