Londonderry, VT – When I was in graduate school in 1988 I skied at Magic Mountain. The weekday lift tickets were $15 back then, an attractive price for a poor student. It may have been cheap, but I remember good skiing for such a small place, with nice terrain and no frills barely more than an hour from my school in New York State’s Capital District. The following year, Magic Mountain shut down operations for eight years and I turned my ski interests to the bigger Vermont ski areas further north.
Seven years ago, the lifts at Magic turned again. I have been itching to get back there since then to relive what I remembered from long ago, to enjoy the down-home skiing I once knew, to experience the Magic. I am sorry it has taken me this long to get back.
Driving east down Vermont Route 11 from Manchester travelers are treated to a fabulous view of the ski areas of southern Vermont’s “Golden Triangle”. Stratton stands out as the largest mountain with its many wide swaths of trail streaming down from its peak. Bromley is a smaller, compact hill with its continuous white ribbons gently rolling down its lone face. Magic Mountain has a significantly different look to it. There are no wide swaths or continuous ribbons to be seen, just glimpses of white peaking out from the trees, with one white snake visible meandering down one side and slipping behind the forest. These three uniquely different resorts are approximately 11 miles apart, forming a nearly equilateral triangle.
We got a late start due to an ice storm the previous night, and did not arrive in southern Vermont until just before noon. We had passed by south-facing Bromley and noticed the lift corrals with people waiting to load the lifts. As we passed Route 100, the scenic by-way known as the “Skier’s Highway” that rambles the length of Vermont’s Green Mountains, connecting nearly all of the state’s ski resorts, many cars turned south to go towards Stratton. We continued east, beyond the quaint Vermont Village of Londonderry with its shops, restaurants and lodges. The Magic Mountain Access Road could easily be missed. There is a sign, but it is not very flashy and it seems to blend in well with the scenery. As we drove up this short road to the ski area, we noticed the Swiss chalets and felt transported to another place and time.
Thinking that a noon arrival on a Saturday in February would mean full parking lots or remote parking and riding a shuttle, we were quite surprised to find the upper parking lot was barely a quarter full, and it was the shortest weekend walk to the base lodge in all of Vermont! A few other people were also arriving for afternoon skiing drawn in by the $33 half-day lift ticket and the improving weather.
The base lodge was scantily populated with lunching skiers and an old-time fiddle player in the corner filling the lunchroom air with fast-action, foot-stompin’ tunes. This added a good-ol’ down home vibe that brought smiles to everyone who walked in the door. The tables were few and widely spaced, giving a vacant feeling. There was no line of hungry skiers at the cafeteria. It was Saturday. Where was everyone? They must be out skiing. So out we went.
There are currently just two chairlifts at Magic Mountain, a double and a triple. They both go up the same mountain, only the double continues to ascend one short pitch higher than the triple. We learned that riding the double ‘red chair’ was all we needed to do to access the goods and take full advantage of the 1,650 vertical feet. So where are all the people? There were no lift corrals, and not even any semblance of a line. Just ski right up to the lift and load. Was it really Saturday? Were we in a time warp?
The passing storm that left us with a mixed bag of precipitation also left us with residual high winds. We could hear the wind howling above us as we admired the forethought that was put into the lift design. The chairs hung below the tops of the trees, nestled in the windless confines of the forest. It is a rare occasion for the lifts to go on wind hold at Magic Mountain.
Our plan was to ski every trail, and more if possible. The first trail we encountered had a rope across it. This was the legendary Master Magician, one of the steepest fall-line trails in Southern Vermont, boasting a 45 degree pitch. Much vegetation was exposed and there were only a few tracks on this trail that seemed to have been made a while ago, maybe before the ice-crust coating. This did not make this trail look very inviting, especially for the first run. We ogled the steep terrain as we passed it by, hoping there would be more of this magnitude with better coverage.
