Let me be clear: Its acquisition by Vail Resorts is nothing but a rumor—albeit one that’s considered a done deal here in Northern Vermont. So while we await an official announcement, let me infect you with my enthusiasm for Smugglers’ Notch.
Stop reading if you don’t like slow lift rides. Fixed-grip chairs seem to elicit a visceral, negative response from a lot of skiers. For them, that makes Smuggs a no-go from the start. For others, it’s part of the appeal.
I see the merits of fixed-grip lifts—the vintage aesthetic, the chance to rest your legs, and noticeably less traffic on the slopes. Long lift lines are better than crowded trails any day, and a 15-minute chair ride makes time for deeper chairlift chats. If Smuggs wants to stick with its fixed-grip program, its many fans are fine with it. Especially if it weeds out the fancy people and keeps the price of a lift ticket affordable (and Smuggs is loved, particularly among day-tripping locals, for the value of its Bash Badge discount program).
It’s also refreshing to ski at a place that’s independently owned and wears its independence proudly. We all know that conglomerates happen these days, and that it’s useless to whine about them, but being indie-owned gives Smuggs a sense of place, a quirky culture of its own, that’s harder to find these days.
I love that the place is so popular with families. It’s been a brilliant marketing strategy for Smuggs, which long ago identified a plan to go after families while most other resorts were bragging about infrastructure improvements and snowmaking and how radical their terrain was. And it works. Despite the long car ride, a good hour farther for metropolitan skiers than even Sugarbush or Stowe, there are skiing families who don’t want to be anywhere except Smuggs. They love the instructors, the après games, the cute, mute Mascots (Mogul Mouse and Billy Bob Bear), cozy slopeside condos, swimming pools, and age-appropriate play zones for tots to teens. I even have my own fond family memories, from watching my girls in many a Northern Vermont Council ski race there. Smuggs was always a tough track, with a nasty pitch right out of the start. If we didn’t scar them for life, we sure made them tougher.
But what gets me most excited about a trip to Smuggs—what really impresses me about the place and is so often overlooked—is the one thing no ski area can fake: terrain.
To be sure, there are plenty of the novice trails you’d expect at a place famously beloved by families. The base village, for instance, is perfectly serviced by the very mellow Morse Mountain trails. I confess I’ve never, ever skied there. Like most locals, I zoom past Morse and the base village on my way to Lot 1. (More about Lot 1 in a minute.) But I’m told that Morse offers meandering greens and ideal teaching terrain.
And when those budding novices are ready for a step up and a more expansive view, there’s Sterling Mountain, over on the other side of the resort. The Sterling lift, of course, brings skiers to within a few hundred yards of the top of neighboring Stowe’s Spruce Peak. Stowe’s Mt. Mansfield trails are clearly visible—so close they could be a part of Smuggs you haven’t explored yet. Ski-the-East types have long discussed (or dreaded) the prospect of a super resort that combines Smuggs and Stowe. It would instantly be the East’s largest ski area. Surely, say the wags, it’s only a matter of time until Vail Resorts makes that a reality.
But in between the friendly slopes of Morse and Sterling—in between those two distinct zones of sensible, homogeneous mellowness—lies fearsome Madonna Mountain, the true heart of Smuggs, and as tough a test as any ski mountain in the East.
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From your slow-moving vantage point on the Madonna 1 lift, you get a good look at its fangs right off the bat. In fact, the magnificent Liftline will probably be closed as you glide above it. Liftline’s only problem is that it’s so steep and craggy that it needs a lot of snow and doesn’t hold it for long. I’ve picked my way down it a few times in spring conditions, but I can only believe the stories of how amazing it is when 15 inches makes it chargeable. (Somehow it usually escapes the Toughest Trails lists—Smuggs getting underrated as usual—though its neighbor, the triple-black Black Hole, just out of sight from your chairlift view on skier’s right, sometimes gets a nod.)
At the end of your leisurely Madonna 1 lift ride, you get what is easily one of the best summit views in Eastern skiing. Happily, that view is quite accessible to intermediates, who can safely skid their way down from the top on Chilcoot or Drifter, Madonna’s only two blue runs.
But most of Madonna’s terrain—and you’ll have to ski it to see it, because it’s hard to scout from below—is in the vein of Liftline. Terrain so steep that grooming machines can’t touch it. Gnarly, wind-blasted, deeply bumped, super-steep trails like Doc’s and FIS and Freefall and Black Hole. After a few runs on any of them, you too will be begging for a 15-minute rest for the legs.
And then, of course, there’s the Bowls—the hallowed Birthday Bowls, known to some as just the Back Bowls. Not officially part of Smuggs (they’re on State Forest land), they amount to a ski area in themselves. A ski area that’s all tree skiing.
As with Liftline, I’ve experienced the Bowls, just never in prime conditions, and never with anyone who really knew where to go. On this trip—a weekend stay with a few friends in a sweet base-village condo—I hope to get an insider tour with my buddy Justin’s buddy Bubba, who hangs out with that Backcountry magazine crowd (based here in Jeffersonville), and who has skied Smuggs long enough to know its dark side as well as anyone.
