After the historic blizzard of 2017 last week, the local backcountry skiing was revived with some incredible powder. Before this great ski season comes to a close, I figured it was time to write about Vermont’s backcountry skiing and the nearby Brandon Gap Backcountry Recreation Area.
There has never been a better time to be a skier in Vermont and to go to Middlebury than now, given Vermont’s incredible renaissance of backcountry skiing. Vermont’s open hardwood glades, undeveloped forested mountainsides with steep pitches and easy road access make the state a mecca for eastern woods skiing. In the past decade, there has been a growing interest in Vermont to ditch the ski resorts and ski lifts for a more primitive wilderness experience of skiing in the woods. The backcountry offers opportunities for untouched powder and solitude, which are rare to find at commercial ski areas
In place of motorized lifts to haul people up mountains, skiers have turned to using skins on the bottom of telemark or AT (Alpine Touring) skis, where the heel lifts like a cross-country ski, allowing for uphill travel. The increased interest in the backcountry skiing has also benefited from the recent development of advanced AT technology — ultra-light tech bindings, carbon skis and boots—that enhances the sport. Along with the growth in backcountry skiing has come the demand for more backcountry areas. Recently, though, illegal cutting on public and private lands to create open ski lines, known as glades, have tarnished the sincerity and authenticity of this great wilderness sport.
In response to illegal cutting and increased demand for more ski glades, the Rochester/Randolph Sports Trails Alliance was formed in 2013 to create legal and ecologically sustainable glades for public access. Fortunately for Middlebury, some of the best glades in Vermont were created by RASTA just a short, 40-minute drive south to Brandon Gap. RASTA has accomplished something unprecedented in the management of public lands by working alongside the Forests Service to permit the creation of glades in a National Forest. Never before has the Forest Service, an organization with a philosophy of multi-purpose/use management, recognized backcountry downhill skiing as a recreational sport by creating areas exclusively for it: glades. RASTA makes these backcountry ski areas possible by taking responsibility for the creation and maintenance of these new recreation zones that the Forest Service otherwise lacks the resources to take on.
Just a short distance south of Middlebury, the glades, which are located on the south side of Brandon Gap in the Green Mountain National Forest, are about as good as Vermont skiing can get. After a storm, first-tracks powder runs can last for days and the wilderness character of the forests provides a truly sublime experience if one skins up. It’s like going on a beautiful winter hike in the Green Mountains, but with the thrill of skiing down! Boasting four different backcountry zones, two trailheads and dozens of lines, there are many options at Brandon, suited for people with differently abilities and objectives. The entire network of glades along Brandon Gap is connected via the Long Trail, so full-day touring adventures are also possible.
Basics of Brandon Gap and Backcountry Skiing
As for equipment, AT or Telemark (tele) gear with skins and the ability to use them are necessary. Middlebury Outdoor Programs (MOP) has recently purchased AT gear and held introductory backcountry ski trips, so look for MOP programs to gain experience. You can borrow tele skis and skins from Middlebury’s Free Heelers Club. Peter Kerby-Miller (email@example.com) is the contact for the club.
The Long Trail Approach
This trailhead is at the top of Brandon gap where the Long Trail crosses. To access this area, you park at that point and skin along the right-hand side of the road until you reach the long trail. Follow the trail until you reach a trail sign that directs you right to ascend on the RASTA uphill skin track. The uphill skin track will always be marked by a yellow medallion.
The ski options here vary. The first backcountry area along the skin track is Sunrise Bowl which you can drop into at any point going up or you can wait to get to the top where a sign greets you. Sunrise Bowl is nice and mellow with some sweet low-pitch, consistent glades. Doing laps here can be fun. Sunrise Bowl lasts about 500 vertical feet before you get back onto the long trail, which is the runout back to the car.
The other zone accessible from this trailhead is the Goshen Mountain Backcountry Area, which you access by continuing on the uphill track past the Sunrise Bowl sign, eventually reaching the top of Goshen Mountain, which has some unique elevation meadows that provide sweeping views north on a clear day. This zone is steep and has about 1200 vertical feet. It is excellent after a big dump of snow and is recommended for expert skiers. If the snowpack is thin or there is little to no base, the lower section of the Goshen Mountain glades can have very thin cover, so use caution. The runout of Goshen requires skinning back to the car.
The Bear Brook/No Name Trail
The parking area for this trailhead is on the eastern side of Brandon Gap, just down the road from the Long Trail parking area. This trailhead accesses two zones — the Bear Brook and No Name Backcountry Areas. Bear Brook has the most vertical drop of the all the Brandon Gap zones, with a thrilling 1,300 feet of open woods. The glades in here are consistently steep and are absolutely heavenly after a big storm. Some lines in this area have small cliffs and drop-offs for an exciting powder experience. At a fork with a kiosk, follow the yellow medallions on the left for the uphill skin track. The way down will take you back to the short flat approach, where you will need to skin back out to the car.
