Vermont´s Mad River Valley

Why Mad River Valley:

My future brother-in-law, Alex, works for a ski resort company. The company owns a couple resorts in Vermont and sent him to meet with leadership. He invited me to join him with the promise of a free hotel and free lift passes. Having never skied in the Eastern US, I couldn´t turn down the offer. 

Vermont is an anomaly in the United States, it is rural, yet is staunchly liberal. Because of this, Vermont has a different culture from the surrounding states. There is a strong focus on small businesses and preserving towns. 

March 2, 2022: A Snowy Surprise

My flight to from Newark to Burlington, the only commercial airport in Vermont, took less than one hour. I landed around 23:00 and then rented a truck and started driving the 1 hour to Sugarbush. 

While the weather in Burlington was clear, I started to hit snow as I drove southeast along Interstate 89. The snow intensified, but luckily there was a clear travel lane due to the traffic along the interstate. 

However, once I exited at Waterbury, the situation changed. The road was now completely covered in snow. Luckily, I knew how to drive in snow. However, the road started to climb up hills and the truck struggled and skidded. I eventually reached a point where I did not feel comfortable continuing and turned around. 

I returned to Waterbury where I found an empty parking lot and prepared to spend the night. 

In the parking lot at 1:00 am

After 90-minutes of sleeping, I woke up cold. The snow had stopped, and I figured the roads might have improved. I also discovered how to activate the truck´s 4-Wheel-Drive mode, which I did not notice even though 4WD is painted on the hood. So embarrassing!

With 4-Wheel-Drive, the truck easily made it over the hills and to Sugarbush. I checked in to my hotel at the base of the mountain around 3:00 and went to bed. 

The giant farmhouse hotel in Sugarbush

March 3, 2022: Montpelier

I woke up at 7:00 to do some sightseeing before work. I got in the truck and drove along the now-plowed roads for 45 minutes to reach Vermont´s capital of Montpelier. 

Montpelier is the smallest state capital in the United States with a population of just 8,000. This seems appropriate given that Vermont is a state of small towns. 

The obvious highlight of Montpelier is the State House. The gold-domed Greek revivalist structure is among the oldest state capitol buildings in existence. Having toured nearly 30 state capitols, I constantly heard the story of how “the old capitol was destroyed in a fire”. But somehow this building, constructed in 1833, has survived! 

With the Vermont State House

Only a few rooms were open to the public, but they happened to be the rooms that matter. The tiny Senate is trimmed in Green, while the significantly larger House of Representatives is trimmed in Red. 

The Vermont House of Representatives

There is also a room containing a monumental painting of the Civil War Battle of Cedar Creek where soldiers from Vermont acted with exceptional bravery. The governor´s office, which is normally open to visitors, was closed at this time.

For breakfast, I headed to the 100+ year old Wayside Restaurant. This is a classic old-school diner. I ordered blueberry pancakes with Vermont maple syrup. 

I then drove back to Sugarbush and worked all day. 

Alex arrived around 19:00, just in time for dinner. We met with the President of the resort and ate an amazing meal in the main restaurant.

March 4, 2022: Sugarbush

Today, Alex was going on a mountain tour with leadership to better understand the mountain. I luckily got to tag along for part of the tour before work. 

Alex and I picked up demo skis and then headed to the lift. There, we were met by most of the mountain leadership team. We skipped the line and jumped on the chair about 30 minutes before the mountain opened. Then we zoomed down the first track corduroy. We got a few runs in before I had to start work. Remote work sure has its perks!

With Alex at the top of Sugarbush

At 14:00, work was slowing down and I decided to go out skiing (shhh don´t tell HR!). I got 2 hours in! The skiing in Vermont is tougher than in the Western US. That is due to the snow conditions. The snow is icier, meaning that it is easier to slip. Additionally, there is low snow cover. These added hazards force you to be more cautious. It is much more difficult to ski here. 

Therefore, it should be no surprise that so many of the best skiers in the US come from here. 

For dinner, we headed off the mountain into the town of Waitsville, just 15 minutes away. Our first stop was Lawson´s Finest Liquids, the beloved brewery of the Mad River Valley. The brewery was very indicative of Vermont´s unique rural progressive culture: Free spirited and welcoming within rigid confines. The staff was all white hipsters wearing wacky summer outfits. Due to their COVID rules, we had to be seated at a table. Then, we could wait in line to order at the bar. It took forever, but the staff was quite knowledgeable and friendly. Instead of tips, patrons had the option of donating money to a fund that goes to local charities that the employees select. 

Alex is gluten intolerant so its all the beers for me!

