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Stowe - The Gateway to Vail Resorts

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Stowe - The Gateway to Vail Resorts

By Jim Kenney
 

Part One

Introduction


Not too long ago the only gateway at Stowe, VT was the one that led to its own awesome self - the Ski Capital of the East.  With some of the East’s best snow, steepest bump runs, choicest sustained groomers, and renowned tree skiing Stowe doesn’t play second fiddle to many places.  But my-oh-my, how things have changed since the annexation of this Eastern icon by Vail Resorts in early 2017!  By some calculations the 2017-18 multi-resort EpicPass including Stowe will be a cool $1000 less than last year’s Stowe-only pass. 

Next ski season could be the best of times for longtime Stowe pass holders who want to add western sightseeing to their ski resumes. Setting aside the philosophical aspects of ski area acquisitions and consolidations, the fact is a Stowe-inclusive EpicPass now represents access to a multitude of runs, lifts, and experiences at some of the best ski venues on planet Earth. Drawing on my travel experiences and this new East-West connection I'd like to share a few of my favorite things to ski and do at Vail Resorts around North America.

In the past three years I've had a chance to log about 50 ski days at ten major ski areas that are part of the burgeoning Vail Resorts Empire in 2017-18. The mountains I visited recently include Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone, Park City, Kirkwood, Heavenly, new acquisitions Whistler-Blackcomb and Stowe, and EpicPass eligible Arapahoe Basin. By no means do I have a local's knowledge of these resorts, but after skiing a number of days at each I have developed strategies and preferences for enjoying these great, but sometimes confounding mega-mountains. The emphasis in this discussion will be on skiing and ski terrain, but I'll also expound on ancillary things that make for a good ski day or week such as transportation, parking, dining, lodging, etc. As always, I'll throw in some photos to help illustrate my points:D

Stowe, VT

Until a few visits in recent years I hadn’t skied Stowe since 1971.  I was astounded by the new lodging and dining developments at the base of Spruce Peak.  But what hadn’t changed one iota at Stowe was the tremendous ski terrain and beautiful setting beneath Vermont’s highest peak, Mt. Mansfield (elevation 4393’).  The ski area and the town of Stowe, approximately seven miles apart, are something all New England skiers worth their salt must get to eventually.  I’ve experienced some of the Mansfield steeps like Starr and Goat trails, and the challenging trees to skier’s left of Goat.  I've made tracks in side country routes like Angel Food to skier’s left off Chin Clip.  I’ve also carved the excellent, sustained cruisers off the Stowe gondola, and enjoyed the surprisingly nice mix of terrain on Spruce Peak. 

Mt. Mansfield from the top of the Fourrunner Quad, photo by Jim Kenney

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Stowe’s got Character with a capital C.  Besides the Front Four, the historic Mansfield Base Lodge, and some of the earliest purpose-built ski trails in America, Stowe’s got The Matterhorn, a classic après ski bar, and the eponymous town. Perhaps my most valuable insight about Stowe, in the context of the 2017 ski world order, is that I’ve seen enough of it to make comparisons with many mountains in its new adopted family of Vail Resorts. 

Stowe side country, photo by Jim Kenney

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Vail, CO

Let’s state the obvious first, Vail is huge!  Technically, there are two or three larger ski areas in North America, but a great amount of Vail’s 5,289 skiable acres are completely contiguous on the front and back sides of one giant ridge.  This means ready access to 3000 vertical feet of tree-lined runs on the frontside and nearly 2000 vertical feet in six, expansive bowls on the backside with no tricks, convolutions or disconnects.  Throw in the journey to the remote-feeling terrain of Blue Sky Basin and you’ve got a ski area that takes weeks, if not seasons, to fully explore.  Some of the best advanced terrain is under and to the skier’s left of the Northwoods Express Chair (frontside), Sun Up Bowl off the High Noon Express Chair (back bowls), and the trees and cornices off the Skyline Express Chair in Blue Sky Basin. 

Photo:  The tree skiing around Prima Cornice off the Northwoods Chair is every bit as challenging as the woods beside Goat trail at Stowe.

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Most guests bite the budgetary bullet and stay slopeside at Vail, but all eight of my ski days there in the last three seasons came as a day-visitor and never once did I pay for parking.  Once you figure out the parking game (http://www.vailgov.com/parking/winter#1570272-strongfree-outlying-parkingstrong ) you’ll find other ways to save at Vail, such as the free BBQ grills sprinkled around the mountain for DIY picnickers, free evening snowshoe tours (including an Eagle Bahn Gondola ride) atop the mountain at the Nature Discovery Center, and strolling Vail Village, one of the best window shopping and people watching towns in the ski world. There are even some pretty reasonable and tasty places to eat in Vail such as Pazzo’s Pizza overlooking Solaris Plaza and Moe’s BBQ in Lionshead.

