The Secret Guide to Smugglers’ Notch

Wedged in a narrow crack between Mount Mansfield and Sterling Mountain, Vermont 108 carves a wild, winding road through the towns of Jeffersonville, Cambridge and Stowe. While the road sees automobile traffic for only a portion of the year, it is a year-round highway for outdoor adventure.

In the spring and summer, you can find trails to hike, rock to climb and swimming holes to cool off in. In the winter, you can expect to find snowshoers, skiers and a few ice climbers. Burlington-based outfitter Petra Cliffs returns to the Notch each February for its annual Ice Bash, a full weekend of clinics, competitions and some of the best ice climbing in Vermont.

If you haven’t been there, or it’s been a while, there’s no time like the fall—the colors are stunning— for a visit.

Hiking

The area around Smuggler’s Notch offers plenty of hiking. Most notable is Vermont’s highest peak, Mount Mansfield. With a summit of 4,395 feet, multiple trails run up the mountain from every direction. From parking areas in the Notch, hikers can reach the 4,060-foot high Adam’s Apple by way of the Hellbrook Trail, a difficult .9 mile hike that advances from the north. Hikers can choose to take the Hellbrook Cutoff, which extends .7 miles to the Taft Lodge on the Long Trail or follow the trail another .4 miles to the Lake of the Clouds and then the Adams Apple, .2 miles beyond that. The Chin, the summit of Mount Mansfield, is 1.5 miles by way of the Hellbrook Trail.

Mount Mansfield can also be approached from the west, with two parking areas in Underhill State Park. The more northern parking lot in the park accesses the difficult Sunset Ridge Trail (3 miles) up an exposed ridgeline to The Chin, while the advanced Laura Cowles Trail shoots up the steeper west flank of the mountain 2.4 miles before meeting with Sunset Ridge before The Chin. The southern parking area has access to southern extent of Mansfield ridge, with the Frost Trail, Butler Lodge Trail and the Long Trail climbing up to The Forehead.

Hikers can also access the Long Trail from the base area of the Stowe side of Vermont 108 at the Barnes Camp Historic Site as well as in the base area of Stowe Mountain Resort. The Southbound trail advances up the eastern flank of Mount Mansfield 1.7 miles to the Taft Lodge. Hikers can opt to stay on the LT for another .6 miles or take the steeper Profanity Trail .5 miles to The Chin.

Hikers looking for higher elevations, but want a shorter walk can experience Stowe’s Toll Road, which starts 5.8 miles from the intersection of Vermont 100 and 108 in downtown Stowe. The road makes a 4.5-mile ascent in about 20 minutes (depending on traffic and weather) and ends with views of the Adirondacks and Lake Champlain. At the top, you can park your car at the Mt. Mansfield Visitors Center and hike on the Southbound Long Trail just .2 miles to The Nose at 4,062 feet or hike just over a mile on the Northbound Long Trail to The Chin. From The Chin, you can make a loop back to your car on the Cliff Trail.

An alternate route is Stowe’s Gondola Skyship, which whisks you from the base of Stowe Resort all the way to the Cliff House, where you can access the Cliff Trail to the Chin to the north or the Nose and Forehead to the south.

To the east of Mansfield on the other side of the Notch Road is Sterling Mountain at 3,100 feet high (one of the three peaks of Smugglers’ Notch Resort) and slightly to the south, neighboring Spruce Peak, rising 3,320 feet (the site of Stowe’s smaller Spruce Peak area). From the northern side of the road (driving from Jeffersonville), hikers can take the moderate 1.1-mile long Sterling Pond Trail to the summit of Sterling, where it intersects with the Long Trail at Sterling Pond. After reaching the pond, you can hike another .3 miles to the Sterling Pond Shelter for a rest or an overnight stay.

On the other side of the Notch, the northbound Long Trail leads 4.3 miles from a parking area near the Barnes Camp Historic Site to Sterling Pond.

Climbing

As the glaciers receded thousands of years ago, they left the landscape of the Notch littered with massive boulders and outcroppings composed of schist.

