Jeffersonville, VT – Smugglers’ Notch has been racking up numerous awards over the past
decade for their family programs: Better Homes and Gardens, Family
Circle, Travel & Leisure, Parents, FamilyFun, Mountain
Sports & Living and others have all recognized the resort’s prowess
in this regard. Even SKI Magazine‘s October 1999 issue named Smugglers’
Notch Resort #1 in North America for Family Programs. In fact, Smuggs has won
a snow sports magazine readers’ poll for six consecutive years in the family
What does this mean for the adventurous skier? Those who crave haute cuisine
will seldom seek out a dining experience at a "family restaurant."
Is Smugglers’ Notch off-limits for connoisseurs of steeps, trees and fine powder
skiing? We were on a mission to find out.
A VARIED HISTORY
Matt Duffy enjoys off-piste at Smuggs (photo Jeremy Malczyk)
Smugglers’ Notch was founded by a group of local skiers in 1956, led by Vermont
physician Dr. Mann. The initial lifts consisted of two pomas ascending Sterling
Mountain in series, where the Pipeline trail is presently located, servicing
six trails plus a connection with Stowe’s Spruce Peak via a traverse across
the summit. Peculiarly, the upper lift was built above a wooden trestle which
carted lift riders across the Rum Runner trail, easing the liftline’s ascent
of ledges just below the summit.
Financial success was never realized during the seven or eight years under
local leadership before the ski area was discovered by Tom Watson, Jr., Chairman
of IBM. Watson skied over from Stowe during a visit to the company’s facility
in nearby Essex Junction. The site of the present-day Village at Smugglers’
Notch was an open meadow and logging station – in fact, the building which now
houses Bandito’s mexican restaurant across the street provided lodging for the
sawyers and Morse Mill was located just up the road. Watson looked down upon
this meadow and envisioned a village patterned after those found in Europe and
that which was being built at Vail. Within a couple of years, Watson had bought
out the local shareholders to acquire the area.
Watson quickly developed two adjacent summits for skiing, Madonna Mountain
and Morse Mountain. Interconnecting the three separate mountains and the village
via lifts and trails helped to fulfill his vision of the self-contained resort.
Never wanting to be number two in life, Watson placed the loading area of the
Madonna I chairlift several feet below the base lodge to capture the prize of
owning the world’s longest bottom-drive chairlift at the time.
Once the Madonna and Morse lifts were in place, it was time to begin contruction
of Watson’s vision at the base of Morse Mountain. Watson hired Stanley Snider
of Stanmar, a Massachusetts-based developer and Martha’s Vineyard resort owner,
to create a self-contained village of condominiums, homes, restaurants and retail.
After suffering a heart attack, Watson began to divest himself of his pet projects
and sold Smuggs to Snider and Stanmar, who operated the resort for years.
Stanmar hired AT&T’s Bill Stritzler, a Smugglers’ Notch homeowner, as the
Managing Director of the resort. When Snider’s advancing age forced him to scale
back his business operations, he sold the resort to Stritzler, who owns Smugglers’
Notch to this day. Stritzler is an active, "hands-on" owner, involving
himself in the day-to-day operations of the ski area.
Today, the Village at Smugglers’ Notch includes approximately 2400 on-mountain
beds, several restaurants, a ski boutique, three summer water parks, an indoor
pool and spa, two outdoor hot tubs, and a heated outdoor pool, among other amenities.
Smugglers’ Notch is a rare truly multi-seasonal Northeastern mountain resort,
as 45% of their annual operating revenues are generated by non-winter visitors.
Summer activities include the aforementioned water parks, climbing, kayaking,
canoeing, horseback riding, mountain boarding, ecology expeditions, hiking,
tennis, mountain biking, fly casting clinics, llama treks, laser tag, and all-day
children’s programs which are included in package prices. Optional "Summer
Fun University Programs" are also available, designed to build confidence
and inspire outdoor and creative skills while emphasizing fun. These latter
programs include professional golf instruction and a junior tennis camp. Smuggs
boasts the single largest summer daycamp operation in the United States.
