Spring Flings In The Okemo Valley
When the snow softens and the rivers run, the Okemo Valley has all you need to make the most of early spring. Updated 4/5/18
If you haven’t been to Ludlow in the past few years, you owe it to yourself to visit. One of the few places in the Green Mountain state where the base of the ski mountain (Okemo) spills into town, Ludlow has been gradually growing as a year-round destination for skiers and athletes alike.
The town now plays host to a half-dozen new restaurants as well as classic inns that range from the hip Homestyle Hostel to the venerable 1905 stone mansion, The Castle.
Ken Tofferi, a local who was at the forefront of freestyle skiing in the 1970s (he co-starred in early ski films such as “Hot Skis” and “French Kick,”) has owned Totem Pole Ski Shop, located near the base of Okemo, for 50 years. “It’s a nice, quaint little town,” he says of Ludlow.
‘Quaint’ seems an appropriate word. Route 103 meanders quietly past forests and fields until it reaches Ludlow’s downtown border, where pops of yellow and green buildings lead you to Okemo’s access road. The best spots are tucked into unlikely places: the acclaimed Mojo Cafe takes up the edge of a building that also houses Cyco Bike Shop.
Locals head to weekly pick-up ice hockey games at Jackson Gore’s Ice House. The Healdville trail, perfect for snowshoeing in the summer and hiking in the winter, lies on Okemo’s undeveloped western side.
The town’s lively side emerges on weekends when skiers and riders carve turns through Okemo’s newly minted corduroy. Snow blasts from 18,000 feet of brand new pipe, adding to a system that now covers 98 percent of the trails.
But alpine sports are not Okemo Valley’s only adventures. When spring comes around, hikers can wander the 7,323 acres of Okemo State Forest or head to Buttermilk Falls to watch the snowmelt plunge over a series of boulders. Come summer, there are swimming holes to explore.
This small town and surrounding valley offer more than what meets the eye. Spend a weekend or a few days and you’ll agree with us, these are some things you shouldn’t miss.
Earn Your Turns At Okemo
If you’re wallet’s feeling a little thin and you’re looking for an adventure, put on your skins and mosey up one of Okemo’s groomed ski trails. The mountain is one of a few Vermont resorts that allows free skinning and snowshoeing during operational hours, and it rents alpine touring skis and skins, at the Clock Tower Base Lodge. Okemo warns uphill travelers to stay on beginner and intermediate trails, on the slope’s edge and skin in a single file line The complete uphill travel guidelines are available on okemo. com. When you’ve reached the top, enjoy the ride—you’ve earned it.
Spanning town and county borders, the Okemo State Forest is one of the largest parcels of state-owned land in southeastern Vermont—and it’s easy to explore on skinny skis. Just one mile north of the mountain, Okemo’s Nordic Center hosts 22 kilometers of tracked and groomed ski trails, and an additional 13 miles dedicated to snowshoers. Trails wind through wooded terrain, meadows, hillsides and along the Black River.
Section 10 of the Catamount Trail spans almost 12 miles of backcountry territory, running from Buttermilk Falls, just north of Okemo, to Patch Brook Road at the southern tip of Coolidge State Forest. The steep trail switchbacks up from old Route 103 on retired logging roads, then passes over rolling hills, flanked by hardwood and softwood forest. After crossing a powerline, the trail edges along Tiny Pond, then Tiny Mountain, before arriving at Patch Brook Road.
Fatbike At Jackson Gore
For the second year, Jackson Gore’s new fatbiking terrain is open to the public. Rent a bike ($25 for half-day, $45 for full-day) from Mountain Outfitter’s fleet, where you can find one with 20-speed gearing, suitable for riders of all abilities. Then, head out on four miles of trails that meander across open fields and through woods. Bikers are welcome to explore areas off the trail, though Okemo asks that you stay on resort property. Mountain Outfitters supplies outlined trail maps upon request.
Head To The Healdville Trail
The Healdville Trail is a year-round favorite in Okemo Valley and leads you to Okemo’s 3,343-foot summit. Grab some snowshoes at Tygart Mountain Sports ($20), then head five miles down Route 103 to the trailhead. The 5.9 mile round-trip hike will take you on a gradual incline until you reach 2.8 miles, at which point you’ll ascend steeply and reach a clearing, where you’ll see a chimney—the only remaining structure of an old fire tower watchman’s cabin. Just ahead, you’ll find the fire tower itself, which is open to hikers. Climb for a panoramic view of the Green, Adirondack and White Mountains.
Zoom Through The Backcountry
If you’re looking for a speedy way to experience a whole lot of backcountry, you might want to consider a blood-pumping ride on a snowmobile with the largest and oldest touring company in the state. Snowmobile Vermont provides a two- hour, 25-mile ride into Calvin Coolidge State Forest. Rent one of the new Polaris snowmobiles ($154 for a single) then go at your own pace and follow guides through the varied terrain, including straightaways, woods and hills.
