Fresh powder clings to the branches of the balsams. I ski beneath a low-hanging limb; it suddenly springs skyward, showering me in cold flakes that sting my skin and momentarily steal my breath. Just ahead, I see a sign that could just as well be posted at the gates to the underworld: THIS TRAIL IS STEEP, NARROW, LONG, NOT PATROLLED, AND UNGROOMED. DO NOT SKI ALONE. A minute later, another sign advises that it’s nine miles to the Trapp Family Lodge, our ultimate destination today.
Is this heaven or hell? Our answer comes just uphill, past the ominous warnings, when one of my ski partners flies down through a snow-filled glade of bright-white birch trees. A grinning Sam von Trapp lets out a hoot and stops. “Welcome to Paradise,” he says. He scoops up a handful of fluff and blows it into the air. “Utah powder, right here in Vermont.”
It was Sam’s father, Johannes, who in the early 1980s oversaw the rebuilding and expansion of the famous lodge to which we’re headed. Sam has joined me, along with his wife, Elisa, and my wife, Sue Minter, for our foray along the Catamount Trail. The conditions we find there–a foot of soft snow under a bluebird sky–surprise us all.
Surprises are the only thing I can be sure of on the Catamount Trail. Although I’m familiar with where the trail goes, I can never predict how the day will go once I glide off into the backcountry. Icy snow at my house may be light powder on the trail; an inviting blue sky that beckons me out for a backcountry trek may quickly morph into a frigid gale. That’s why I return here, again and again. In a world that’s scheduled, mapped out, linked in, synced, and GPSed, the elemental unpredictability of a day sliding on snow in the Vermont mountains is something to be treasured. And the blanket of sparkly snow that we find on this day is like stumbling across a pirate’s hidden booty.
The Catamount Trail is the crown of Vermont. How it sparkles depends on where you ski it: Most of the 300-mile-long trail is beautiful, some of it is downright spectacular, and a bit of it is merely pedestrian, as it fulfills its ambitious mission of being a skiable path extending the entire length of Vermont.
Then there are the gems in that crown. For me, the ultimate experience of the Catamount Trail includes great skiing and a stay at one of the 13 inns that dot the route. This is the sugar and spice of the Catamount Trail: the rugged backcountry, bookended by the comfort of Vermont inns.
The best of the Catamount Trail is captured in two distinctly different tours. The first is the Bolton-Trapp Trail, a high, wild mountain adventure that ends at the opulent Trapp Family Lodge. The second is the route from Rikert Ski Touring Center in Ripton to the deliciously funky Blueberry Hill Inn in Goshen.
Johannes von Trapp recalls how he got it wrong. The 71-year-old éminence grise of the Trapp Family Lodge is shuttling Sam, Elisa, Sue, and me to Bolton Valley, where we’ll begin our day-long ski back to his lodge. “I thought that the future of skiing was in hut-to-hut travel through the mountains,” he chuckles.
The youngest child of Maria and Georg von Trapp (immortalized by Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer in The Sound of Music), Johannes founded the lodge’s cross-country ski center in 1968. Four years later, he and Gardiner Lane, who was running the cross-country center at Bolton Valley, cut the rugged Bolton-Trapp Trail.
“I thought that skiers would want to head out into the wilderness and stay overnight in rustic huts,” he says as we navigate the snowy mountain roads. “I never imagined that cross-country skiers would just end up staying at hotels and skiing on groomed trails at ski centers.” Luckily for him–the family’s humble ski lodge has grown to 96 rooms and suites, plus 100 chalets, 16 villas, 60 kilometers of groomed trails, and 100 kilometers of backcountry trails–Nordic skiing took a turn for the comfortable.
Sam von Trapp, 38, is the prodigal son who returned in 2007 from a decade of ski bumming in Colorado and Chile to take up the reins of the family ski center with his sister Kristina. He surveys his domain from high on the Bolton-Trapp Trail. Across the valley to the east, we see the frosted heights of the Worcester Mountains. The summit of Bolton Mountain, west of the trail, looms above. Beneath us lies our main focus: untracked powder. Sam drops in, arcing graceful telemark turns through the trees and down the trail. A rooster tail of snow bubbles up behind him.
Down and down we plunge, finally reaching a remote road, where we take off our skis before crossing. We spy the blue blaze with a cat’s pawprint on the other side of the road and rejoin the Catamount Trail. Soon, we’re skiing across a field to the gabled roofs of the Trapp Family Lodge and the welcoming aroma of woodsmoke. Stepping inside, the sound of a piano greets us. The warm wooden post-and-beam lodge dovetails neatly with our high mountain ramble.
After we change, we’re seated in the lodge’s main dining room, whose windows look out onto the wild world we’ve just exited. Memories of trail food are quickly banished, replaced by our Parmesan-encrusted sole, Wiener schnitzel, gemüese palatschinke (an Austrian herb crepe), and, of course, Linzer torte for dessert. It’s just what Johannes von Trapp had envisioned four decades earlier–except with sumptuous food and lodging.
A clump of yellow buildings–home of the renowned summertime Breadloaf Writers’ Conference–sits quietly at the crest of a hill in Ripton, Vermont. The solitude is broken by the buzz of activity from a structure perched alongside a field: Rikert Ski Touring Center, run by Middlebury College. Buff young racers in Spandex and ultralight skis shoot by the plodding slide-and-glide crowd here in a curious town/gown harmony. Sue and I wax our skis, start down the trails, then quickly slip off the groomed network and vanish into the nearby forest. We’re once again lured forward by the cat’s-paw blaze of the Catamount Trail. Within moments, we’re alone.
We float over an ungroomed trail into a hardwood forest. Wooden trail signs–one for skiing, another for hiking, and others for mountain biking–appear and disappear, evidence of the busy secret life of these woods. All that activity is a credit to longtime innkeeper Tony Clark and fellow outdoor enthusiasts, who in 2006 succeeded in having the forests and hills of this area designated as Moosalamoo National Recreation Area, a 15,857-acre preserve in the heart of Green Mountain National Forest, including more than 70 miles of trails.
Our woodsy ramble abruptly gives way to bright sunshine and open space as we reach the frozen Goshen Dam. This snowscape demands that we break out the dark chocolate that we carry in our packs for just such moments. When we resume our journey on the Catamount Trail, the uneven ground underfoot suddenly yields to a carpet of corduroy, the Blueberry Hill Inn’s groomed cross-country ski trails. We look down to see moose scat on the rippled snow surface; we look up to see a moose, 15 feet away. We eye each other warily, until the big animal strolls lazily away into the forest.
The trail snakes gently through a hardwood forest until it delivers us to a bright-blue 200-year-old farmhouse. Stepping through the inn’s red front door, we’re greeted by the aromas of freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies and a crackling fire. “You’re just in time for wine and cheese,” Tony Clark says. He leads us through a rainforest-like atrium to our room, a spacious loft with windows overlooking the trails. We trade ski clothes for comfortable cotton and wool and come out to meet the other guests. We nosh in a remarkably civilized ritual of inn life, which in time morphs effortlessly into a four-course family-style meal in the wood-paneled dining room. There’s Vermont goat-cheese souffle and wild salmon baked with pesto and roasted grape tomatoes, topped off by blueberry cobbler and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.
In between sips of wine, good conversation, and the incredible meal, I’m reminded of where we spent the earlier part of the day. Rugged, steep, ungroomed, unpatrolled: Backcountry skiing never tasted or felt so good.