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The Changing of the Guard

Much has changed over the years at Southern Vermont’s Stratton Mountain, but one very important thing has stayed the same: It’s still an excellent place to escape the city living and soak in the sublime pleasure of rural Vermont with people we cherish most.

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You young parents, heed my words. Make your kids go skiing, and they will thank you for it someday. Well, OK, they’ll at least have vaguely thankful feelings, even if they don’t actually, you know, thank you.

Or, wait, what they’ll really do, when they’re all grown up like my daughter Lilly, is act like they loved skiing all along, every minute of it. Like they never once complained about getting up early on Sunday to drive to a race at Jay or Burke, or had to be forced, at Mad River Glen, to get the hell out of the lodge (with its one damnable, internet-connected public computer terminal) and go ski.

Bright red building with a sign that reads
The iconic Vermont Country Store in WestonPhoto courtesy of Justin Cash

So, no, there may never be actual thanks, in so many words, for all your parental consistency, for all the behind-the-scenes planning and effort that went into getting them equipped, appareled, into the car and thence to the hill. But you young parents, heed my words: If you summon all your parental authority, lean into those gales of pre-teen rage, and insist that they ski, they will love skiing for a lifetime. And when at age 26 they call you from Brooklyn and tell you they miss it and want you to put together a nice little ski trip for them and a friend, you’ll be psyched.

Because she’s in Brooklyn and you’re in Burlington, Stratton Mountain, naturally, will be where you will meet.

If New York is just one big closet ski town, which I sometimes suspect it is, Stratton has long been one of its favorite hometown hills. No wonder, it’s only four hours (with an asterisk) from Manhattan, and if Vermont is your idea of a ski trip, it feels like full immersion, a true escape from the city.

Two skiers skiing down a ski slope in front of the gondola at Stratton, Vermont
Stratton is known for its well-coiffed slopes, including Upper Drifter, pictured above.Photo courtesy of Justin Cash

In fact, Stratton is kind of in the middle of nowhere, a good half-hour from the nearest civilization, the cute little outlet-shopping hub, Manchester. From there, it’s a long winding stretch up into the mountains; turn right just before its neighbor, Bromley; then several more miles of twisting, frost-heaved, two-lane road to Stratton. This deep in the woods, it’s hard to believe you’re only four hours and 12 minutes from Times Square (thanks, Google Maps.) I’ve heard a lot of New York skiers arguing over the best route and how long it takes. Some brag they do it in three and half.

But while it feels remote, Stratton, once you get there, is a busy place, an outpost of activity among rolling hills clad with hardwoods. It’s warmly lit as I pull into Central Res just after dark on a Thursday night; minutes later, I’m all checked in and my car is parked over at the Rising Bear Lodge.

Lilly won’t arrive for a while yet, so I get time to check out the condo, and am relieved to find it more than sufficiently lavish, even for my daughter’s taste. (She’s spoiled rotten, ski-wise. Our last trip was to Aspen. When I was a kid, I didn’t get to go to Aspen.) In fact, it’s so nice, and so huge, I have to immediately FaceTime her with a virtual tour. She and her friend Emma have just left Flatbush, later than expected, but they sound happy and excited to be on a ski trip.

I’m no good at really caring about luxurious appointments and tasteful décor and granite countertops and so forth, but even I can tell this unit has all that, plus washer/dryer, huge flatscreen TV, the works. The girls will later report that one of the highlights of the weekend—along with Grey’s Anatomy reruns on the huge TV—is late-night outdoor hot-tubbing while it snows. I do love the balcony and its view, and the kitchen’s a lot nicer than mine. So I put a brisket in the oven, because I am good at brisket, and get settled in.

