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Fly Vermont, bring your boots

Ski (or snowboard) 'Sun Mountain,' 'Beast of the East,' Smugglers' Notch, and more

Mountains commonly found around and under Vermont airports have been known to intimidate pilots flying in from the “flatlands,” but flight instructor and ski industry veteran Charlie Rockwell says the nearby peaks are really no big deal. The terrain, while rugged in places, is certainly no reason to shy away from sampling some of the fine alpine skiing that Rockwell knows even better than the airports in his Green Mountain home.

Three-time Olympian Nolan Kasper (photographed here in 2014 skiing his hometown mountain, Sugarbush) is among many elite winter sports athletes who have lived and trained in Vermont over the decades. Photo courtesy of Ski Vermont.

Skiing is a way of life for many Vermonters, who live in a “brave little state” known for mountains and maple syrup. Vermont is also known for Mad River Glen, and its internationally famous “ski it if you can” tagline. Whatever your preferred speed, alpine and cross-country trails can be found from the southern “shires” to the Northeast Kingdom, a mix of small mountain treasures run by independent operators and cooperatives, and sprawling big-name resorts with the latest amenities (including Killington, branded “Beast of the East” for good reason).

Virtually all Vermont ski resorts are within a reasonable rental car drive from one of several airports around the state that offer paved runways, fuel (avgas and Jet A), and other services. (Click the pins on the Google Map to view links to AOPA Airports and Destinations Directory listings and resort websites, and for driving directions.)

If the prospect of sharing slopes with Olympic athletes appeals to you, bear in mind that active members of Team USA most likely traveled to China well in advance of the 2022 Beijing Olympics Winter Games that begin February 4. While that does diminish to zero your chance of dapping up (fist-bumping) the likes of Burke Mountain Academy graduate and two-time Olympic gold medalist Mikaela Shiffrin in a lift line in Vermont during the Games, those lift lines might be just a little bit shorter with so many local athletes and their families and fervent fans away. (Thirteen skiers and snowboarders who reside in Vermont qualified for Team USA by late January, along with another 12 athletes, including Shiffrin, who have prior residences in the Green Mountain State. The Burlington Free Press maintained a running tally.)

Also, you can bet on having a rousing crowd of snow sports fans gathered around television sets that will doubtless tune in to the various events in numerous lodges, restaurants, and watering holes.

Two popular Vermont ski resorts rise through a thin undercast layer near Southern Vermont Regional Airport in Rutland: Pico, foreground, and the larger Killington behind Pico. This cloud composition is common during winter in the Green Mountain State. Photo courtesy of Charlie Rockwell.

For the inside scoop on flying general aviation to ski in Vermont, we turned to Rockwell, a CFI and co-owner of Green Mountain Flight Training at Rutland-Southern Vermont Regional Airport. It’s the airport closest to Killington, where Rockwell worked for many years starting in 1971. Back in those days, the midweek lift lines were as crowded as the weekends, if not more so, with around 2,000 participants in the weekday ski school programs.

“It’s not that way anymore,” Rockwell said. The midweek lift lines can be shorter, though weekends tend to be packed. Rockwell noted that there is a lot more to see and do on and around the resort in the way of restaurants and nightlife (if you’re into that sort of thing). “I’m not a nightlife kind of guy, but there’s a lot to do.”

If you’re more of an early-to-bed, rise-before-the-sun-to-beat-the-crowds type of skiing pilot, and particularly if you’re on a budget, Rockwell has two tips for you: Leave your skis at home (if you don't fly an aircraft large enough to hold them easily), and look for places to stay that might be close enough in a rental car, but less expensive than the resort hotels, motels, or lodges. Most resorts in Vermont, particularly the larger resorts, have good, modern skis and poles for rent, and supply tends to be plentiful, though confirming and reserving equipment in advance is often advisable.

A hotel room in Rutland, while not as fancy, will be clean and comfortable enough, and still a short drive from Killington or Pico, the mountain of choice for families, beginners, and intermediate skiers who prefer a more sedate style on the slopes. (Killington is a magnet for experts, many of whom may have a different working definition of “safe” separation from other skiers than a beginner tends to prefer.)

Those seeking more luxurious overnight accommodations just north of Rutland, still in reasonable driving range to several ski resorts, might want to investigate Mountain Top Inn & Resort.

Perched on mountains rising to Rutland’s east, Pico and Killington have the same ownership but very different vibes, Rockwell explained. Both offer some of the best terrain in New England, and outstanding amenities including dining and lodging, though they tend to draw different crowds. They are only a few minutes apart by road, and both an easy drive from Rutland (to use the Vermont definition of “easy.”)

“If you wanted sort of a more family-ish scenario, just go to Pico,” Rockwell advises. If you want to maximize your odds of running into Rockwell (don’t do that literally on the slopes, please), head a few miles south to Bromley, a somewhat smaller mountain that still offers plenty of challenging trails and terrain, but at a much more budget-friendly rate. Rockwell has skied just about everywhere in Vermont, and beyond. He is a graduate of Middlebury College (which operates Middlebury Snow Bowl in Hancock) and currently trains and evaluates ski instructors, having served for decades on the Board of Examiners of the Professional Ski Instructors of America.