The legendary back bowls of Vail, photo by Jim Kenney

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Beaver Creek, CO

The decidedly upscale Beaver Creek Ski Area is an easy dozen miles west of Vail.  I have to admit as a senior skier this place is the bomb.  I have long since passed the age of not being too proud to ride the escalator out of the Beaver Creek base area to the loading point of the Centennial Chondola.  Compare this to the steep slog from the Mansfield Lodge to the Fourrunner Quad at Stowe:P  There is a challenging side to the skiing at Beaver Creek, but it shines brightest as a mountain that pampers intermediates like few others including the easy and very scenic terrain near the summit of the mountain to be served in 2017-18 by the new Red Buffalo Express Chair.  Beaver Creek has an amazing elevation spread from 7400’ to 11,440’ above sea level with all aspects of exposure.  From my nine ski days there between 2015 and 2017 I can tell you these physical gifts combined with a state of the art snowmaking and grooming operation present a strong chance of good to excellent ski conditions throughout much of the season.  My favorite advanced terrain at Beaver Creek includes the Stone Creek Chutes on the far looker’s left of the mountain layout, the steep race trails off the Birds of Prey Express Chair, and all of Grouse Mountain including Royal Elk and Black Bear Glades. 

Good snow in Black Bear Glades, far skier's left off Grouse Mountain, photo by Jim Kenney

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You can pay big bucks to stay slopeside, but I have the found the nearby town of Avon to be an excellent and reasonably priced lodging location to access both Beaver Creek and Vail.  There is free and frequent shuttle bus service from Avon to the lifts at Beaver Creek obviating any need to pay for parking.  And there is inexpensive county bus service to Vail if you want to go there for a day.  Anyone visiting this area for a week would be foolish not to experience both mountains if possible.  Avon also has many moderately priced restaurants and motels. It’s at a good sleeping elevation (7400’) for visitors from the flatlands.  If you like to eat wild game, check out the Gashouse Restaurant in Edwards, CO.  There’s about $100,000 worth of taxidermy hanging on the walls to inspire your choice of meal entree.  If one were to fly into nearby Eagle Airport, then Beaver Creek/Avon could be an easy destination to go carless.

Beaver Creek, the day AFTER I had six uncontested laps on Helmut's trail under the Centennial Chondola in 12" of new snow.  It was still good, photo by Jim Kenney.

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Breckenridge, CO

I have eight days at Breckenridge in the last three years and my conclusion is this place is super fun!  My Breckenridge-Stowe analogy is that the lower mountain at Breckenridge is to Spruce Peak, as the upper mountain is to Mt. Mansfield.  The lower mountain at Breckenridge can be hectic at prime times and littered with Texas gapers, but the upper mountain is quieter, much steeper, and mostly the reserve of skilled locals.   I find the advanced terrain at Breckenridge more interesting than at either Vail or Beaver Creek.  Some of the best includes the steep trails and tight trees off the E-Chair, runs like Psychopath off 6-Chair, runs like Mustang off the Falcon Super Chair, and the short, but steep drops in Horseshoe Bowl served by a T-Bar.  The frosting on the Breck cake is the hike-to chutes on Peak 8 above the Imperial Express Chair (e.g. Zoot Chute) and on Peak 6 above the Kensho Chair (e.g. North Chute in the Six Senses). Once you’ve given your lungs a couple days to adjust to the high altitude, all visiting experts should check out this hike-to terrain.  The climbs aren’t that bad and the payoff can be really memorable above tree-line skiing with better snow surfaces than the back bowls at Vail.

Zoot Chute above Peak 8 is the big one in the center, photo by Jim Kenney.

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I think the town of Breckenridge right at the base of the slopes is the most user-friendly of the major resorts in Colorado with lots of restaurants, bars, shops, and parking, including free satellite parking in the “airport” lot served by frequent free buses to town and to the ski trails via the Breck Connect Gondola base station.  Breckenridge reminds me of a middle/upper-middle class beach town in the mountains where many bars offer a burger and fries for only about $10-12.  For other dining choices you can go upscale at Victorian themed Hearthstone, midscale at The Canteen Taphouse, or try lighter fare at La Francaise Bakery/Coffee Shop.

