Kicking and gliding through the untracked forest, we are barely 10 minutes out from our last snack break before we briefly stop to shed a layer. It's a bitter 10 degrees outside, but breaking trail through unmarked woods into the upper reaches of the Ranch Valley (the area just south of Mt. Mansfield, where Stowe's first downhill ski trails were cut) has us on the verge of breaking a sweat.
We've got Nordic backcountry ski gear (or XCD gear) on our feet, which is basically the hardcore cousin of traditional cross-country equipment, featuring sturdier boots and wider, metal-edged skis that make it easier to navigate varied and ungroomed snow conditions. And we're bound for the top of the Burt Trail, a decades-old backcountry trail that courses back into the valley through a beautiful and moderately pitched upland forest.
From the top of the Burt, we'll either head north to the scenic and often breezy gap in the Mansfield ridgeline known as Devil's Dishpan, or east toward the woods and trails of the Trapp Family Lodge. There are options to follow lightly traveled trails in either direction, such as the Underhill Trail, but we're apt to set our own tracks, letting our curiosity guide us.
On the way up, we marvel at the incredible quiet of the forest on this windless morning, the silence broken only by the occasional trickle of stream water and sugary schussing of our skis. We spot weasel tracks, evidence of a snowshoe hare, and fluffy-feathered chickadees, playfully chirping and hopping about. Trees cast endless shadows across the snow under the rising sun.
About an hour after departing from our starting point, the Stowe Mountain Resort Cross Country Center, the mountainside gets steeper. We cross a number of snow-filled stream beds and finally reach what appears to be the top of the Burt. Yet there isn't a track or trail sign in sight. The trail is around here somewhere, but we're pretty sure we're not on it—and honestly, we don't care.
We gaze down the other side of the hill and spot a gloriously sun-soaked glade. It looks so inviting that we impulsively give into gravity.
Doing our best to stay balanced on our lightweight gear with a mix of telemark and parallel turns—and the ever-trusty snowplow technique—we navigate beneath towering birches, around ancient boulders of the hill, and right down the middle of a stream bed.
Although we just gave up several hundred vertical feet of elevation, our smiles stretch from ear to ear as we slide effortlessly into a sun-kissed opening in the forest. Finally, we stop to relax.
“Ginger tea?” offers Emily, reaching into her backpack for a thermos full of our favorite steaming wintertime elixir. “Now where should we go from here?”
WHAT WE STASH IN OUR PACKS
Don't go into the wild without these must-haves
- Water or a hot drink and snacks
- Extra layers (gloves, down puff, and shell)
- Paper map and compass
- Climbing skins for extra traction when terrain gets steep
- Basic repair kit and tools (including cordage, duct tape, knife, lighter, and ski straps)
- Basic first aid kit
- Cell phone with extra battery pack (turn off the phone to conserve battery in the cold)
Emily takes a few turns through untracked snow in the Stowe area's Ranch Valley.
Dramatic ice formations like these develop when ground water running over cliffs and ledges freez-es. Occasionally, we discover caverns and caves hidden behind the ice.
The combination of telemark turns and abundant new snow makes for an invigorating trip down to the Trapp Family Lodge.
When water levels are low and there's ample ice and snow coverage along the banks, we ski along river corridors (like the gentler sections of the West Branch in Stowe), which attract a rich variety of wildlife. In early spring, we'll occasionally float downriver by canoe, skis in tow, stopping to explore along the way.
Emily pulls our daughter Lenora, age 3, through a lower elevation forest south of Stowe using a rope tow. Following a leisurely climb, we retrace our tracks for a fun descent through the woods.
The terrain and conditions determine which pair of skis we select from our quiver.
Fresh tracks under late afternoon light. Does it get any better than this?
Sam von Trapp takes a break from business at the Trapp Family Lodge to guide us along one of his favorite local XCD routes to Round Top Summit.
Emily soars downhill while I examine shelf-fungi on an old maple tree during a beautiful winter day in Mt. Mansfield State Forest.
If you have waxless (fish-scaled) skis or kick wax applied to your skis, you can climb up sloped pastures like this one near the Trapp Family Lodge, before effortlessly soaring back down.
7 BACKCOUNTRY TIPS
What to know before you venture
- Only head into the back woods if you have extensive experience or with a guide. You can book a guided tour through Spruce Peak Outfitters at the Lodge at Spruce Peak.
- Even knowledgeable backcountry skiers shouldn't head out alone, so bring a friend or two.
- Our favorite local shops to score gear are Mountain Ops (4081 Mountain Rd.) and Umiak Outfitters (849 S. Main St.).
- Before you go, share your itinerary and timetable with a friend or family member.
- Give yourself plenty of daylight—don't leave any later than 2pm.
- You need a valid pass to access backcountry terrain via Trapp's or the Stowe Mountain Resort Cross Country Center. But there are many other access points connecting to public lands. Pick up a copy of the Mt. Mansfield backcountry Region Nordic Ski and Snowshoe Map at local shops for more info.
- One public trail to check out is the Catamount Trail, which runs from Massachusetts to Canada, winding through Stowe along the way.