Firsthand Report: Sugarbush, Vermont - A Classic Refreshed 1
Author thumbnail By Jim Kenney, DCSki Columnist

My son and I visited Sugarbush, Vermont for two weekdays of excellent “all slopes open” skiing in early January, 2010. I hadn’t been to the ski area in ten years. It was the first ever visit for my teenage son Vince. The two expansive ski mountains comprising Sugarbush resort, Lincoln Peak and Mt. Ellen, still feature perpetually great terrain (111 trails, 18 glades, 16 lifts), but in recent years an investment in infrastructure has completely remade the base of Lincoln Peak.

My last visit to Sugarbush occurred in 2000 during the waning days of the financially strapped ASC ownership. I left in awe of challenging ski slopes like Castlerock and FIS. But frankly, the state of the lodge facilities and infrastructure at the 50 year old resort imparted a different impression, something between aging and shabby.

Lincoln Peak / Clay Brook base area. Photo provided by Jim Kenney.

Since that time a former Merrill Lynch executive, Win Smith, has taken the helm at Sugarbush. Smith’s love of the Mad River Valley region goes back to the 1960s and to this reporter he appears to be a local’s dream owner: savvy businessman, altruistic visionary, and fervent skier with deep pockets. Smith has assembled a management team that shares his labor of love - to refresh a classic Vermont ski area. Now when you reach the end of the Sugarbush/Lincoln Peak access road the first thing you’ll notice is the spiffy new Clay Brook condominium hotel. It’s an upscale place with concierge service and enough room to host 400+ guests, yet the design motif fits the locale like a back-home Vermont barn.

The Lincoln Peak Village upgrade also features the new Timbers Restaurant, lively Castlerock Pub, and beautiful Gate House base lodge. While I was dazzled by all the new construction, Vince remained focused on the skiing. We booted-up at Gate House and he promptly led me out for some morning warm up runs off the Super Bravo Express Quad chairlift (vertical 1529’). We started on the scenic intermediate runs Snowball and Spring Fling, then cut up some fresh manmade snow through the widely spaced trees and moderate angle of Murphy’s Glade.

View from Middle Earth trail. Photo provided by Jim Kenney.

Vince loves carving, so next we laid tracks on Hot Shot, a wide open groomer under the Gate House Express Quad chairlift to the far lookers right of the Lincoln Peak base. I wanted a peek at the good stuff, even if I was likely to hack it up, so we quickly moved on to the Castlerock Double Chair (vertical 1670’). The experts-only Castlerock trail pod was completely open, even though it’s all natural and this was the first week of January. We only skied the single blacks here, Castlerock Run and Middle Earth, but found them plenty challenging. Some sketchy rocks and frozen waterfalls raised the difficulty factor on these trails, but a little careful navigation led to lots of loose natural snow and fun skiing.

We saw some legitimate hotshots rockin’ the Castle on the super steep Liftline trail which has 15’ rocks to huck and true technical terrain. They say the Castlerock Liftline is a favorite haunt of local extreme ski icon John Egan. He is Sugarbush’s “Chief Recreational Officer” and if you’ve got the moxy you can schedule a day of adventure skiing with him through the Sugarbush Ski and Ride School. For adventurous guests Sugarbush also offers guided ski/snowshoe tours of the Slide Brook Wildlife Management Area (two miles of pristine mountainside between the two ski areas), and cat skiing via the 12 passenger Lincoln Limo for early morning powder or late spring private excursions.

After Castlerock Vince and I caught the Heaven’s Gate triple chair and rode to the summit of Lincoln Peak where the trees were encrusted in foot-thick rime ice. We skied several runs off the peak including the advanced Organgrinder and then cruised all 2400 vertical feet of the intermediate Jester trail for a rendezvous with some burgers and Hungarian goulash at the classy Castlerock Pub in the Gate House base lodge.

Mt. Ellen Summit View. Photo provided by Sandy Macys, Sugarbush Resort.