From beginner scrambles to daunting top outs, the Notch has a variety of problems within a short hike from the road. Areas behind the main parking lot and visitors center, the parking area near the Hellbrook Trail and the very top of the notch all have a number of popular problems that dry out quickly due to their elevation and exposure.

The Notch is also a destination for sport and trad climbing in the summer and fall as well as ice climbing in the winter. Tim Farr, a guide with Burlington-based outfitter Petra Cliffs, has been guiding trips into the Notch for the past four years and says climbing in the Notch involves some exploring.

“It’s more of an alpine environment and requires more route finding and navigating,” he says. “Unlike other areas where you walk right up to the base of the cliffs, the Notch is known to require a little more scouting.”

For climbers looking for classic sport climbs in the Notch, Farr recommends “Beanstalker Buttress,” a fun and adventuresome two-pitch 5.8 route located in an area that doesn’t see traffic. “Better Living Through Chemistry,” a 5.9+ on the Ragnarock Face features moderate and exposed schist up three pitches climbing over 300 feet. “The Deep End,” rated as 5.11b, is listed in the guidebook as one of the best multi-pitch-climbs in Smugglers’ Notch. It’s located to the left of the Big Daddy Arete and finishes high above the Notch with great views. A newly established 5.9 on the wall above the parking lot scales two pitches under the name “Steep Jugs.”

In the winter, the notch is transformed into an ideal environment for ice climbing. Climbers gather from all over the Northeast to scale any of the Notch’s approximately 70 routes, including classics like the “Elephant’s Head Gully,” “Ragnarock” or “Poster Child.” Farr recommends “Dave’s Snotcicle,” on the South Wall facing Stowe. Its southern exposure can make the conditions feel nearly tropical, even on a sub-zero degree-day and its consistently good climbing conditions are only a 20-minute hike from the road. “Hidden Gully” requires some hiking from the road, but rewards those willing to go the distance with elevation gains of up to 1,800 feet.

“With the sustained gain in elevation and the variety of terrain, it’s similar to something you might find in New Hampshire,” he says.

Nearby Resorts:

The Notch is flanked to the east and the west by two leading resorts in Vermont, Stowe Mountain Resort and Smugglers’ Notch Resort, each with their own array of summer and fall events and activities.

Stowe Mountain Resort

While Stowe Mountain Resort sees the majority of its traffic during the winter months, the pace only slows slightly when the snow is gone. Stowe Resort keeps its Auto Toll Road open until October 19 and will begin operating the Gondola to the Cliff House on September 13. At Spruce Peak you’ll find the newly opened Stowe Mountain Resort Adventure Center, the headquarters for the ZipTour Adventure, TreeTop Adventure, and the Stowe Rocks indoor climbing center. The Adventure Center is also home to Stowe’s Cubs Child Care, the Summer Adventure Camp and starting this winter, Stowe’s Ski and Ride School. The resort also offers 36 holes of golf at the Stowe Mountain Club Golf Course and the Stowe Country Club. The Spruce Peak Performing Arts Center and the Spa at Stowe Mountain Lodge, along with many family activities, round out the resort’s offerings. Aside from resort activities, Stowe town offers a variety of dining, shopping and lodging options.

Smugglers’ Notch Resort

Located in Jeffersonville at the foot of Madonna Mountain, Smugglers’ Notch resort offers a variety of family activities, including a waterpark, mountain biking and treks on the back of a llama. This summer, Smuggs continues operation of its driving range and world-class disc golf course. Arbor Trek Adventures, a guided tour through a network of ziplines, rope bridges and climbing walls in the forest canopy, operates a few miles north of the resort and is one of the best of its kind in the region. If you’re looking for a guided trip elsewhere, Smugglers’ resort also contracts with local outfitters for activities such as climbing and fly-fishing.

Evan Johnson

Evan Johnson

Evan Johnson is the staff writer for Vermont Sports Magazine. The native Vermonter enjoys steep and deep skiing and wandering all over the state by Subaru. Find him on Twitter at @evanisathome.