Sledding the Gap: Free Winter Fun in Vermont

Every year my group of friends waits (more or less) patiently for the perfect day for our annual “Sled the Gap” event. We don’t want to blow it and hike up only to meet poor, unpacked snow. We’re not gung-ho about getting out super early for fresh powder. We definitely aren’t interested in sleet or frigid temperatures.

We want sunshine. We want to peel off our down layers and tramp around in t-shirts. We want that special day when the snow is nice and firm in the morning, giving way to softened springtime bliss by the afternoon. And we found it in 2012 on the last weekend in March!

Looking up the Gap. (Cassie Willner photo)

Usually someone gets the ball rolling when he or she spies what looks like a good forecast for the weekend, and then the email chain starts up in full force. Often we end up sledding when the sap starts running—both are magical rites of springtime in Vermont.

“The Gap” refers to the Lincoln Gap, a pass that crosses over the spine of the Green Mountains from Lincoln to Warren. If you’ve ever driven over the Lincoln Gap, then you know it’s badass. The 20% grade is ridiculously steep, and at the top, it pitches to a punishing 24% grade. If you’ve ever biked over the Lincoln Gap, pat yourself on the back. That is some serious cycling.

Here’s why we choose the Gap road as our sacred sledding spot: it’s closed in the winter. No plows or cars can go over, and the road is entirely blocked on both sides. In fact, we’re not the only ones onto this “secret spot.” Many people make the trek to sled down the wide track of road cutting through the woods. Some come to sled, others to backcountry ski, and some even to hike up on snowshoes to Mt. Abraham (accessible by the Long Trail which runs across the top of the pass). It’s a beautiful place to tramp around without any sounds or signs of traffic in the protected Green Mountain National Forest.

Susan and her son on a tandem run. (Cassie Willner photo)

Most people come at it from the Lincoln side because of the easier approach; you simply drive up as far as you can and park at the end of the plowed road. Everyone has to hike in with their sleds and supplies—thankfully the sled is a wonderful device to drag up overstuffed bags and beer. I ended up being the lucky one who got to drag in firewood.

Base camp is at a wide, flat section about a mile or so from the top of the Gap. Here, we built a small fire for roasting hot dogs, sausages, and s’mores. People parked their provisions, hung out, and made new friends. Kids and dogs enjoyed the run of the land, while the adults readied themselves for the hike up to the top.

Before we went up for a run, there was a lot of discussion around sledding strategy. Namely, which type of sled  is best (as in fastest)? Steerable sleds got a lot of votes.

Rebecca and Jon Copans show off their customized sleds. (Cassie Willner photo)

Perhaps that’s because a little earlier, a group of five men had come flying down right into base camp headfirst on their Hammerhead Sleds. Hammerhead Sleds is a company based in Essex Junction, Vt. and these sleds are fast. They bill their products as all-mountain, lightweight, performance sleds. Undoubtedly these guys were having serious fun on their sleds and would win in the speed category. Let it also be known that these guys all wore helmets, as did many of the people in our group, which is always recommended for safety when sledding steep slopes or easy terrain alike. Also recommended are goggles, waterproof gloves and pants, and sunscreen!

No one in our group brought a Hammerhead but we enjoyed ogling them. Jon and Rebecca Copans seemed to have their old-school sleds dialed in more than others: they insisted that cheap plastic red sleds are the best. They modified their sleds by slicing off the front plastic “nose” so the sled won’t nosedive into the snow, and hot-glued a piece of an old yoga mat inside the sled to provide traction and seating comfort.

After this year’s Sled The Gap, I discovered that Clearwater Sports in Waitsfield rents Mad River Rocket sleds for $15/day. They also offer a guided “Rocket-Shoeing Adventure”  snow-shoe-and-sledding day trip up Lincoln Gap with the rocket sleds for $55/person.

You gotta earn your turns! Hiking up the Gap. (Cassie Willner photo)

When we finally lined up at the top and pushed off, laughter and hilarity ensued. Some pitched forward and seemed to automatically be drawn to the side snowbanks. Others laid flat back on the sled and hardly moved at all in a competitive luge-style. Me? I sat up, steered with my hands, and went so slow that everyone considered me a roadblock. Humph. Must be my sled.

After a few runs, everyone relaxed back at Basecamp. Some stretched out on their sleds with their sunscreened faces turned toward the sun; others took another trip to the top; and random weekend warriors out for the day came over and enjoyed some of our extra food and beverages. Some of the more zealous folks hiked to the top, sledded over to the Warren side, and then came back again. No doubt, sledding the Gap is definitely a fun way to get in a solid day of exercise.

The beach at base camp. (Cassie Willner photo)

On my last run, when my sled dumped me off the side of the road for no apparent reason other than it went all “Herbie the Love Bug” and had a mind of its own, I ended up contemplating how I could get to the front of the pack. I might have to pony up for one of the Hammerhead Sleds to get taken seriously.

Next year, watch out, people. It’s never too late or too early to start thinking about how to get your sled on. And, my sled WILL be faster!

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About Cassie Willner

Cassie Willner is a Montpelier, Vermont resident who occasionally pines for Rocky Mountain powder and sunshine. When not teaching or leading bicycle tours, she loves to work in her community garden plot and grow lots of flowers. She is into nordic and telemark skiing, vegetarian cooking, backpacking, and pretty much anything outdoors except golf.