Plymouth, VT – My mission was a daunting one: to find lift-served elbow room in Vermont during the extended President’s Weekend holiday. Longing to escape the crowds and find my own personal enclave of solitude amongst the state’s numerous ski lifts, I had already spent hours on Saturday night mulling over the various pros and cons of my many options when a previously overlooked choice popped into my head: Bear Creek Mountain Club.
Bear Creek’s trails spill down the flanks of
Bear Creek’s warm and inviting base lodge.
All of this, and showers, too.
Where’s Waldo? For that matter, where’s anybody?
Click image to open a full-size trail map.
The fare served in Bear Creek’s tavern is anything but ski-area standard.
It’s admittedly easy to forget that the former Round Top Ski Area exists, sandwiched as it is between central Vermont giants Okemo and Killington. You won’t find brochures for the Bear Creek Club in the rack at your local ski shop either, for Bear Creek is now a semi-private skiing and snowboarding country club. Members ante up hefty membership dues to lay claim to their own corner of snow-laden paradise. With a daily maximum of 450 people riding the lift at Bear Creek, the decision of where to escape the holiday crowds on Sunday was a no-brainer. I’d found my answer. Little did I realize just how remarkably successful this plan would be.
ALL THE ROOM YOU NEED
The thermometer clung to a reading of zero degrees Fahrenheit when the alarm clock rang on Sunday morning. I grunted, leaned over, and hit the clock’s snooze button until things warmed a bit. It was thus nearly 10:30 in the morning when I eased my car into Bear Creek’s parking lot, only to find that a mere 18 other cars had arrived before me. Eighteen cars? On a holiday weekend in central Vermont? Was the lift open? This was nearly too good to be true.
Visitors to Bear Creek Mountain Club will immediately notice upon arrival that things here are different from the norm. As if a deserted parking lot isn’t enough, there’s no ski shop, nor a rental shop. A clapboard base lodge, warmly New England in its architecture, welcomes guests to the club. It’s much smaller than one would expect at a 1,300 vertical-foot ski area, but let’s face it: with a maximum of 450 guests per day, extra lodge space is not required. Within that lodge is a luxurious locker room akin to that found at upscale golf clubs. Rich mahogany lockers are available to stow extra gear, and even hot showers are available for those who feel the need. After marveling at these amenities, however, what mattered most was the skiing. Closer examination of the clubhouse facilities would have to wait, and I headed out the back door to board Bear Creek’s lone double chair.
You won’t find high-speed quads zipping up the flanks of Salt Ash Mountain, the geographic feature upon which Bear Creek Mountain Club’s facilities reside, but without lift lines such modern uphill conveyances aren’t necessary. You’ll make plenty of runs to wear yourself out over the course of a day, and even come to appreciate the restful ride provided by a fixed-grip chair. Except for the occasional guest spotted at the top or base terminals of the lift, I never saw another soul on the hill all day. Really.
On a holiday weekend, this was downright spooky. Groomers still sported visible corduroy lines well after lunch time. Swoop and dive down the hill at will at Bear Creek, for you’ll have virtually all of the elbow room you desire.
THE PRICE OF ADMISSION
Bear Creek Mountain Club’s analogies to a private golf country club are nearly endless. Joining the Bear Creek elite requires a membership deposit ranging from $9,000 for an individual lifetime membership to $13,500 for an adult joint membership, plus annual dues of $900 and $1,350, respectively. Each junior membership requires a membership deposit of $7,500 and annual dues of $750, and a junior membership automatically converts to an adult membership once the junior member turns 18. The club’s annual dues include a season pass to use the ski facilities. A less costly alternative for members’ children is to buy each child a junior pass, but that child will have to pay guest fees or become an adult member once they turn 18 to continue to use the club’s facilities. Much of Bear Creek Mountain Club’s current membership hails from southwestern Connecticut and the suburbs north of New York City, and members routinely make the weekend commute to enjoy their own little exclusive slice of solitude.
The rewards of membership include an ownership share in the club property and first dibs at securing lift privileges on any given day. Any member may also invite a guest up to six times per year at special member-guest rates. It’s a popular concept in Ontario, but rare in the U.S. Contrary to popular belief, however, there are opportunities for the general public to ski at Bear Creek Mountain Club.
As long as fewer than 450 members and member-guests have reserved space for a ski day, and it seems unlikely to this writer that this limit has ever been reached, any remaining slots are deemed to be open to the general public. On Saturdays, a lift ticket for the general public costs a steep $75. On Sundays the price drops to $50. Junior rates are lower, but the real deal is available on Thursdays and Fridays, when a lift ticket and a lunch buffet costs a very reasonable $40 for anyone. Bear Creek Mountain Club’s lifts remain silent Monday through Wednesday.