To get to the Bowls, you ride the Sterling lift, striking out from the summit like you’re headed for Sterling Pond and Stowe, but taking a right. There are Smuggs regulars who ski almost nothing but the Bowls all day, and prodigious amounts of clandestine labor have gone into improving the skiing in there. The traverse spools out along the ridgeline deep into the Notch, with numerous shots dropping off it, all leading down some 1,000 to 1,500 vertical feet to the closed-in-winter Notch Road, which funnels down into an easy glide to Lot 1.
Which brings me back to Lot 1, which I have long regarded as perhaps the best ski area parking lot in the East. For starters, it meets my two main criteria: it’s dirt, and it’s slopeside. Get there early, and you can boot up at your car, walk 10 yards, and ski down to the Sterling and Madonna lifts. Forgot a layer? Need a snack? Just ski back to the car. That’s why Lot 1 is so popular with passholders and shut-up-and-ski types, and why it has a culture of its own. On nice afternoons, it’s the quintessential ski area parking lot après scene—lawn chairs, barbecues, beers, etc. When you get home and your ski boots are all muddy, you know you had a good time.
To me, it’s the craggy slopes of Madonna, the bushwhacking off-piste of the Bowls, and the whole vibe of Lot 1 that shapes the true culture at Smuggs. And it’s a world apart from the tidy family-vacation scene over at Morse. The real genius of Smuggs may be how perfectly segregated its two worlds are. Morse skiers never have to worry about reckless speed freaks because they’re all over on Madonna or deep in the Bowls.
There are five of us on this weekend getaway, two couples and me. Joe and Mary are Smuggs regulars. Jonathan and Cheryl are capable but largely lapsed skiers. Everyone loves our condo in the new North Hill Community. It’s not slopeside—fine since we’ll be commuting up to Lot 1 as usual anyway—but it’s huge and perfectly situated for a great view of the mountain, especially from our top floor unit. There’s a balconied master suite, another queen bedroom, and a big bunk room for kids. The great room, comprising kitchen and living area, lives up to its name. Our unit has a big corner sun room that must be particularly nice on Vermont summer evenings. And there’s a hot tub shared by four units on the ground floor. All of our own kids are grown, but it’s easy to imagine a couple of families—or one really big one—fitting in with room to spare for a fun weeklong ski vacation in Vermont.
When we arrive on Friday evening it’s cold out, but our timing is nevertheless excellent. It’s near the end of that magical two-week stretch near the close of last winter when a couple of nice, juicy snowstorms were followed by a couple weeks of midwinter temps. The powder has long since been skied out, but the snowpack is still deep, dry, and chalky—highly unusual in Vermont this time of year, when freeze- thaw cycles are the norm.
This late in the season, the crowds aren’t bad even on a Saturday, and Jonathan and I, predictably, goad each other straight into the bumps of Madonna. Conditions are good, but the moguls are truly huge and intimidating, with backbreaking troughs, and the steepness leaves no room for error or pussyfooting. Commit or die. Classic Madonna.
Jonathan makes me jealous. We skied together in college, and then he spent a season at Jackson Hole, but he hasn’t skied much since. Doesn’t even own boots. But he’s as aggressive and reckless and good as ever. Even at our age. Even in stupid rental gear. For the hundredth time I make a note to keep my ears open for a decent pair of size 9 boots.
I hack my way through the bumps on FIS, not really feeling it yet and frankly a little intimidated by Madonna. The sun shines through a low layer of silvery mist, and a few sparkly flakes float down persistently throughout the morning—a perfect Vermont snow-globe kind of day. The bumps of the upper mountain tumble out onto sweet wide cruisers near the bottom, where the snow and the pitch are perfect for zoomy arcs. It only takes a few runs to rekindle my abusive relationship with Smuggs: It beats me up and undermines my self-esteem, but I can’t stop loving it.
We rejoin Cheryl, who’s been cruising solo, then meet up with late-arriving Joe and Mary. As is typical at Smuggs, we run into more friends, first Brian and Linda, then Justin and Bubba. I’ve always liked skiers who grew up at Smuggs or make it their home resort. They’re a little more easygoing and down-to-earth than the average resort skier. And thriftier. And they’re also some of the best skiers you’ll see anywhere, their mettle tested by unabiding terrain, their Zen enhanced by long reflective lift rides, their wallets a little fatter thanks to decent prices.
The group grows, abilities vary, and conditions are just getting better as the day wears on. Sometime around noon I start to get that panicky feeling that I’m going to have to ski slow, stop a lot, and be social. Some days I’m fine with that. But today the snow is too good, the weather too perfect, and I particularly want to chase Bubba around and find out where the good stuff is. Presently, natural selection occurs, and the faster skiers suddenly find themselves separated from the slower ones, who must have missed a turn or something. Later, Mary will compliment me on my crowd management skills. “You ditched us!”
By the last run it’s down to just me and Bubba, and I get my insider tour of the Bowls. The two of us head out from the top of Sterling in late-afternoon sunlight. It’s a gnarly traverse, and I’m a little preoccupied with survival, but Bubba just rockets ahead, waving his downhill pole at all the skiable shots. “That’s all good in there. … That too. … That’s really good.”
