Every off-season Skiology likes to recognize some exceptional things related to the eastern ski industry, and recently we asked our followers who the most underrated ski area is in the East. While we received many hundreds of answers identifying many great ski areas for a variety of reasons, one of the most common answers is also the one that we choose for this honor. Burke Mountain located in East Burke, VT is Skiology's choice for Sleeper of the Year!
Before we dive into what makes Burke special in this regard, we need to give a shoutout to Saddleback Mountain in Maine. They're a classic sleeper also offering many of the same advantages as Burke, though with about double the terrain. Burke and Saddleback are sleepers though for different reasons related to their own unique circumstances. It was difficult to choose one over the other, and we can't offer you a reason for you to do so based on the ski experience, but the unique charm of the Northeast Kingdom (NEK) is what puts Burke on top for us. Titus Mountain in New York also deserves an honorable mention as a quiet place, maybe a little far removed from too many to consider. While Titus doesn't offer extreme terrain, it's a great mountain for families, affordable, very well maintained, and worth a detour on a busy weekend.
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Burke Mountain offers 2,000' of vertical drop, 260 acres of trails with 77% of them covered by snowmaking in addition to significant gladed terrain, and they receive about 200" of snowfall per year. They have just 5 lifts; two detachable quads, a high speed T-bar that is only open to the public during wind hold conditions, and a J-bar and carpet for the never-evers. The resort has great separation between beginner terrain and advanced terrain with each having its own base and high speed quad and that makes for a better experience for everyone. If you have a family with young children we strongly suggest seeking out places like this rather than where main trails resemble the Long Island Expressway at rush hour. It is safer and more enjoyable to have less crowded trails.
There are a host of reasons for why a ski area a "sleeper". Being comparably quiet is certainly at the top of the list, and the chances of you ever waitting in a lift line of more than 5 minutes without a holiday or operational issue are near zero. Another component is quite trails, and while there are a host of ski areas around like Plattekill, Elk, Blue Knob, Magic, Smugglers' Notch, Mad River Glen, and Tenney among others who use lower capacity fixed grip lifts which can result in lines, but the benefit of low uphill capacity is uncrowded trails and snow holding up longer, especially on powder days. Burke does this one better by having over 200 acres of their intermediate and advanced terrain serviced by just one detachable quad capable of moving just 2,200 people up to the top of the mountain in a hour.
Burke offers great terrain also. They have some steep wide groomers for those that just like to let it rip while soaking in the views of the Green Mountains and Lake Willoughby. There are also some old New England style trails cut in and around these cruizers, and natural snow trails and lift lines that are never or rarely groomed as well as nicely manicured glades that generally give people many different options for their path.
Price is also a consideration in what we consider to be a sleeper since it needs to be accessible rather than exclusive, and Burke is hands down the cheapest big mountain in the Northeast. Window tickets last season peaked at just $89, but they offer $65 tickets to anyone presenting a season pass to another mountain, they are an Indy Pass affiliated resort offering either 25% or 50% discounts to their passholders, they offer 3-for-1 lift tickets non-holiday Wednesdays, rates as low as $25 advance purchase lower mountain lift tickets for beginner terrain, and active duty military in both the US and Canada can ski free every non-holiday weekday along with their families. We don't know if these discounts will remain the same this coming season but given how quiet Burke is we see no reason for them not to continue.
There are many other things beyond the skiing itself though that makes Burke our choice for sleeper of the year. It's easier to get to from the greater NYC and Boston markets, just a short distance off of I-91. The NEK is overall a quiet a laid-back area where residents cherish the solitude of their natural surroundings. The NEK offers a lot of charm, and unlike towns where they have been overwhelmed by traffic related to the ski industry, Burke's surrounding area can easily handle what comes their way and still feel quaint in a good way. They have a modern slopeside hotel that is feet from the slopes for those looking for the convenience. Then of course is their legacy as the home mountain of Burke Mountain Academy which has produced no less than 36 olympians including Mikaela Shiffrin. Their resort also is a popular mountain biking destination in the non-snow season with the Kingdom Trails network nearby. No review of Burke though would be complete without a mention of the Mid-Burke Lodge, a small and humble older building with a rustic ski bar and a hot dog stand that that just feels like home and is the type of scene that decorators try to imitate without success in capturing the true spirit that only a place like Burke can offer.
What Holds Burke Back from Being More Popular?
Now Burke Mountain isn't perfect, otherwise they would not be a sleeper of course. Only on a rare occasion do they receive more snow than the Green Mountain Spine and the White Mountains because they are shielded by higher mountains from the two most common directions of the flow of moisture. Though their snowfall isn't bad and the cooler climate and low traffic helps keeps the snow better than most, they can get just half of what nearby Jay Peak or Cannon receives at times which causes Burke to be overlooked by many. Burke though is often the last of those three to go on wind hold on the back end of the storm. Group think and chasing the deepest pow will often land you in longer lines, and as we like to say, "people are a condition".
Having only one lift servicing the non-beginner terrain and losing that lift to wind or mechanical holds can pretty much shut down the ski day unless your own low speed quads are able to operate, so you want to be careful to avoid high winds. Burke doesn't have a very powerful snowmaking system either, so you have to wait a bit for snowmaking build-outs and the natural snow terrain to fill in most years, meaning that it is often mid-January or later before those trails may open at low tide, and that terrain is necessary to complete the experience for many. We suggest waiting for the trail counts to rise before making the venture.
Their partnership with the Burke Mountain Academy and related status also means that they have frequent competitions, even on weekends, and that can shut down some trails including Big Dipper which is one of the best cruisers around. These events do however add needed business to the resort, and if they have natural terrain open then there is still plenty to go around. Burke's commitments to the academy also means a lot of early season snowmaking resources go to opening up the training and race trails and that can slow down the expansion of terrain available to the public. We hope to see this improve with the proper investments.
Then of course is the whole EB-5 debacle that went down after both Burke Mountain and Jay Peak were purchased by Ariel Quiros in 2012 and 2008 respectively; sending both resorts into receivership in 2016 when the details of the EB-5 fraud broke and the feds moved in. While Jay Peak was sold last year and is experiencing record traffic, Burke once again sat mostly on the sidelines in the shadow of their larger sister resort, and they have been in a state of limbo for years that has seen one of their lifts go to scrap, barely any progress on upgrades, and a lack of a long-term plan for management to execute while there is no real owner. It's really hard for a resort to prosper under those circumstances.
Burke is finally nearing their auction date and the new owners will need to commit to some carefully crafted long-term investments for Burke to improve, grow, and achieve more than just their special sleeper status and become a profitable resort. It will take far more than just slapping a multi-pass on the place if one cares about the experience. If you love Burke, then you too should want to see them prosper because losing Burke would leave you with nothing to love. Sleepers offer the best experience around in many cases, but this needs to be a temporary condition. We hope the new owners, whomever they may be, will mostly build upon what already makes this place special. The new owners will need to be resourceful and experienced in managing and operating a resort in order for Burke to become successful, but to many skiers and riders the place is perfect as is.