The No Name area is accessed by another skin track on the right of the trail kiosk that ascends about 1000 ft. and has a more mellow assent for an easygoing run. Both these areas are perfect for doing laps. If multiple runs and vertical is what you’re after, Bear Brook works well by skiing halfway down and skinning back up before hitting the flat runout.
Check out the RASTA website for more info and maps: http://www.rastavt.org/ And feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for questions or if you’re interested learning more about backcountry skiing opportunities.
You can also view the article via The Campus here.
With this past week’s dramatic loss of snow and transition to unseasonably warm weather, I — as I am sure many others at Middlebury — had to shift gears in winter activities. From backcountry skiing in knee-deep powder (perhaps the best in years) just less than two weeks ago to 60-degree warmth, some rain, no snow and mud, I turned my interest to running. This past Saturday was nearly 70 degrees and, with the trails muddy, the usual Trail Around Middlebury (TAM) was not a good option. So I planned an extended road-run through the incredible pastoral landscape surrounding Middlebury.
I call this seven-mile run the Farm Loop. It starts right from campus, where I descend the hill on College Street towards town, making a left on Weybridge Street. I follow the sidewalk on the right side, gradually ascending a hill, before the walkway stops short near the intersection of Pulp Mill Bridge Road beside Otter View Park, 1.5 miles into the run.
I then switch sides, opposing traffic, and run on the shoulder down Route 23. The road dips and then quickly rises up another hill where Scholtens’ Family Farm is on the left. The farm make excellent cheese from their heritage breed cows. Looking right and left, north and south, bleached tawny-colored hay-fields dot the countryside. An early red-winged blackbird can be heard in the cattails beside the road: “Ka-ka-reeeee, Kon-ka-reeeee! The towering dome of BiHall’s observatory peaks out from behind over the fields.
Sheep Farm Road is at the top of the hill. Two miles into the run, I make a right onto this rural backroad. It turns to dirt after a quarter mile. Few cars travel on this route through bucolic Vermont, making it a perfect escape from traffic and the hectic pace of life at Middlebury. Farmland surrounds me, with nearly 40 miles of sweeping views of the Green Mountains ridgeline, from Worth Mountain, where our Snow Bowl is located, north to Mount Abraham and Camel’s Hump. On a clear day, one can see a spectacular display of the peaks’ snow-encrusted summits.
Sheep Farm Road lasts about 1.6 miles and comes to an end at Hamilton Road. A stop sign adorned with an old white bike and a pair or Nordic skis leaning against it greets me at the intersection. I make a right onto Hamilton Road’s freshly paved blacktop, soon coming to Morgan Horse Farm Road. I make a right here running south parallel to Sheep Farm Road, forming a loop.
For the 2.2 miles on Morgan Horse Farm Road, I pass more farmland, but it is less open than Sheep Farm Road. Forest fragments of white pines, hemlocks, cedars, alders and cattail wetlands amidst a patchwork of farmsteads and houses characterize this southbound route to Middlebury. Little dips and rises add another interesting dimension to running this road. The beautiful sound of rushing water emanates from low points, where drainages are gushing underneath the road since the recent snowmelt.
A half-mile south, I reach the historic Morgan Horse Farm, with its large Victorian mansion and horse pastures. With tired legs and sweat dripping off my face in the unusual February warmth, I push on until I reach the iconic Pulp Mill Bridge, which is a lovely place to rest and take in the views of Otter Creek.
The way back is easygoing from here, after I climb a short hill up from the bridge. Reaching Weybridge Street, BiHall’s observatory comes back into sight above the tree line and then the final hill climb up College Street takes me to the top of campus, where I cool down and stretch outside my Pearson dorm.
The view from the top of Battell Beach of Robert Frost Mountain and Bread Loaf Mountain peeking out from behind it is a lovely way to slow the pace after this great mud-season road-run, refreshing my mind before returning to the normal work grind here at Middlebury.
You can also view the article via The Campus.
~ Morgan Perlman ~
When we woke up the sky was just beginning to lighten above the Snow Bowl. The woods were quiet except for a few small streams carrying the recent snowmelt, and we saw no one on the walk down except for a few Rikert employees. When we got back to campus, I was exhausted but my clothes smelled like wood smoke and fresh pine and I already couldn’t wait for the next time I go to the Burgin Lodge.
The Burgin Lodge opened just a few weeks ago on one of the trails at Rikert Nordic Center. Built in honor of Ian Burgin (’08), this backcountry cabin is close to Middlebury and accessible without a car. Don’t be deceived by the word backcountry, though, because staying at the Burgin Lodge is really more like glamping. The cabin is beautifully constructed, insulated, and has a woodstove with plenty of wood. Though there is no electricity or running water, compared to most backcountry standards this is luxurious.
We stayed at the cabin last night in possibly the grossest weather yet this winter. We arrived just as it was getting dark and immediately started a fire with the convenient stack of kindling next to the stove. In no time chili was simmering on the stove and the cabin was warm and cozy.