Downtown Breckenridge, photo by Jim Kenney

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Keystone, CO

Some folks tend to treat Keystone like the Summit County stepchild because it may not be the steepest and deepest of ski areas, but I think it has some very fine intermediate to advanced terrain with great views of 3000+ acre Dillon Reservoir.  The Keystone layout incorporates three mountains.  The front mountain, Dercum, has excellent and long (~2300’ vertical) intermediate slopes including Schoolmarm, which on a quiet day is IMHO one of the best and prettiest low-intermediate runs in the US.  The groomers on Dercum are reminiscent of the long ones served by Stowe's Gondola and have a similar vertical drop.  The second mountain, North Peak, offers great spring bump skiing in light crowds on runs like Geronimo.  The third mountain, The Outback, features a collection of great tree runs such as Pika and Timberwolf.  Some days Keystone runs an inexpensive a la carte snowcat operation from the top of The Outback offering single black diamond skiing that is ideal for offpiste neophytes.

Timberwolf Glade in The Outback, photo by Jim Kenney

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It also presents a slightly more affordable choice to ski and stay slopeside than the other Vail Resorts in Colorado.  I’ve used VRBO to catch some good spring deals in the attractive condos at the base of the River Run Gondola. One pretty day in March I took my wife (a nonskier at this point) on a 30-something-dollar scenic snowcat ride at Keystone.  We went as high as 12,000' in a swanky snowcat and enjoyed al fresco dining at the mountaintop Outpost Restaurant afterwards.  Usually in the early Fall you can get four packs of tickets on the Keystone website for about $200 that are good at Keystone and Arapahoe Basin, two ski areas that present a fascinating contrast in terrain and vibe. I’ll discuss Arapahoe Basin and a bunch of other mountains in part two of this article coming soon... Part Two.

Starfire Trail on the North Peak at Keystone, CO, photo by Jim Kenney

LL

Edited by JimK
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Great article Jim! Nicely overviews all the resorts and part of the tremendous perks of the Epic Pass!

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I have to say that this far you have done a great job on this. Having been to each of those, some more than others, you are describing it all very well. I liked what you had to say about Stowe even though I have only been there three times.

 

Vail is huge for sure and when you get to the top of the ridge the enormity comes together. You have this sense of excitement that makes you want to do it all while knowing that it is impossible. The frontside runs criss-cross on the lower runs while the higher runs have nice cruisers to mid mountain lifts. The back side seems to be endless and I have much more to explore and based on your points we are already to next season. I have not spent much time in the village as we stopped in Frisco which we like.

 

Your description of Breckenridge is really good. Another area that is fun is Peak 10 from the Falcon Lift. All rated as Black Diamond runs, it seems to keep the crowds away. There is a good mix of steeper cruisers and very nice bump runs. As you take the Peak 8 connector from Peak 9 it provides an overview of skiing that bump skiers can really appreciate accessible from Chair E, Chair 6 and the 6 pack lift on Peak 8. While we did ski some of the upper bowls on Peak 8, 7 and 6 we did not get up there enough and your write up gives me some more to get excited about. On the mountain, I recommend eating at Coppertopat Peak 9 base. It is a non Vail restaurant with good prices and food as well as their assortment of beer. In town, I would also recommend The Dredge hidden behind Main Street and Kensho Steakhouse. At Kensho, sit at the bar and talk to the locals.

 

Your POV of Keystone is really good. It is very underrated. There lots of very fun runs onnthebfronside that feel like they go on forever and are a blast to bomb down. The bump runs from North Peak are very nice and really work you. In fact, there are more bump runs there that you would think. The tree skiing in the Outback is one of my favorite areas and we have more to explore there too. There is some great walk to terrain offering steep narrower runs from the top of Decrums that I think eastern skiers would enjoy. I liked the few I tried. While we have not tried cat skiing yet, Keystone's offering looks good. In the Village, Kickapoo Tavern has a great vibe both inside and out and if sitting outside the views of the slopes and the people are entertaining.

 

While we did not have the same appreciation for Beaver Creek as you had, another trip might change that perspective. It is definitely more posh and you see that in many of the people skiing there and the customer service. We did have fun but the layout felt a little weird. It is definitely more of an intermediates resort not to say there isn't challenging runs there.

 

Overall, there are lots ofn acreage to cover and even with a season behind us we will have much more to experience here and beyond Colorado.

 

I am looking forward for part 2.

 

 

Sent from my SM-G930P using Northeast Mountain Sports mobile app

 

 

 

 

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Thanks for the feedback guys.  Working on Part Two now and Arapahoe Basin.  Writing this stuff gets me stoked!  A-Basin is amazing and such a cool contrast from many of the other Vail Resorts.

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Thanks for the feedback guys.  Working on Part Two now and Arapahoe Basin.  Writing this stuff gets me stoked!  A-Basin is amazing and such a cool contrast from many of the other Vail Resorts.
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I agree 100%. A majority of our days this season have been there. We have so many pictures from there Nd we have even bigger plans for next season if we get in even better shape.

Sent from my SM-G930P using Northeast Mountain Sports mobile app

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