It can be easy for visitors to Vermont to immediately think of the large resort-style mountains that cover the ranges of the Green Mountains as being one of the major appeals for winter sports activists.
With so many different ones to choose from, visitors and locals alike can often forget about the smaller more quant areas, which although may not provide as rowdy of a night scene, may have much more to offer for those who are looking for the ultimate Vermont experience.
Nestled in southern Vermont just off route 35 is the town of Grafton. With a population under 700 it can be easy to overlook this tiny blip on the map enroot to other larger ski areas nearby such as Okemo and Mount Snow, which rest under 30 miles away to the North and West.
However, for those looking for an out-side of the box experience, one where you can enjoy a full day of snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, skating and tubing, without forking out an arm-and-a-leg for the experience, Grafton Ponds may just be the place for those weary travelers to set their anchor in the snow.
Grafton Ponds was established in 1971 when Jud Hartman and his wife moved to the area after working in Stowe at the Trapp Family Lodge for several years. “We moved to Grafton and were trying to figure out how to make a living,” said Hartman. “We approached the Windham Foundation, who owned the land and asked if we could use the cabin and land to run a cross-country ski facility and they loved the idea.”
Hartman and his wife ran the facility for ten years, which consisted of a small one-room log cabin with no electricity and miles of narrow trails that posed a significant challenge for those who dared ski down them. “I loved those trails, but for the average skier I think they were a little intimidating,” said Hartman.
After 10 years of scraping together a living, Hartman turned the reins back over to the Windham Foundation who has since that time, made substantial improvements to the facility, including the implementation of snow making and trail grooming that far surpassed Hartman’s use of snowmobiles. The result; Grafton Ponds is now the premiere place for area X-Country ski racing, especially in the recent brown winters when Grafton was the only cross-country facility in the area to have enough snow for racers to compete.
On top of the 15 kilometers of cross-country ski-trials there is also 10 kilometers of snow showing trails that wind up and down the 1,700 foot Bear Mountain, a series of trails that I set out to explore one snowy Saturday morning in early February.
As dry as the Vermont winter has been, luck could not have been more on my side when I made the 40-minute trip to Grafton from my home in Brattleboro. Just 12 hours prior, we had received 22 inches of the purest powder Vermont could offer, illuminating the forest with a blinding white that gave me plenty of excitement for my overnight trip to Grafton where I would experience not only the snowshoe trails but also all of the other amenities that this little town had to offer.
Although I was unaware of it at first, it did not take much convincing to be talked into taking the famous wine and cheese snowshoeing tour, a 2 hours hike, which was accompanied by a seat next to a fire and a wide range of samples from the Grafton Wine and Cheese company, another product of the Windham Foundation.
After meeting up with our guide Hannah, a recent UVM graduate and resident of Putney at the base lodge, we started our ascent, which had been broken in by an early morning hiker, giving us just enough pack to ease our legs into the initial climb up Bear Mountain.
The trip up took us a solid hour, which passed us by several of the intersecting X-country ski trails and afforded us numerous elevated views of the surrounding country side. After our steady climb we arrived at Big Bear Shelter, to the smell of a warm fire, lots of cheese and cool bottles of both red and white wine, which had been prepared for us by the director of Grafton Ponds, Bill Salmon.
Salmon came to Grafton Ponds six years ago from Morrisville Vermont, where he grew up in the shadow of Smugglers Notch.
“I grew up in a resort town,” said Salomon as he tended to the cracking fire. “This is much nicer.”
Salmon has been hard at work in his six years at Grafton Ponds, ensuring that both local and visiting families feel right at home in this expansive winter playground.
“Right now the locals and out-of-state visitors are about 50-50,” said Salmon. “I try to do everything I can to get them to realize that this is a place for families to come and enjoy the outdoors. It’s not rocket science, if you get the kids excited… then mom and dad jump right in.”
After our visit by the fire, Hannah lead us down one of the many unknown trails on Grafton, as we bounced through the snow like kids, cheering every time we fell into the two feet of fresh powder that we were trekking through. It was at this time that I realized exactly what Salmon meant, this whole patch of land, nestled in the beautiful southern Vermont countryside, was my place to play as well as everyone else’s’, a place where you can go to be kid whether you are four or 80 years old without the massive headache that accompanies the trips to the congested and overpriced resort towns.
After our snowshoe, and our fond farewell to Hannah and Bill, we were welcomed just two miles down the road by the Grafton Inn staff, a historic lodge that sits in the middle of the small town.
Besides the warm fireplace that sat in the lobby and the gourmet meal that we sat down to later on that evening, the best part of the whole Grafton Inn experience was the full length tub in our quant room, which gave my weary muscles the most relaxing and enjoyable soak I have had in some time, and fully set the tone for the rest of the evening, which was one filled with the pristine quiet and relaxation that only small town Vermont can provide.
For more information on Grafton Ponds, visit http://graftonponds.com.