Maybe my favorite part is the Hubert Schriebl photos on the walls. I could tell you about Stratton’s history—how avid skier Frank Schneider got the place going in 1961, teaming up with renowned trail designer Rainbow Wright, then hiring a gang of Austrians to staff the ski school, as was so customary back then—but it’s all right there in Hubert’s photos. He was one of those Austrian instructors, hired in 1964 to help ’s hapless New Yorker friends and customers learn to ski, but he had spent lots of time in the Alps and the Himalayas and had a wonderful eye for winter photography. He’s never stopped taking pictures, and Stratton’s lucky to have had him for all these years. Precious few resorts, if any, have had such a constant documentarian of their growth and history. So there on my wall is the famous Emo Heinrich, leader of the ski school, mugging for the camera out on the slopes and, in another shot, hamming it up with the equally famous Stratton Mountain Boys, the oompah band that gave Stratton its founding soundtrack. And over here, fast-forward a couple decades, is a shot from the earliest days of U.S. Open Snowboarding Championships … more on that in a minute.

Two rocking chairs on a porch in front of a street. The rocking chairs a below a sign that says
The Vermont Country Store opened in 1946 and hasn’t skipped a beatPhoto courtesy of Justin Cash

Meanwhile, I schlep the rest of the groceries and gear up from the parking garage, finish my beer, and with the brisket on 325 and already starting to smell good, I step out into the cold night to stretch car-tight hips with a walk through the village.

In an era when most Vermont ski area base “villages” consisted of parking lots, day lodges, and little else, Stratton’s was ahead of its time. Schneider wanted a sense of community, so he built a pedestrian street and lined it with shops, restaurants and condos, all doing their best to look like a tidy little Austrian ski village. Today, as resorts hustle to village-up their base areas, Stratton’s village has been there so long it’s starting to have the sense of place you only get with time.

I stroll up to the Clock Tower plaza, which doesn’t take long, and check out the silent slopes, where the lights of the groomers crawl up and down the mountain, buffing the snow to the perfection to which demanding Stratton skiers are accustomed.

It’s been a few years since I’ve been here. Glad to see Mulligan’s still holding down its corner. The Green Door Pub, down below it, is still there too. It probably still jams late into the night, though I for sure won’t find out on this trip. Stratton can’t be blamed for steering away from the corny Austrian theme. These days, customers don’t need to feel like they’re in the Alps to have a good time. Vermont’s good enough, and it’s better that the architecture of the recent additions to Stratton’s lodging options reflect the local vernacular. Hence all the pale-yellow clapboard and white trim.

Skier in pink jacket skiing down slope in Stratton, Vermont
Upper Grizzly Bear is steeper than it looks. Photo courtesy of Justin Cash

Remember, Stratton has two legit claims to fame, one having nothing to do with winter. We Vermonters will remind you that the Long Trail, from Massachusetts to Canada, is older than the Appalachian Trail. In fact, the founder of the A.T., Benton MacKaye, was up on the summit of Stratton, working on a Long Trail crew, when he had the idea for something much bigger. Now the two most iconic hiking trails in the East share a path across the top of Stratton Mountain, a half-mile from the lifts.

Stratton also looms large in the creation story of snowboarding. Jake Burton was a bartender here, at the old Birkenhaus Hotel, and Stratton had no problem allowing him to ride the lifts with his crazy one-plank snow surfer. Later it welcomed his converts as the sport caught on. (You had to take a test to prove you could stop.)

That made the place an early snowboarding hotbed and a logical spot for what was long the sport’s most important competition, the U.S. Open. The Open had a great run here, attracting huge crowds of rowdy kids to what was normally a pretty buttoned-down resort, and making Stratton the center of the snowboard universe for one week each year.

Times have changed. Jake and The Open split for Vail in 2013—no hard feelings; the two had just grown in different directions— and snowboarding has matured, perhaps even lost some of its countercultural edge. As one local (nameless because he doesn’t want to offend) quips: “Now it’s old people on snowboards and young people on twin-tips.”

Lilly calls, still somewhere south of Albany. The record for fastest drive from Brooklyn to Stratton is safe for tonight, but they’re making progress.

Something you should know, and I don’t know how you feel about this stuff, but Lilly’s girlfriend is… well, she’s British. Naturally this was a bit of a shock at first, but despite the language barrier we’ve quickly grown to love her.

What’s more, she has professed to love skiing, which is important. As I understand it—and I’m probably getting some British-y thing all wrong—her dad’s employment in the Foreign Service included a posting in Switzerland, so she learned to ski in the real Alps.

