Off the Beaten Trail
Nostalgia is once again taking its place in American culture. From the renewed popularity of the Mini Cooper to the thirst for 1970s-style fashion to the chart-topping ratings of a television show about a '60s teenager trying to make it on American Bandstand, the lure of simpler, purer times appears stronger than ever.
Is it any wonder that New England skiing is following suit? After more than a decade in which giant conglomerates have turned ski resorts into crowded winter theme parks with McLodges at their bases and lift tickets nearing $60, more and more New Englanders are pining for the skiing of an earlier time. A time when people handcut sinuous lines, not wide highway trails, through forests of birch, balsams, and firs. We want to feel what it's like to ride the single chairlift at Mad River Glen that's been hauling skiers up the slopes since 1949, to carve that perfect turn on snow-covered New Hampshire granite, to slide down the only mountain on the Eastern Seaboard with a view of the Atlantic in the background.
Up in Waitsfield and Warren, Vermont, dyed-in-the-wool locals had a rallying cry to protect this kind of skiing: “Less Otten, More Rock.” That's because they feared their tree-lined paradise, Sugarbush's Castlerock Peak, would be groomed over by then-American Skiing Company mogul Les Otten, who was trying to push through a plan for another cookie-cutter Grand Summit Hotel. It never worked, and, in the end, Otten would sell Sugarbush back to a group of local businessmen last year.
Otten learned the hard way that change is as slow as the trickle of a New England creek Â— and that New England skiers like it that way. That folks around here are more enchanted with Vermont's bucolic countryside and ubiquitous white steeples than they are with modern prefab behemoth hotels. That we come to the mountains to swoop past sweet-smelling pine, not to buy real estate or make the late-night après-ski scene.
In the post-Otten era, all we want to do is leave little Timmy and Tommy at the lodge with just enough pocket change to score a couple of hot chocolates and then maybe dial up Don McLean's American Pie ourselves on the jukebox. We don't want to see the kids trampled by out-of-control hot-doggers or lost on a mountain with seven peaks and 200 or more trails. So here are 13 ski areas that hark back to a time when bigger didn't necessarily mean better, when quality was more important than quantity.
Just don't go overboard and swap those Polarfleece and Gore-Tex clothes for wool and flannel. Sometimes, change is good.
Camden Snow Bowl, Camden, Maine.
Opened by the Camden Outing Club back in 1936, Camden Snow Bowl is the oldest ski area in the state and the only one still owned and operated by a town recreation department. It has the longest T-bar in Maine, which hauls you to the peak of Ragged Mountain. Best of all, atop the Bowl's summit, skiers get an ocean view. Gaze down at Camden's rock-strewn harbor and the emerald-green islands that dot Penobscot Bay Â— North Haven, Islesboro, and Matinicus, among others. (Close proximity to the Atlantic also means the weather can be fickle: When the fog rolls in, the snow can turn to mush, but when a nor'easter whips by, you're suddenly gleefully skiing in a blizzard.)
The mountain features 11 trails, most of the intermediate-cruising variety. Clipper speeds right down the middle of the mountain, while Lower Spinnaker makes a nice, long, easy run. An added bonus, and possibly the main reason Snow Bowl is still around, is the 400-foot-long ice-coated toboggan chute. Originally built in 1936, shut down in 1964, and reopened in 1991, this nearly 2-foot-wide track will have everybody in the family shrieking as they drop off the side of the mountain at up to 45 miles an hour and glide halfway across Hosmer Pond.
[Call 207-236-3438 or visit www.camdensnowbowl.com.]
Shawnee Peak, Bridgton, Maine.
About an hour's drive from Portland in southern Maine, Shawnee offers the most night-skiing terrain of any mountain in Maine. Seventeen of its forty trails are open and groomed for a second time by the afternoon. For a warmup, take Jack Spratt, below the summit triple chair, and at midmountain head for the Vain and Main trails. Advanced skiers can then tackle the East Glades while intermediates test their skill on Upper and Lower Haggetts and Riley's Run. Newbies can try out the ski area's two new trails for beginners tentatively carving their first precious turns.