The beers were quite unusual and strong. My favorite beer was a maple brown ale aged in whiskey barrels. We also ordered a local cheese plate. Every cheese was made less than 15 minutes from the brewery. 

For dinner, we visited a cute inn. The food was spectacular and low-key. 

March 5, 2022: Mad River Glen

Alex had to visit a different resort in southern Vermont for work today, so I was on my own. 

Many friends recommended that I ski Mad River Glen, just 10 minutes from Sugarbush. I was able to hitch a ride over to Mad River Glen. 

Mad River Glen is different from nearly all other ski resorts. It is owned by a Co-op of ski enthusiasts. The Co-Op elects a board of 6 Vermonters and 3 out of staters who run the mountain according to the bylaws. As a result of this structure, the bylaws and the culture, the Co-Op has taken a stand towards extreme preservation. The mountain seems stuck in time. 

Typical run at Mad River Glen

Mad River Glen is one of just 3 resorts to not allow snowboarding. They have a Single Chair (only one person can sit on the chair), the only one of its kind in the US outside of an obscure resort in Alaska. In 2007, the original Single Chair had reached the end of its operational life and the shareholders voted to replace it with…another Single Chair. 

The infamous Single Chair

Mad River Glen has almost no snowmaking – the Co-Op´s bylaws restrict snowmaking over 2,300 feet. To keep the forests intact, Mad River Glen has left far more trees on the mountain than a typical ski mountain, creating narrower runs and more tree skiing. The only near comparison is Alta in Utah, but Mad River Glen´s culture is more extreme.  

There are no Double Black rated runs, but many of the Black runs would definitely be Double Black at more commercial mountains. “Ski it if you can” is the official slogan of Mad River Glen.

The ski culture of Mad River Glen is very prevalent. At least 40% of the skiers I encountered were wearing either MRG merch or something that says, “Ski The East”. 

The line to ride the single chair took more than 30 minutes. While I had nobody to talk to, I was at least serenaded with a 90´s rock soundtrack of Queens of the Stone Age and Foo Fighters. Eventually I loaded into my chair. 

Riding the single chair is like getting a 11-minute time out. There is nobody to talk to and the chairlift is too narrow to safely take out your phone. As I rode up the lift, I stared at the narrow, icy chute that is known as the Lift Line run. Lucky for me, there just so happened to be a teenage Freestyle ski competition today. 12–15-year-old kids were launching themselves down this insane run and over the icy cliffs with a spirited announcer.

Eventually, I made it to the top. Because the single lift has such a low capacity, the runs are quiet and it feels like you are alone in the forest. For my first run, I got caught in the thick trees on a steep slope with thin cover. Nearly the entire trip down the mountain was on moguls. 

I ended up getting 4 more Single Chair runs and a few on the double chair that day before heading back. 

I arrived at Sugarbush with some time to spare before closing and got some runs in there too. Sugarbush, it turns out, has a chairlift that mimics the terrain at Mad River Glen. 

For dinner, we once again ate at the Sugarbush restaurant. Unlike Thursday, the place was packed! 

We then headed to the hot tub. In the hot tub, we ran into a high school teenage couple. They were locals and the girl competed in the ski race at Mad River Glen. Her boyfriend is a hockey player. They are both looking to compete in college and acknowledge that their relationship will probably not survive. Young love!

The next morning, we rallied early to pick up breakfast in the Warren Store before I drove Alex to Burlington for his flight home.

Final Thoughts:

 The Mad River Valley is a well-rounded destination, even in the winter. Yes, the focus is the skiing, but there is culture too. The small towns are all so cute. The food in inventive and the beer is plentiful. I really enjoyed the focus on local products. Every menu had a wide array of local cheeses, meats, and beer. Vermonters seem to be very proud of their community.

When compared to similar destinations like New Hampshire and upstate New York, Vermont has a much greater celebration of the small town. It shows in the built environment – there are very few highway exits, there is almost no commercial development outside of towns, and there are very few chain stores. 

The culture at Mad River Glen is also special. The fandom of the single chair and the mountain is perhaps only matched by Alta. The skiing is undoubtedly only for experts. 

Sugarbush is a more well-rounded resort. They have the tough terrain but also plenty of groomed runs too. The village at the base of the mountain is well done and has a unique barn architecture, unlike nearly every other resort which uses Swiss chalet architecture. The barn architecture creates a strong sense of place. 

In short, I think the Mad River Valley is a worthy ski destination. It does not match the terrain and snow conditions of the West, but the culture is superior. For that reason, I would recommend that every serious skier in the US give Vermont a try.

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