A few years ago, I was skiing high above the Sugarbush resort in Vermont with John Egan, a legend of extreme skiing 20 years before the genre had even been identified. Mr. Egan has starred in audacious ski movies from Argentina to Siberia and everywhere in between. He could live almost anywhere, his teaching skills and reputation making him welcome at dozens of skiing resorts. But he has instead called Mad River Valley in central Vermont home for decades.
That day, skiing on a trail named Panorama, we stopped at a clearing near a 4,000-foot peak and I asked him: “Why live here? Why the Mad River Valley?”
He replied with two questions of his own: “What do you see? And what don’t you see?”
The view was quintessential Vermont: a majestic mountain range rising above a tranquil valley dotted with red barns and traced by serpentine country roads that led to largely undisturbed hamlets.
And what did I not see?
Nowhere in my view was there a major slopeside condo development, a fast-food restaurant, a national chain hotel or an interstate highway. Despite the absence of even a single traffic light in the Mad River Valley, there was no backup of cars or trucks in any direction.
Mr. Egan, Sugarbush’s chief recreation officer, had made his point without another word. The Mad River Valley is home to two of the most venerable, prized ski areas in the Eastern United States: Sugarbush and Mad River Glen, which attract nearly a half-million snow-sport enthusiasts annually. The valley has a multitude of restaurants, pubs, inns, art galleries and charming covered bridges.
The Mad River Valley, it could be said, is centrally isolated. Just north of Vermont’s midpoint, it is far from sequestered yet it seems detached from the bustle surrounding the state’s other draws.
That is probably because it is just a little bit hard to get to, and always has been. The railroad went around the valley in the mid-1800s and the national highway system did the same a century later. The mantra of a trip to the Mad River Valley (and the tribe drawn to it) could be “one hour more,” because the drive by car is roughly 60 minutes longer on a meandering rural road than the trek to Vermont’s best-known ski areas: Killington and Okemo if coming from the south and Stowe if arriving from the north.
But as the poet Robert Frost, a longtime New Englander, wrote:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
The extra time it takes to descend into the Mad River Valley has forged the culture of the community. It has shaped the experience of those who live there and those who come to ski, snowboard, hike or fish. A place that is a little remote is not only less appealing to the homogeneity of mass-market commercial entities, but by its nature it also draws only those who truly want to be there. It is why, even in the middle of a busy winter holiday weekend, the Mad River Valley remains one of my favorite destinations. You’re not skiing at a tourist attraction, you are just visiting the locals.
“We know there are some people who just come to ski and that’s it,” said Hadley Gaylord, a fourth-generation farmer in the Mad River Valley who also operates a year-round farmstand on scenic Route 100. “But if they’re looking for people to get to know and experience what we might be able to give to them — there’s plenty of us willing to do that, too.”
Mr. Gaylord, 60, has seen his corner of the world, defined by the 26-mile strip of the Mad River, evolve, especially as a winter resort. A couple of years after Sugarbush opened in 1958, the mountain’s marvelous terrain became a playground of Manhattan glitterati, earning it a place in Vogue, which called the scene “Mascara Mountain” because it was a favorite of models, fashion designers and the Kennedy clan. Sugarbush expanded and became the more commercial of the two valley resorts — the stridently independent Mad River Glen is a member-owned cooperative open to the public, meaning anyone can join. In 1995, Sugarbush was bought by a ski industry conglomerate, whose holdings stretched from nearby Killington, known as the Beast of the East, to Utah. That purchase worried many in the community.
Mr. Gaylord recalled joining the local planning commission.
“We sat there asking, ‘How do we keep out McDonald’s and ugly traffic lights?’” he said. “The townspeople rallied together to make it happen.”
In 2001, a group led by Winthrop H. Smith Jr., the former chairman of Merrill Lynch International, bought Sugarbush and worked hard to restore the trust between the resort and the community on a variety of issues, including the environment. When Sugarbush work crews were clearing land for new and sorely needed base area facilities, they used an old-fashioned team of horses to clear timber for the construction site, allowing the resort to avoid building new roads that could have worsened erosion.
Mr. Smith, who has been skiing in the area since the 1970s, decried the trend of making ski areas into what he called, “minicities on mountains.” He wanted more of a niche market and insisted the resort could survive with 350,000 winter visitors a year, about half the number his biggest competitors in the state regularly attract.
“The product is a fabulous mountain,” Mr. Smith said, “and a Mad River Valley environment that lowered my blood pressure by 20 points every time I drove into it.”
The locals appreciated the Sugarbush owners’ new focus.
“They were interested in bringing the mountain to the valley,” said George Schenk, the founder of American Flatbread at Lareau Farm, a landmark Mad River Valley restaurant that has become a national brand. “It was respectful of the other businesses. In the end, it appealed to people looking for a more authentic Vermont experience.”
Sugarbush has exceeded its goal of 350,000 annual ski visits for many years, Mr. Smith said. A new base lodge and hotel opened a decade ago, replacing the squat, fusty buildings that used to house essential guest services. There has been some on-mountain real estate development, but it has been moderate, fewer than 100 units in 10 years. This month, a new quad lift opened, which helps spread the flow of skiers and snowboarders around to Sugarbush’s varied, distinctive trail network — not that it ever seems all that overcrowded on the resort’s four peaks.
Sugarbush, with a powerful snow-making operation, has a host of cruising trails, glade skiing of all ability levels, and if you choose to raise your blood pressure 20 points, take the Castlerock chair lift and pick any path down.