In addition to good early season snow conditions, we were blessed with “mild” January weather for Vermont. There were no wind holds on the lifts and day time high temperatures reached about 20 degrees F. On our second day at Sugarbush we parked at Lincoln Peak, but after a couple warm-ups on the tree dappled runs under the North Lynx Peak chair we decided it was time to check out the great terrain of Mt Ellen. Unlike some ski areas that advertise multiple peaks, Sugarbush delivers the goods with two big, distinct ski mountains. When you summit them you’ll be looking down at most of Vermont. Mt Ellen (4083’) and Lincoln Peak (3975’) offer the second and third highest lift served skiing in Vermont, behind only Killington Peak. There is a long high speed quad that connects the two, but on weekdays we enjoyed the toasty courtesy shuttle bus that runs every 30 minutes between the ski areas.

While the great ski geography of the two mountains is similar, Mt Ellen has much more of a throw-back vibe. It’s a local’s favorite and is great for crowd avoidance despite sometimes offering discounted Mt Ellen-only day and season passes. The base and mid-mountain lodges at Mt Ellen may be throw-back, but the lifts aren’t. The big 2600’ vertical drop of this area is served by five chairlifts including two long, killer high speed quads to assist any 21st century speed freaks aiming to log big daily vertical.

Vince and I started our fun at Mt. Ellen with a ride on the Green Mountain Express Quad (vertical 1495’). From its upper terminus you can ski to the tiny, mid-mountain Glen House for a snack break or access a selection of serious expert runs and another 1000+ vertical feet via the Summit Quad. From the summit Vince and I boogied the bumps on Exterminator and Bravo. We also followed the intermediate Rim Run that links with easy lower mountain trails for a long scenic schuss down the full 2600 vertical feet of Mt. Ellen.

Sugarbush Video Montage by Jim and Vince Kenney

Later we took a number of rides on the North Ridge Express Quad (vertical 1690’). It serves a wide swath of Mt Ellen’s upper and mid mountain terrain including big, wide groomers like Elbow and Joe’s Cruiser. We barely scratched the surface of Sugarbush’s copious glades (100% open), but we enjoyed the lovely and accessible Walt’s Woods, which are found skier’s right off Mt Ellen’s Inverness Quad Chair.

The mountains of Sugarbush encompass 4000+ acres, there is so much to explore! Two days isn’t enough, a week isn’t enough. After a late lunch in the Glen House high on Mt Ellen we stumbled onto Lower FIS. It’s one of those runs that make for lasting skier memories. The unassuming entrance is not far uphill from Glen House. It’s a narrow, twisting, lonely, all natural black diamond trail that skirts the Slide Brook Wildlife Management Area and includes a long run-out returning to the base area. But Lower FIS is soooo worth the effort. We didn’t see another soul on its 1.5 miles of soft, pliable bumps.

Links and tips:

  • Sugarbush puts a lot of effort into a very robust website: I was stoked viewing the daily live lift and trail reports in the days preceding our visit. If a picture’s worth a 1000 words, a video’s worth 10,000.

    The resort’s website received a national award for its SugarTube initiative, an interactive video sharing function tied to ski instruction. It allows guests to become online video stars while analyzing, sharing, and reliving the greatest moments of their Sugarbush vacations.

  • Sugarbush has the face of a movie star, but the soul of a ski bum. With due diligence you can experience this great resort on a budget. Buy multiday lift tickets from the Sugarbush website or look for special deals like a Mt. Ellen only midweek lift ticket. Scour the web for other promotional discounts and peruse Vermont Welcome Centers for coupon-laden brochures and maps.

  • My best budget tip: consider lodging at the friendly, new Hostel Tevere at the intersection of the access road and Route 100. It’s clean, convenient, and cheap, especially for singles - $35 high season.

    Hostel Tevere in Warren, Vermont. Photo provided by Jim Kenney.
  • About Jim Kenney

    Husband, father and retired civilian employee of the Department of Navy, Jim Kenney is a D.C. area native and has been skiing recreationally since 1967. Jim's ski reporting garnered the 2009 West Virginia Division of Tourism's Stars of the Industry Award for Best Web/Internet/E-Magazine Article.

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    Reader Comments

    Connie Lawn
    January 17, 2010
    You two are the best! Especially enjoy the video. This brings back wonderful, but cold, memories of Sugarbush. I spent over 10 years skiing Vermont and New Hampshire. Keep up the great work! Yours, Connie Lawn

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