I woke up to the news that Morrisville, Vermont’s News & Citizen had leaked a story about a long-rumored gondola linking Smugglers Notch and Stowe Mountain Resort. This story is part of a puzzle in a slow progression toward change that has been happening in this part of Vermont since Vail Resorts purchased Stowe Mountain Resort in 2017.
As reported in the News & Citizen, Vail Resorts have talked with long-time Smuggs owner Bill Stritzler about the proposed gondola project for years. They had sought to keep discussions confidential until recently when lawyers for the State of Vermont determined that documents about the proposed project could be released to the public:
“Documents received in a public records request made by the newspaper revealed that discussions around a shared lift between the two resorts have gone on for six years, since shortly after Vail Resorts purchased Stowe Mountain Resort.”
– The Morrisville News & Citizen
In March 2023, Stritzler met with state forest official Brad Greenough and Stowe Mountain Resort general manager Bobby Murphy about the gondola, and meeting minutes indicate the two sides are edging closer to a deal. With a mind to environmental impact, the modest gondola would rise about 280 feet along a relatively flat area, have an hourly capacity of 1,200 skiers and riders per direction, and no new trails would be cut on either mountain.
Connected, the two resorts would encompass six peaks, seventeen lifts, and 194 trails, with 5.5 miles separating Stowe’s Toll House and Smuggs’ Morse Highlands. If approved, the project would take two years to complete. For now, there is still no mention of when they plan to break ground, how the gondola might alter the skiing and riding experience at either resort, or what I imagine every Smuggs local is fearing if this project could eventually lead to the full acquisition of Smugglers Notch by Vail Resorts.
Ultimately, the proposed gondola would link two resorts that for decades have shared little in common beyond common geography. In lifts alone, Stowe currently operates six state-of-the-art high-speed lifts, while double chairs mainly service Smuggs from the 1970s. Apart from what I can only describe as two distinctly different vibes, another thing that keeps Smuggs skiers and riders at Smuggs and Stowe skiers and riders at Stowe is accessibility. Route 108, ‘the notch road,’ which closely links the two ski areas, is closed due to hazardous road conditions from November to April. In winter, it can take about an hour to drive between Smuggs and Stowe, on a route that takes you through Jeffersonville, Johnson, Hyde Park, and Morrisville, Vermont. As they say in New England, “You can’t get there from here.”
Smugglers’ Notch is recognized as ‘America’s #1 Family Resort.’ Smuggler’s Notch employs generations of family members from surrounding counties, and guests, some travelling from distance places, return here year after year with their children and grandchildren. Morse Mountain is perfect for kids to learn and parents to stay entertained. We taught three kids how to snowboard at Smuggs. I will never forget how exhilarating it was to watch my youngest daughter, then seven, shred her first runs with her best Vermont buddy off the scary steep Sterling and Madonna chairlifts.
I’ve also had the blissful pleasure of snowboarding at Stowe Mountain Resort several times over the years. Stowe is world-class, with challenging, expertly groomed trails. I could write here that my family was ‘priced out’ of snowboarding at Stowe after the Vail Resorts purchase, but that’s not the case. While a daily lift ticket (on peak days) at Smuggs is $99, compared to a somewhat more staggering $199 at Stowe, there is no denying the benefits that come with purchasing an Epic pass for the season, what most families I know who live in and around the Stowe area do. When you factor in the 37 ski resorts worldwide that an Epic pass gives you access to as a Stowe resident, it’s an easy investment to consider.
What does the proposal mean to this region and the people who live their daily lives in northern Vermont? Vail Resorts has a track record of snatching adjacent ski resorts and connecting them with a gondola, so is it really surprising that there is now an official plan to link Stowe and Smugglers Notch, or was it only a matter of time? I think that change is inevitable and that there are arguments on both sides about this project going forward. As much as I’m not ready to consider a Smuggs that looks any different than the Smuggs I love, I have seen Morrisville – the nearest town northeast of Stowe – change in the past five years mainly for the better; the landscape has improved, local businesses are healthier. MoVegas is on the map.
The leaked discussion of the proposed gondola linking Smuggs and Stowe is one more chapter in a still-unfolding story. Time will tell what happens next. There is a well-known saying on the north side of this eastern border that I think might apply here: “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (the more things change, the more they stay the same).”