More lift capacity than necessary - that sounds sweet. Two
interconnected Vermont peaks, each one worth its own vertical stats
– even sweeter. That’s the short but sweet story of
long version is one of revolving owners, plenty of ups and downs on
some of the most varied terrain in the East, with the beautiful
backdrop of Vermont’s Mad River Valley as a constant.
The only thing more diverse than Sugarbush’s terrain, from steeps to cruisers, glades to gargantuan bumps, is its series of nicknames. Starting in 1958 when New Yorkers Damon Gadd and Jack Murphy first opened Sugarbush, this ski area was soon labeled “Mascara Mountain” for the sophisticated Manhattan’ites that made up the 60’s ski scene. But there was no fluff to the skiing, classic cut trails on Castlerock, with a 2,237’-vertical double chair installed in 1959, put Sugarbush on every skier’s map. Second homes popped up like moguls on a spring day during the glamorous “Gadd days.” Many of these cutesy alpine chalets still stand beside the German Flats Road as tribute to those good times in the Mad River Valley.
The Cohen era followed in 1977, when a shrewd businessman named Roy expanded the Sugarbush resort to include neighboring Glen Ellen, which he deemed North versus South (Lincoln Peak). Sugarbush changed hands several more times in the 80’s. Then in 1995, Les Otten purchased the struggling ski area, adding it to his Sunday River /Attitash resort repertoire. In less than seven months, Sugarbush received seven new lifts, the largest expansion in US ski history at the time. The Slide Brook Express was the most notable new quad since it connected Sugarbush North and South, which previously required an inconvenient 15 minute car or shuttle ride.
As skiers recall, Otten’s empire rapidly expanded to other mountains throughout New England, and Sugarbush suddenly became “the stepchild of American Skiing Company,” as the mad spending stopped.
Summit Ventures took the reigns in 2001, this group of entrepreneurial skiers bought “The Bush” (yet another term of endearment). The largest landmark to their ownership is the impressive Village at Lincoln Peak. If you haven’t visited Sugarbush in a while, you will be wowed by the huge red farmhouse-style Clay Brook Inn that now houses one to five bedrooms suites for sale and for rent. This luxury lodge fits well at the base of Lincoln Peak, creating a pedestrian village between the rejuvenated Gate House Base Lodge and a dramatic post and beam roundhouse restaurant - The Timbers serving delicious local Vermont farm raised food with a slope view.
My experiences at Sugarbush are just as vast and varied. Every time I ski Sugarbush, I am amazed by the assortment of trails at the two mountains Lincoln Peak and Mount Ellen. My first venture to these venerable Vermont peaks was as a UVM college kid in the 80s. The hip hill to ski was Sugarbush North, Mount Ellen is the highest of Sugarbush’s two mountains at 4,083’, by 108’. If you could display finesse on FIS and Black Diamond trails, you could hold your head high around campus.
My next shot at Sugarbush was with my fiancée, when he humbled me on Rumble, the demeaning double-black diamond trail served by the vintage 1958 Castlerock double chair. That was two decades ago, when I was on 200-centimeters. Later that day, I fell in love with the twisty turny cruiser called Jester from the scenic summit of Lincoln Peak, then called Sugarbush South. I managed to turn my long boards through the monstrous moguls of Stein’s, because I was young then and as previously stated - in love.
Flash forward to my parenting stage, Sugarbears ski camp was just the ticket for our two kids in tow. The seven new lifts put in place by Otten in 1995 (then LBO which became SKI and eventually ASC) made lift lines disappear, never to be seen again. The slopeside condos were as plentiful as the snowmaking that had been spread across much of the 500- acres. New glades opened to add to the excitement, thanks to adventurer John Egan who made the Valley his home between extreme ski films with his brother Dan.
In 2002, we visited the valley as ownership had once again changed hands. Win Smith, a former Merrill Lynch mogul, was one of Sugarbush’s “Summit Venture” partners. He owned half of Warren including the award-winning Pitcher Inn, The Country Store and the Alta Day Spa. Things were looking up at the downhill venue, as the resort was back in local skiers’ reigns and plans were drawn for luxury lodging at Lincoln Peak, and employees got raises – always a good gesture in ski country.
Visiting the Mad River Valley this year for a romantic getaway with my husband of two decades (like Sugarbush we have matured – now our little Sugarbears are grown up), I was glad to find the awesome terrain remains the same. Thankfully the Rim Run trail on Mount Ellen still entertains the eyes with stunning views of Lake Champlain to the west, Stowe and Camel’s Hump to the north, and rolling Vermont hillsides all around. The meandering runs on both mountains are leisurely and long at over 2,000’ vertical, while others are as tricky (with names like Exterminator, Ripcord, Organgrinder) or tame (Cruiser, Sleeper, Jester, Snowball) as you wish.
If Sugarbush skiers doesn’t find enough downhill distraction here (yeah, right!?), the ski mountain/museum of Mad River Glen is just a few miles down the road. MRG (cool code for those in the know) is for skiers only – boarders are banned at this co-op owned ski area. There’s an old-school single chair, gutsy ungroomed terrain, and a no-bull bumper sticker “Ski it if you can” which in meager snow months really means “ski it when you can.”
Like the Mad River that runs through it, many of the mainstays in this Vermont valley remain, from peaceful powder-loving locals to delightful dining and shopping establishments in the villages of Waitsfield and Warren. In fact, on this ski trip we found the non-alpine activities were equally amusing.
Instead of staying slopeside and getting first tracks, we have lodged at a beautiful Pitcher Inn in Warren, and the quaint bed and breakfast, The Inn at Round Barn Farm. We lingered over a three-course breakfast before sliding into our ski boots. Arriving an hour after opening bell (truly unusual for us), there was still plenty of skiing since skiers spread out among Sugarbush’s hundred+ trails, with rarely a line at the 16 modern lifts.
After carving the classic trails, and a superb slope view lunch in the new roundhouse restaurant Timbers, we poked around the kitschy country stores of historical hamlets Waitsfield and Warren. Then we made tracks back to the 1910 Round Barn Farm for afternoon cookies by the fire and a delicious dinner at the Inn. On certain weekends, the Inn hosts moonlight snowshoe dinners, their lovable Labrador Cooper leads the way to a candlelit cabin in the woods. So very Vermont.
Just as it did in 1958 Sugarbush still satisfies anyone’s sweet tooth for a Vermont vertical vacation, whether you are migrating from Manhattan, or transplanting (as so many have done) for a lifetime of turns.
More Sugarbush Lodging
Sugarbush Clay Brook luxury slopeside 4-diamond hotel, if you are traveling as a family. These new ski in/ski out suites in a Vermont Red Barn-themed building (opened in December of 2006) range up to 5 bedrooms, with underground parking and an outdoor heated pool.
Timbers, the bold new post and beam roundhouse at the center of the expanded Lincoln Peak village is a great spot for a slopeside breakfast, lunch or dinner – the menu is mostly organic with creative use of Vermont ingredients.
Hyde Away Inn & Restaurant -The Hyde family has resurrected this original 1948 locals lodge, previously the Snuggery and the Ulla Lodge. Their cheddar stuffed meatloaf gets raves, especially on Meatloaf Monday when it’s a $7 deal. The bar is often packed with River regulars, the dining room is cozy and the menu is affordable for the whole family.