“I hang my hat at Bromley," Rockwell said. “On the weekends, I ski in the morning and I teach flying in the afternoon.”

Bromley, known as the state's “Sun Mountain” thanks to ski trails spread across a south-facing slope, is about a 40-minute drive from Rockwell's home airport. Besides the sun exposure that can take the edge off a winter chill, Bromley offers some other advantages over many of the larger mountains, including the fact that all trails end at the same base lodge. This can prove convenient late in the day, if you're a little tired and want to avoid a long trek in ski boots that can result from missing a turn or a trail at one of the larger resorts.

Okemo (now managed by Vail Resorts) in Ludlow, Vermont, offers an abundance of terrain suitable to beginner and intermediate skiers, including relatively easy runs from the summit that help make it a popular family destination. Photo courtesy of Ski Vermont.

At Okemo, for example, in Ludlow, Vermont, such a misdirection can lead to a regrettable misadventure in the form of a long walk that is least welcome (or comfortable in ski boots) late in the afternoon, Rockwell noted. “Trust me when I tell you.”

Like the other big-mountain options Vermont offers, Okemo has many lifts and trails to choose from, and stands out as a haven for intermediate skiers, who can ride straight to the summit with confidence they will find a green (easy) or blue (intermediate) trail to the base. This is not really the case at Killington, where a ride to the summit requires an intermediate or expert route to the bottom, and “intermediate” at Killington is not quite as easy to ski as a trail with that label might be elsewhere. (Trust me when I tell you.)

Rockwell noted that while Ludlow is a bit farther from Rutland, there are many affordable lodging options around town, including bed-and-breakfast providers who pack all the charm Vermont has to offer into a cozy overnight experience.

Plan a flight to Morrisville-Stowe State Airport for the closest approach by car to Stowe, one of the state’s premier ski destinations since 1937. Rockwell reported having limited insight to offer on Stowe beyond noting “it's pretty fancy now" since a major overhaul and upgrade of the facilities. (He has not yet visited since all that work was done.)

Morrisville is also strategically proximate to Sugarbush and Mad River Glen, two of the more renowned ski mountains (“notorious” being another applicable adjective in the case of rugged Mad River Glen, where terrain is challenging and grooming is not so much a “thing”) in the state. This airport itself can be a little more off-putting to flatlander pilots, compared to Rutland; at both airports, nearby terrain commands attention and can also provoke trepidation.

“My Connecticut friends freak out when they fly in there,” Rockwell said of Rutland. “Maybe because I live there, I find it really easy…. You just fly the approach and you're in.”

Further north, and just south of Vermont's most populated city, one of the state's busiest yet least-scary airports to approach, Burlington International Airport welcomes skiers routinely. Heritage Aviation provides GA FBO services on the airfield, which also serves commercial travelers and the Vermont Air National Guard 158th Fighter Wing, nicknamed the Green Mountain Boys, the first guard unit in the country to operate the F–35A Lightning II. The airfield is also a stone's throw (in Vermont terms) from the state's newest ski resort, Bolton Valley, and just under an hour's drive (weather permitting) from Smugglers' Notch, with Stowe a little down the road from that, though Rockwell advises that Route 108 is often closed during winter, cutting off approaches to Smugglers’ Notch from Morrisville-Stowe Airport, and to Stowe by way of Burlington. It is worth checking the status of that road before firming up plans that involve multiple destinations.

Among the more reliable purveyors of fine powdery snow, thanks to its high latitude and elevation, Jay Peak is Vermont's northernmost destination ski resort. Photo courtesy of Ski Vermont.

For the more adventure-minded seekers of higher terrain combined with cold temperatures and the fluffy powder that results from frigid conditions, and views of Canada on a clear (or not-quite-clear) day, Jay Peak is Vermont’s northernmost ski resort. Six miles from the international border, Jay Peak tends to be busy in non-pandemic times thanks to visitors from north of the border. For those not coming from Canada, Jay Peak can be quite a haul, though Northeast Kingdom International Airport is a half-hour drive away, depending on road conditions.

Rockwell advises fellow flyers to take full advantage of the tools now available, including Google Earth, to become familiar with the terrain around the airports they plan to visit. Rockwell shows his students a few ways to find safety in situational familiarity, including introducing his VFR students to IFR charts depicting minimum safe altitudes that ensure obstacle clearance in a given area.

Rockwell said aeronautical navigation is generally easy, thanks to the prominence of certain mountains and other features, such as the Connecticut River, which can lead flatland pilots all the way north from Hartford, Connecticut.

“Just follow the river, and turn left at Ludlow… follow Route 103 and you can land at Rutland,” Rockwell said. “That's all it takes.”

Jim Moore

Jim Moore

Managing Editor-Digital Media
Digital Media Managing Editor Jim Moore joined AOPA in 2011 and is an instrument-rated private pilot, as well as a certificated remote pilot, who enjoys competition aerobatics and flying drones.
Topics: US Travel, Travel

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