Learn A Craft
If you’re feeling crafty, head to the Fletcher Farm School, housed in a building that once belonged to former Governor Allen Fletcher, and learn a classic trade. This spring, create your own basket with Fletcher’s single-day basket weaving course. Make your own 14-inch seat cushion or wall hanging with the beginner’s punch needle rug hooking workshop. Surprise the family with rings, chains, pendants, bracelets and earrings after learning to design and create your own jewelry in the silversmithing class. Or, later in the season, experiment with the intaglio printmaker, a medium that transforms original drawings, paintings, photographs and collages into etchings using solar light (May 13-14). For a full course list, visit fletcherfarm.org.
Last year, at Okemo’s executive chef Scot Emerson bought a steer for $8,000 and sold the steaks for $140 a piece at the Coleman Brook Tavern. Emerson emphasizes local ingredients, and even tries to use every part of the animal. To his credit, the restaurant, located in Jackson Gore’s lodge, earned Vermont Fresh Network’s “Gold Barn” award for procuring over 30 percent of its food from Vermont producers. Stop by for some sauteed butternut squash ravioli, mountain trout or a farmhouse burger.
If you’re looking for locals, you’ll find them at Tom’s Loft Tavern, or “The Loft.” A sign outside this mountain-adjacent pub reads, “Home of Lousy Food, Warm Beer and Grumpy Owner,” but don’t be fooled, this one’s a favorite. Venture in at the end of a long day on the slopes and you’ll quickly be surrounded by skiers, locals and mountain regulars, including Tofferi. Grab some nachos and wings, and make a few ski buddies for the next day.
Java Baba’s Slow Food Cafe is the perfect stop for skiers en-route to or from the mountain. Located on the small section of Route 103 between Jackson Gore and the Clock Tower Base Lodge, this joint serves breakfast as early as 5:30 a.m. and cruises right through dinner, closing at 10. Their extensive offerings include wraps, sandwiches, salads, soups, quiche, ice cream, specialty coffee and baked goods— not to mention a full pizza menu.
Down the street, Mojo Cafe is doing creative things with a Tex-Mex combination of Mexican, Cajun, and, as the owners say, “anything else our creative desires lead us to.” With a promise to keep ingredients fresh (backed by the Vermont Fresh Network) and prices low (tacos start at $3.50), the menu alone will have your mouth watering. Stop by for a local draught and a crawfish tamale, some gumbo, or an “enchurito”—something between an enchilada and a wet burrito.
For casual fine dining, visit the Downtown Grocery, located just off Main St. Chef/owner is Rogan Lechthaler, who has cooked at Boston’s Mistral and The Ritz Carlton as well as at Warren’s Pitcher Inn. He’ll treat you to his thoughtful style of locally-sourced comfort foods such as house-made pasta with Maine crab and spicy garlic tomato sauce, Northeast Family Farm grilled ribeye au poivre, and desserts like the molten chocolate souffle.
Stay A While
In Ludlow, lodging in style and sticking to a budget are not mutually exclusive. For $40 a night, crash at The Homestyle Hostel on a memory foam mattress in a clean, dorm-style room, then wake up to a complimentary breakfast of homemade granola before you hit the slopes. Thursday through Sunday, dine with the locals at the hostel’s restaurant, and pick from menu items like the beef brisket: “creamy pan fried Parmesan polenta cake, pulled brisket, sauteed kale and roasted shallot” and craft cocktails like the Good Ol’ Boy. Don’t miss game night on Wednesdays, where you might win a local brew as a prize.
If you’re looking for slopeside lodging, Jackson Gore Inn is your best bet. Stroll out the door in the morning and ride up the Coleman Brook Express Quad to get first tracks, then take the Quantum Four lift to access Okemo’s main slopes. You’ll have everything you need with a pool, hot tubs, a fitness center, arcade, and in-house access to the Coleman Brook Tavern. Day care centers, the Timber Ripper Mountain Coaster and the Mountain Outfitters shop are all within a short walk of your room. Rates start at about $200 per night.
Immerse yourself in Ludlow’s history with hotels that date back to the turn of the century. For a true getaway, head south on Route 103, then turn onto Castle Hill Drive, a narrow winding road that will lead you to Castle Hill Resort, or “The Castle.” The mansion, built in 1905 in the English Cotswold style from California Redwood and gneiss stone, was commissioned by wealthy Vermont governor Allen Miller Fletcher.
Today, many of the hotel’s original features are intact, and it’s a member by Historic Hotels of America. Stay in one of the mansion’s ten Castle Rooms, each with its individual design and furnished with period pieces–along with the expected modern-day amenities such as Wifi, cable TV and a coffee maker.
Echo Lake Inn, a Victorian hotel built in 1840, was visited frequently by then- President Calvin Coolidge, Henry Ford and Thomas Edison. A quick ten minute drive north of Okemo on Route 100, the complex has a pool, tennis courts and traditional rooms and suites. The adjacent Echo Lake and Black River make for great fishing, boating and swimming in the spring and summer.
Dare to get soaked on April 7 with the Slush Cup & Splash For Cash, classic pond skimming with a twist: when the skimming day is done, a kicker, stationed at the water’s edge, will send cash flying above the pond. You’ve got one chance to run, jump and grab the cash. Visit okemo.com for details.
Featured image: Okemo’s trails spill right into the town of Ludlow. Photo by Angelo Lynn.