Sitting in my living room on a snowy Saturday night, I have a hard time believing how warm and sunny it was just a few hours earlier, as I set off to ski The Widow’s Clearing Trail. Since the posting on the history of the Widow’s Clearing from one of last summer’s runs elicited a lot of interest, I thought it would be fun to return to this site on skis once winter hit. Well winter has definitely hit! The snow cover is outstanding for cross country skiers, with almost all hazards other than the larger streams completely buried.
This ski began, as did many of last summer’s runs, at the Brooks Road (aka Chatfield) parking lot off of Rt 125 just past Breadloaf. Usually, this lot if pretty empty, but on this gorgeous morning, there were numerous cars from which other outdoor enthusiasts had already departed. The goal for the day was to cross over the to Widow’s Clearing parking lot on the Ripton-Goshen Road. After about a half mile of easy climbing, I reached the clearing, which was not unexpectedly enveloped in a sheet of white, with only a few brushy trees poking through the uniformly smooth cover of the freshly fallen snow.
The skier-packed trail continued through the forest, passing several minor trail crossings, but staying on the Widows Clearing Trail, which also coincided with the Vermont’s end-to-end ski trail, the Catamount Trail, with its characteristic blue blazes, for much of its path. Deeper into the woods, I came across a pleasant surprise – the groomer from the Blueberry Hill nordic ski area had set tracks beyond the normal confines of their more heavily used trail system offering the unexpected pleasures of smooth kick-and-glide skiing. Eventually the Widows Clearing Trail and the Catamount Trail parted ways, and I bore right down the short descent to the end of the trail at the Widow’s Clearing parking lot on the Goshen-Ripton Road.
I had originally planned on doubling back on the same route, but when I rejoined the Catamount Trail, the day was too nice to end prematurely, so I headed right, taking further advantage of the groomed terrain. A second short descent to the Goshen-Ripton Road provided a brief roller-coaster descent staying in the deep set tracks.
The return trip passed too quickly, but was made even better by a chance meetings with a few friends and acquaintances along the trail, and several energetic but well-behaved golden retrievers. This route covered a little less than seven miles….I mean 11 km…..with almost all the climb in the first half mile. If this snow keeps up, I hope to blog skiing, rather than running into April this year!
Last Sunday finally gave me what I was looking for – blue skies, blue wax conditions (for those of you on waxable cross-country skis) and great snow cover – perfect for the first ski posting of the season. I decided to begin the day’s ski from my home area- the Rikert Ski Touring Center operated by Middlebury College, and make the route a mixture of well-groomed touring center trails and lightly traveled remote paths. The day’s route began by reversing the route described in one of my posts from last winter, entitled “The Robert Frost Cabin”. Heading up Craig’s Hill, the beauty of the fresh snow and groomed trail provided all I needed to justify stopping for a picture.
At the top of the first hill, I took a left on the “Figure 8” trail, and then followed the signs leading to the Frost Cabin. The lack of any truly bitter cold subzero days this winter have made it so that many of the surface streams are still running, rather than iced over, and in a few spots, I had to chose my path carefully to avoid waterskiing. Around the periphery of the Frost Fields, the 2-3 inches of snow from the previous nights snow on packed trail made for pretty easy skiing, but the snow was up to my knees in the unpacked powder! Joining the trail heading into the woods behind the Frost cabin at the top of the meadow, which by this point in the season was pretty well packed by previous skiers, brought me to the site of the title of this entry – the Wagon Wheel Road.
The Wagon Wheel Road was so named due to the presence of dance hall by that name which operated at the end of the road, where the Rikert Trails meet the road, until about 60 years ago. I wanted to try and find a source of information on this former Ripton hot spot, but found the best information from an unlikely source. A friend told me that a well-done booklet on the history of Ripton was put together by the 5th and 6th grade classes of the Ripton Elementary School back in 1996, and that it might have some information on The Wagon Wheel. Fortunately, I learned that a copy of this book was available on the bookshelves of the Rikert Touring Center. According to this source, the dance hall operated from 1950-1952 with dancing every Saturday night in the summer, and was owned an operated by one Leonard Zeeman. Although the language used to describe this site is appropriately guarded, given the age of the authors, one gets the impression that it was a pretty wild place! They also report that the owner, who was also a contractor, collected enough beer bottles that he used them to build the cellar walls of a home he constructed in Middlebury. The dance hall stood derelict until 1962, when it was torn down, leaving behind just another cellar hole. With all the snow, there was no chance of finding this, but a small clearing at the end of the road appears to be a good place to begin searching for it in the spring.