If staying here is this fun in 50-degree, rainy weather with class the next day, I can only imagine what it’s like when there is plenty of snow—and time—to explore the area around the lodge. With such a good basecamp there are endless adventures here in all seasons.
If you go the Burgin Lodge, reserve the cabin on Ideal Logic. If you don’t have a car you can get to Rikert on the ACTR bus. Make sure to bring enough water, as there is no nearby source at the cabin, and leave yourself at least one hour of daylight to get to the cabin from the Rikert parking lot, especially if you are unfamiliar with the trails (the snowshoe trails at Rikert don’t always line up with the map, so your best bet is to follow the ski trails up to the cabin).
Winter hiking note: Make sure to bring plenty of warm clothes. Snowshoes, cross country skis, and warm jackets can all be rented from the Gear Room for free.
Round trip hiking distance: 6miles
Round trip driving time: 1hr 15min
The leaves are almost all gone and there is snow in the mountains! Pack some warm clothes and get up there to remind yourself how much fun winter is.
Mt. Abe is the closest “big mountain” to campus, and the fifth highest peak in Vermont. Although I’ve hiked it many times before, the beautiful trail and rewarding views at the top never get old.
There are two ways to get to the summit of Abe: either up the Long Trail from the top of Lincoln Gap, or up Battell Trail, which joins the Long Trail just before the Battell Shelter. The Battell Trail is a slightly longer approach, but is in my opinion a more well-built (and less crowded) trail. It is also more accessible in the winter when the Lincoln Gap is closed, as you can still drive to the trailhead. This time of year fallen leaves sometimes make the trail hard to see, but it’s easy to follow the blue blazes until you come to the junction with the Long Trail.
This time of year it is still late fall at the trailhead, but as you get higher the snow appears, and by the summit there are a few inches. Early on a Sunday morning there is almost nobody on the trails, and the woods are completely silent except for a hiss of sleet falling. Though there are still at least a few weeks before Middlebury looks like this, it’s exciting to get a first taste of winter. Happy Hiking!
Round trip hiking distance: 3miles
Round trip driving time: 40min
The Bristol Ledges Trail is the perfect hike for when you’re looking for something short and close by, but with super sweet views. Plus, with the snow that rolled in over the weekend, some of the major hikes in the Green Mountains and the Adirondacks are getting harder to do without winter gear (however, if you’re interested, you can borrow all the gear you need from the gear room in FIC on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 4:30-7:00). But if you’re feeling like it’s too early in the year to put on your snow boots, stick to this lower elevation hike with rewarding views. The hike is about 3 miles round trip, with ledges at the top facing out towards downtown Bristol. This is a great spot to watch the sunset; bring a picnic and some friends. There is no parking at the trailhead, so park in town (the parking lot of Shaw’s works well). From Main Street going east, turn left on Mountain Street, then the first right on Mountain Terrace. At the end of the road, look for a gate that has a sign for Bristol Ledges Trail. Happy Hiking!
One downside to living in rural Vermont is that to go anywhere exciting, you usually need a car. However, there are a few trails you can get to from Middlebury College by walking or public transportation, so for those of you who are staying on campus over fall break we’ve put together a list of our favorites.
The closest trail to Middlebury, is, of course, the Trail Around Middlebury. Many of you have probably walked out to the organic garden on it at some point, but the TAM extends for 16 miles around the entire town. This makes for great running or walking. One of our favorite spots on the TAM is the Gorge section in Weybridge, which runs in a loop along the Otter Creek and up through a cow pasture. The trail is well-maintained and mostly easy grade. If you’re looking for more of a challenge, try Chipman Hill, a moderately steep but short climb with views looking back towards campus at the top. There are several trails you can take that come out at a few different entry points, so go explore! An interactive map can be found at go/tamtrail. If you want a little more wilderness try taking the ACTR bus to the top of the Middlebury gap. From here you can follow the Long Trail north or south for as long as you want. For a short, moderately steep hike with good views, go to the top of the Snow Bowl on the Long Trail South. Make sure you check out Lake Pleiad on your way (there is a sign marking the short side trail). If you want a longer hike, you can stay on the LT past the top of the Snow Bowl, where it follows a narrow ridge through beautiful high-elevation forest with some partial views on both sides.
You can also head north from the gap, to Silent Cliff (0.8 mi one way) or Breadloaf Mountain (5.1 miles one way), both of which have views. If you want to do a loop, try splitting off the LT on the Burnt Hill Trail, which connects to the Norske trail at the bottom. In the winter this is a ski trail (maintained by the MMC!), but this time of year it’s not too wet to hike and you can follow it back up to Rt. 125, where it comes out across from the Snow Bowl driveway. In total this loop is 6.7 miles, moderate difficulty.
The best part about the Long Trail and the TAM is that you can make your hike as long and hard as you want. There are a lot of cool spots on these trails, so we recommend you take advantage of fall weather and fall break to go exploring!