Now I bet little Emma frequently pouted and fussed about not wanting to go freeze her butt off at some stupid Swiss Alp, but I bet her dad stood firm and insisted she ski. (I yelled; he probably cajoled with great calm and grace.) Now she says she just loves skiing, and cherishes all that holiday time spent on the slopes with fam. See?

The day of Emma’s big test dawns bright and sparkly, and eager skiers are lined up and ready before the lifts open, excited to get at Stratton’s famous corduroy before the masses chew it all up.

We are not among them. The girls rolled in around 2 a.m. I finally yelled at them to get up around 11. Then coffee, nonnegotiable breakfast, and by the time we have grabbed their rentals, booted up, and headed out onto the snow it is embarrassingly, shockingly late in the morning … er, day. And then Emma goes, “Where’s my skis?”

Skier in blue coat skiing down slope in Stratton, Vermont
Expansive views come with the price of a lift ticketPhoto courtesy of Justin Cash

She says they were right here, on this rack. Someone must have stolen them while we were inside booting up. “Why would anyone steal my skis?” (Indeed, I think to myself.)

But the rental shop guys are great, say it happens all the time—all those red-and-white Rossignol Classics look the same, folks get confused. I suspect they’re just being nice to the pretty girl, and that this might have been Emma’s final, desperate attempt to conceal her secret. Anyway, in 10 minutes we’re aboard the gondie. The door closes. She can’t back out now. 

And what do you know? Good job, Emma’s Dad: Emma really can ski! She likes to go fast. She keeps right up. And she laughs a lot. Near the top of Black Bear, I get her on video, text it to a couple of key friends and family as welcome proof, and heave a sigh of great relief that any future trips won’t be spent waiting at the bottom of bunny slopes.

Inside a crowded bar in Stratton, Vermont
Camaraderie is on tap at Grizzly’sPhoto courtesy of Justin Cash

We celebrate by seizing the day, or what’s left of it—and with, it must be said, a very relaxed grip. It’s Day 1 of the season for both girls, and we don’t want to overdo it. For that, Stratton is perfect, with its endless blue cruisers, speedy lifts, and smoothly groomed snow. The trees near the summit have been coated by a recent ice event, and they sparkle beautifully in the afternoon sun, yet the trails aren’t the least bit icy.

Along with all those cruisers, there’s wilder terrain at Stratton, too, if you know where to look—on and around Kidderbrook Ravine, Upper Middlebrook, Freefall Gully, Test Pilot…Thanks to a few days spent chasing locals way back when, I know where at least some of the goods are—places we will definitely not be skiing this weekend. Things have changed a little. For instance, used to be if you liked trees, you didn’t have to compete with anyone. Now I see a couple of my favorites—including the low-angle trees over at Snow Bowl, shown to me in semi-strict confidence—are cleared out and marked on the map.

Naturally I drag the girls way over to Sun Bowl, my favorite Stratton trail, not for the challenge but for the aesthetic. It’s immensely wide and open, with crisscrossing fall-lines, swooping drop-offs, and occasional islands of trees. It looks and feels like a long, sloping Vermont pasture.

With all the high-speed lifts, it’s easy work skiing from one edge of the resort to the other and back again. At the end of the day (maybe not even technically quite the end), we’re ready for a beer, and I’m eager to show them one of the best après bars in Vermont. Grizzly’s is on the second floor of the base lodge, and while I admit I’ve had a few beers up there in my day, I could always find the stairs. Today I can’t. (I sound like Emma: “They were right here!”)

Like so many things at Stratton, they’ve been remodeled and improved. We find them, clomp up them, and I’m relieved to find that, otherwise, it’s good old Grizzly’s—a huge space packed with noisy skiers, bar in the middle, stage against the wall, great big deck out front with a prime view of the action (and occasional carnage) up in the terrain park.