My original plan was to follow the Wagon Wheel Rd as far as I could towards its source in the more civilized parts of Ripton, but was surprised by the fact that the upper reaches of the road were actually plowed. There was enough snow at first, but after about a km, the cover got too thin to ski, so I reversed my path, and headed back to the touring center. When I reached the Frost meadow, I took the upper trail back, which led to the well-groomed tracks on the outer Frost trail. From this high point on the terrain, I descended to the touring center to complete this 11.5 km route.
Once again, I am reverting to the common use of metric measurements when describing nordic ski routes, as is common. Curiously, the only time I have received any “troll comments” on my postings was last winter when one reader took offense at my use of this Unamerican system of measurement!
While the snow cover is much improved from my last posting, the gorgeous spring-like weather could bring the ski season to an early close, so I had to get out over the weekend and enjoy the deep, but increasingly slushy snow. You will also notice something very different about this post. As a rule of thumb, I am usually a purist in that I earn my descents by putting out the effort to gain altitude first. But today, I felt that a lobster analogy was quite appropriate. Most of the time, the effort of cracking open the lobster, and prying the meat out of its exoskeleton is just the cost of enjoying its sweet flavor. But every now and then, as a treat, you just have to say “to heck with it” and order the Lobster Newburg. Today was my Newburg day. How so? I cheated and took the bus uphill, making it a tour with far more descent than ascent.
My primary destination today was The Norske Trail, a short wilderness run which begins just above the entrance to the Middlebury College Snowbowl on Rt. 125, and concludes at the Rikert Ski touring area. Instead of doing this route as an “up and back”, I made use of the ACTR bus which picks up passengers at Breadloaf and concludes at the Snowbowl. The trailhead for the Norske Trail is a 5 minute walk uphill on Rt. 125 from the turnoff to the Snowbowl.
The Norske Trail is much more of a wilderness trail than those in the ski touring areas, or snowmobile trails of earlier posts. It starts off with a series of modest climbs and descents, and despite the lack of grooming, is never particularly challenging. While the trail never seems to get heavy use, you can pretty much count on the trail being broken within a day or two after every good dumping of snow. Cruising along through the open hardwood forest, I eventually came to an overlook, with good views across the valley to Moosalamoo, and the meadows of the Breadloaf campus. I could see from the well-beaten snow where previous ski and snowshoe parties had also enjoyed the vistas since the last storm.
Continuing the gradual descent, one eventually gets to a section where there are several intersecting trails, including the Burnt Hill trail, an easy summer hiking trail which reaches the top of the Green Mt. Ridge. I chose to follow the ski trail marked with blue diamonds until it intersected with Forest Service 59. At this point, I had been descending at a leisurely pace, covering a little over 4 km in about 45 min. I knew that a right turn on FS 59, and a left turn onto the Gilman Trail would bring me to the Rikert Center in about 10 min, and I wasn’t ready to call it a day, so I instead stayed on FS 59 for another km or so until I got to the groomed descent on the Brown Gate Trail, extending my afternoon’s ski a little deeper into the touring center. The remainder of this route is made up of the same trails described in the opposite direction at the beginning of my post entitled “Robert Frost Cabin“. Immediately after crossing the bridge over the beaver pond outlet, I spied a notice affixed to a nearby tree. Curious as to its message, I stopped for a moment to read it. Needless to say, I am relieved to note that some of my fellow backwoods sojourners are concerned for my safe passage in the presence of fierce wildlife.
An easy cruise on Rikert Center trails brought me back to my car at the touring center. This was a relatively short tour, covering a little over 9 km, with an overall descent of about 600 ft, but with enough ups and downs, and less manicured trail to keep it scenic and challenging.
As a postscript, when I arrived at Rikert to catch the bus up to the start of the day’s ski, I was a little surprised to see an older gentleman skiing in a tux and stovepipe hat, as well as a much younger woman cruising on by attired in a jogbra and blue jeans. Unbeknownst to me, Sunday was the day for the rescheduled Breadloaf Citizen’s Race, a “Just for the Fun of It” race which I have participated in on many occasions in years past. While I was sad to have missed the race, I was glad to see the race go on in the same spirit of semi-competetive fun which has been its hallmark for decades.
