Sugarbush Resort is a Vermont mountain icon, situated in center of the state and second only to Killington in skiable acres. The 56-year-old resort has changed a great deal since it was purchased by Win Smith in 2001, with improvements that include the construction of a lovely new base area and building for children’s programs as well as improved lifts and snowmaking equipment. Upgrades are ongoing at the resort; the 2017 season will feature two new fixed-grip quad chairs, one at Lincoln Peak and one at Mount Ellen as well as a brand new RIFD ticketing system (your lift ticket will be replaced with cards that you keep in the pocket of your jacket).
Although I grew up skiing at nearby Mad River Glen and although my sons attended summer camp at Sugarbush Resort for years, none of us had ever skied there before the end of 2013. Since then we’ve skied there several times and I’ve learned that this resort offers a nice mix of luxury and great skiing in one of the prettiest parts of the Green Mountains.
Two ski areas in one
The first thing you need to know about skiing at Sugarbush is that it consists of two distinct base areas: Lincoln Peak Village and Mount Ellen Lodge.
The two-mile Slidebrook Quad takes skiers from one area to the other although if the winds are high, temperatures are low, or natural snow cover is thin (as it was when we visited) that lift closes and you must take a shuttle bus. I’d probably always choose to do this with younger kids, as it’s only about a 10-minute ride.
Lincoln Peak offers mountainside luxury
Lincoln Peak is the larger base area, and it has more amenities than Mount Ellen. If you need rental equipment, this is the best place to start your day. You can book your rentals online ahead of time or fill out a form at one of the computer kiosks when you arrive. My husband Matt and I were both impressed both with how efficiently the Sugarbush staff moves renters through the line and also with their expertise and the care they take to make sure everyone’s boots fit properly. There’s also an in-house repair shop with equally good service – they installed bindings on my new skis on a busy holiday morning with minimum wait time.
You’ll also find The Schoolhouse at Lincoln Peak. It’s home to most of the children’s programs; you can learn more about these programs in my full review.
There are nine lifts at Lincoln Peak (not including the Slidebrook lift that runs between the two base areas); four of them are high-speed quads. On busy days you’ll find lines. Yet even during holiday weeks I was impressed not only with how quickly the lines moved – I don’t think we ever waited more than 15 minutes – but also with how much the crowds seemed to disperse on the mountain, even with a limited amount of terrain open.
Guests have a variety of dining options at Lincoln Peak, from seafood and local meats and cheeses at Rumble’s Kitchen to burgers and salads at the Gate House Lodge cafeteria. We had lunch both there and in the Castlerock Pub. The cafeteria is a better option for a quick lunch with kids – you’ll find a wide selection of both pre-made and made-to-order items including some really nice tossed salads. The food here is fresh and well prepared. The service at Castlerock Pub was slow the day we ate there, although the food was good and the portions generous. There’s also an outpost of the popular Burlington crepe restaurant the Skinny Pancake, which is located in the Farmhouse below the rental shop. We haven’t sampled the food there yet, but love the delicious sweet and savory crepes at the original location.
Be prepared to pay the usual high ski-area prices to dine at Sugarbush unless you pack your own lunch. You can also offer your kids a delicious treat from the Waffle Cabin in the base lodge area at the end of the day.
Mount Ellen has wide-open runs
This iconic mountain (which was formerly a distinct ski resort from Sugarbush with a different owner) recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. The base lodge here is much smaller and more old school than its counterpart at Lincoln Peak. I found it to be cozy and comfortable. You can rent equipment here, although the shop is much smaller and doesn’t offer high-performance skis.
Mount Ellen may be a little less luxurious than Lincoln Peak, but it’s also much less crowded, making it a great option for skiing families. Often when there are lines at the Lincoln Peak lifts, there are none at Mount Ellen.
I highly recommend the small upstairs Green Mountain Lounge for lunch at Mount Ellen Lodge. The menu isn’t large, but has plenty of crowd-pleasing favorites including stews, chili, and hot sandwiches. The prices are reasonable, the portions large, and the service is friendly and efficient. Brought your lunch with you? In the area adjacent to the bar you’ll find tables for dining and also sweeping views of the Mad River Valley out the windows.
Tons of terrain; plenty of lifts
Because of the vagaries of weather and our vacation schedule, my family’s skiing experience at Sugarbush has been limited to mostly man-made snow. But I’ve been consistently impressed with both the coverage and quality of the grooming – the staff definitely makes an effort to keep things interesting and we have always found plenty of enjoyable skiing, especially off of the Super Bravo Express Quad. Another favorite is the Heaven’s Gate Chair, which offers some stellar views from the top.
Lincoln Peak has a large beginner area that’s great for new skiers or boarders. The Welcome Mat carpet and Schoolhouse lifts helps new skiers gain confidence. More advanced skiing and riding kids will enjoy the short runs off of the Gate House Quad, where the grooming staff definitely leaves some interesting terrain elements like natural jumps that kids love. A certified kid-favorite trail here is Sleeper; it’s a fun bump run that’s not too steep and offers a chance to wander a bit in the trees.
For families looking for long blue-level cruiser runs, Mount Ellen fits the bill perfectly. You’ll also find three terrain parks here, including a progression park for beginners. If your kids are learning to freestyle, book a lesson with one of the resort’s expert teachers who will get them up in the air – and down again – safely. I’d definitely recommend hanging out at Mount Ellen on days when Lincoln Peak is crowded – you’ll get more mountain time, and lots of long, satisfying runs.
If your kids are like mine, they love the challenge of glades. Both the Lincoln Peak and Mount Ellen areas offer some fantastic opportunities for tree skiing (sadly, not available when we visited). And the expert terrain of the Castlerock area at Lincoln Peak (no snowmaking here) is famously steep and narrow in the best New England tradition – although again, I haven’t yet gotten to experience if firsthand.
The Slide Brook Basin underneath the lift that carries skiers back and forth between the two base areas offers backcountry skiing that on powder days is also reputed to be beyond compare For an experience you’ll never forget, book a guided tour with the legendary John Egan, who knows every on- and off-piste inch.
Enjoy a little luxury, save some cash
Sugarbush Resort is definitely aiming to offer its guests a higher-end skiing experience, comes through not only with high-speed chairs and a substantial snowmaking operation but with great service throughout the resort and small touches like free hot cider handed out at the end of the day. Lift ticket and food prices reflect this accordingly.
But there are ways to save money at Sugarbush. One is to buy your lift tickets in advance online at a discount. Another is to ski only at Mount Ellen, where both lift and group lesson prices are lower (on non-holiday Thursdays, they offer lift tickets for $30). Consider buying a SugarDirect Card for $99 and save on lift tickets, lodging, dining, and equipment rentals. Sugarbush also offers deals for packages of lift tickets early and late in the season. And a season pass for kids under six is only $40. In fact, if your child seven or older and you’ll be skiing more than seven days, you’ll save money by buying a season pass for him or her.
One closing note about another thing makes Sugarbush special: Its president. Win may be one of the most hands-on ski resort owners in the state, if not the country. When he heard that the All Mountain Mamas would be visiting, he made sure to schedule a ski date with me and my husband Matt, offering us a thorough tour. But we weren’t the only lucky ones to be graced with his presence – it’s pretty obvious by how well everyone knows him that he spends a lot of time on the mountain. Check out his blog and keep an eye out when you’re skiing at Sugarbush Resort – he’s more likely to be there than not, often with his own family.
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.