“Don’t write about this place!”
My new friend Steve’s voice echoed back up the hill at me as we dove, skis first, into a deep stand of pines worthy of a Robert Frost poem. Our kids, all boys, were somewhere up ahead dipping and swerving around the trees. I’m not sure who felt younger, them or us.
I met Steve the previous evening over beers at the Upper Pass Lodge where we were staying and where enthusiastic skiers and riders swapped trail suggestions and stories of knee-deep powder. Despite what he now jokingly said, everyone was eager to share favorite hidden spots.
The conditions at Magic Mountain in southern Vermont were ideal that February weekend; several inches of snow had fallen in the morning with a lot more forecast to come down later that day and into the night. Magic’s numerous glades were thick with soft, fluffy snow and the traditional trails also had a generous coating that the mountain ops team had left largely ungroomed. The mountain was a playground and we were all enjoying an extended recess.
A Taste of Classic Vermont Skiing
Magic Mountain has a history that’s still very much in evidence. Founded in 1960 by Hans Thorner, the original resort included a Swiss-themed village that extended down the access road (many original buildings are still there, complete with chalet gingerbread trim). By the 1980s it had become a mega resort, encompassing not only the 43 current trails but the backside of the mountain as well, an area called Timber Ridge. Bromley owned the mountain for a time before Magic went bankrupt in 1991 after some disastrously snow-free winters.
When Magic reopened five years later, it was under reduced circumstances. Timber Ridge was sold to a different owner, who maintains the trails for his snowmobiling buddies and the occasional Magic skier who wanders over (and who better have a car parked at the base since the chairlift that once ran up this side of the mountain was sold some years back).
Since Magic came back to life in the late 1990s major work has been done to repair its snowmaking system and restore the two main chairlifts. Reminders of the mountain’s heyday still dot the mountain in the form of abandoned lift towers and sagging cable from an empty lift line. Skiing past them is a little ghostly, as befits the resort’s name.
An effort to turn the mountain into a co-op that is owned by the skiers has been stymied. This is not for lack of support from the faithful, who clearly love Magic and have laid down cash to keep it operating. The resort has a somewhat ramshackle, well-loved feel with bent or missing trail signs and doors to the lodge that stick open and have to be shoved shut.
But the thing that really matters – the terrain – is stellar. Lovers of East Coast skiing will enjoy the steep lines and sinuous curves, not to mention the bumps. This is a mountain for those who enjoy trails with the character and variety that comes from letting nature and other skiers groom them.
Why Magic Mountain is Perfect for Families
Although Magic Mountain isn’t fancy, there are lots of charming features that my family loved. For one thing, it’s small without being boring. That means qualified kids can safely ski on their own and easily meet their parents at the bottom.
Almost every trail label on the mountain relates some how to the fantastical name of the resort. A few of my kids’ favorites were Hallows, Phoenix, and Potter – references to their favorite book series. I liked Slide of Hans, which manages to be both a play on words and an homage to the mountain’s founder. The aforementioned glade is named The Wardrobe and another trail goes by Witch – although there isn’t a Lion that I know of.
The weekend we visited, trails were serviced only by one double chair that’s painted bright red and offers the kind of intimacy that slower, smaller chairlifts afford. Aptly named the Red Chair, a ride up it offers just the right amount of time to dissect the previous run and decide on the next one. There’s something that’s both cheerful and charming about the chairlift’s color. (Another chairlift, a triple, was closed for repairs this season but should open again for 2015-16.)
Chair 16 on the Red Chair is painted turquoise and pink and we quickly learned that the kids at Magic call it the Cotton Candy seat. All of them, including my own, desperately want to ride it. I was touched to learn that the chair is a living tribute to a 16-year-old member of the racing team who died in her sleep while training in South America. The other kids on the team organized the project and painted the chair in her favorite colors, which speaks volumes about the kind of community you’ll find at this mountain.
The Saturday we skied was apparently one of the busier ones of the season thanks to a college club racing event. To give you a sense of what that meant, by midday the mountain ran out of paper trail maps and the cafeteria had little left to offer as the staff scrambled frantically to heat up some additional chili. It also meant lines at the bottom of the Red Chair that sometimes took as long as 25 minutes, though more often something like 10 or 15.
Miraculously, however, once we were up on the mountain the crowds immediately dispersed. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever skied a Vermont mountain on a weekend where the trails were this empty. It made me wonder if Disappearing Act referred not to an open and not-too-steep stretch of trees but to some kind of, well, magic.