The continued snow drought is keeping me in the higher elevations. That said – the snow is still great up there! This week’s ski is a winter variation on one of my running posts from last summer, the Sugar Hill Reservoir run. Start this ski tour in the Brooks Road parking lot,which is found about a quarter mile from Rt. 125 just east of The Rikert Ski touring area. This parking lot is a popular starting point for skiers, snowshoers, and snowmobilers. I have also found that it is a great place to ski in low snow conditions, like this year, or early in the season before the first serious snow dumpings hit. Once again, some of the best skiing is on snowmobile trails this season, and since the lower 2/3 of the Brooks Rd. climb is groomed for and by snowmobiles, this is where I started!
The first hundred yards or so were pretty rocky, so I made a mental note to make sure I was not going too fast at the end of the descent (a little literary foreshadowing there) so that I wouldn’t get hurt. The snow coverage got a lot better as soon as the climbing started, however, except for a few short stretches where overhanging pine trees diminished the ground snow cover. These few minor problems aside, it was a steady easy climb on skating skis due to the fast, granular snow which has seen a few freeze-thaw cycles and just enough traffic to keep it from icing up. I knew the lowest 2/3 of the road would be fine, as this section is almost always well groomed for snowmobilers, and had planned on turning off the road towards the Sugar Hill Reservoir – following the route of my aforementioned summer run. I was pleasantly surprised, however, to see that the upper reaches of Brooks Rd. had been groomed for skiing for the first time in my recent memory. I presume our friends at Blueberry Hill have run their super-duper ski groomer Pisten Bully over this section at some point in the not too distant past, as this stretch is not open to winter motor sports. After about another mile of easy climbing, there was a slight descent to the end of the road. Given that it had been a few years since I last ventured up here in winter or summer, I was a little bit surprised to see the road end prematurely, but I followed the less impeccably groomed trail beyond this point. I quickly saw why the road had ended – apparently the old bridge up here had washed out at some point, and it was replaced by a nice little footbridge. I am not sure when exactly this went in, but I suspect that it was another of the fixes necessitated by the massive thunderstorms which wreaked havoc on Hancock, Ripton and East Middlebury in August 2008.
Brooks Road Washout Bridge
Immediately past the new bridge, the remnants of the old road funnel into a true trail, marking the entry into the Blueberry Hill Ski Touring Area, so continuation beyond this point leaves you morally and fiscally obligated to drop by the touring center and pay for use of their well-kept trails. I have no objection to paying their very fair fee, but since I really didn’t have time to make full use of their trails, I chose to turn around and return to my car. The return was fast and easy, and with the steady, but not too steep descent I thought I would use my GPS to see how fast I could get going. The very lowest sections are the steepest, so this provided to opportunity to check my pace. While my speed was not at all alarming, I wanted to see if I could at least break 20 miles per hour, so was skiing with my eyes on my wrist rather than the trail. Just a little faster……A moment after I saw my speed break 20, (21 mph to be exact), I looked up and saw a small bare patch in the snow which was too late to avoid! Note to self – old granular snow makes for easy gliding, while old granular dirt does not. While my skis put on the brakes, the momentum of my body kept the rest of me traveling along briskly, with the expected result. Ouch! Fortunately, the worst bruises were to my ego as I got up, dusted off, and returned to my waiting car a short distance away.
This ski trip is 12 km (about 7.5 miles) round trip with about a 750 ft climb and descent.
With the dearth of fresh snow and thinning cover, I usually head for higher altitude terrain. While pleasantly surprised by the conditions at the Rikert Ski Touring area last weekend, I had a hunch that the cover would be even better on Forest Service 59, which has the advantage of being just a little higher up the mountainside. Skate skis are usually the best call in these conditions – it is hard to set the good deep tracks for optimal classic skiing when the cover is light.
Forest Service 59 is the dirt road which passes behind the Breadloaf Campus before climbing into the mountains and eventually looping into backroads Ripton. While the road is fully accessible to 2WD vehicles in the summer, it is plowed for only the first mile or so, and never sanded during the winter. Nonetheless, the lower segment makes for poor skiing due to the modest vehicular traffic it receives. One can reach the well-covered upper reaches through the Rikert trail system, however. On this day, I warmed up with an easy partial loop on the Batell Trail. After the short descent on this well-travelled trail, take a hard right up the short climb onto Fletcher, and another right turn shortly thereafter onto Gilman. After crossing FS 59 at this point, follow Gilman for a kilometer or so, until it rejoins FS 59 higher up. Here, take a left turn onto 59, but if the cover is thin, don’t worry about it, as this only lasts for a hundred yards or so. You will immediately reach a sign indicating the end of winter maintenance for motorized vehicles (other than snowmobiles), and this is where the skating gets great.
