Vermont is paying people to move here. I keep thinking about this as I'm lapping the Killington Bike Park, pushing my bike directly up to the ticket scanner almost every time I load the lift. I see groups of two or three at the top of the lift, but hardly anyone once I duck into the birch forest.
It seems the state is going through a bit of a brain drain due to young residents leaving for college or job opportunities and not coming back, combined with a population that's aging out of the workplace. Fewer employed residents means a smaller tax base, so the state's governor is offering to pay newcomers $10,000 over two years to take up residence in Vermont and work remotely. As a mountain biker, this seems too good to be true--Vermont is one of the friendliest places in the universe to ride dirt. It's an access utopia with relatively lax liability laws, where private landowners who don't ride bikes happily open their land to trailbuilding for the greater good of the economy.
"There are so many trail projects going on in Vermont, it's unbelievable," Tony Accurso, owner of Alpine Bike Works, the only year-round bike shop in Killington, tells me. "You find some states where they're trying to close trails down. Here in Vermont, they're building them everywhere. I mean everywhere."
Killington has certainly been at the center at some of that trail development over the past five years, resulting in the current offering of 30 trails accessed by a gondola and two chairlifts. And it's clear that the trail count isn't just for the sake of driving up the mountain's stats--the variety is impressive and the quality on-par with bigger-name bike parks. The trails sprawls over all four of the resort's peaks: Snowdon, Skye, Bear and Killington--where the park tops out at 4,241 in elevation--in a mix of old-school East Coast tech, buff, machine-built speedways and massive jump lines, boasting perfectly sculpted lips and landings.
"I think we're gaining peoples' confidence back," says Jay 'Rosey' Rosenbaum, a 23-year veteran of the resort who heads Killington's trail crew, which consists of seven full-time employees in the summer. "We started a long, long time ago, but didn't really do any progression or any expanded building or anything for a long, long time. Then, Highlands started ... and changed the East Coast--no one was building jumps on the East Coast like that-- then all of a sudden all the resorts got pressure to do it and our resort didn't do it for a while so people were like, 'Oh, I used to go to Killington, but it sucks, now I go to Highland all the time.'
"Now we're sort of changing their mind. 'Yeah, Highland's good, but Killington's pretty good too.' So we're starting to win some people back, which I'm pleased with."
Killington was one of the first East Coast ski resorts to start turning lifts in the summer to haul up bikes, which it began doing back in 1991. Summer operations weren't a big priority back then, but years later, when Highlands turned up the pressure, Rosenbaum was prepared with a five-year trail master plan to build out the park's potential. Part of that included enlisting Gravity Logic to design and map a handful of trails, including three jump trails: Blue Magic, Jump Start and Black Magic, Krusty, a new school-old school hybrid with sculpted berms breaking up ribbons of tech that wind down the mountain and Side Show Bob, a machine-built roller coaster whose buttery-smooth berms, wide, high-speed straightaways and mellow rollers beg for party trains.
In addition, Rosenbaum has maintained the natural trails that give Killington its East Coast flavor. Goat Skull, our primary test track, drops into the forest from the top of the Ramshead lift, serving up a constant mess of rocks and roots that will have you praising the bikes gods for the advancements in full-suspension technology.
On the opposite side of the hill, off the Snowshed lift, Yo Vinny is short, but intense, with chunky rocks where precision, not speed, is your most valuable asset. Off the top of the mountain, Funny Bone is one of the only non-forested trails on the mountain, featuring big rock slabs with big views of the Green Mountains before it drops into the woods via several steep chutes. Scarecrow starts with a series of sweeping S turns before ducking into the forest, where a prolonged steep, rock-and-root garden awaits to test your line-selection skills. Scarecrow links either to Low Rider, another steep, rowdy natural trail, or if your quads and arms have already cried mercy (likely), you can connect to Side Show Bob, for a fast cruise back to the K-1 gondola.
In the winter, Killington's reputation is one of size--it boasts the most skiable terrain on the East Coast--and inclusivity, offering something for everyone, and Rosenbaum is mirroring that philosophy in the summer. As such, the Snowshed Express lift services a smattering of green and blue trails to complement the black and double-black diamond trails on the higher peaks.
Rosenbaum is four years into his five-year plan now, and plans to finish next year by building a few new trails, but mostly figuring out how to better link existing trails to eliminate fire-road connectors.
Even without the final touches, there's enough on Killington to keep any level of rider occupied for the weekend, which seems to be exactly what's starting to happen.
"We went from, only a couple of years ago, 5,000 riders a summer to last year we did 25,000, so we're going up," Rosenbaum says. Killington stands to build on that momentum even more early next month when it hosts the US Open for the first time, welcoming amateurs and pros alike to its world-class trails. For the occasion, Rosenbaum and his crew are constructing a new 2-mile trail from Killington Peak that will rival the Fort William and Mont-Sainte-Anne World Cup courses in length, and hopefully attracts pro DH racers en route to racing Mont-Sainte-Anne. It will also put on an enduro race, an adaptive race and kids' events as part of the first year in a multi-year agreement to host the Open.
Vermont is small, a state nestled between New Hampshire and New York of only 600,000 people, most of whom are spread throughout the state with vast tracts of land in between. As such, Killington pulls a strong local Vermont crowd, as well as urbanites from New York or Boston who own a ski home at the resort, but it's now also starting to attract East Coast Canadians who previously didn't venture farther south than the Kingdom Trails, which sit right over the border in East Burke. Now, as Vermont turns to recreation as an economic driver, new trail networks are cropping up all over central Vermont, and Killington--which has the restaurants and hotel beds to cater to 800,000 skier visits a year--is a burgeoning base camp for traveling riders. There's Pine Hill Park down the road in Rutland, the Green Mountain trails in Pittsfield, the Aqueduct Trails in Woodstock and a big-picture plan to connect Killington to Stowe and the Mad River Valley, which would create more than 100 miles of singletrack and a bikepack-friendly route for multi-day explorations.
"It's a beautiful place to be," Accurso says. "The flavor and brand of Vermont is powerful and it's unique in every experience."