A recent visit to Bolton Valley Nordic Center in Vermont afforded me an up close look at the newest sensation in cross country skiing – backcountry access at a commercial xc ski area. Bolton boasts having 62 km of high elevation backcountry ski trails including steep winding trails through birch glades, mellow trails for touring, and plenty of powder turns on the way back down.
In mid-February while much of New England was wondering when winter would begin, Bolton Valley Nordic Center with its base elevation of 2,100 feet has fresh snow and a reliable, plentiful base. The facility has 26 km of groomed trails, too. The rental equipment includes backcountry gear for either xc skiing or snowshoeing. The famous Catamount Trail is amidst Bolton’s trail system and there seems to be no limit to interest in this market segment. In fact, the grand daddy of xc ski areas, Trapp Family Lodge now offers 2,500 acres and 40 km of trails in the backcountry, too.
At Bolton Valley Nordic Center's eastern side, the Bryant Ski Trail takes skiers uphill on an hour trek to the Bryant Camp Backcountry Cabin (2,690 foot elevation). Not much to the building but it is a destination that opens into various trails further up the terrain. By the time I arrived in the late morning the trails were packed by previous skiers. I had a few chats with other skiers, who donned gear ranging from lightweight xc skis to heavy telemark gear with climbing skins, wide waxless skis with BC boot/bindings, and I even dodged a snowboarder careening down the packed trail on a split decision snowboard.
I had a conversation with a couple of skiers, who admitted to taking the Wilderness Lift at the adjacent Bolton Valley alpine ski area to ski from the Peggy Dow’s Trail to the Nordic area’s backcountry terrain and the Heavenly Highway Trail where I met them. I skied further up the Highway and then turned on to an aptly named trail called Devil’s Drop, which was really a downhill powder run with switchbacks.
Clearly, you want to ski these trails on a day with good soft snow conditions. The trails are well marked and with skiers dropping down into untracked lines through the trees the upper trails can be a bit confusing. It appeared that after skiing around a few times it would be more comforting as one becomes familiar with the upper trails. There is an overlook named Stowe View and another trail where you can reach a destination named Olga’s Falls. The Bolton-Trapp Trail uses the Catamount Trail (Vermont’s lengthwise winter trail) between the Bolton Valley Nordic Center and Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe and this reaches the highest point on the Catamount Trail at 3,310 foot elevation.
The west side of the Bolton trails covers another entire area to ski and looking at the map contours it is appealing for some downhill fun. The backcountry area also has some delineated glade areas on the trail map and one would imagine that there could be much more of these cleaned areas to give skiers more to enjoy.
Trapp Family Lodge offers guided tours in the backcountry for $35 hour and there is a 3-day package with rental equipment, skill lessons, and a full day tour for $250. Bolton has backcountry rental gear for $30.
Uphill Transport for Skiing the Glades
About a decade ago, alpine ski resorts came to the realization that gladed areas (skiing in the trees rather than on the groomed slopes) between trails offers great fun to skiers. They have created safe glades on gentle terrain by eliminating underbrush, smaller trees, and rocks so there is more room for skiers to pick their way through the forest (somewhat) safely. Glade areas for advanced skiers offer steeper terrain and more obstacles.
Call me a heretic, but I feel that the time has come for xc ski area operators to accept that there are many skiers who would like to access these backcountry stashes without having to climb and get so tired. Clearly there is a portion of the skiing population who would pay for transport up to higher elevations to access these areas so they can enjoy the downhill runs. For a few extra dollars above the trail pass, such transport could be provided with an industrial snowmobile (which most resorts already use) pulling an attached trailer with seats. And maybe the snowmobile driver can stop at the top to take some photos of the skiers as they take off down the terrain. Skiers can purchase the photo documentation back at the lodge and get the photos emailed to their computer or phone so they can show their weekend adventure to coworkers on Monday morning at work.
I imagine that xc ski resort operators might feel that such a service is the domain of alpine ski resorts...but xc ski areas could offer a more natural service within the context of xc skiing and snowshoeing. People like high places and the product supplier companies have recently produced a proliferation of off-track and backcountry equipment. This type of xc ski resort service has arrived.