Smuggler’s Notch Resort is home to three mountains and 78 ski trails, so it would be easy to think that the best way to get around is on lifts and skis or a snowboard (with maybe the occasional pair of snowshoes thrown in).
But if you aren’t yet proficient on downhill skis, prefer cross country to alpine skiing, or just don’t want to strap on skis at all, Smuggs offers some other unique ways to get around the mountains with their Cat Trax Express and snowmobile tours.
Riding the Cat Trax Express Up Madonna Mountain
“In 1962 or 3 the Madonna lift was the longest in the world – for one year. That’s why you have to ski downhill from the lodge to get to the lift line – they extended it down the hill a little when they built it so they could claim the record.”
A group of about ten us listened to this bit of Smuggs’ history as we peered out of the windows of Snowcat, crawling steadily past the lift poles on its way up Madonna Mountain. It was a strange sensation to be riding up the mountain so close to the ground after a day spent tearing down it on skis.
A little boy who looked to be about two or three could not believe his luck to be riding the Snowcat. He sat in the front of the cabin with his father, his face pressed to the front window, exclaiming with unbridled joy at every tree he saw.
And although both of my boys were too old and cool to admit it, they liked being in the Snowcat too, especially since the driver gave each of them a turn sitting next to him on the ride up.
The rest of us were as cozy as could be, watching the snow-covered trees roll past and listening to our guide, Dana, one of the ski instructors at Smuggs Snow Sports University, as he shared his knowledge. He had a wealth of information about the mountain and when he realized that my 15-year-old son Tommy was interested in knowing everything about all the wooded trails, he happily obliged by telling us where to find not only the best glades on the trail map, but a few that aren’t listed like the Mustache Glades off of Upper Chilcoot.
(He also did a mean Donald Duck voice much to the delight of the youngest riders including my 12-year-old son Teddy.)
And then, there we were at the top. My family had ridden the lift up Madonna Mountain numerous times that day while we were skiing, but there was something about the fact that it was twilight that made it exciting to step out and admire the views.
The father of the little boy who had been so delighted on the ride up turned to me and said, “You guys really skied up here?!” He and his family were new to skiing and had never been up so high on a mountain before.
As I watched them ooh and aah, I thought that this ride must be especially fun and inspirational for families like this who are just be learning to ski and who spend their time at Smuggs on the lower Morse Mountain where the trails are easier. The Cat Trax ride is a great opportunity for them to see where they will get to go someday when their skills are stronger.
But even my expert skiers loved the chance to see the mountain from a different perspective. It was the perfect way to end a great day of skiing.
Smugglers’ Notch Snowmobile Tours: Bumping Through the Notch
“The left-hand side is the brake. Don’t forget that. A lot of people who have accidents forget and squeeze the throttle on the right instead of the brake on the left when they take a turn too fast.”
Left = brake. Left = brake. Left= brake. My mantra for the evening was established as I tried to listen to the rest of the instructions over its insistent thrumming in my head. There wasn’t that much more – a word about heated handgrips, a demonstration of the shut-off button, and we apparently were good to ride off into the dusky pink light of a February sunset.
My husband told me later that he looked at my face while the safety features of the snowmobiles we were about to climb on were explained and realized that I was nothing but flat out scared.
Despite the fact that I will ski down pretty much anything, no matter how steep it is, despite the fact that I once zip lined without fear down the face of Mount Mansfield, despite the fact that I routinely navigate a busy stretch of I-95 that runs near my house, the thought of driving a snowmobile scared me. And on the fear spectrum, I’d say I was closer to terror than nervousness.
Our group of about 20 people approached a gaggle of snowmobiles that were parked and waiting. Teddy and I climbed on one near the back. My heart was pounding as one of the friendly guides started the engine with a roar. I gave him a feeble thumbs up and watched as my husband Matt and Tommy took off near the front of the pack.
I was very happy bringing up the rear. I did remember that the brake was on the left.
As we started our ride I realized that we were going to drive up Meadowlark, the connector trail that runs between the base area at Madonna Mountain and Morse Mountain where we had started. But since it was only just after 5 there were still a few skiers headed towards us. No one else seemed to have any trouble staying to the right of them, but I slowed down nevertheless.
Up, up, up we bumped across the Madonna base area, into the parking lot, and into a narrow trail in the woods. The engines roared, the evening grew dimmer, and my fear didn’t really diminish as the snowmobile jostled in the bumps. I did as the guide had suggested and tried to stay out of the tracks of the machines in front of me.
We did have a destination: the Notch itself. The resort sits just down the road from this mountain pass that shares its name. It is crossed by a narrow road, which goes over the mountain and into the town of Stowe, and is closed to cars in the winter.
It felt shockingly silent when all of us turned off our snowmobiles near the top of the Notch. We listened as our guide explained about how and why the road closes in the winter, how in the summer there’s always at least one foolish semi driver who gets a truck stuck there and that often he sees ice climbers on the cliffs that surrounded us. It was beautiful and still in the evening light.
Matt approached me, his eyes glowing. “This is so much fun!” he said, then laughed when he saw my face. “How do you like it Teddy?”
My patient younger son said that he wished we weren’t stopping and starting quite so much.
“Mom’s a little slow,” he said. “We’re in the back.” (As if that wasn’t obvious.)
After a good look around at the cliffs it was time to hop back on. We continued up over the top of the road, past enormous snow-covered boulders turning purple as the sun descended. It was deeply beautiful in the woods, like something out of a Robert Frost poem. But I found it hard to look around because I was so focused on the ride ahead.
When we turned around I renewed my resolve to pick up the speed just a little bit on the way back since I now was familiar with the route.
Teddy will tell you that I didn’t really succeed. I think that in the future I’ll stick to skiing or maybe a winter hike through the Notch, something more contemplative. But my speed demon husband, who was one of the first to finish, will be happy to join you on the next tour.
More information about the tours
Smuggler’s Notch Cat Trax Tours start at the base of Madonna Mountain and last about an hour. They are offered on Mondays and Saturdays at 4:45 p.m. and Thursdays at 7:15 p.m. (this one is called a Fireworks Tour and offers a view of the resort’s weekly show).
Smuggler’s Notch Snowmobile Tours are offered Sunday, Monday and Tuesday at 5:00, 6:00, and 7:00 p.m., Thursdays at 5:00 and 6:00 p.m. and Friday and Saturday at 5:00, 6:00, 7:00 and 8:00 p.m., weather permitting. No prior snowmobiling experience is required, and you must by 18 and have a valid driver’s license to drive.
Both these tours are popular, and reservations are a must.
Learn more about skiing and staying at Smugglers’ Notch Resort
- Is It Winter Yet? Looking Forward to Family Fun at Smuggs
- Five Amazing Things Your Teen Can Do at Smugglers’ Notch
- Why Smugglers’ Notch Resort Is Tops for Skiing Teens
- Zip Lining with Arbor Trek Tours at Smugglers’ Notch
- Plan Your Accommodations at Smugglers’ Notch
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.