This road is maintained for snowmobile travel for many miles, and I have found that the groomer which they use for these machines makes for a near perfect ski skating surface. Thanks once again to VAST and the snowmobilers who support it! You can also ski here on classic skis, or course, but the wide road, lack of tracks, and frankly, lack of snowmobiles, makes a long easy skate most appealing.
At this point, you can pretty much go as far as you want. The road climbs gradually, but relentlessly for about 10-15 min until you reach the height of land. From this point on, the skiing is very easy, with a few short descents and climbs, and is a great place to really stretch out your stride and go for great gliding. I found this trail very reminiscent of much of the course for the Gatineau 55, a ski marathon on the Worldloppet tour which I sort of competed in many years ago. No time for a marathon today, so for my much shorter ski I arbitrarily chose to turn around after a few miles at the Sawmill Clearing, which also serves as the trailhead for the easy climb up to Breadloaf Mountain. Perhaps I will carry my snowshoes on my back another day to add this climb to the short ski tour.
While you know you are going uphill most of the way out, you don’t realize how much you have climbed until your return – I was amazed to see that my return took barely half the time of my trip out. Cruising back to the touring center by pretty much the same route made this a 13 km (8 mile) trip – just right for a busy Saturday when I had other family needs to attend to.
After my last post on the Blueberry Hill ski touring area, I had to follow up with a post describing a favorite loop at my home in the mountains, the Rikert Ski touring center on the Breadloaf Campus. I have purchased a season’s pass here pretty much every winter since I moved to Vt, and I can’t say enough good things about the place and the people who run it, so I won’t! The Rikert area has many kilometers of great trails, but has a compact trail layout, so I am going to describe a route which includes some of their lesser known trails, and some less maintained sections of forest service land outside the ski area boundaries. This loop includes some perfectly manicured terrain, skier-packed side trails, and a short section on Forest Service 59, an unplowed dirt road which is maintained by VAST (Vermont Area Snow Travellers, aka Snowmobilers).
Starting at the touring center, take the trail descending directly into the woods towards Breadloaf Mountain. This trail is labelled as the “first loop” as it is the start of the 7.5 Km loop used by the Middlebury College Ski Team for the winter carnival races. Follow this trail as it makes a quick climb, short descent and veers right for another short climb. Go straight on Holland, which continues the gradual climb. A short distance after topping out on Holland, you will see an ungroomed but usually well skied trail descending to the right. This trail is usually referred to as “Brown Gate”. There are a few springs in this section of trail, so watch out for a few bare spots. An opening in the forest to the right marks the beginning of a series of beaver ponds. The trail eventually makes a sharp right to a bridge which crosses over the outlet of the beaver ponds, but if the little buggers have been recently active, the bridge is sometimes under the ice. From here it is about . 75 Km of climbing until you reach the brown gate which gives the trail its name, where the ski trail system meets FS 59. If you are reading this, and wonder how on earth you will ever follow these instructions, just remember (as the blogger furrows his brow and does his best Yoda imitation) No wrong way, there is, only new ways. Hmmmmmm.
Take a left here on the VAST-maintained trail. I rarely see snowmobilers here, and when I do, I step aside, wave pleasantly, and thank them, as it is their dues which keeps the trail maintained. I am looking forward, however, to the extinction of the smoky and loud 2-stroke machines and their eventual replacement with quieter and less noxious 4-stroke engined snowmobiles. Another Km or so of easy climbing brings you to the height of land, where the trail takes a soft left turn, and starts to descend. Keep your eyes open for a tighter trail descending to the left. You will recognize it when you see a no snowmobiling sign on a trail frequently well packed by snowmobiles. The next few Km are a long fun descent which eventually bring you back into the outer fringes of the Rikert trail system. There is a gorgeous section paralleling the Middle Branch River. Shortly after you cross the river on a major bridge, there is a hard left up a short steep hill. Head up this, and then take the right fork when the trail splits again. You may notice a wooden sign pointing to Breadloaf, but this is easy to miss as it is in need of a paint job. Stay on this trail, which eventually passes through a pine forest before emerging in a clearing adjacent to the Robert Frost Cabin.
