Winter brings peace to Smugglers Notch. Despite occasional snowobile traffic, Vermont's most popular highway becomes a haven for human powered recreation. Backcountry skiers and ice climbers share lines, cross-country skiers zip up and down the winding road, and snowshoers explore caves of both ice and stone. Accessible from Stowe and Jeffersonville, it's the heart of winter recreation in the Northern Green Mountains.
From the small parking lot on Route 108 near Smugglers Notch Resort, it's a 1.1-mile hike to the visitor center at the peak of the notch. While the buildings are all closed during the winter, the views only improve. Without the swarms of people, speeding cars, and thick foliage, visitors are free to stare skyward at the impressive cliffs rising precipitously above on the flanks of Mount Mansfield to the west and Spruce Peak to the east. In many cases, a closer look will reveal ice climbers working their way up one of the many chutes.
Continuing south from the visitor center leads to the iconic boulder garden, where fragments of the mountain have tumbled down to the notch floor, creating a maze of house-sized boulders and small caves. In the early 1800s these caves were used by locals of dubious moral character to smuggle goods to and from Canada, violating the Embargo Act of 1807. In 1922, the already well trodden route was adapted into a road suitable for cars. The caves experienced a renaissance of use as a place to stash booze during prohibition, leading people to eventually name this craggy corner of Vermont "Smugglers Notch."
The road continues south, dropping steeply toward Stowe before leveling out once again. The southern terminus is located adjacent to the parking lot for Stowe Mountain Resort's downhill area, about 3 miles from the parking area at Smugglers Notch Resort. It is common to see the occasional downhill skier skating through the flats on either side, returning from a trip down the Birthday Bowls.
Returning toward Smuggs, visitors will notice an especially impressive ice flow descending from the right side of the trail about three quarters of a mile from the Smuggs Trailhead. The adventurous can climb the short embankment up to the base of the ice flow where a small entrance to an ice cave can be found. Inside the light filters through the green tinged ice, making the walls appear to glow.
Smugglers Notch is a great destination for cross-country skiers and snowshoers looking for a short hike with a big reward.
Winter backcountry adventures can be dangerous outdoor activities that pose significant risks as conditions affecting safety (i.e. weather, snowpack stability, avalanche hazard) are constantly changing. Prior to engaging in these activities each individual should get the proper training to make safe decisions and be equipped to use avalanche safety resources and tools. Please visit our Backcountry Skiing and Avalanche Safety post to learn more.