Around the next bend was Broomstick. It appeared to be open so we hung a hard right to see what we would find. Tall grass and small saplings jetted out from what seemed to be mostly fresh, untracked snow. We dove right in, only to be rudely awakened by the breakable crust that made every turn an effort.
We muscled our way down the next pitch to Heart of the Magician. There was a little more broken-up snow in this stretch and we were able to make it down safely in a previously tracked section of this trail. Despite the unusual conditions, we remarked at the continuous steepness this trail had as it rolled and meandered down the fall line. With the right snow, this trail has a lot of potential. Now we knew that we needed to ski where it had been skied before, as what appeared to be fresh snow was actually fresh, breakable crust.
On our next run we slid down off the lift in the other direction. Our aim was to ski Witch, but we got sidetracked when we came upon Goniff Glade on the first bend in the trail. This was a beautiful wooded trail with soft bumps and nice snow – until we got near the bottom, that is. Magic is a very rocky mountain and they need a lot of snow to cover all the rocks. Rock skis are recommended for any of the natural snow trails for optimal fun with less stress. Some places had bountiful coverage and other places did not, so we had to take the good with the bad, and it was definitely worth the cost of a ski tune and a little p-tex.
The most extreme of the mapped trails, Redline (named for its location under the Red Chair) is a very technical trip right down the center of the mountain. There were some very sweet lines on this trail that we scouted from the lift and watched others negotiate. Unfortunately there were some exposed trail-wide rock ledges that were unavoidable. Both of us were on brand new skis, so we decided to wait until more snow fell before attempting this gem. We were treated to views of some excellent (and not so excellent) skiers attempt this trail with the lift-riding audience overhead cheering them on.
By exiting the lift to skiers’ right you can access some nice groomed cruisers such as White Out and Wand. If you go exit to skier’s left you will be on Wizard, a narrow groomed cruiser that winds it way down the west side of the mountain, with some very interesting double black diamond terrain dropping off to the side.
Slide of Hans is a steep pitch off Wizard. It had a rope up. We were informed that the rope was to keep intermediate skiers from straying from Wizard, since Slide of Hans is accessed by going straight when Wizard turns a hard and narrow right at its entrance. Anything within the boundaries of Magic Mountain is fair game. So we ducked the rope and cut our way through lightly tracked crust. We knew that the more it got skied, the better it would get, so we did our part. Slide of Hans comes back onto Wizard, where across the slope lies an unnamed narrow shot of moguls through the woods. Top to bottom, this route very sweetly used the mountain’s full 1,650 vertical feet. In fact, every run off the lift uses the full vertical with only very short stretches of flats, run-outs or traverses interspersed along the way.
There were many nice shots in the woods that we spotted from the trails. Unfortunately the crust kept us in the zones that had some traffic, if you could even call it traffic. We only had to share a few trails with other skiers. One of them was Talisman.
Talisman is Magic’s premier trail with top-to-bottom snowmaking. They use this trail for GS races, though it had not been groomed since before the snowstorm earlier that week and thus contained perfect, soft moguls on a steep continuous pitch with a base that you could count on. We took many runs there, interspersed with trips into the Twilight Zone and Sorcerer.
Sorcerer had much vegetation showing and not a lot of skier tracks. My companion was not terribly excited about attempting this high-pitched trail off Wizard, but I easily made his decision by jumping on in, only to find the crust nicely broken with soft snow and no rock. The vegetation is skiable and we attempted to flatten it down with each turn. Because the mountain is so steep and rocky it is very difficult to mechanically trim the vegetation on these trails. I recommend goats.
The Twilight Zone is yet another beautiful double black diamond glade dotted with trees. It reminded me of Sugarbush’s Paradise, only steeper. The moguls were quite powdery and spoiled us until we arrived at the spot where this trail merges with Goniff Glade, as there the treacherous rock garden began. We picked our way around the exposed rock to the groomed cruiser, Wand.