We get a table in the sun near the windows and soak up the scene. We’re due to meet a friend at Fire Tower, over at the other end of the village, so after our beers we grab our skis and head over. It’s packed, a popular place, but we squeeze in and demolish a plate of ahi nachos—trying not to spoil our appetite for brisket—then head back to our lavish condo. Or try to. Outside Fire Tower, Emma goes, “Where’s my skis?”

Snow covered forested area with white houses and buildings in the back in Stratton, Vermont
Weston’s charming Village GreenPhoto courtesy of Justin Cash

The rental-shop guys—first-name basis now—don’t even blink, just hand us another pair. We’ll never really know if Stratton has a rental-ski-theft problem or the Brits just can’t keep track of their skis after they’ve had a couple of spiked cocoas.

Saturday and Sunday, more of the same. It’s certainly not a hard-core, hell-bent, shut-up-and-ski weekend, but of the 30 or 40 days I’ll end up skiing this winter, these will be my favorites. Mellow laps, punctuated by frequent stops for eating and drinking.

Lilly’s still got it, can bend a ski like a girl who grew up racing on the Northern Vermont Council. But like a lot of “real skiers” who happen to be trapped in the city, her ski legs are ready for only mild exertions. Stratton is the perfect place for not overdoing it. On perfectly buffed groomers, a good skier like her can ski fast all day and still have legs for the stairs at Grizzly’s.

And maybe I exaggerate a little about all the Sturm und Drang of her childhood ski days. I like to tease, and there certainly were days when she needed a nudge, but in truth she was usually a good little ski buddy. We had a lot of great days together, including plenty when she was as excited to get after it as I was. And good ski buddies, of course, are hard to find. So maybe my advice to you young parents is actually this: Raise ’em yourself.

Stratton: Trip Details

Stratton Vermont
Stratton Mountain, VermontPhoto courtesy of Alterra Mountain Co. / Huber Schriebl

Stratton’s southern Vermont location makes it appealing to Tri-State-area skiers looking to disconnect from city living. It’s a four-plus hour drive from the heart of Manhattan, the last portion of which is a beautiful cruise through classic Vermont towns and scenery. From points east, such as Boston, it’s about a three-hour drive; from Burlington it’s a little under three hours.

Best Places to Stay in Stratton

Stratton’s roomy condos can be booked through the resort’s central reservations department. Find everything from space-efficient studios to five-bedroom penthouses. We love Rising Bear Lodge’s National Park–inspired architecture and Long Trail House’s location on the village common.

Our Favorite Places in Stratton to Eat

Fire Tower is one of the newer restaurants in the village but is already famous for its creative cocktails such as the Bacon Old Fashioned and Blackberry Thyme Mojito. Pair one with the ahi nachos and you’ll probably be back every day of your vacation. Treat yourself to the best wine list in the village and chef Aaron Mitchell-Patrick’s locally sourced menu at Verdé.

Stratton’s Best Drinking Spots

There’s a surprisingly strong après and nightlife scene here. You’d be remiss to skip The Green Door for pool, foosball, and a fun, laid-back vibe; Mulligan’s for 100 craft beers (20 on tap) and an upstairs whiskey bar; and Bar 802 for its extensive wine list and more upscale ambience. And, of course Grizzly’s, upstairs in the base lodge, to soak in the original Stratton stoke.

Stratton Photo Gallery

Red barn in snow in Stratton, Vermont
Photo courtesy of Justin Cash
Ski slopes in Stratton, Vermont
Photo courtesy of Justin Cash
Two men sitting at a bar in Stratton Vermont
Photo courtesy of Justin Cash
A man and a women skiing down a ski slope in Stratton, Vermont
Photo courtesy of Justin Cash
Downtown Stratton, Vermont
Photo courtesy of Justin Cash
Silver bucket attached to tree in Stratton, Vermont
Photo courtesy of Justin Cash
Snowy forest in Stratton, Vermont
Photo courtesy of Justin Cash
Inside of a small store with full shelves of food, books, and candy in Stratton, Vermont
Photo courtesy of Justin Cash
Ski slope and gondola in Stratton, Vermont
Photo courtesy of Justin Cash

Originally published in the December 2019 issue of SKI Magazine.