In winter, 2610 vertical feet of skiing are serviced by six Hall double chairlifts,
a t-bar, and two handle tows. Two terrain parks and a halfpipe are available
for "new school" enthusiasts, and while 67 trails cover over 260 acres,
more than 750 additional acres are available for tree skiing thanks to Smugglers’
Notch’s open boundary-to-boundary policy.
ON THE HILL
We awoke early in a comfortable two-bedroom, two-bath mountainside condominium
to heavy snow falling outside. The flakes had begun near the tail end of our
drive to Smuggs, and a good six inches of fresh graced the slopes at dawn. The
family amenities were readily apparent: the second bedroom contained bunk beds
instead of the traditional pair of twins or doubles, and each room possessed
its own television set and VCR. Upon check-in the night before, we passed under
an archway sign where "Mogul Mouse" had welcomed us to the resort.
Learning terrain at Smuggs is located immediately adjacent to the Village on
Morse Mountain. Another brand-new learning area is situated on a sidehill of
Morse, with its own lift and lodge separated from the rest of the mountain.
We chose the Village Lift thanks to a sign cautioning, "This Lift Runs
at Full Speed," and rose above the daily preparations for Snow Sports University,
the nametag for Smugglers’ Notch’s ski school. While some of this may seem rather
hokey to the practiced skier, it is clearly designed to instill comfort and
confidence in never-evers and infrequent snow sliders.
Morse has limited terrain for theadvanced skier, and we therefore disembarked
the Village Lift and traversed via the Midway trail to the bottom of Madonna
Mountain, the premier ski hill at Smuggs. A quick trip up the Madonna I base-to-summit
chair confirmed that there’s more to Smugglers’ Notch than a placid family experience.
During the lift ride, we watched 2100 vertical feet of classic New England
skiing unfold before our eyes. Dramatic double fall lines, ledges, tight trees,
and just plain steep skiing appeared everywhere. We unloaded Madonna I at a
narrow ridgeline, and sped down Upper Chilcoot and Catwalk to reach Doc Dempsey’s
Named after one of the original founders of the resort, Doc Dempsey’s is a
sparsely studded glade that dips and dives down the fall line toward the top
of the Madonna II chair. The wind had unfortunately scoured this side of the
hill somewhat, such that the steep entrance was a bit gnarly with exposed stumps
and rocks, but once further down the roller-coaster ride began! Untracked stuff
was found as we stuck to skier’s right to enjoy the snow which had been sheltered
by the trees. Wet, heavy and slightly wind-crusted, it was hardly a way to start
the day, but the terrain immediately held promise that adverturous skiing was
here for those in search of it.
We were cruising intermediate terrain on Madonna when something caught our
eyes, a potential opening in the woods that could lead us into adventure. As
we examined the area more closely, we could see where tracks perhaps lay hidden
under the fresh snow. We needed a bit more of a warmup, so we bookmarked the
spot in our minds and with the seduction still tempting us on the next run,
we charged to the same spot and dropped in. What we found was much longer than
anticipated and wonderfully adventurous. The location and name of this treat
will be left anonymous, of course, out of respect to the locals. Finding it
on our own only heightened the experience.
The day continued to deliver prizes, both on-piste and off. Tree shots abound
everywhere, the pride of skilled local woodsmen. A surprising amount of uncut
terrain exists here – one only needs to look toward Madonna from the Sterling
lift to see broad expanses of virgin forest ready to be skied. Those who crave
steep open trails will find nirvana in Upper F.I.S. and Freefall, a pair of
white ribbons draping Madonna from just below it’s summit. The headwall of the
upper Madonna Liftline is just plain hairy, littered with icefalls, ledge and
stumps, while The Black Hole (rated a triple black diamond in a moment of unrestrained
marketing excess) is a tight, steep gladed playground.
As the day wore on, we dug harder and found more off-piste diamonds on Madonna.
We favored left on our descents to follow the contour of the mountain and avoid
the open trails while unlocking Madonna’s mysteries. Threading our way through
tight, technically demanding trees on one unmarked run, we encountered orange
discs in the middle of the woods marked with cliff warnings, tempering our unabated
curiosity . As advertised, we encountered a 30-foot ice fall, yet were able
to avoid dropping it by negotiating a nubbin covered ledge. Of course, below
the cliff band we were rewarded by the fluffy candy that was the standard for
Sterling Mountain is the third summit at Smuggs, and mixes intermediate cruising
terrain with short, steep natural shots for the advanced skier. Quirky fall
lines abound here, as many trails cut across the liftline from climber’s right
to left, through a series of pillows and ledges. The Top of the Notch restaurant
is operated by the Hearth and Candle, a Village at Smugglers’ Notch restauranteur,
and offers a cozy respite from the Notch’s oft howling winds atop Sterling.