Shawnee has an après-ski scene to match its night-owl reputation. Kids can suck down virgin daiquiris while their parents try the real thing. And on Fridays and Saturdays a band thumps out familiar tunes in the background, if anyone still has the energy to dance.
[Call 207-647-8444 or visit www.shawneepeak.com.]
Mt. Abram, Greenwood, Maine.
How can you not root for midsize Mt. Abram to succeed, given that it's only 10 miles away from big boy Sunday River Â— and that three of its former owners have been foreclosed on in the last decade? The new kid on the block is Josh Burns, who has nostalgic ties to the mountain where he learned to ski. Burns doesn't want to change Mt. Abram into a megaresort that can compete with Sunday River. He just wants it to remain a budget-oriented family destination, where the whole clan can ski together and not get lost on a maze of trails. One of his first decisions was to close the mountain Mondays through Wednesdays (except holidays and vacation weeks), knowing that few people ski in the early part of the week.
The slow double chairlift, dubbed “the Way Back Machine,” takes you to the 4,200-foot summit from which you can see Mount Washington and the rest of the Presidential Range in the distance. From there, you can choose from one of 39 trails, many named after characters from The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. The black-diamond Boris Badenov shoots straight down the middle. Dudley Do-Right is a less-challenging blue. And Rocky's Run is a steep, tight route that will help you stay focused. Burns has also brought back night skiing and added the longest tubing park in Maine.
[Call 207-875-5002 or visit www.skimtabram.com.]
Saddleback, Rangeley, Maine.
Unlike many of the smaller family-oriented ski areas listed here, Saddleback is a big mountain with a 1,830-foot vertical. It's also home to the highest base lodge in New England. If there's snow anywhere in the Northeast, it's here. Add glade skiing and untracked powder that favors the natural terrain, and you'll wonder why the crowds aren't bigger. Turns out it's because Saddleback is nestled in the Rangeley Lakes region, a good 41/2-hour drive from Boston, often through flurries.
Once you arrive, take the lift to the top of the 4,120-foot summit for an exquisite view of the many lakes and mountains that make up this part of the state. Then thread down the mountainside on the easy 21/2-mile Lazy River Run. Expert skiers will want to tackle such untamed glades as Muleskinner and Nightmare. If you really crave solitude, exchange downhill for cross-country skis and take a tour around Saddleback Lake.
[Call 207-864-5671 or visit www.saddlebackskiarea.com.]
The Balsams Wilderness, Dixville Notch, New Hampshire.
Eyes widen and mouths gape at the first sight of Dixville Notch and the Balsams hotel. The marvel builds on the long driveway up to this immense white edifice, created in an era when grand hotels were as common in the Whites as one-room schoolhouses. This one looks like a multitiered wedding cake topped with scarlet frosting and ringed by granite peaks.
The 136-year-old Balsams prides itself on being one of the last beacons of civility in a world that spins far too fast on its axis. Men must still wear dinner jackets in the formal dining room, and the guests seem far outnumbered by the staff that caters to them.
This return to a bygone era carries through to the 15,000-acre grounds. Little has changed about the Wilderness ski area Â— until this year. Two new trails have been carved out of the far-from-malleable terrain, expanding the skiable area to 90 acres, and two triple chairlifts have been added. Novice skiers can navigate the glades on Bungy while experienced carvers will want to sample the more difficult Metallak trail, named for a Native American who lived nearby. There are 16 trails in all, with a vertical of 1,000 feet, so expect a small ski area that's ideal for young families or those who clamor for ego-boosting intermediate terrain. Also, given that this is one of the last vestiges of New England propriety, expect the gravity-free sports of snowshoeing and cross-country skiing to be just as popular as the downhill kind.
[Call 800-255-0600 or visit www.thebalsams.com.]
King Pine Ski Area, East Madison, New Hampshire.
