Today I left my home in the Midwest to take a ski trip to … New England.
Sound unusual? Certainly. But it’s all part of a love of the snow, and taking in something of the variety of places where people ride and ski, and the experiences they have in getting to their favorite places.
But for many people, it takes a while to get there. Say, for example, you’re headed to Breckenridge, Colorado from the Midwest. In good traffic, that’s a 14-hour trip from Minneapolis, a 16-hour drive from Chicago, and a 20-hour drive from Detroit (numbers based on Mapquest city-to-city directions). That’s a long drive, especially for families with young children. The alternative, travel by air, is expensive and offers a whole other set of bothers (Hello, TSA!).
By contrast, residents of the northeastern U.S. can more easily drive to a big ski area. To drive to Killington takes 3 hours from Boston, 5 hours from New York City, and 6.5 hours from Philadelphia. Again, that’s in an ideal Mapquest world, but I’m comparing ideal situations from both regions.
For my trip, I flew to Killington and then caught up with a friend who was flying in from another state. Driving down to Killington from Burlington International Airport offered me the chance to do something I’ve seldom done, which is to observe the countryside, which was interesting in itself. Some buildings were decrepit, but the white house/black shutter theme was even more prominent. I enjoyed seeing signs for river tubing: Theoretically possible right now, but at the risk of hypothermia.
If you like big, you’ll like Killington. By standards of the Eastern United States, it’s a big place. It used to claim 140 trails that run for 71 miles, along with and 752 skiable acres, and six summits. But when it opened a glade-to-glade policy, that number shot up to 1,509 acres. The number of trails, as of 2014, is listed at 155, running for 73 miles.
From east to west the summits are Sunrise Mountain (elevation: 2,456 feet), Bear Mountain (3,295), Skye Peak (3,800), Killington Peak (4,241), Snowdown Mountain (3,592), and Ramshead Mountain (3,610). If you stay at the Killington Grand Lodge, you can see several of them from your balcony. Here’s a photo of Killington Peak, Snowdown Mountain, and Ramshead Mountain.
In general (there are exceptions), the closer you get to the middle of the resort, the steeper the terrain. Sunrise Mountain on the east and Ramshead Mountain on the west have no diamond-rated terrain, for example. On the far east, Sunrise (and Bear) is home to some long, flattish green trails that will test a rider’s ability to work a slope for a sustained distance (over 3 miles) without much of an edge change. To get there, leave the K-1 Express Gondola and head right (east) toward Juggernaut, Solitude, or Bear Trax, and end up at either the Sunrise Cafe, the Bear Mountain Lodge, or the Skyeship Lodge.
Ramshead, meanwhile, occupies the far western side. It’s home to the children’s learning program, but it also has three long green and blue routes of considerable length. The combination of Swirl and Easy Street occupies the western edge, and is nicely framed by trees that provide a not-to-narrow, not-too-tight feel. Header, which runs under the lift, is a wide-open blue with plenty of room to move, or, when conditions allow, turn on the jets. Timberline, meanwhile, dumps into a terrain park. You can also leave Timberline and head into the woods.
To get to the most challenging terrain, though, ride the K-1 Express Gondola and hit Cascade (running nearly underneath the Gondola), Flume, or several other options. Ovation is known for its steeps; you will know why if you look at it from the K1 Gondola, or from the K1 Lodge. Superstar ( You can also find black terrain off Skye and Sundown. Bear features Outer Limits, another steep-and-bumpy ride.
If your tastes are more toward intermediate trails, you’ll find the greatest selection between the Bear Mountain and Killington Peak. Some take you down to the Bear Mountain Quad, though you should also try out the goods available from the nearby Sky Peak Express Quad as well.
If you have a group of vastly different abilities, you may have a challenge in keeping everyone on the same lift. Sunrise and Ramshead won’t have anything to interest the experts. Beginners will be able to take laps on Great Northern from the K1 gondola, and they can add in a few more trails from the gondola as their skills expand, but they will probably need more time to take the round-about routes to the base.