The trails at Magic are narrower, twistier and steeper than most ski trails in Vermont. We saw no wide manicured trails like you would find at Okemo or Stratton. Sure, there are some nice groomed runs, but they are not like the boulevards of the other nearby resorts. The magic is that the skiing is the way it used to be, naturally challenging with only minimal help from machines.
Magic Mountain claims to have 87% snowmaking ability, but they do not seem to exercise it all. They take good care of the blue cruisers and green circle trails. We only saw manmade snow on one of the black diamond trails (Talisman). More than 50% of the terrain is true black and double black diamond skiing on natural snow. Magic’s trail map says 30% black diamond, but that is just on the cut trails. There is so much skiable terrain in the woods between the trails that the 50% estimate may be legitimate.
It was unfortunate that the previous day’s winter storm ended with an icy coating, as it hampered our ability to sample the goods between the trails. We expect to return when the snow coverage is better, softer and deeper so that we can truly enjoy the steeps and twists. We did however, make the most of the skiable terrain and rode the last chair to the top at 4 p.m.
In the base lodge, upstairs from the quiet cafeteria, is the very spacious location of après ski activity. A band was rocking and the beer was flowing at the bar. Skiers of all ages gathered to relax after a day on the slopes. There were families with children running around and senior citizens, as well as middle-aged and younger people in groups and pairs around the square bar and at tables. It seemed unusual to see such an even distribution of ages at the bar in celebration of a great day on the slopes. I talked to a few people and found that they come from all over – Boston, New York, and Rhode Island representations were prominent. Many of the people I talked to skied Magic when they were kids and now they bring their families there, as well as their friends. This is a trend that I kept running into, every time I spoke with someone. I did not meet anyone who had not been to Magic previously.
After a few copper ales we retired to the Blue Gentian Inn, a Swiss chalet-style lodge, just a thousand feet or so from the base lodge. This is a lovely lodge with a fabulous view of the mountain out the back door of each room. There is a comfortable lounge area with a fireplace and a dining area where breakfast is served. An outdoor hot tub is a new addition. Nothing beats soaking in 104-degree water outside in the cold Vermont night while the moonlight shines on the mountain while all the aches melt away. Family-style breakfast offerings include their home-made granola, yogurt and french toast with real maple syrup.
Lodging at the Blue Gentian and other nearby lodges is very affordable. In fact, a vacation to Magic Mountain will cost just a fraction of what the bigger resorts will cost. Midweek bargains can’t be beat. $40 will buy you a night at the Blue Gentian and a lift ticket. If you drive up on a Tuesday, you can ski for just $20, the ‘back to the seventies’ special among many posted on the Magic Mountain. Magic Mountain prides itself on providing an affordable ski experience. A full day lift ticket is still $25, far less than a the $46 ticket at nearby Stratton, and if you wait until the afternoon sun shines on the mountain you can purchase a half-day lift ticket for $33 on a Saturday and $20 on a Sunday. Weekdays you can shave another $10 off the weekend ticket price.
No weekend crowds to be seen outside the Magic Mountain base lodge.
Magic Mountain was the dream of Hans Thorner. Thorner was a pioneer in the ski industry who passed away last December at age 95. He brought his passion for skiing from his homeland of Switzerland in 1932. He had his hand in many ski-related endeavors, including ski movies (pre-Warren Miller) and proprietorship of a ski lodge in Franconia, New Hampshire, as well as a ski shop. He was a graduate of the first ski instructor certification class in this country, though he was previously certified in Switzerland. He worked at the Lake Placid Club in New York State’s Adirondack Mountains for a short while and said in an interview at one time, “The after-ski life of the Club was not exactly hilarious. There was no bar. It seemed like the headquarters of the WCTU as you snuck into your closet on the QT to sneak a slug of bourbon.” He enjoyed the après ski scene that was popular in Europe and wanted to bring that to this country. His dream was to transplant a piece of the Swiss Alps to his new land, and his dream was realized at Magic Mountain.
