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The Best Backcountry Glades Are Accessed From This East Coast Resort

Bolton Valley's largely unexplored backcountry welcomes both the experienced and the uninitiated to experience the wonder.

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I’d heard for years about how good the skiing is on the backside of Bolton Valley Ski Resort, a modest day (and night skiing) area beloved by skiing families of Vermont’s Chittenden County. But nothing I’d heard prepared me for the best tree-skiing terrain I’ve ever seen in the East.

It’s showing off today, a few days past the spring equinox. Bright sun lights up a deep winter’s worth of snowpack, and we can almost feel the forest stirring to life as we traverse through a stand of giant, widely spaced yellow birch behind our guide, Adam Deslauriers. Everywhere I look there are choice, skiable lines, plenty of them untracked. The pitch is sustained, but not extreme, and cut by narrow, snow-choked ravines that invite creativity. There are hardly any blowdowns, and if there’s any hobblebush—the bane of Vermont tree-skiers—it’s buried. In short, it’s as if God finally felt bad for Eastern tree-skiers and decided to give them a break. As we traverse past the top of one wide-open line to the next, I make insightful comments, like, “Holy crap, look at this.” 

Bolton Valley backcountryEmily Johnson and Scott Fleckenstein head out on a walk into the Bolton Valley backcountry; Photo: Brian Mohr

We’re in T-shirts—my daughters and I—and equipped with the latest Dynafit skis, boots, and bindings. This is not our natural habitat. I raised my girls as racers, and we’re all more comfortable riding lifts than breaking trail. But that’s what makes us perfect candidates for this mission, which is to check out Bolton’s rapidly growing backcountry access program.  

It’s a smart idea that taps into the backcountry boom of late. If you’re a city-dwelling Easterner who wants to give it a try, you might well feel intimidated. Don’t be. Bolton sets you up with the equipment, a guide/instructor, and a ride to the summit via Bolton’s lift network. And if you’re going to start somewhere, it might as well be here, where you get, as I said, the best Eastern tree-skiing terrain I’ve ever seen.

The program, three years old, is a new claim to fame for Bolton, but not its only. Deslauriers’ father, Ralph, built Bolton Valley in 1966, which makes it Vermont’s youngest resort. That was a different era, just before the state put the brakes on ski area development. “I had no permit. Didn’t need one,” says Ralph. And the state, back then, was eager to help. In a single construction season, it built an access road just for Bolton. “The Legislature approved the road in early April. We cut the first tree for the road on May 1. And they paved the road on Oct. 1—4.6 miles, from first tree cut to pavement.” 

In that same summer, the elder Deslauriers built an entire ski area including three lifts, nine trails, the lodge, the hotel, parking, sewer system, and water system. They  opened on time on
December 20, 1966. 

Night skiing was a key component from the start. “Skiing then wasn’t for Vermonters; it was mostly for rich out-of-staters. So when I put in night skiing, I said I wanted every kid in Chittenden county to learn to ski.” The after-school program grew over three decades to include students from 43 schools. “Of all the things we did, that’s what I’m most proud of.” 

In 1973, Bolton added a chairlift that accessed the steep terrain off the shoulder of Ricker Mountain. The runs were short, but steep enough to nurture the talents of Ralph’s other sons Rob and Eric and their buddy Tom Day (son of a Bolton patroller); the three would go on to star in films of the Warren Miller heyday. (Day transitioned to behind the camera at Warren Miller, and
remains there to this day.)

When they weren’t airing it out off the famous Big Rock at the bottom of Showoff, Eric, Rob, and Tom were conspicuously absent from the trails. “Patrol kept coming to me and complaining, ‘Your kids keep skiing in the woods!’” Ralph laughs. “I said, ‘Well, pull their passes.’ They said, ‘We can’t. We can’t catch them!’”

Bolton’s lights are key to its lively Thursday night race series, which is recently booming. Still another advantage: sunset skiing. Bolton’s west-facing summit views—Lake Champlain backed by the rugged Adirondacks—are perfect for it, especially as the lights of the Champlain Valley wink on at twilight.

Bolton Valley backcountryAdam Deslauriers, son of Bolton Valley founder Ralph Deslaurier, earns his turns in the Bolton backcountry. Photo: Brian Mohr

Ralph lost the resort when the bank pulled his loan following the S&L banking crisis of the ’90s. No successive owner could make a go. “Biggest mistake I ever made,” one later told me. “I lost sleep over that place.” 

That same rueful former owner thinks Bolton is back where it belongs—with the Deslauriers family. Ralph is now chairman of the ownership group; his daughter Lindsey is CEO; Adam jokes that he and his younger brother Eben “fight over the Special Projects Director title.” 

Adam is clearly enjoying his favorite special project as he leads my daughters and me from one stupendous, east-facing line to the next. We content ourselves with a nice tour through the woods. The last storm of the year recently dropped a foot or so, and judging by the tracks, at least a few lucky souls got the goods. But it’s just too hot. Where we hoped for corn snow, all that powder has congealed into unskiable glue. 

Still, the day is a huge win—especially seeing my girls on AT gear. And the sight of such magnificent terrain leaves a mark on me. I keep wondering what factors are at play, so later I reach out to Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources, hoping one of its foresters can explain the magic. (Ralph once owned 5,000 acres up here, most of it since swapped into state ownership.) It’s the commissioner himself, Mike Snyder, who calls me back. Turns out he’s a telemarker, and he has a special fondness for the Bolton backcountry dating to his days up there as a state forester. 

