Skier: Tim McLellan. PHOTO: Brooks Curran
Skier: Tim McLellan. PHOTO: Brooks Curran

Why You Should Live In Waterbury

Traditional ski towns are no longer affordable options for most skiers— satellite ski communities like Waterbury, Vermont, are the new dream

Population: 5,064
Median Home Price: $288,000
Miles from a chairlift: 17

Chuck Hughson was in his late-20s when he found his home in the mountains. He had worked for REI for seven years and had a job at Burton Snowboards in Burlington, Vermont. Rentals and real estate near his favorite resort, Stowe, were out of reach, so he found a place between the hill and his job: Waterbury.

Waterbury was just coming into its own. For years, it had been known as the home of a sprawling brick compound known as the State Office Complex and a mental hospital that once housed the criminally insane. ("Send him to Waterbury," was once a saying in the state.) The town was a whistle-stop at the crossroads of Highway 89, Route 2, and Route 100—the Skier's Highway—that most glimpsed from their passenger windows on their way to somewhere else. Hughson had stopped over plenty of times for gas, food, and occasionally a beer. When he moved there permanently in 2009, his friends were surprised. "They were like, 'Waterbury?'" he said. "And I told them, 'Yeah, it's the place to be.'"

These Are the Next American Ski Towns

He was right. Set on the eastern fringe of Vermont's Green Mountains, Waterbury is the quintessential satellite ski town. It is located 25 miles southeast of Burlington, wedged between the 4,000-plus-foot summits of Mount Mansfield and Camel's Hump. Stowe Mountain Resort, Sugarbush, Mad River, and Bolton Valley are all less than 20 miles away. The town had been a skier's hub since the first $3 ski trains rolled north from New York City's Grand Central Terminal in the 1930s. Hundreds of skiers emerged from overnight sleepers and dispersed into Vermont's mountains to ride the rope tows for 25 cents a day.

In the 1990s, a group named "Revitalizing Waterbury" set out to return the town to its former alpine glory. Ben & Jerry's had been churning out ice cream from its Waterbury factory since the 1980s. Over the course of 20 years, the now-legendary Alchemist Brewery (Heady Topper), Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Cabot Creamery, Cold Hollow Cider Mill, and a solar installation company called SunCommon also set up shop there. Arts and music followed. A pub renaissance took over downtown. People began stopping over to grab a bite or drink a brew after skiing. Then they started moving there.

A non-ski town that’s actually a great ski town, Waterbury is 17 miles from Stowe and even closer to world-class beer and ice cream. PHOTO: Liam Doran

Hughson and his wife were shocked when a low bid they put on a house was accepted. After many years living in ski country, the idea of actually owning a home near a ski resort had seemed impossible. There are many others like them in town now, Hughson said: "Stowe employees, ski industry reps, ski bums, World Cup bootfitter P.J. Dewey, late-20s dudes trying to ski 80 days a year and work 40 hours a week, I see them all in the lift line."

Instead of service or resort jobs, skiers living in Waterbury can work just about anywhere. Hughson's wife has a job at Blue Cross Blue Shield in Berlin, Vermont. Other friends work at Stowe or commute to Burlington. Hughson eventually quit his job and opened Waterbury Sports with two business partners. "Friday and Saturday nights we stay open until 7 p.m.," he said. "There are so many people in town waiting to be seated at a restaurant, they wander in and buy something."

Off-resort living has gotten so popular in Waterbury that the town is seeing its own housing crunch, said Cindy Lyons, owner of Waterbury's New England Landmark Realty, though that's still just a $288,000 median price. Where ski town development is often limited by geographic or conservation constraints, though, towns like Waterbury have an easier time expanding with the population. "They are building rental units right now outside of town," Lyons said. "They're filling them up as fast as they are building them."

PHOTO: Brian Mohr

Driving into town—past the woodlots, post-and-beam barns, and rolling stands of sugar maple you see on postcards from Vermont—Waterbury is starting to look like a ski town. From the east, you cross over the Winooski River and pass a half dozen clapboard colonial saltboxes. Pickups stacked with cordwood line South Main Street in the fall, alongside sport wagons crammed with kids, skis, and commuter bikes.

The Prohibition Pig marks the edge of downtown, and the beginning of Waterbury's foodie quarter. Skiers often après at the Pig, taking down one of its 20 craft beers and signature pork cracklins. Blush Hill Bistro, Hen of the Wood, The Reservoir, and Michael's on the Hill are other hotspots. Downtown is a collection of brick federals that looks a bit like Telluride. The Old Stagecoach Inn, built in 1826, has a stunning parlor and book-lined library bar. To the north is the Ben & Jerry's mothership and The Alchemist brewery.

There are more young people than old in town now. A quarter of the people in Waterbury are under the age of 18. (The mean age is 37.) Hughson and his wife will soon add another, their first-born.

"Weekdays in the winter I get to Stowe at 8 a.m.," he said. "I hit Star, Nosedive, Bypass, whatever is good, then I drive home, take a shower, walk the dog, and ride my bike two minutes to the shop. What else do you need?"

This story originally appeared in the November 2017 (46.3) issue of POWDER. To have award winning stories delivered right to your door, in print, subscribe here.