While the five lodges are great for dispersing crowds on busy days, they guarantee that people in a group should know ahead of time where everyone will meet for lunch.
On my visit, I found no terribly horrible difficulties for snowboarders. It was not necessary to take long cat tracks, for example, though the mountains could have benefited from some benches where riders can secure their bindings.
It had been unseasonably warm the week before my visit, they turned on the guns. (The slopes needed it; there were a few brown spots when I arrived.) Riding through snow guns is never a fun experience (arctic storms combined with the noise of a car wash!), but with the MLK weekend coming up a few days later, management had little choice but to unleash the snowmaking machine. And it worked just fine, giving me a few freshies at the edges of trails.
On-mountain day lodges are an essential part of the scene at modern ski resorts. I was surprised, however, at how basic, downmarket, or should I saw, “functional” — the lodges at Killington are.
The bleakest lodge may have been the Bear Mountain lodge, where I saw paint peeling from the ceiling in the hallway that leads downstairs to the restroom. The sitting area is on the main floor. It has row after row of rectangular tables, not too different from the kind you might spot in a school cafeteria. It is on the dark side, but it’s also a good place to warm up an grab some food. I used the visit to check in with a mountain ambassador who suggested several lifts I could take to get to my hotel to finish my day.
Cashier station at Bear Mountain lodge
The dining rooms at Ramshead, a lodge at the other side of the resort, range from OK to a bit claustrophobic. The main room benefits from a glass wall.
Taking a break at the Ramshead lodge
An adjacent room, on the other hand, is not as pleasant. Youth programs are run out of this lodge–perhaps this very room.
Looking on the dark side in this room at Ramshead Lodge
The outside of the lodges appears to be maintained well enough, but again, looks dated. Here’s one outside shot, which I can’t identify. From what I recall, all the lodges have this color scheme, and basic design.
Day lodge at Killington
One lodge, perhaps it was the K-1 lodge, specifically called out a room or two for people who wanted to leave bags. In an age where resorts are pushing people into lockers, I give them credit for that. (At least I think the signs I saw meant that people could leave bags out in the open, if they wished.)
The men’s room in each of the lodges I visited had two features I haven’t seen in many other places. One was the truck-stop condom dispenser, perhaps confirmation of Killington’s reputation as a “party mountain.” Another was a sign calling out some efforts to recycle water.
Killington reclaims water
Now, if I’ve been critical, let me point out something: Given the choice between great snow (good snowmaking and grooming) and upscale lodges, I’ll take great snow every time.
For the 2013-2014 season, the resort should have a new state-of-the-art day lodge, called the Killington Peak Lodge, at the highest peak.
Of the facilities in place now, the most pleasant may be the Roaring Brook Umbrella Bars at the K-1 Lodge. After tropical storm Irene undermined the foundation of the bar that had been part of the lodge, the resort built and placed these two umbrella bars. They’re spartan (nice furniture, windows everywhere, no restroom) and bright. In the spring, they can “fold” the roof, much like a deck umbrella, and even remove the glass walls.
Our group had a reception at one of the bars, long after the lifts were closed. Keeping the hot things hot and the cold things cold is something of an engineering challenge, but the resort had it figured out. The bars serve “light food,” but if you want plenty of natural light during the day, it’s the place to be.
Roaring Brook umbrella bar at K-1 lodge
Another point worth checking out is the the Long Trail Pub, a facility on the upper level of the Snowshed Lodge. It was reasonably nice–perhaps what you’d find at a moderately priced public golf course.
I also spent a few hours at Pico, a nearby mountain also owned by Killington. The “Sunshine Lodge” is has some good natural lighting, though to get there you have to walk on concrete floors. Still, the deep-brown ceiling darkens the room a bit.
The Sunshine Room at Pico
The lodge also has some basic–and free–open-cubicle storage for your stuff.
Store your stuff at Pico
One, or better yet, several terrain parks has become an essential part of any snow-based resort these days. But few parks are like The Stash, a park at Killington emphasizes a natural look. All the rails are made of wood, not metal.