 “It’s a complex web of factors that explains the current expression of that forest in terms of the size and spacing and distribution of trees,” Synder says. “And boy, how fun is it to discover a place like this where it’s played out this way?”

The effects of long-ago logging are part of the mix, he says; the red spruce, annoying to skiers, would have enticed loggers even to these elevations. He suspects—and soberly condemns—a bit of vigilante trail clearing, too. But nature plays the starring role. “There’s been some heavy moose browse in there that contributed to the lack of mid-story. Then there’s the effect of what we call canopy closure and the exclusion effect, when the canopy doesn’t allow sunlight to penetrate.” 

Left alone, Snyder says, a forest like this can hang in relative stasis for decades. And he’s delighted that more skiers are finding it. “It’s a special place. And it’s nice to have someplace where you can park and get in and out without an expedition. If people enjoy it, then they get more connected, and when they’re more connected, they make better decisions. And all kinds of good things cascade from that.”

Where to Stay at Bolton Valley

Hotel Vermont
(Photo: Courtesy of Hotel Vermont)

There is limited lodging at Bolton, but Burlington, the Bern-feeling, beer-loving capital of New England’s West Coast, is its own destination. Half an hour after you click out at Bolton, you can be cruising its bustling pedestrian mall, checking into one of several character-filled lodgings, and having a beer on the Lake Champlain waterfront.

Best Luxury Digs

Hotel Vermont earns raves for its boutique sophistication, and if you stay there, you can take the elevator down to Hen of the Wood’s flagship Burlington restaurant.

Most Romantic

An historic 1881 B&B in a stately mansion, the Willard Street Inn is in the heart of Burlington’s charming Hill District. The chef-prepared daily breakfast is included in the nightly rate.

Best for Foodies

The Essex, just west of Burlington, teams up with the New England Culinary Institute for a gastronomical experience filled with local and regional cuisine. 

Best for Families

The Inn at Bolton Valley offers convenient ski-in/ski-out accommodations plus easy access to the Bolton Valley Sports Center, with a pool, hot tub, and kids’ game room.

Best for Hipsters

Field Guide, a hip new boutique hotel about 10 miles from the resort, boasts farmhouse chic accommodations in two separate buildings with access to a cozy guest lounge and heated outdoor pool. If you’re also skiing nearby Stowe, this is a great choice.

Where to Eat at Bolton Valley

Prohibition Pig
Photo: Courtesy of Prohibition Pig

It’s less than 20 minutes to either Waterbury, the new Northern Vermont crossroads of après-ski, or increasingly vibrant Richmond Village. Or if you opt to stay in Burlington, the dining options are robust. In Waterbury, the original Alchemist (they moved to Stowe) is now Prohibition Pig and is still making great beer and even better food. The original Hen of the Wood (under the I-89 bridge in the former Grist Mill) will soon move to a gorgeous new space across the street from Prohibition Pig. Blackback Pub is another warm, comfy, heart-of-the-village option with its great beer selections and stupendous mac-n-cheese and other amazing comfort foods. 

 Richmond, straddling the Winooski River just downstream from Waterbury, has always been the cutest little Vermont village; now it’s getting the restaurant scene it deserves. Hatchet serves up eclectic comfort food. Across Bridge Street, seek out Big Spruce for innovative Mexican and creative cocktails. The two restaurants are owned by the same crew of young Burlington restaurant scene veterans. If you ask nicely, maybe the guys at Ski Express will tune your skis while you have dinner. In Burlington, Juniper has a splendid view down the length of the lake. Fellow James Beard Award nominees (along with Hen) include Misery Loves Company and relative newcomer Honey Road.

Where to Après at Bolton Valley

Bolton’s après bar, the venerable James Moore Tavern, is packed with boisterous beer-leaguers on Thursday nights. The best thing any of Bolton’s non-Deslauriers owners did was put in that woodfired pizza oven. Is it going to snow? Ask Costas, the bartender, who has mysterious Greek insight and is never wrong. In Burlington, Foam Brewers is a small, independent brewery with a thoughtful beer selection accompanied by cheese and charcuterie plates. Hop heads will want to hit the trendy South End, where two standouts, Zero Gravity and Queen City Brewery, are on the must-visit list for their interesting brews and lively ambience.

If You Go

Bolton Valley backcountryParadise Pass is a well-traveled local route. Photo: Brian Mohr

If you’re a competent resort skier ready to dip a toe into the backcountry, Bolton Backcountry has you covered. You’ll be fitted with the latest gear, instructed on its use, and teamed with an instructor/guide who knows how to get to the goods and get back safely. Plus, Bolton’s Vista quad deposits you on the roof of the Greens, about halfway between Mansfield and Camel’s Hump, with thousands of acres of backcountry playground in all directions. If you’re hooked after a day, you can lease gear for the entire season. Splitboards are available, too. Guided tours: $250 for one person, $90 per additional up to a max of 5. Gear rentals: $60 per day.

Bolton Valley’s 165 skiable acres make it a mid-sized resort in northern Vermont. It’s mostly a great family mountain with plenty of mellow green and blue terrain. Its 1,704-vertical-foot drop across 71 trails is sufficient to keep skiers busy for a couple days—or nights. Bolton also offers night skiing every night of the week.