With only 45 skiable acres and a vertical of 350 feet, few would expect little ol' King Pine to have one of the steepest trails in the state, Pitch Pine. Even more surprising is the full-season-pass price: a mere $498 for adults and $339 for juniors. It's no shock this mom-and-pop operation Â— nestled in the Purity Spring Resort, a 15-minute drive from North Conway Â— is considered by some the “Balsams for the middle class” (or that it's more crowded than some of the other mountains on this list, especially on weekends and holidays). The fifth generation of the Hoyt family is now at the reins, providing the same affordable leisure activities their ancestors did when they opened the place in the late 1800s.
Many of the 17 trails are short, with more than half geared to beginners. Add a new halfpipe and terrain park, night skiing, a tubing park, a skating rink, slopeside lodging, and an indoor pool, and you have all the amenities to keep the family happy over Christmas or February break. Or simply send the kids here during February school vacation, when the ski area offers an overnight camp for children aged 9 to 16.
[Call 800-373-3754 or visit www.kingpine.com.]
Dartmouth Skiway, Lyme Center, New Hampshire.
As the school of choice for the finest collegiate skiers in the East, Dartmouth has contributed close to 90 members to the U.S. Olympic Ski Team. All train on the twin peaks of the Skiway, Holt's Ledge, and Winslow Mountain, a 15-minute drive from the Hanover campus. Looking for the steep and deep? Take the double chair up Holt's, where the run from Upper Gauntlet to John Meck will keep your adrenaline on overdrive. For good winding routes with more elbow space, jump in the quad up Winslow and choose the popular Howard Chivers and Pass-Fail routes back down. You might very well see the Olympians of tomorrow working on their giant slalom technique on Don Worden Schuss.
The new two-story 17,000-square-foot base lodge, which replaced the original just two years ago, is built of harvested white pine, maple, and ash from Dartmouth's property along with the requisite New Hampshire granite.
[Call 603-795-2143 or visit www.dartmouth.edu/~skiway/.]
Pats Peak, Henniker, New Hampshire.
Less than a 90-minute drive from Boston, this family-owned ski area built in 1963 is finally getting noticed. Its easy accessibility means that on weekends the mountain can be mobbed by families from nearby Manchester and Concord who don't want to make the drive farther north. They come for the highly reputable learn-to-ski and -snowboard schools. New this year is night skiing until 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights. The mountain is also starting an 8,000-square-foot expansion of its lodge that will include a pub and larger sun deck. The big stone fireplaces on two upper levels will remain, as will Intervale Farm Pancake House down the road, which gets the kids rarin' to go with a maple syrup-coated breakfast.
On the slopes, a new glade area has been added on the Puff trail to give novice riders a feel of what it's like to whisk through trees. Experts can play around on the glades section of the F.I.S. Race Trail. Hurricane and Tornado are two more short steeps on the face of the mountain. For the casual crowd, East Wind and Duster are narrow side-by-side routes, and boarders tear up the jumps, slides, and rails of Turbulence Park.
[Call 888-728-7732 or visit www.patspeak.com.]
Mad River Glen, Waitsfield, Vermont.
You've seen the bumper sticker a million times on decade-old Subaru wagons with Vermont plates: “Ski It if You Can.” That's no idle dare. Mad River Glen is the nastiest lift-served ski area in the East, a combination of rocks, ice, trees, and (you hope) snow, a place where skiing seems little removed from a mountain's gnarled, primal state.
That's the way the fans of this co-op-owned ski-area success story like it. Think you're tough enough? Take the venerable circa-1950 single chair to the summit, and start with Fall Line and Chute, two of the most precipitous, obstacle-strewn yet perfect mogul runs you'll ever find. Next up is Grand Canyon, a steep mogul trail whose bumps are perfectly spaced. And for the finale Â— drum roll, please Â— there's Paradise. Don't let the name fool you: Barely a trail, Paradise stumbles over rocky ledges and an enormous frozen waterfall to reach the bottom. Have fun trying to hold an edge. There is one obstacle you don't have to worry about here: Mad River is one of only four ski areas in North America that does not allow snowboarding. And, yes, Mad River does have 14 beginner trails for the little ones when Mom and Dad are slicing it through the rough and tumble.
