Until recent snows in the western part of the country, it’s been a pretty brown snowshoe-free winter in much of the country. Northern New England has some snow, but it’s not the huge deep powder layer most of us have come to expect in a true winter.
So you have to search out the snow a little. In Vermont, the best place to go is in the far northern Green Mountains, way up there by the Canadian border. It’s quite a drive to get there, and it looks pretty wild and remote. But look past the seemingly endless expanse of trees, hills and mountains, and you’ll find plenty to do after you’ve put the snowshoes away for the day.
Before we get to that, there’s the important matter of where to go snowshoeing. First of all, there’s a micro-climate that affects the area called the “Jay Cloud” which often helps create a nice snow cover when other areas go lacking.
The Jay Cloud is a frequent weather pattern in which moist winds from the northwest rise up the slopes of Jay Peak and nearby ridgelines. The rising air forms a localized cloud which can sometimes drop tremendous amounts of snow on the area. Jay Peak will sometimes get a foot of snow while other sections of northern Vermont get less than six inches.
Denis Desjarlais an avid snowshoer who lives in the town of Jay, had a lot of suggestions on where to go and what to do in his part of the world. He’s my unofficial tour guide for the Jay area, and a lot of his suggestions are here in this review.
Desjarlais said a good place to start is the Catamount Trail, the northernmost extent of which goes through the Jay Peak area near the Canadian border.
According to the Catamount Trail Association, the terrain on the 12.3 mile section of the trail is nice and varied. Heading north the first half of the trail features a 1,000 foot descent through woods between Jay Pass and the small village of Jay. The second half mostly follows snowmobile trails on flat, open and scenic terrain from Jay village to the Canadian border.
Desjarlais is a board member for the town of Jay Land Trust, and his group has been working to secure areas in the lightly populated, but sprawling town to enjoy. The group has already set aside about 300 acres for public recreation. The largest parcel is on Cross Road, just off Route 242 in the town of Jay.
The Hazen’s Notch Association in Montgomery has 40 miles of trails reserved for wintertime cross country skiing and snowshoeing. The terrain if varied, and the association says people often spend up to four hours on the trails, gawking at the scenery.
The Jay Peak Resort is a mecca for daring tree skiers, but the resort has some good Nordic trails for us snowshoe enthusiasts, too. The resort offers back country snowshoe tours from 5 to 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays. The tours include equipment, guide serviced and hot beverages around an outdoor fire pit. Call 802-988-4653 for rates or to make reservations.
Stay at the Jay Peak Resort for your after snowshoe fun, too. The resort was until recent years a sleepy spot with a small, dated hotel, a lackluster bar and not that much else for after sports entertainment.
But the resort has had a huge make over, with big, spiffy hotels, quality restaurants, and perhaps their biggest non-winter attraction, a huge indoor water park. The Pump House Indoor Water Park features several slides, a kids area, climbing walls, a waterfall, and hot tubs. Maybe the most interesting feature in the water park is something called the Aqualoop, which the resort says will send you into a drop of 60 feet per second.
For adults, it costs $35 for a day pass. The water park is pretty popular, so before going, call 802-327-2151 to make sure there’s enough room for you to get in.
Jay Peak Resort also has a new indoor ice center includes an NHL size rink. Quite a few hockey teams use the rink for practice and games, but Jay Peak has built in plenty of time for public skating, clinics, lessons and special programs. Check the ice rink page on resort’s Website or call ahead for schedules.
If shopping malls, endless, wild nightlife and gleaming, towering buildings are your thing, far northern Vermont is not the place to go. But the food and restaurants are surprisingly good, the little villages near Jay Peak trend toward the charming, and even if you don’t stay at Jay Peak’s hotels, there are other fine places to rest your head for the next day on the trails.
The Jay Village Inn is a good base for your adventure. Room rates are modest, as low as $85 a night for a double occupancy room weekdays and $100 on weekends and peak season. A comfortable restaurant in the inn can start your day off with a hearty breakfast, or basic, but filling lunch and dinner offerings.
The Jay Country Store is across the street from the inn and is one of those great hodgepodge general stores that are scattered across Vermont. Large wood carving statues guard the front door of the store. You can eat soups and quick meals at the lunch counter or order a big sandwich to go. When I’ve been there, the best bets have always been the soups or the pannini. Explore the store a bit for some interesting finds. Last time I was there, I bought some great pine soap, and there was a roomful of surprisingly good deals on Carhartt clothing.
If you’ve got your passport or other ID that would get you into Canada, head northeast from Jay to the Owl’s Bread Bakery just over the Canadian border in Mansonville, Quebec and not more than ten or 15 minutes from Jay village. I can’t recommend anything in particular there because all the breads and pastries I’ve tried there are among the best I ever had. Warning: You’ll have to snowshoe your tail off afterward to work off the calories accumulated in the bakery.
Head west over the hill and past Jay Peak to the Montgomery, which has the feel of a classic Vermont village but with a quirky personality. On the way to Montgomery is the Belfry, a restaurant on Route 242 that is the closest thing to a local institution.
The place attracts a mix of tourists and locals. It’s decor is not fancy-pants. Instead, there’s lots of wood that’s seen its share of wear and tear. While there, try the Trout River Brewing offerings. Trout River, based in Lyndonville, Vermont, makes some of the best beer in the Green Mountain State. If the Belfry has any, especially seek out the Hoppin’ Mad Trout from Trout River. Trout River’s Chocolate Oatmeal Stout will also help you recover from a grueling day out in the snow.
If you’d rather rub elbows with the skiers, head back up to the Jay Peak Resort and try the restaurant Alice’s Table, in the resort’s Tram Haus Lodge. The restaurant is named for Alice Lewis, a revered woman, jack of all trades type who worked at the resort in the 1950s and 1960s. The restaurant keeps one table open each night at which people can randomly sit and meet new people, and swap outdoor adventure stories.
Another option at the resort is the Bridge Restaurant, which has a pretty extensive menu. Or you can just grab a drink and settle into a chair near the fireplace. Yet another good place for drinks at the resort is the Tower Bar, where seating fixtures are made in part from old chairlift towers and sheave wheels, and bar fixtures come from planks and lattice work from an old bridge that once spanned a river on the Montgomery/Enosburg town line.
It snowed again last night around Jay, so the base is slowly adding up. Denis and I will see you either on the snowshoe trails, or at one of the pubs.