Exploring the Northwest Passage at Killington

Killington is one of my favorite places to visit. Between the varied hiking and the wonderful skiing, there’s always something to keep me exploring!

I’ve gone up the Sunrise Village Triple dozens of times now, and hiked through the trails offered off of the Sunrise Lodge. Over the summer, while researching Killington’s history, I learned of an area that has been closed since 2001 – The Northwest Passage. I had always been curious about the abandoned lift towers below the Sunrise Village Triple, but hadn’t thought to explore it until this year.

Jack and I tried to hike along the lift line during the summer months, but the terrain was uncooperatively beautiful – the wildflowers, although fragrant and stunning, were difficult to trudge through, and pricker bushes up to my hips littered the way.

As the weather wasn’t great this past Saturday and the lift lines were long, we decided to skip out on the skiing for the day and finally check it out!

Killington Map from 1984 Highlighting the Northwest Passage
Killington Map from 1984 Highlighting the Northwest Passage

The Northwest Passage was an expansion at Killington that opened during the 1982-83 season, bringing Killington’s advertised vertical drop to 3,150 feet and provided a way to reach the eventual Parker’s Gore area. Parker’s Gore was proposed to provide a wilderness ski experience, allowing you to be fully immersed in nature as the bowl-like backdrop hid the roads, buildings, and nearby rivers and streams from sight.

Killington was met with a number of challenges in developing this land: the Mendon Zoning Board of Adjustment eventually rejected the plan for two triple chairlifts, the National Park Service pushed back development in the Appalachian Trail corridor, and the State of Vermont deemed the land to be a sensitive black bear habitat.

By the late 1990s, the new owners of Killington (American Ski Company) acquired Pico and determined connecting Pico to Killington was a more important project. Therefore, the Parker’s Gore project was scrapped, with the land being exchanged with the State of Vermont for 1,073 acres closer to Killington Peak.

The Northwest Passage ran into challenges as well. With the Passage being the lowest elevation terrain at Killington, snowmakers had difficulty with maintaining quality snow, and the Northeast Passage Triple lift time was lengthy (12 minutes to the current unloading station on Sunrise). Additionally, the lift rarely ran in the late 90s and slope side condo owners were upset as they had no ski in-ski out access yet to the resort.

Thus, Killington decided to abandon the Northwest Passage. The former base lodge became a snowmobile rental area, and the Northeast Passage Triple was renamed the Sunrise Village Triple, only serving the upper portion of the complex adjacent to the village.

Killington Map from 1999 Showing the Closure of the Northwest Passage
Killington Map from 1999 Showing the Closure of the Northwest Passage

We started by parking at the Sunrise Lodge and headed to the base of the Sunrise Village Triple. We could see the lift towers, and decided to follow them straight up. Although the wildflowers were long gone, the downed branches and gnarled pricker bushes made the going pretty tough at first.

Eventually, we started coming upon broken ski poles, which were suspiciously littering an easy path up the lift line.

It looked like a nice old tree trail that we were on. As we reached the top of the hill, the foliage faded away to a perfectly mowed, wide path. I can’t explain how surprised I was to see such a beautiful ski trail mowed and ready for some snow! Just as I was wondering about skinning up and skiing down in the winter, Jack spotted the Hawk’s Nest Midstation at the top of the hill.

View of the Hawk's Nest Midstation
View of the Hawk’s Nest Midstation

The Northeast Village Triple was once the longest lift in New England – when it opened, it was a brand new, 9,243 foot long by 1,436 foot vertical Yan triple chair. The chair went downhill after the Hawk’s Nest Midstation, passing the Sunrise Village recreation center and unloading at the top of Sunrise Mountain.

The Hawk’s Nest Midstation was surprisingly well maintained. Someone had installed a short ladder to the top of the wooden unloading and loading platform. As we climbed up, it provided a wonderful view of the rest of the old Northeast Village Triple lift towers, as well as some of the old ski trails that snaked through the woods below us.

Respect the Midstation!
Respect the Midstation!

As we were sitting and taking in the views, an ATV tour came roaring up the old ski trails. The tour guide was pleasantly surprised to see hikers up there, and greeted us with smiles and waves. The kids on the tour weren’t that interested in his spiel about the old ski trails and they soon zoomed back down the mountain.

We, however, were going to attempt walking down the old Thunderball trail to Nor’Easter and then back up the Sunrise Trail. It was lengthy walk – we were well prepared for the hike, however, the weather became uncooperative as the skies opened up. With all the rain and fog, I was certainly glad to not be skiing!

View from the Midstation
View from the Hawk’s Nest Midstation
Jack Practicing his Balance.
Jack Practicing his Balance.
I Couldn't Help but Join the Balancing Act!
I Couldn’t Help but Join the Balancing Act!

Instead of our planned hike, we headed back toward Sunrise Village via the Hawkeye trail, and then following the Sun Dog Ski Trail. There are a number of trails from High Altitude Adventures for hiking, cross country skiing, and backcountry skiing. Sunrise Mountain is kind enough to have several maps up on the trails for easy reference and access. We had seen them before during our hikes… but never paid attention to the fact that many of these trails are groomed in the winter!

Machine Groomed!
Machine Groomed!

That’s right – some of the backcountry ski trails are groomed – notated by the G next to the trail name!

We have already planned to skin up some of these trails and explore this area further. It’s about a mile walk from the old Northeast Passage Lodge on Rt. 4 to the base of the Skyeship Gondola…

So stay tuned.

(Thanks to Skimap for providing the awesome old Killington maps!)

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