Another lovely thing about this mountain? Despite the lack of maps and soup, despite the lines, everyone who we interacted with was friendly and happy to be there, from the ticket sellers to the lift attendants to the patrons. I also liked the etiquette – there are lots of expert skiers and riders and I didn’t feel like I had to worry about the kids being slammed into or crowded off the trails.
Magic is also very affordable. Regular lift tickets don’t exceed $63 per day for adults and on Throwback Thursdays during non-holiday weeks they cost only $20. If you’ve got a season pass to another Vermont mountain, you can show it and get a discount on your ticket. The mountain also offers discounted rates for teens 13 to 17 and juniors ages 6 to 12. Children under 6 ski for free.
A Few Tips for First-Timers at Magic Mountain
Magic Mountain isn’t typical of modern ski areas, and your approach to skiing it shouldn’t be either. Here are a few tips for making the most of your experience there.
Bring your own food. Although the chili was pretty good, there’s not much else I can recommend from the small cafeteria (which also services the bar upstairs). We ate three lunches and a breakfast and the food was overpriced and bland. There’s a small supermarket right down the road in Londonderry where you can find supplies.
Don’t expect everything to be groomed. Magic is not a mountain to mess with success. The grooming philosophy here is to let nature and other skiers take care of the trails when they can. I loved this, but if you really want to ski groomed trails, check the snow report to find them.
Ski the trees. This mountain boasts killer glades, deep, steep, and beautiful. When you buy your lift ticket, ask the friendly person who sells it to you to mark up a trail map with his or her favorites. Some of them are named and marked on the map, but others aren’t. Another option is to chat people up in the base lodge or lift line (if there is one). Magic skiers are both friendly and enthusiastic and want everyone to love and enjoy the mountain as much as they do, so you’re sure to get lots of great tips. Never skied the trees before? I recommend starting with Disappearing Act, which is relatively open and not too steep. Even my husband Matt, a solid intermediate skier who doesn’t like to ski in the forest, liked the fun dips and bumps on this beautiful trail.
Make sure the mountain is open. Magic Mountain’s regular operating hours are Thursday to Sunday with the exception of the Christmas, Martin Luther King Day, and Presidents Day holiday periods when they are open during the week. In 2016-17 they added some Monday openings to the schedule. And of course, there are “Powder Days” like the ones my family was fortunate enough to experience. These are days when the resort receives more than six inches of snow before 8 a.m. and opens for the day. Check the Magic Mountain website or Facebook page or give them a call to find out if they will be open. And don’t miss Throwback Thursdays with $25 lift tickets.
Prepare to make some friends. Magic is a community mountain and the people who ski there are passionate not just about the trails but about enjoying each other’s company. Whether you chat people up at the bottom of the lift, hang out for après-ski in the Black Line Tavern, or converse over sandwiches in the comfortable base lodge, you’re sure to find welcoming conversation. By our second day on the mountain we were skiing with two other families, much to the delight of my nine- and twelve-year-old sons who were so happy to have other kids to tear down the mountain with.
Skiing at Magic Mountain is reminiscent of what the sport used to be like in Vermont, with small family-run resorts each sporting a t-bar or two. There’s nothing sleek or high-speed about it, no spa or bison burgers. What you will find is surprisingly steep terrain for this part of the state, snow that’s left to its own devices for great bump runs, interesting fall lines, narrower trails that reflect the mountain’s European origins, acres of tree skiing, and a friendly yet passionate clientele of skiers and riders who relish the beauty of the place.
Is it any wonder that Steve wanted me to keep it a secret?
Update: In 2016, Magic Mountain got some new owners. Happily, everything that’s great about the mountain has stayed the same. Learn the latest Magical secrets.
Mara Gorman may live at sea level now, but she’s a native New Englander and mountain aficionado who grew up skiing in Vermont. She spends as many days each winter as she can chasing her two teen boys through glades and across mogul fields and regularly journeys far and wide to get on the slopes. Mara blogs about her family’s many travel adventures at The Mother of all Trips. She is also the author of The Family Traveler’s Handbook and an award-winning freelance writer whose work has appeared in various USA Today print publications as well as on websites such as BBC Travel. When there’s no snow, Mara and her family can be found hiking, biking and eating around the United States and Europe.