In 1960 Thorner bought 700 acres on Glebe Mountain, east of Londonderry, Vermont and began construction of a Swiss-style village at the base of the hill that he renamed Magic Mountain. This was the first ski area in this country to have an alpine village at its base. Thorner envisioned the concept of ski-in/ski-out lodging and sold slopeside lots for $600 with the purchase of $3,000 in stock in Magic Mountain. Thorner raised most of the capital to build his resort by rounding up investors this way. Operations began that year with a T-bar and two half-mile slopes and a small base lodge.
Magic had grown to 33 trails, three chair lifts and the original T-bar by 1985, when he sold it to the Holsteins who could not keep it operational. The lifts stopped turning in 1989 when it was taken over and liquidated by Boston Concessions.
The contents of the entire area, including the ski lifts and snowmaking equipment were sold and in the following eight years, Magic Mountain was left to decay. The lodge was vandalized and the trails became overgrown.
In 1997, forty investors banded together to form the Old Fashioned Ski Company to resurrect Magic Mountain. Improvements were made to the lodge and two lifts were restored. After two years of operation, the management and upkeep of a resort was more than this group could handle. The resort was put on the auction block in 1999 and sold for $500,000 to five investors, now forming Magic Mountain Management LLC. These five people have a great love for this mountain, as they knew it when they were kids. They had it in their hearts, and the money to back it, to keep the magic alive.
Since then many capital improvements have been made, including snowmaking, grooming equipment, and the addition of two new lifts to service easier terrain. Improvements were made to the base lodge, including expansion of the bar area with the addition of a beautiful south-facing outdoor deck. There are also two handle tows serving the Ala Kazam Snow Tubing Park and adjacent learning slope.
The new management felt it important to make the ski experience friendly to novice skiers and families. Families are the primary reason Magic Mountain is in operation today. Many of its patrons skied at Magic as children and are now bringing their own kids.
Plans are in place to install the two new lifts to serve the easier terrain. Some of the lift towers are in place and plans are to complete the project in the very near future.
Back to the Mountain
Waking up in the shadow of the mountain, it became clear that sleeping in is a good option if there is no fresh snow at Magic. The mountain faces due north, so it takes a while for the sun to rise high enough in the
sky to shine upon the trails and soften the snow.
The morning air was bitter – at 10 a.m. as it was still in only one degree above zero on the Fahrenheit scale. Frostbite became an issue for some and complete skin coverage was required, as were frequent visits to the base lodge to warm up. The early runs were firm and fast. It wasn’t until after lunch that the sun began to soften things up.
We had the opportunity to meet a pack of Magic regulars and take a few runs with them. These twenty- and thirty-somethings exuded a profound and infectious love for the mountain. They come from the New York metropolitan area and have made Magic their home hill. Each Friday they make the drive from The City to arrive at their weekend digs near the mountain. I expect that when these guys have children, the kids will get their ski legs at Magic Mountain as well, continuing the tradition.
Come with our camera and explore the magic of Magic Mountain with the
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These folks know the mountain like the back of their hand, and have had something to do with the nicely pruned tree shots hiding in the woods. They had hoped to take us to these stashes, but the crusty snow kept us on the trails that day. Nonetheless, the 33 trails kept us entertained and filled us with the desire to return when conditions permit us to explore more of Magic.
Magic is truly a skier’s mountain, a challenging playground from boundary to boundary.
It is a nice reprieve from the high-priced mega-resorts and it is often compared to Mad River Glen in its “skiing the way it used to be” image. Judging by the lack of Saturday crowds, it is still Vermont’s best-kept secret, and I have no shame in letting it out. I highly recommend a visit to Magic. Even though I enjoyed the uncrowded slopes, lack of lift lines and mellow scene in the base lodge, a few more people would not constitute a crowd. The masses are still going to flock to the other, fancier resorts. I would like to see this mountain continue in its tradition of providing a low-cost, high quality ski experience for many years to come. Experience the Magic.