While travel out of state may not be possible, there are plenty of places near West Hartford for COVID-safe winter fun.
By Ted Glanzer
Just like golf during the spring and summer, outdoor recreation facilities in the area are expecting higher-than-normal crowd volumes this winter as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
After all, people have pretty much been cooped up for nearly a year with few outdoor recreational options.
Officials at Winding Trails in Farmington, Mt. Southington in Southington and Ski Sundown in New Hartford said in early December they were taking measures in anticipation for what they expect to be a busy season of skiing, snowboarding and, in the case of Winding Trails, ice skating.
All three facilities are having patrons embrace old-school measures and enjoying more time at skiing or skating, as opposed to hanging out in the lodge or warming areas.
Scott Brown, the longtime executive director of Winding Trails, said the 20-kilometer trail system for cross country skiing will be open this year, provided the weather cooperates.
“We’ll be operating this winter,” Brown said. “As bad as the pandemic is, our biggest ‘X’ factor is Mother Nature. She has not cooperated well with us with the snowfall the last five years. We’ve been averaging somewhere between six and eight days a year. We haven’t had a strong winter since 2014-15.”
Winding Trails doesn’t make its own snow, Brown said, adding that to have the cross-country ski center open, there needs to be at least 6 inches of snow to have enough depth and to set the trails.
“We had good seasons in 2013, ’14 and ’15” when there were at least 28 qualifying days of skiing, he said. Since 2018, there’s only been a total of 25 days of qualifying skiing days, Brown said.
“This is kind of a tough run right now,” he said in early December. On Dec. 17, the area got roughly a foot of snow and cross country trails were open until the Christmas Eve and Christmas Day rainstorm and unseasonably mild weather washed everything away.
When enough snow falls, Winding Trails will once again welcome guests with measures in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“We’re not a downhill ski area, but we are following the protocols the Connecticut Ski Areas Association has set up for downhill skiing.”
That includes offering the purchase of trail passes online and limiting access to the ski center.
“We won’t have a nice, roaring fire; we won’t be encouraging people to sit inside the ski center,” he said. “You can come through, get your rentals and then get outside.”
In addition, the concession stand will be takeout only.
“If you need to grab some food, we’ll be setting up outside with tables, benches, some outdoor fires to make it more inviting,” Brown said.
Social distancing won’t be as much of a concern as with other activities, however. The trails, for example, are 10 to 12 feet wide, so it’s not hard to keep apart from other skiers.
“The nice thing about cross-country skiing is with the skis you’ve got some built-in barriers for social distancing and with 12-and-a-half miles of trails, we’re not concerned in terms of being outside,” he said. “It’s the perfect atmosphere for that. Really, our only concern is when people are indoors.”
Brown said indoor facilities are limited to 50% capacity, all of the equipment will be cleaned and sanitized thoroughly.
Another change this year is that there won’t be a warming hut for the skating program on the pond.
“They’ll have to do old-school, tie your skates on at the edge of the pond and get on that way,” he said.
The pond used for skating is large, Brown said, so he isn’t too concerned about social distancing. He said he hasn’t decided whether to require masks while skating.
“We’ll require a mask if you can’t socially distance,” he said. “But we have plenty of space so people shouldn’t come in contact with one another. But if it’s a concern, we’ll ask you to put on a mask.”
And, if there is enough snow or it’s cold enough to freeze the pond, Brown expects a massive turnout. Winding Trails programs – such as nature walks, a drive-through Halloween event – in the fall, which is typically the facility’s lightest season, all filled up, Brown said.
“People are clamoring for some type of activity,” he said. “Weekdays our numbers are never that bad,” he said. “It’s the weekends where there are 10 to 12 inches of snow dumped, a lot of people will be pouring in here. We may move our rental operation outside; we’ll see how it goes.”
While the facility has been busy with people, the finances haven’t looked as good. Even with the ability to open during the summer and fall, Winding Trails lost about $600,000 in revenue this year, Brown said.
For updates on the availability and conditions for skiing and skating at Winding Trails, visit the website.
Ski Sundown doesn’t depend nearly as much on the weather as Winding Trails: It, like Mt. Southington (see below), makes its own snow. All that’s required, according to marketing director Ulla Jacobs, is some low temperatures for the snow to stick, which typically happens around mid-December.
The mountain is open for business and, in an early December conversation, Jacobs said there had already been a record number of season passes sold (she would not divulge by how many in terms of pure numbers or percentage).
