- Tim Newcomb
Waterbury resident Sandy Yusen is not an early morning person, so it was 9 a.m. by the time she made it to Stowe Mountain Resort one Saturday last winter for a few quick runs on her snowboard.
Yusen was too late. She drove several laps around the lot but couldn't find a parking space.
"I ended up heading back home," she recalled. "It was so disappointing."
This year, Yusen is saying a regretful goodbye to the resort. For the first time she can remember, she and her husband didn't purchase a season's pass at Stowe for the coming winter. Instead, they bought passes at Sugarbush and cross-country passes at the Trapp Family Lodge.
"I will miss Stowe. I love the mountain," said Yusen, who learned to ski at Stowe as a child in the 1970s. But, she added, "I don't find it relaxing to go through the rigamarole that sometimes it seems has become part of the ski resort experience."
Parking and traffic problems at Stowe — one of Vermont's oldest and most storied ski areas — have long been wintertime challenges. But in the past few years, new dynamics have swelled the crowds in the scenic town, which is home to Mount Mansfield, Vermont's highest peak. When Colorado-based Vail Resorts bought Stowe Mountain Resort in 2017, it became part of a chain, of sorts, and the price of its new season lift ticket dropped by more than half, to around $900, drawing new visitors. Then, a few years later, the pandemic boosted interest in the sport — and brought to Vermont a surge of new residents who could work remotely.
The growth has created periodic bouts of traffic calamity in a once-bucolic town that was built on the scale of 19th-century commerce. As winter approaches, town officials and Vail are looking for solutions to the anticipated snarls. Skiers and snowboarders are bracing for hordes, and some plan to head to other mountains.
"There are just people everywhere," said Lauren Traister of Hyde Park. She fondly remembers the days when she could bump into friends at the base of the lifts. Now, she said, crowds make that impossible. "The number of people on the trail at one time ... it is frightening."
Vermont's population was stagnant or in decline until the pandemic. But between 2010 and 2020, Stowe's population jumped by more than 20 percent, according to Town Manager Charles Safford. That figure likely includes some of the second-home owners who moved to Stowe permanently during the pandemic.
The growth spells economic success. Stowe now takes in more revenue from lodging than any other city or town in the state, according to the state Department of Taxes, and it's home to some of the most expensive real estate. The median listing price for a house in the Lamoille County town over the summer was $780,000, according to realtor.com — well above the $455,000 median listing in nearby Chittenden County.
But there's a cost. At peak ski times, Route 108 can be backed up for miles. Popular events such as the Stowe Foliage Arts Festival, which ran from October 7 to 9, create hours-long tie-ups on Route 100, the road that connects Stowe with Interstate 89.
In an effort to encourage the use of public transit and carpooling during the upcoming season, Vail introduced steep fees for parking during peak times and created a new $450 season pass for parking. But the pass, which doesn't guarantee a spot in the lot, reportedly sold out minutes after it went on sale on October 12, further increasing tensions.
Vail hasn't said how many parking passes it sold during that six-minute spree, but skier Bobby Gaudreau, who lives in Morrisville, said he doubted that the charge would make any difference.
"Paid parking isn't going to reduce the number of cars or the number of people trying to get into that parking lot," said Gaudreau, who didn't manage to snag a pass when they went on sale. "Paid parking isn't going to change anything except make more money for Vail."
There's very little appetite for widening Route 108 or any other roads in Stowe — or for creating more parking lots. In 2021, the resort applied to build a new 280-space lot as part of its 2003 master plan. But after neighbors complained, the town's Development Review Board rejected the application.
"I think people are cognizant that there is something special here," said Safford, the town manager. He noted that one-third of the land in Stowe is protected from development.
"People don't just visit to come skiing," he said. "We have to be careful we don't pave over Stowe and diminish its character and its natural beauty."
Many critics point to Vail's company-wide Epic Pass as a major source of the problems. It gives skiers and snowboarders access to more than 30 resorts in several countries, as well as Stowe, Mount Snow and Okemo in Vermont. Some lift passes with certain restrictions cost as little as $500 to $600 for adults.
"It's basically the exact same thing as having the Super Bowl in a stadium that holds 350,000 people and selling an unlimited amount of tickets and saying, 'OK, see if you can get one of those 350,000 seats,'" said South Burlington skier Jay Pilcer.
Vail officials don't make their annual skier visit numbers public. But Pilcer and other skiers said it's clear the mountain is overpopulated with skiers and riders at times.
"The parking can't handle it. The roads can't handle it," Pilcer said.
Stowe Mountain Resort spokesperson Adam White denied that the resort sells too many passes.
"There have always been cars on the Mountain Road waiting to get here on the morning on weekends and holidays and powder days," said White, who lives in Jericho and has skied at Stowe for 30 years. "It's not like all of a sudden there is traffic that didn't exist before."
As for skiers' complaints that the slopes are too crowded, White replied that the resort needs to grow in order to survive.
"If you want to have your kids and grandkids experience skiing and fall in love with it the same way you did, the businesses have to be here for those future generations," White said. "Don't we want to welcome more people and for people to share this experience with us?"
Safford is working with officials from the state — which owns a section of Route 108 — and the resort on possible remedies. Late last month, the selectboard agreed to spend $80,000 to hire a consultant who will use cellphone data to assess how and when people are moving around town and seek ways to transport them more efficiently.
Meanwhile, Safford said, the town is creating more free shuttles for visitors and residents — and trying to come up with incentives for people to use them.
Safford is also counseling acceptance. Gone are the days, he said, when locals could zip up to the mountain anytime for a quick run or two, with seamless free parking at the base lodge.
"I don't think things are going to go back to where they were a decade ago, and I think folks have reconciled themselves to that," he said.
Skiers don't seem very reconciled. On social media and in conversations, many of them blast Vail (using the hashtag #EPICFAIL) for creating the paid parking scheme only after it sold the season ski passes. If skiers had known it would cost $30 a day to park in most lots on weekends and holidays, Pilcer said, many probably wouldn't have invested in a season pass.
"You have locals who will come up and ski six runs, and now a local who didn't get a season parking pass is going to have to pay $30 to do that?" Pilcer said. "That's a bunch of baloney."
Under the new policy, parking is free after 2 p.m. or for cars carrying at least four people. But parking is limited off the mountain, with the closest park-and-ride lot 16 miles away in Waterbury. Vail also suggests that visitors use the park-and-ride at Morrisville-Stowe State Airport, but Traister said there are only three spaces there. Public bus service goes up Route 108, and some hotels have shuttles that take guests to the resort.
"I'm all for doing things to get more cars off the road," Traister said. "But it's really disingenuous what Vail is doing. They said they're putting in all these mechanisms to alleviate traffic, and then they sell all these passes so people will come."
Selectboard member Lisa Hagerty said her family moved to town 17 years ago to be close to the mountain and stayed so her kids and grandchildren could visit from Maine and Massachusetts on winter weekends. For a long time, they did.
Not this year.
"They are going to try other mountains that are off the major pass programs — and therefore off the radar screen," Hagerty said, citing traffic and crowds as the deciding factors. "My personal story, sadly, is that my own children did not buy Epic Passes this year — which breaks my heart."Correction, November 9, 2022: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported Bobby Gaudreau's occupation, and that he bought a parking pass.