In my few prior visits to the bowls I hadn’t really appreciated how expansive they are. We traverse all the way out to the end, ski a short shot that comes down onto the dormant Visitors’ Center, high up in the notch, then ski the road down to Lot 1. At the bottom there’s a short skis-off schlep back up into Lot 1, but it’s quick and easy. Again, I can see why Smuggs skiers will put the quality of their tree-skiing terrain up against Stowe or Mad River any day. If you don’t agree, they don’t really care.
When Bubba and I get back the lifts are closed but Lot 1 is in fine spring-Saturday tailgate form. Groups of tired, happy skiers mingle in the sun, snacking and cocktailing and recounting the day’s exploits. I could stay right here, boots on, beer in hand, but when you’ve got a nice big condo, naturally you spend the day inviting people over for a drink.
When I get there the party is in full swing. It’s basically a bunch of us Lot 1 types getting a look at how the other half of Smuggs skiers live. To us, it’s a foreign world, with its marble countertops and state-of-the-art electronics. It’d be easy to forget you were at Smuggs if it weren’t for that great view of the slopes.
Dinner is delicious lasagna—Mary got the Italian cooking gene. We dare each other to rally for some nightlife, and pretty soon we kind of have to because no one will back down. Nightlife isn’t what Jeffersonville is known for, and we don’t expect much. There’s a big crew of young out-of-staters celebrating someone’s birthday at Brewski, down the mountain road a ways. And back up at the resort, the Morse Mountain Pub is rocking. It’s those exuberant Out of Control Ski Clubbers again. I swear, they’re everywhere I go, and they always make me a little depressed that I’m not having as much fun as them.
We survey the scene for a minute, but there’s no question of staying for a drink. With this crowd, we’d have some catching up to do. And it’s karaoke.
They probably said the same thing at Kirkwood, but it’s hard to imagine Smuggs as yet another property in the Vail portfolio. Still, I have to ask the boss if he’s been approached, even though I doubt he can be candid.
“Everyone always asks me about the rumors,” says longtime Smuggs owner Bill Stritzler, “and I always say I’m last to know.”
Joking aside, Stritzler admits the topic has come up, in “very informal discussions” during the course of normal interactions with his industry colleagues next door. But nothing definite. “You never say ‘never,’ but the only reason there’s even been informal discussion is that they own Stowe, and when you’ve got a new neighbor you sit down and chat.”
Besides, he says, “We love our independence here, and if you’re a bit of a control freak, it’s kind of hard to give that up.”
Stritzler says he’s always been a proponent of some sort of Stowe-Smuggs interconnection, and sees it as a win for both resorts. “We think it’d be good for our clients and good for theirs too. But we’ve been rejected enough times that we’ve stopped asking. And now I think they’re a little preoccupied with other stuff over there.”
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Part of what fuels the Vail-Smuggs speculation is that Stritzler is well past the age when most guys think about retiring. “I’ll be 80 in April.” But retirement? Not yet. “I’ve cut back to six days a week. I needed a day for laundry. But I’ve got a daughter in the business and a very strong team here, so if I go on vacation and the plane goes down the place will be okay. And when my team here says, ‘Bill, we love you, but you’re not doing any good around here anymore,’ that’s the day I’ll retire.”
Meanwhile, Smuggs is very likely to remain a fixed-grip, families-first, keep-it-real kind of place.
On Sunday the midwinter spell breaks. Spring reasserts itself, and snowmelt at last begins to drip from the eaves under strong bright sun. We eat one of those huge breakfasts you only eat in ski-vacation condos. Joe has to take an important business call, but the rest of us lounge around, sipping good coffee, enjoying our last hours of lavish condo life before hitting the slopes and then heading home.
I hate to see the cold spell snap—it’s been a weird and wonderful stretch of prime conditions—but the sunny weather brings the cabin-fevered locals out in force, and they’re psyched. The fixed-grip lifts, while keeping the trails uncrowded, can sometimes mean long liftlines at Smuggs. Today the wait never stretches past 10 minutes or so, and it’s a happy crowd.
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In some pocket of my jacket I’m carrying my Epic Pass. The ticket scanner reminds me with that little error noise every time I go through the gate. So, of all the places the Epic works—and they are almost countless now, including, of course, that neighboring resort just over there on the other side of the Notch—it doesn’t work here. Not here at feisty, quirky, proudly individualistic Smugglers’ Notch. At least not yet.
If you go to Smugglers' Notch
Smugglers’ Notch resort lodging comprises five communities with condos ranging from studios to five bedrooms with full kitchens. Families love North Hill’s aquatic center with splash pad. For easy village access, opt for Village East or Village West.
For quick and casual at the resort, Village Pizzeria makes fresh pies, plus calzones, pastas, and subs. Hearth and Candle serves up a more elegant night out. In nearby Jeffersonville, fill up on comfort food such as buttermilk fried chicken and maple pork chops at the Family Table.
You can find former SKI Mag editor and longtime Vermonter Joe Cutts in the Birthday Bowls this season—now that he knows his way around.
From the January/February 2019 Double Issue of SKI Magazine. Want to get great articles like this in print? Subscribe here.