Still, like Winding Trails, there will be some changes this year, including operating at 50% capacity and encouraging people to purchase tickets online in advance (skisundown.com).
“We want to make sure our season pass holders can come in unrestricted, which will limit the amount of people that can walk in and purchase tickets,” she said. “If they can purchase their tickets online, they’re more likely to get a space on the mountain.”
The facility’s buildings will be open, but at 50% capacity, and Ski Sundown staff is asking people not to come into the lodge and linger – and will keep track of the number of people inside the lodge.
“They need to share the space responsibly with everyone else,” she said. “We’re asking them to come in, have a quick bite to eat and warm up and go back out. This is the year to enjoy yourself on the mountain whenever possible. … Our biggest concern is keeping everybody healthy and safe.”
Toward that end, skiers are being asked to embrace the use of their vehicles as their personal chalets, Jacobs said.
“They should use that as their own personal space: change in their vehicle, store their bags, eat there and use as little of the lodge as possible,” she said. “It harkens back to the days before there were lodges. We’re asking people to be as self-sufficient as possible and not use the facilities.”
The format of the lift lines is laid out differently this year so there is appropriate social distancing, Jacobs said.
“On the mountain we’re not concerned because it’s an individual sport,” she said. You tend not to ski up against someone because that’s not the safe thing to do. Everybody picks their lines and skis and you are socially distanced on the mountain anyway.”
Jacobs said Ski Sundown will be providing extra cleaning and following all other best practices and guidelines set forth by the state and the Connecticut Ski Areas Association.
“We’re asking our guests to come with some kindness and cooperating and patience when they come here,” she said. “Things are not going to be running exactly the same way as they have in the past. … I think we’ll do great, as long as people understand that things will look a little bit different.”
Anyone with questions, Jacobs said, may visit Ski Sundown’s website for additional information on its protocols on opening during the pandemic.
Like Ski Sundown, Mt. Southington also has sold record numbers of season passes. Like Ski Sundown’s Jacobs, Mt. Southington general manager Jay Doherty wouldn’t divulge how much of a record has been set other than to say, “It’s up there.”
He did say, however, the travel restrictions in place by New England states has forced people to look for local alternatives to hit the slopes.
“There are a lot of travel restrictions in states like Vermont, New York, Massachusetts,” he said. “With those travel restrictions, people will stay close to home. If you’re a diehard skier, there’s still going to be the desire to get out and ski, but they would be less likely to book a weekend trip to Vermont. There’s a pinch point there. … And when they come back, there are quarantine rules coming back to Connecticut. That’s one of the major drivers: restrictions in other states and travel restrictions in this state.”
And, like the other two facilities listed above, Mt. Southington is prepared to handle the influx of crowds in light of COVID-19 pursuant to the protocols of the Connecticut Ski Areas Association, including operating at 50% capacity on the hill and in buildings, encouraging the purchase of tickets online at mtsouthington.com (a notice will be posted on if the mountain has reached capacity), having touch-free, in-person ticket purchasing at the facility (patrons are outside, ticket agents are inside behind glass panels, with tickets printers outside), and dividers in the office space where customers could find themselves.
All of the mountain’s food service has been moved outdoors.
“I have two food trucks that will be on site all winter,” he said. “We have an outdoor concession located near what would normally be our Mountain Room area.”
In addition, the main Red Barn Cafeteria has been closed to indoor dining and has an outdoor food service window.
“We’ve removed the majority of the tables to comply with state guidelines,” he said.
Mt. Southington is also encouraging people to embrace the “car chalet.”
“Same idea,” Doherty said. “Use your car as your lodge. Get ready, come ready to ski. That’s the general message. Store your stuff in your car.”
Doherty also added about 100 outdoor lockers, because the facility’s indoor lockers aren’t available this year.
“We don’t have that many people using them because we are a day ski area with people showing up with their gear on anyhow,” he said.
With lift lines, empty lanes have been added to ensure social distancing, masks are required 100% of the time while on the property (there will be plenty of signage to remind people of that), and a complimentary bag check at the lower floor of the Red Barn Cafeteria has been added.
“Generally. the whole idea this year is going back to the old school way of skiing,” Doherty said. “When skiing first started in the U.S., the base lodges were tiny. The people spent more time outside actually skiing than inside the lodges. We are kind of falling back to that return of old school. We want everybody to be safe here and enjoy themselves.”
For more information on Mt. Southington, visit mtsouthington.com.
A version of this story originally appeared in the January issue of West Hartford LIFE.
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