Just a few miles away is Mad River Glen, the ski area known for a motto plastered on bumper stickers seen around the country: “Mad River Glen, Ski It If You Can.”
At the iconoclastic Mad River Glen, snowboarders are banned, snow-making is limited to 10 percent of the mountain and only half the trails are ever groomed. There is novice and intermediate terrain, despite the bumper sticker’s apparent warning.
But what sets Mad River Glen apart is how little some things have changed since it opened in 1948. The parking lot is dirt and there is a lift that is a one-person single chair, the ultimate winter activity statement in a famously individualistic state. At the same time, Mad River Glen is akin to a populist movement. Skier-owned, the cooperative’s 1,800 members pay a one-time fee of about $2,000 to join and then must spend at least $200 annually on services or goods at the mountain.
It takes natural snow for Mad River Glen to be at its best, but when the weather cooperates, members and visitors flock to a genuine old New England skiing experience. Mad River Glen draws roughly 85,000 skier visits a year, so it’s still likely you will be alone with your thoughts as you stare down twisting, narrow trails largely unaltered since they were cut in the woods 70 years ago.
Like most in the community, Mad River Glen locals are also committed to the valley experience. There is no on-mountain lodging.
Eric Friedman, Mad River Glen’s director of marketing, said that when he gets inquiries about staying at the ski area, he instead says: “Wouldn’t it be cool to come to Vermont and stay in a classic ski lodge? You know, a place with a moose head over the fireplace and the owner sitting around telling stories? Well, we have a few of those right down the road.
“A lot of people respond to that. They come here, and I think they feel like they’ve settled into another country.”
There are a handful of villages and towns in the Mad River Valley. Waitsfield and Warren, which are closest to the ski areas, have roughly equal populations (about 1,700) according to the 2010 census, but Waitsfield has the larger central business district. In Waitsfield, there are friendly local bars, like the appropriately named Localfolk Smokehouse, which serves inexpensive barbecue, and the tavern at the Hyde Away Inn, where you can play pool, sit by the fire or grab a filling meal. Strolling or driving through Waitsfield, you can find everything from a pet spa to a glass gallery to a yarn shop and a bookstore. In historic Waitsfield village, near a covered bridge that dates to 1833, there are boutiques, a museum, a pottery store, an artisans’ gallery and a vegetarian restaurant.
Warren is dominated by the Warren Store, a former 19th-century stagecoach stop where you can stock up on essential provisions of all kinds: baked goods, beer, wine, gifts as well as local gossip.
The community is also infused with the energy and eminence of the Green Mountain Valley School, an elite ski academy that has produced nearly 30 Olympians, including a world champion, Daron Rahlves .
Though the Mad River Valley has been buttressed over the years by the presence of out-of-state transplants of some wealth or accomplishment, the overall ethos of the place is generally the opposite of pretension.
Mr. Schenk’s restaurant is a good example. Raised in Connecticut, he came to the Mad River Valley in 1979 as a ski bum. After working in local restaurants, he started making wood-fired, clay oven flatbreads and by 1990 opened his restaurant along Route 100.
The fare offered, which featured natural local ingredients, was so well received that a wait of two hours to eat at American Flatbread became common, and still is. Mr. Schenk’s humble creation has since branched out across New England and beyond.
“It was a product of a valley with a strong sense of place,” said Mr. Schenk, who pointedly mentioned summer 2011 as an example.
That is when Hurricane Irene flooded Vermont, killing six people and decimating hundreds of homes and businesses, including American Flatbread.
“We got over 400 people who came to us in a week to help dig out, clean up and rebuild,” Mr. Schenk said. “Their efforts saved the business. That kind of thing was repeated all over the valley.”
My day with Mr. Egan several years ago eventually led to the top of Stein’s Run, a double-black diamond trail cut in the 1960s in honor of Stein Eriksen, the Norwegian Olympic champion who was then Sugarbush’s ski school director. Mr. Eriksen, who died in December at 88, was a larger-than-life figure in American recreational skiing, a charismatic Johnny Appleseed on skis who worked his way East to West promoting various ski areas.
But the trail he left behind at Sugarbush is not one of his more hospitable gifts to recreational skiing. Though the vista is spectacular, the path below it is steep, narrow and often rutted with moguls.
Mr. Egan once again offered his particular brand of metaphysical counsel: It is all about what you can see (a stunning view) and what you cannot see (meaning that I should ignore the trail’s hazards).
I don’t know if that was the moment when I became in tune with the Mad River Valley, but since I got down in one piece, it has always felt that way.
IF YOU GO
Where to Stay
The White Horse Inn, 999 German Flats Road, Fayston-Waitsfield; 802-496-9448; whitehorseinn-vermont.com. With 26 rooms at the entrance to Sugarbush’s Mount Ellen peak; from $89 weeknights and $119 skiing weekends for one. Each additional person, $15 per night. Breakfast included.
Where to Eat
American Flatbread at Lareau Farm, 46 Lareau Road, off Route 100, Waitsfield; 802-496-8856; americanflatbread.com. A Mad River Valley institution, its status is well deserved. Dinner, Thursday to Sunday, 5 to 9:30 p.m. No reservations.
An earlier version of this article misstated a position formerly held by Winthrop H. Smith Jr., the leader of a group that bought Sugarbush, a nearby resort. Mr. Smith was a chairman of Merrill Lynch International, not a chief executive of Merrill Lynch.