Early Birds Get the Tracks

It happens every year: my husband, Tom Thurston, tells me he’s going skiing, and I look at him like he’s crazy. I haven’t heard reports of snow anywhere. Our yard is green, I’ve seen no flurries, and his Nordic ski friends are still calling to arrange running times.

Over the years, though, I have learned that there is no stopping him from the search. If he thinks the opportunity to ski will quickly pass, he’ll take a headlamp and go after work. If he learns that there is snow at the stake at Mount Mansfield and the forecast is cold, he might invite the family for a weekend trek. No matter what, if there is skiing to be had, he’s going to find it.

My husband may sound obsessive, but “snow-chaser” is the label that I like. And he’s not alone. There are others just like him in the Nordic and Alpine circles. They search for snow before it officially has arrived to blanket ski areas and backyards. Any day that they can count as a ski day is a bonus.

This hide-and-seek game with Mother Nature has changed for some Nordic skiers. Craftsbury Green Racing Project skier Ida Sargent grew up skiing the early season on the CCC roads in the Willoughby State Forest and on the twisty trails at Mount Hor. Now, she says she won’t go much farther than the trails at Craftsbury since they open up with man-made snow in mid-November.

The increasing prevalence of snowmaking at Nordic centers means that high school and college teams are less likely to drive to remote backcountry locations, preferring the predictability of a groomed man-made course with access to a Nordic center and bathrooms. Drive to Craftsbury the day before Thanksgiving, and you’ll see more skiers than you will at Smugglers’ Notch. And just a few years ago, the Craftsbury team brought their groomer all the way to the road through Smugglers Notch (Vermont Route 108).

Last year was the first year that my family bought a pass to Craftsbury. The snowmaking lured us. We skied there the day before Thanksgiving, and the snow was excellent. I tired of the 1.25K loop, but it looked like the college skiers were enjoying it (and not tiring).

My husband says that he loves the Mount Mansfield Toll and Smugglers Notch roads for early skiing. While he’ll never give them up, now he’ll make the trek to Craftsbury occasionally. Trapps, the closest to us, actually does very well with natural snow because of elevation and exposure. Though they have snowmaking around the initial field, they tend to hold snow so well that they can have skiing when many other locations around the state do not.

Where to Go

Deciding where to go for early snow has gotten easier thanks to Liz Hollenbach and Eric Tremble, creators of the site xcearlysnow.com. Hollenbach and Tremble are former St. Lawrence University ski team members who reside in Jericho. They get in a lot of early skiing. Rather than just share their findings by the traditional word-of-mouth, they created the site for sharing and receiving ski reports.

Hollenbach and Tremble approve posts and edit them, when needed. Often, they post a quick rundown on early season conditions at Nordic centers. Though anyone can post a report, the intention is for the site to operate as a skier-to-skier network, rather than a place for cross-country ski centers to promote their trails. Nordic skiers can report on their early ski findings in Vermont, as well as in New Hampshire, New York, Maine, and Quebec.

A description from the site’s About page reads:

After a long summer, we’re always looking to find some early season skiing. Rather than waste gas driving up to check out the snow, how about we help each other out. If you find early snow, post here and let everyone know. Pictures are welcome, but a short description is enough. Where were you, when did you ski, how was it? Use the tags to specify the state.

Many of the ideas for early ski spots that follow came from the xcearlysnow.com site and from a conversation with Hollenbach and Tremble.

Sweet Spots for Early Snow

Early season skiers are resourceful. Lots of general locations will work, like recreational fields with frozen grass, golf courses with a 6-inch minimum, and recreation paths nestled near mountains.

Closed Notch Roads

Hazen’s Notch, Montgomery

Smugglers Notch, accessible from Jeffersonville and Stowe

Whiteface Notch, New York

State Forest/Forest Service Roads

Mount Mansfield Toll Road, Stowe

Forest Service Roads, Stratton

Willoughby State Forest, CCC roads near Mount Bartlett and Mount Hor. The Memphremagog Ski Touring Foundation grooms a gorgeous network of trails on Mount Hor.

Alpine Backcountry

Bolton Valley Backcountry

Extensive network of Nordic & backcountry trails. Maps and trail pass info here .

The Catamount Trail also runs through the Bolton backcountry. See listing below.

Check websites for trail information and closures.

Catamount Trail

Locations across the state from Jay, north, to Danby, south. Details at: catamounttrail.org/trail/sections.

Quebec, Canada

Travel north to the trails at Mont-Sainte-Anne — a long-time early ski destination for Vermonters.

Be Prepared

  • Take your rock skis. Equipment will get scratched up.
  • Layer up. You’ll likely get hot and cold. Take a pack for clothes, and for food and water.
  • Going up is easier than coming down. Stick to the flat sections unless you’re an advanced skier. As one friend said about Smugglers Notch, “The pavement can throw you down.”
  • Take pictures. People won’t believe you skied on Oct. 28, unless they see proof.

Heidi Hill is a freelance writer and author of Fit Family. She writes about sports, fitness, and family from her home in Waterbury.

Heidi Hill

Heidi Hill is a freelance writer and author of Fit Family: The Infant, Toddler, and Preschool Years. She writes about sports, fitness, family, and Vermont, from her home in Waterbury.