For slopeside lodging, visit the Killington Grand Resort Hotel. Between the hotel and the mountain is a pond that the resort uses to store water for its snowmaking operations. Cross a pedestrian bridge and you’ll get to both the Double Diamond rental shop at the Snowshed base and a few lifts. The walk is roughly what you’d cover while playing golf on a par-4 hole. With adequate snow coverage, skiers can pole out over the bridge and ride back in. Snowboarders, with adequate snow and proper planning, can “ski in” for a ways, though traffic may limit the distance they travel. (I got roughly one-fourth of the way through, and could have gone further had I kept up my speed.)
Killington Grand Hotel, looking from the pedestrian bridge over the pond
The hotel is a fractional (quarter-time) ownership operation, with a company managing rentals for the owners. During my stay, some rooms were renovated, while others were not. My sleeping room was nice enough, with a dresser, desk, bedside table, two queen beds, and a balcony that faced the mountain. The bathroom contained the toilet, bathtub/shower, and sink, with another sink outside the bathroom door. The closet was adequate. There was a flat-panel TV in the room, though I never used it. Ditto for the clock radio with adapter for iPhones/iPods.
While it was nice to look at the mountain from the balcony, I might prefer a room that faces the parking lot instead. Several days, the snowmaking or grooming operations (I wasn’t sure which) were noticeable about 5 a.m. or so.
Sleeping room at the Killington Grand Hotel
The lodge has three levels for sleeping. The main floor includes not only lodging, but the entrance (valet parking available), registration desk, and gift shop. There’s a fireplace on both the ground and first floor, with pleasant furniture surrounding both fireplaces.
Commons area at Killington Grand Hotel
But the best stuff is on the lower level, starting with the food service. Ovations, the restaurant, served our group a selection of hors d’oeuvres. I was skeptical, but found plenty to like, including bison sliders with feta cheese. The beer selection is not large, but it is adequate and includes beers from some large regional brewers, including Goose Island (Chicago) and Long Trail (Vermont) as well as the ubiquitous brands. When I went back with some companions for a nightcap on a Thursday night, a small band was playing away. They were adequate, I guess, but their volume was so great that it quickly drove me away. The hotel could benefit from a place to share a drink or two, quietly, but if it’s there, I never found it.
The hotel serves breakfast in a different room, down a hallway. There’s not much ambiance; the feel is more of a conference center ballroom than anything. A resort manager told me that they like to separate the serving area for breakfast and dinner so that going to the dining area doesn’t become a stale experience. It’s hard to argue with that. Breakfast is a buffet, with made-to-order omelettes, plus bin after bin of good breakfast food: scrambled eggs, pancakes or French toast (alternating days), bacon, sausage, potatoes, fruits, and pastries. Breakfast cereal is also available, as are several juices. A member of the wait staff may serve up some coffee for you, though if you’re impatient, as I was, it might be worthwhile to get it yourself from one of the several dispensers on the perimeter of the room.
If you’ve beaten yourself up on the slopes during the day, you’ll welcome the health club, also on the ground level. A heated pool, four feet deep, is outside, giving guests the chance to view the snowy mountains while staying warm. Enter the pool while in a heated area inside, and then pass through a heavy plastic curtain to enter the main pool area. Why aren’t more pools so civilized?
Enter the outdoor heated pool at the Hotel Grand Hotel through a heated room inside the hotel.
Two in-ground hot tubs are adjacent to the pool; getting there requires walking on the pool deck (exterior door from the hotel) or climbing over the pool wall. The jets, at least in my experience, were a bit too strong. The steam room, back near the entrance to the pool, was too stinky for me to to linger, though the sauna was in fine condition.
Hotel guests can also use a variety of equipment for a cardio workout or strength conditioning. For additional fees, a spa offers a variety of treatments. This being Vermont, you can get a “maple sugar scrub” in a variety of services.
On a more utilitarian note, you can check your equipment on the ground floor, too, free of charge.
Children seeking some indoor amusements won’t find much at the Grand; there is a small arcade, a ping-pong table, a pool table, and a large TV paired with what appeared to be comfortable furniture, all on the ground floor, but not much else.
