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By Lucy M. Casale
| February 2, 2018
The sport of downhill skiing has come a long way from the early days of rope tows and nailing a leather boot strap to a board of hickory wood from a barrel stave. But just because we ski today on lightweight fiberglass skis, in comfortable boots, and decked out in a rainbow of coziness shouldn’t mean we can’t get a taste of some classic New England skiing—just with a few modern twists.
Or maybe, as I discovered recently, you can.
Just three hours north of Boston, with some of the most breathtaking views in Vermont—The Green Mountain State’s Willoughby Gap to the west, New Hampshire’s Presidential Range to the east—Burke Mountain seems to be the epitome of classic Vermont skiing. Winding trails, glades for days, a mid-mountain bar for warm-up beers, and a new modern slope-side hotel all add up to an experience that screams old school-meets-new school. And short lift lines mean if you get an early start, your legs could be rubber from double-digit runs before lunch.
As for that challenging, yet family-friendly terrain? All you need to know is Burke Mountain Academy in the last few decades produced U.S. Olympic ski team members Nolan Kasper, Tommy Biesemeyer, and 2018 gold medal favorite (and 2014 gold medal winner) Mikaela Shiffrin. Just 22, Shiffrin wears a helmet sticker with the letters “ABFTTB” that speaks to both her playfulness and her slope skills honed at Burke: It stands for “Always Be Faster Than The Boys.”
On a recent bluebird Saturday, I drove from my home in Burlington to meet Burke Mountain myself. One advantage of reaching Burke is how it’s a highway drive with little time on quaint, winding back roads. After speeding up Mountain Road (and encountering zero other drivers), I found ample parking in the East Burke resort’s ‘overflow lots’—two tiered parking fields a short walk to the entrance of the resort. From here, I followed a foot bridge to the front door of Burke Mountain Hotel, opened in 2016.
And that’s where I found myself, head tilted back, looking up at Burke’s white upper mountain. Dotted with descending skiers and orange racing fences, it gleamed in the mid-morning sun. Something else struck me, too: Where were all the people? I’d never seen such short lift lines, especially on a snowy January weekend. I wondered if it’s any different in March, historically the snowiest month on the mountain, with the best conditions and warmer temperatures.
I headed inside the hotel for lunch at the appropriately named View Pub. Expansive windows framed a spectacular view of Vermont’s Willoughby Gap, stealing my breath for a second. (Google “Willoughby Gap” and you’ll see what I mean). Lunch, like the ski lifts, was surprisingly uncrowded. But who was I to complain? A Vermont cheese board (Vermont’s Cabot cheese, naturally) was calling my name, along with one of the 18 Vermont beers on top. Decisions, decisions.
Time to hit the slopes
Anyone who grew up skiing in New England and likes to be challenged understands what separates certain mountains from the pack. Too many big wide trails draw huge crowds that can ski the best snow off a mountain in a single morning. This is partly why Burke, with a vertical drop of 2,011 feet and more than 50 trails, has gained a popular following among hardcore skiers who like a good wide carving trail as much as anyone—but also want variety in the form of narrow, interesting trails and glades for every level.
A day roaming the mountain shouldn’t end without hitting a few specific trails.
East Bowl is a Vermont classic that rolls and winds with the contours of the mountain. It’s rarely groomed and long enough that you rarely see anyone on it with you. Upper Willoughby & Lower Willoughby really let you pick up speed on a racing trail pitch. Be sure and stop and enjoy stunning views of The Willoughby Gap. Dashney Mile is where you’re likely to see the Burke Freestyle Team training—it’s a mile-long terrain park. And Warren’s Way is maybe the most fun on the mountain—long and steep, a racing trail and the training grounds for Burke Mountain Academy. Don’t be surprised if you’ll ride the lift here with a future Olympian. And if you want steep and bumps, Doug’s Drop provides both.
If you take a minute to study the trail map at Burke, what you’ll notice is the mountain is essentially split in two. The lower half offers green and blue trails for beginners and intermediate skiers; the upper mountain is mostly blues with all the blacks for upper intermediate to experts.
Ski in. Ski out. Eat in. Eat out.
Another perk of the hotel and pub: Stay here and ski right to the lifts from your slopeside room (those rooms, by the way, many have fireplaces, kitchenettes, and cozy flannel throws on every bed). And at the end of the day, plop down in an adirondack chair clustered around fire pits and enjoy the view, or relax the legs in the outdoor hot tub.
If you want to wander off mountain into East Burke, Auntie Dee Dee’s Homemade Vt. Baked Goods is a must-visit, just off of Mountain Road, for delicious breakfast sandwiches and pastries. Cafe Lotti offers infinite coffee options and do not miss out on the white chocolate peppermint bark from Burke Mountain Confectionery.
But as I learned, if you’ve come for classic skiing, then you have to visit the throwback, classic ski bar, and that’s The Bear Den, just past the T-Bar for Burke’s upper mountain.
Weatherbeaten, with icicles dripping from the roof, it’s most welcoming feature is a red, white, and blue light-up Budweiser sign hanging in the window. Inside it was dim. And packed. Dogs barking, kids shouting, a fireplace roaring, a banjo playing, and everyone holding a drink in one hand, crammed ski-boot to ski-boot. Ski helmets hung from the rafters along with strands of twinkle lights.
If Burke is quintessential New England skiing, The Bear Den is quintessential apres ski, where racers, their parents, and everyone else come to relax and reflect on another perfect day on the slopes.