It’s also here that the Snuffy’s trail connects Stowe and Smugglers’ Notch
resorts. Travel in winter between Stowe and Smugglers’ Notch is hampered by
Route 108 itself, which is too steep, narrow and twisty through Smugglers’ Notch
Pass to safely maintain during the winter. Skiers and riders may either choose
to drive around the Mt. Mansfield massif to the south or through Morrisville
and Johnson to the north, or they may travel to and from Stowe via the Snuffy’s
trail, which traverses Sterling Pond atop Sterling Mountain. Guests who stay
two nights or more may ski for a day on Stowe’s lift and trail system. Day skiers
and season passholders should understand, however, that Stowe has recently resumed
enforcing the letter of this agreement. Those in these latter two categories
may purchase a single-ride ticket at Stowe’s Spruce Peak to return to the Smugglers’
Notch trail network.
On Friday night we sampled the cuisine at the Hearth and Candle in the Village
at Smugglers’ Notch. A crab cake was topped with a petite filet mignon, grilled
to perfection, surrounded by large grilled shrimp and drizzled with bernaise
sauce. A cozy, fitting end to a challenging day on the slopes. Elaine, our server
was personable and attentive, and we even found the guests at adjacent tables
to be friendly and sociable. Although the restaurant does offer a room to provide
adults with a relaxed dining experience, we arrived without a reservation and
were seated in a downstairs dining room where every other table included a menagerie
Friday night ended on a lively note with a visit to Brewski, a local tavern
on Route 108 just north of the village entrance. This watering hole’s ceiling
is adorned with the victims of Smugglers’ Notch’s granite ledges, with blown
out edges and sidewalls. We chatted things up with three intoxicated women who
had just arrived from Connecticut for a "girl’s weekend away," two
guys from New Zealand, and the hard-working owner of the establishment who was
tending bar after substitute teaching all day. The contrast between Brewski
just outside of the village and the family environment found within was striking.
THE QUEEN CITY ALTERNATIVE
A frequent criticism of Smuggs is that the Saturday liftlines are burdensome,
but even though Saturday dawned clear, comfortable, calm and with fresh snow,
the liftlines never exceeded 10 minutes. Our second day, Saturday delivered
the views which the snowstorm had hidden from us on Friday. The vista from atop
Madonna encompasses the Champlain Valley to the west, the Worcester Range to
the east, and a spectacular Mt. Mansfield massif to the immediate south, with
Stowe’s trails descending its flanks and the ski trails on Sterling Mountain
in the middle ground.
Exiting Doc Dempsey’s on one run and rounding the top bullwheel of the M2 lift,
we cruised onto Goat Path and found “Blue Heaven” on a trail called Dan’s Ford.
Mark initiated countless dreamy turns on ungroomed snow, finding untracked on
the edges and chowder in the middle. We weren’t sure of where we were going
other than downhill in Vermont, and didn’t really care thanks to the fantastic
We were fortunate on Saturday to have First Tracks!!
Online Contributing Writer Matt Duffy as
a tour guide. A Smuggs passholder, Matt proved that this area has some serious
skiing firepower – in no way could we possibly sink our teeth into all of the
terrain that we wanted to in a single day … or possibly in a week, for that
matter. He took us on several out-of-bounds runs into the dramatic cleft of
Smugglers’ Notch Pass, steep forested shots which ended with a pole along the
unplowed Vermont Route 108 to return to the resort. Local knowledge is essential
here, for the entrances are difficult to locate, uncleared lines are nearly
too dense to ski, and cliff bands and ledges abound to vex the unaware.
Our last visit to these candy stores required 20 minutes of hiking. Bluebird
skies prevailed as we trudged past the snow covered conifers – we were living
in a Christmas card. Arriving at our target, we clicked in with anticipation
and made the narrow traverse to an impossibly narrow chute. Matt stunned us
all by making a half dozen quick turns in the space of about a yard and then
screamed into the woods. We followed by gingerly side-stepping, humbled in the
tracks of Matt, before we were able to make some tight hop turns of our own.
