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Room With a View

Visitors to the Stone Hut can sleep at the top of Vermont and ski at first light


Published October 8, 2008 at 5:29 a.m.

The Stone Hut
  • The Stone Hut

No matter who ends up buying Stowe Mountain Resort from failed insurance giant AIG, it will probably remain one of the most luxurious — and pricey — alpine ski and snowboard destinations in the Northeast. Take Spruce Peak: The Resort’s extensive new “intimate alpine neighborhood” of slopeside condos and cabins flanks a 139-room lodge and, among other planned amenities, a performing arts center.

But Vermonters have long known about an alternative, and more frugal, way to stay on Mount Mansfield: the Stone Hut. Built in 1936 by the Civilian Conservation Corps and owned by Vermont State Parks, the Hut is one enviable piece of real estate. Stowe Mountain’s Forerunner Quad lift drops occupants nearly at its door. On a clear day, views around the cabin stretch east to New Hampshire and south down the spine of the Green Mountains to Killington. After the lifts close at 4 o’clock, there’s no sound but the whistling wind (and the occasional grooming machine) for miles around. And when they open at 7:30 a.m., Hut occupants who ski and board are already making first tracks — a coveted experience, especially in these unpredictable powder days.

True, the bathroom is a short hike through the snow to the Octagon building, and the only on-site amenity is a stack of firewood for the wood stove, built into the Hut’s old stone fireplace. Occupants must haul up their own sleeping bags, food, camp cookware and non-flame lighting — all of which must fit on their laps if they take the lift. But the spare, single-room cabin, which sleeps up to 12 on bunks, rents for only $150 per night. If you can get 11 friends together who aren’t shy about public changing, that’s $12.50 per person per night. It’s Vermont ski vacationing for the rest of us — or, at least, those of us who are lucky enough to snag a stay through the Stone Hut’s lottery system.

Aaron Jacobs, a park ranger stationed at the Vermont State Ski Dorm on Stowe’s Mountain Road, has overseen the lottery since 2003. He estimates that 200 applications came in last year, but only 15 percent of those hopefuls ended up with places in the Hut. “We haven’t actually promoted the Stone Hut because it’s already so popular,” Jacobs explains, sounding wary of media exposure. “In my experience, we’ve had 100 percent occupancy.”

Those poor odds have two causes. The Hut is open to the public only 150 days a year, between November and April. (It houses Long Trail caretakers during the summer months, in an agreement with the Green Mountain Club.) And the lottery system favors requests for longer visits. Applications must specify preferred and alternative dates, and they are separated into piles according to the number of nights requested, with the longest stays drawn first.

Some dates remain unfilled after the lottery; Jacobs estimates 30 to 40 days were still open last year. These spots are claimed in a matter of hours on a first-come, first-served basis by people who call on a specified day — this year, it’s November 14. So if you’re dying to sleep at the Hut, the best game plan is to request a long stay, go for dates outside the popular December-to-February slots, and fill in plenty of alternative dates on the application. Or you could get to know your redial button on November 14. Both methods require up-front payment that’s cashed if and when you get in, with no refunds if your plans change.

Interested parties needn’t be hardcore backcountry stalwarts ready to sleep in below-zero temperatures. Parks Regional Manager Susan Bulmer, who regularly inspects the Stone Hut, promises the structure is warm. In a renovation eight years ago, the foundation was insulated, flooring replaced, and a more predictable, user-friendly wood stove installed for cooking and heating. The fire may need to be stoked once or twice during the night, depending on the temperature outside. But, Bulmer points out, people “checking in” at 2 p.m. usually find the previous occupants’ fire still burning, so the place rarely gets cold.

Lodgers will be even warmer if they’ve hiked up, via the Toll Road or Hazelton Trail. That suits those who arrive when the lifts haven’t yet opened for the season or have closed for the day — not to mention people who don’t want to shell out for a Stowe Mountain lift ticket. (Last year, a peak-season day pass cost $84.) Some actually prefer to hike or ski up on skins. Bulmer estimates the hike is “a good couple hours.”

The cabin’s interior, she says, is “rustic — knotty pine and stone walls,” and contains two sets of single bunk beds, two double-sized bunk-bed systems and a table and chairs. One window looks out on the pass-through to Nosedive, a trail with one of the mountain’s steepest fall lines; the other faces south to a view of the valley. Showers and pay phones are available in the Octagon.

“It’s not going to have, you know, chocolates under your pillow,” says Maria Senftleber of Burlington, who has stayed at the Stone Hut three times with her husband Fritz and their two children. “It’s a great family place. You cook the pasta at home and warm it up there; the salad’s already made.” The Senftlebers brought their 5-month-old daughter for their first stay 15 years ago; on another visit, their oldest had croup and was rushed off the mountain by snowcat after a 2 a.m. call to the resort.

But the rewards have kept the Senftlebers coming back. “To go out in the middle of the night and look at the stars — I mean, there you are on the top of Mount Mansfield,” recalls Senftleber with a note of wonder in her voice.

“It’s unique in the Vermont State Park system,” Park Ranger Jacobs agrees. “It’s one of two facilities open to the public that are staffed in the wintertime.” (The other is B&B-like Seyon Ranch in Groton.) “And it’s unique in the largest sense, in the experience of camping out in the woods and making first tracks.”

He adds warmly, “We really believe that Vermont State Parks belong to the people of Vermont.”