If that lunch buffet is anything like the food available in the clubhouse tavern, that’s a bargain indeed. I took my time lingering over lunch, for the mercury failed to climb out of the low teens, and my taste buds were appreciative of my sloth. The club’s Executive Chef, Dan Croft, has crafted an imaginative New American menu, sporting delicacies that range from Slow-Roasted Baby Back Ribs with Homemade Root Vegetable Chips in the tavern, to more elaborate entrées in the upstairs dining room, such as Grilled Atlantic Salmon with shallot pinot grigio veloute and Basmati rice. You won’t find any ski resort standard hockey-puck hamburgers and greasy french fries at Bear Creek Mountain Club. Menu choices are priced similarly to offerings at any off-mountain restaurant, and the dining room is well worth an evening visit even if you’re not skiing at Bear Creek.
TERRAIN LOADED WITH ENTERTAINMENT
After thoroughly enjoying my lunch break, lingering to thaw out the tip of my nose and my nearly frostbitten toes, I spent much of the afternoon back in frozen reality, enduring the wind chill generated by following Bear Creek’s V.P. and General Manager, John Neal. Neal screamed across the mountain. Seldom pausing to even catch his breath, he felt the pulse of the mountain, linking high-speed combinations down groomers, through bumps on the mountain’s “Woodpecker” trail, and between the trees of the mountain’s only glade. His past life as a race coach was evident as I struggled simply to keep up with him on his favorite run, “Coolidge”. The goal of escaping holiday crowds had come full circle, though, for now I was simply grateful to be in Neal’s company to break up the solitude. That was all the motivation I needed to keep the tails of his skis within sight and abandon any thought of stopping in a cozy slopeside yurt to warm up.
Neal is proud of what’s been accomplished thus far at Bear Creek Mountain Club. The Round Top chairlift sat dormant for years before being reopened by the club, and Neal recounted in loving detail the effort necessary to resurrect the lift and clear new growth from the neglected trails. The next phase of club development is now ready to take hold, as member condominiums are planned adjacent to the club’s current parking lot. A few private chalets dating from the Round Top days already line the “Wedel Village” trail. Plans are afoot to expand the ski terrain, but the club’s voluntary protection of extensive land holdings to maintain bear habitat is tied inextricably to those plans.
Salt Ash Mountain is tucked into a narrow valley between some of the state’s highest peaks. Killington Peak, at 4,233 feet the second highest point in Vermont, loomed to our northwest and cast its stern gaze upon our day. The base terminal of Killington’s Skyeship gondola was less than four miles to the north on Route 100. The thought of the teeming masses at the East’s largest ski area, so close by and yet so far away, brought a silent smile to my face. The proximity of such lofty summits ensures that snowfall at Bear Creek is ample by central Vermont’s standards, a fact confirmed by the club’s installation of snowmaking coverage on only two of its runs. Despite the lean snow year of 2003-2004, however, nary a bare spot was in sight. The lack of significant skier and snowboarder traffic likewise helps a great deal to maintain snow quality.
None of Bear Creek Mountain Club’s terrain will give an expert pause, but the mountain’s slopes and trails are positively brimming with character. Runs spill down the mountain in a series of rolls, dives, and side hills loaded with entertainment, reminiscent of the Okemo of my childhood. Unlike its neighbor to the south, though, a single summit, a single base, and a single lift all conspire to ensure that family members and friends are easily able to locate each other and regroup throughout the day.
After venturing into the woods to sample the local snowpack, I capped my day with a screamer down “Goldbrook.” When was the last time that you found a green circle sporting a distinct double fall line? It was just the final example of the captivating ski terrain to which Bear Creek lays claim.
The next time I’m looking to escape the crowds in Vermont and combine a pleasant day of skiing with a scrumptious interlude of dining, I know where I’ll be found: Bear Creek Mountain Club.
IF YOU GO:
The 1,200-acre Hawk Inn & Mountain Resort is a hop, skip and a jump south of Bear Creek Mountain Club on Vermont Route 100. This luxurious resort and spa offers accommodation at their Inn ranging from winter rates of $325 per night for a standard room to $695 for a two-room fireplace suite. Secluded two-, three- and four-bedroom mountain villas are also available.
More traditional Vermont charm is available in Plymouth at the Salt Ash Inn. Each of their 17 uniquely appointed guest rooms features a private bath, and community areas include a fireplace and hot tub.
Besides the dining room upstairs at the Bear Creek Mountain Club, at The River Tavern at Hawk Inn & Mountain Resort Executive Chef Frank Van Overbeeke serves such delicacies in a romantic dining room overlooking the frozen Black River. Of course, for those willing to venture a bit further afield, the Killington Access Road and the town of Ludlow, home to Okemo Mountain Resort, both offer all manner of dining experiences.
For nightlife, it’s up to the Killington Access Road if rowdy fun is what you’re after. For a peaceful daytime diversion, be sure to venture over to Plymouth Notch, the birthplace of the 30th U.S. President, Calvin Coolidge. While the historic buildings are closed to visitors during the winter months, the entire village – home to only 29 residents and still lacking electricity or running water when Coolidge was inaugurated in 1924 – is now a state historic site. Whether the buildings are open or closed, it’s a fascinating glimpse into a much simpler era in Vermont.