When we reached Matt, he had gear trouble – a severely bent pole. We tried to
arrive at some engineering solutions: duct tape .. compression straps with a
stick as a brace .. strips of wool …. The final solution was to substitute
a sturdy branch for the hopelessly-fouled pole. We thereafter enjoyed an epic
powder run through the woods, propelled by the spirit of adventure through lines
and variations that we discovered on our own as we took full advantage of our
freedom in the off-piste.
These lines finally proved without a doubt that while Smuggs has soup-to-nuts
learning programs and gentle beginner terrain, the "family resort"
appellation hides a wealth of high-octane skiing.
A FUTURE WITH A PAST
In an era of ski area consolidations, Smugglers’ Notch remains one of the last
independent big-mountain ski resorts in Vermont. Stritzler steers clear of the
term "master plan" in favor of a "vision." This vision includes
maintaining the character of traditional New England skiing on Madonna and Sterling
Mountains. "We’re committed to it," emphasizes Stritzler. "The
intent is not to turn (the mountain) into wide-open highway cruising trails,"
adds Barbara Thomke, the resort’s Marketing Director. Stritzler envisions a
build-out of only 65% snowmaking coverage on advanced terrain, 85% of intermediate
terrain, and 100% coverage on novice terrain. The feedback that he has received
from the mountain’s advanced skiers indicates that their customer base wishes
to leave a significant chunk of the advanced terrain for natural snow only.
Smugglers’ Notch understands the need to modernize their uphill transport system,
but don’t expect to find a high-speed lift on Madonna. "You can either
make it a great ride up the mountain, or a great ride down," quips Stritzler.
Smugglers’ Notch’s long-term lease with the State of Vermont includes terrain
in the Morse Bowl between Morse and Madonna Mountains, up to the top of Morse
Mountain itself (lifts only ascend the mountain’s lower flanks at this time),
and Stritzler’s vision includes skiing from Morse’s summit. Smuggs is presently
engaged in initial discussions with state wildlife biologists regarding black
bear habitat mitigation for this terrain. Also under consideration is a lift
in the bowl between Madonna and Sterling Mountains.
Off the ski mountain, Smugglers’ Notch Resort owns 1,000 acres to the immediate
northwest of the current village. Initial plans are to commit 750 of those acres
to preservation, and develop cluster housing on the remaining 250 acres. Also
envisioned is a multifaceted Vermont-themed resort, including such educational
amenities as a working farm, a wilderness learning center, and a family golf
learning center – but not a golf course, as Stritzler does not view golf as
a family activity.
All of this, however, will take time. "We don’t grow for the sake of growing,"
cautions Stritzler. "We’ll only grow based on demand." Smugglers’
Notch projects a modest 3 to 5% annual growth rate. Resisting not only the term
but also the concept of a master plan, Stritzler believes in developing projects
in small steps, then standing back to understand and analyze the impact of each
Many ski resort operators view cruise boats and Disney World as their primary
competition for the lift ticket dollar. Many ski areas compete in this arena
by enhancing amenities which, in the view of some, degrade the quality of the
ski experience. Smuggs, however, as found a unique way to blend the family element
with top-quality New England skiing, without sacrificing either in the process.
"We decided to concentrate on the family experience," explains Stritzler.
"The ski experience, the experience after skiing, the learning experience
… not just skiing, but the entire learning experience … we do everything
we can to make it fun." They must be doing something right, for the combined
ratio of returning guests and referrals is an enviable 65 to 68%, not including
those who opt for vacation ownership.
Smugglers’ Notch doesn’t sell "time shares," preferring the moniker
"vacation ownership." In addition to pre-purchasing lodging, Vacation
Owners also obtain skiing and all other resort activities for their purchase
price. It’s yet another example of how Smuggs strives to create a hassle-free
vacation experience for families.
Smugglers’ Notch is one resort that we don’t feel compelled to urge skiers
to "get there before it’s gone." We have every confidence that traditional,
natural skiing will continue to exist at Smuggs for many years to come.