[Call 802-496-3551 or visit www.madriverglen.com.]
Middlebury College Snow Bowl, Ripton, Vermont.
Ari Fleischer, President Bush's press secretary, did his fair share of skiing at Snow Bowl while a student at Middlebury. Yet in a typical year, only one in four students opts for the $300 season pass. The university even threw in library privileges so that future members of the White House staff could hit the books between runs, but the coeds still stay holed up in their dorms. What they and other northeastern shredders are missing out on is one of the most scenic mountains in the region, where vistas are filled with ponds and red barns that dot the countryside, a place where the poet Robert Frost found solace and inspiration.
The skiing ain't half bad, either. Several frontside trails were cut in the '30s and '40s, some by Civilian Conservation Corps workers, so expect the kind of classic New England skiing in which the soft greens turn to steep blacks at a moment's notice. More mellow cruisers can be reached from the Bailey Falls triple on the backside. The mountain is known for its extensive grooming, which critics say eliminates the bumps and makes the trails tamer than they probably need to be.
[Call 802-388-4356 or visit www.middlebury.edu/~snowbowl/.]
Burke Mountain, East Burke, Vermont.
Home to Burke Mountain Academy, which has produced its fair share of Olympic racers, Burke is another of those big mountains that skiers just plain forgot about. Tucked away in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont (a 3-hour drive from Boston), the 2,000-foot vertical offers some ego-busting terrain to the skilled skier. None of the trails are insanely steep, but they are narrow, with a good variety of twists, dips, and rolls.
East Bowl is a classic blue cruiser that curves around the pines, rewarding you with dramatic vistas of Mount Hor and Mount Pisgah and cliffs that plummet down into the glacial waters of Lake Willoughby. The gentler Powderhorn is also good for a spin while Wilderness and Doug's Drop can be downright nasty when left in their natural condition with crusty chunks of ice. Beginner trails are located on the lower half of the mountain with their own double chair. Burke's neighbors in the north country, Stowe and Jay Peak, might be bigger, but Burke gets you some good long runs with comparable snowfall, and without the long lift lines.
[Call 802-626-3322 or visit www.skiburke.com.]
Suicide Six, Woodstock, Vermont.
Merely a fraction of the size of broad-shouldered neighbor Killington, Suicide Six is anything but a kitten of a mountain. At first glance, all you see is the wide black-diamond Face trail falling sharply down the peak. When Bunny Bertram was looking for a place to put his ski area in 1936, he reportedly looked down this same hillside Â— which was then called simply “Number 6” Â— and said that trying it was suicide. The name stuck.
Take one of the two chairlifts to the top, and you'll find a good mix of greens and blues hidden within the forest of pine. The Gully to Back Door and Double Dip is a sweet around-the-bend and zip-down cruiser. Bunny's Boulevard is a wider run but will still get the blood pumping. None of the trails are long. Comparable to other small Vermont ski areas like the Middlebury Snow Bowl and Mad River Glen, Suicide Six's intimacy and laid-back attitude have made this a popular family venue for locals and flatlanders staying at the nearby Woodstock Inn & Resort, which now owns it.
[Call 800-448-7900 or visit www.woodstockinn.com/skiatinn.html.]
Butternut Basin, Great Barrington, Massachusetts.
Forty years after Channing Murdock cut his first trail down the slopes of this Berkshire peak, Butternut remains a favorite for families. The Murdocks still own the area, and the trails Channing cut enchant a new generation of skiers who take delight at a particular stand of trees or vistas of the valley. It also doesn't hurt that the season pass for adults is only $199 and that the director of the ski school, Einar Aas, has been there since 1964.
Geared to beginner to intermediate skiers, Butternut Basin's runs aren't very long (the longest is a mile and a half) or scary. What you get are cruisers with decent switchbacks, such as Freewheeler and Upper and Lower Applejack. Boarders have two terrain parks where Einar teaches the young'uns how to catch air.
[Call 413-528-2000 or visit www.butternutbasin.com.]