Frost spent the summer and fall here every year from 1939 until his death in 1963. I have noted that many locations around New England lay claim to Robert Frost, although “Robert Frost lived here” historical markers are not quite as common as “George Washington slept here” seems to be in the Mid-Atlantic states! The large white farmhouse below is the Homer Noble Farm, which made the news two years ago, when it was vandalized by a large group of high school-aged kids drinking beer. The New York Times article discussing this sad incident can be found at
This sobering thought aside, the bluebird skies and blue kick wax conditions made for yet another ahhhhhhh… moment on a perfect day. From this point on, just follow the obvious trails back to the central sections of the ski touring area, and kick it in back to the touring center.
The total distance on this loop was 13 Km, with a 700 ft altitude difference between the highest and lowest points. You will notice, I am giving all distances in Km now. This is so that I can maintain credibility in the nordic skiing world, where apparently English system measurement is verboten.
As promised, I am posting occasional ski tours over the winter. I have been an avid cross-country skier even longer than a runner – in fact I started running in the first place to stay in shape for skiing, feeding my delusions that I was a nordic racer. Some of my ski tours are within the confines of ski touring areas, while some are along less manicured routes. Today’s post is the former. There are two fabulous ski touring areas in the mountains above Middlebury, and the Romance Mountain route is part of one of them, the Blueberry Hill Ski Touring Center in Goshen. A previous post on their summer race, the Goshen Gallop, described some of the same trails, albeit under very different conditions. Blueberry Hill does charge a trail fee for use of the ski touring area, but it is well worth it for well maintained trails, gorgeous winter scenery, and includes homemade soup for lunch in the touring center lodge.
Since I knew the trails would be well groomed, I chose my skate skis for a little extra speed, but the well-set tracks would have been great for classic style skiing as well. This tour starts heading behind the Inn and follows the road to the south. After about 3/4 of a mile, follow the trail with a sharp turn back to the left, where it climbs for a few minutes, before taking the next right. After a few minutes of continued gradual climbing, this short section tops out in an open meadow with the best views of the day – the view towards the main ridge of the Green Mts. from the side of Hogback Mt.
After a short descent, the trail joins a forest service road which continues to climb gradually along the south side of Romance Mt. One of the trails heading off to the left has had a sign reading “Ned Gillette’s Dip” for many years, so while slurping my soup at the end of the ski, I asked the owner, Tony Clark, about the significance of the sign. Ned Gillette was one of the world’s most accomplished adventurers, a close friend of Tony’s, and a frequent skier at Blueberry Hill. Ned was senselessly killed in a robbery while trekking in the Karakoram in 1998. Apparently, during one running of the American Ski Marathon, a 50 Km race formerly held at the area, Ned broke both skis simultaneously at the dip in the trail with the aforementioned sign. Probably the only time I ever finished ahead of him in a race…. Shortly after this point, the forest service road dead ends, and the ski trail begins its serious ascent, marked by an ominous rusty yellow gate.
Over the course of the next mile, the trail climbs close to 1000 vertical feet. Just keep telling yourself how much fun the descent will be. The trail winds upwards through young hardwood forest (probably lumbered in the not too distant past) with so many false summits that when you reach the top, you almost expect a sign saying “just kidding”. When I finally topped out, I could tell from a few patches of yellow snow that I was not the first person to be relieved at reaching the high point! The trail reaches about 2700 ft elevation, and this could be the highest groomed cross country ski trail in Vt.
As you might guess, the descent is fast, with several sharp turns, but in good enough condition that you can push it without fear of getting upended by rough spots, other than the occasional sitzmark. Snowplowing is a horrible waste of potential energy! After about 5 min of this more technical section, the trail settles in to a more gradual descent, making for fun fast skiing. The second trail merging from the left will take you back to the ski touring center. You can tell you have missed it, if you hit another forest service road, necessitating just a few minutes of backtracking. After a short, fast final descent to the touring center, I was enjoying the day too much to call it quits, so I added on a short section below the touring center. Cross the meadow below the touring center and follow the obvious trail heading into the woods. From here on, the trail is pretty flat and fun cruising. Take the left turn onto the “Beginner Loop”, and this brings you back after a few fast miles, albeit with a few road crossings. The full loop was about 11 miles, and took me about 2 hours with a few stops to catch my breath and take pictures.