Recycled chair lift, on the ground floor at the Killington Grand Hotel
There are plenty of eating options near the mountain, but if you’d like a culinary experience, stay on the mountain, at the Ledgewood Yurt. During my visit to Killington, our group met outside the umbrella bars for our sleigh ride (10-15 minutes) to the on-mountain yurt. In the song “Jingle Bells,” carolers sing of “laughing all the way” in a “one-horse open sleigh.” We didn’t laugh all the way, but our spirits were in fact bright.
We were propelled not by a horse, but by horsepower, of the diesel variety, housed in a snowcat. The noise from the engine was noticeable but bearable, but it didn’t disrupt our conversation. The cat illuminated the trails with lights that flooded the trees and the snow, giving everything a semi-haunted look.
We traversed the resort over towards the Needles area, perhaps crossing some ski trails along the way. Soon, we saw two small buildings through the aid of Christmas-style lights.
Everything about the place said “first class tent, and more,” starting with the decking. No splintering or aging wood here. And if you think “tent” means “freezing cold,” think again. Though the yurt is a big piece of canvas draped over a wooden frame, it was quite warm. I was careful to not sit near the wood-burning stove. You might wish to take a cardigan with you, to keep warm on the ride, but comfortable in the yurt.
The yurt seats about 40 people, but once we were seated, it did not feel crowded. There were eight of us at our table, and we generally conversed in pods–the four closest to the wall in one pod, and four closest to the open part of the room in another. We ate off pewter plates and drank out of pewter cups, a nod, I was told, to the tradition of the Mongolian yurt. (Whether that’s accurate, I don’t know, as the server stumbled when I asked, “why pewter?”)
We had five courses in our meal, or as the menu calls it, five “experiences.” Everyone had the same prix-fixe menu (alcohol extra), though though one of my companions had the vegetarian option. The yurt has eight family nights during the year, in which it offers more traditional fare. Children are allowed in the yurt only on these nights, which is good for anyone who wants a few child-free hours. The shorter family-night evening also accommodates the shorter attention span of children. You may have read elsewhere that the menu changes monthly. That used to be the case, but it is no longer true. The chef told us they went to a season-long calendar to avoid the following situation: Elizabeth has a great meal, and tells her friend Carol, who comes two months later. Carol is disappointed to find an entirely different menu. Sounds reasonable to me.
Before each course, the chef or a member of the staff explained each item that was set before us, and answered any questions we had. Since I did not even know some of the names of the items on the menu, I certainly had questions. How many items below do you recognize?
Though some of the items weren’t ordinarily to my liking–“beet flan” sounds interesting, but it’s still a beets-based dish–it appeared that everything was prepared well. It certainly had good presentation value. The drink menu was limited, but I was served well enough by two regional beers, probably from Long Trail. Everyone of my three conversation partners was satisfied, though only one could actually eat everything offered to him.
If nature calls during the evening, you have to leave the yurt for the unisex toilet, which is also the nicest outhouse you’ll likely encounter. Like the yurt, it was comfortably warm. In one way, it is more “finished” than the yurt, in that it is all wood, no canvas.
The staff told me that people take photos of the outhouse, so I thought, why not? Though the photo suggests the walls are raw plywood or particle board, what you see in the photo is instead wallpaper. The doors you see are of a storage cabinet. The white panel controls the incinerator that consumes the waste at the end of the business day. (The stool is below the panel, out of view.)
The yurt is a labor-intensive operation. The staff cooks the food in the Grand Resort and then transports it to the yurt. In fact, they transport everything up to and then down from the yurt, every day. The several plates you eat during the meal? They’re taken down the mountain after you leave, and then sent back up for the next day. Same for the cups and silverware, not to mention beverage bottles and other items.
An evening at the yurt isn’t cheap; it’s about $109-$119 per person, before tax, tip, and drinks. (Family-night meals cost $59.) But if you want an upscale change from the usual ski-vacation meal, call for a reservation.