Character, Service and Short Lift Lines.
This is not a story about ski resorts. It's about ski areas. The distinction is important. Today's mega-resorts have every amenity imaginable, plus the financial wherewithal to pump tons of man-made snow to ensure a pristine experience. And they have ticket prices to match. You'll also find plenty of company in the lift lines, regardless of how fast those high-speed quads whisk people up the hill.
What many mega-resorts don't always offer is the ability to pull at our heartstrings the way small ski areas can. These areas are tethered like a rope tow to our past, our childhoods, when skiing was so new and a bit more rough-cut. There was something special about bundling up against the elements, and embracing the challenge of tackling winter's persnickety offerings. So when the mercury dips these days, nostalgia rules my winter compass. I have selfish motivations – I want my daughters to have memories similar to mine (minus the lace-up ski boots and bear-trap bindings).
With improvements in grooming and snowmaking technology, smaller areas like these 9 can produce splendid conditions while retaining the magic of yesteryear. They won't be the first to open in late fall, or the last to close in late spring, and you won't hear any "highest, steepest, longest" boasts. But what these smaller areas lack in bells and whistles they more than make up for in character. You'll also find outstanding customer service, shorter lift-lines, and a few extra bucks in your pocket at the end of the day. And that generally adds up to more smiles per ski outing.
Admittedly, it's a shame to select only 9, leaving off such worthy hills as Berkshire East in Massachusetts, Mount Abram and Camden Snow Bowl in Maine, Middlebury College Ski Bowl and Burke Mountain in Vermont, or Gunstock in New Hampshire. So consider this a "starter list," and then expand your search to other ski gems throughout the region. You won't be disappointed.
Shawnee Peak, Bridgton, Maine
With brand marketing all the rage, Shawnee Peak will never reclaim its original name. That's a shame. Pleasant Mountain was the ideal sobriquet for this delightful-yet-challenging area just a snowball's throw from the New Hampshire line. Dubbed "Shawnee Peak" in 1988, the hill returned to local ownership in 1994. For long-time fans who've developed a sense of ownership in Pleasant Mountain over seven decades, Shawnee Peak has carved an ideal niche between huge resorts and local rope tows.
"Shawnee Peak has allowed three generations of my family to enjoy skiing together," one longtime season ticket-holder told me. "From my 72-year-old father to my seven-year-old daughter, Shawnee is great skiing for all of us."
People traveling here have options. Just north is the sprawling monster resort, Sunday River. Still, skiers keep coming back to Shawnee Peak, and for good reason. The Summit Chalet views of Mount Washington and the Presidential Range in New Hampshire are spectacular. The trails run on the steep side, but are well groomed. Carving big, alpine turns is a blast. Upper and Lower Appalachian, fast cruising trails that hug the hill's east edge, are recognized among the best in New England. Glade skiing in Sherwood Forest is another favorite. Shawnee also boasts one of New England's largest night skiing facilities, with top-to-bottom lights on 19 of the area's 40 trails (afternoon grooming ensures good conditions).
- Top elevation: 1,900 feet
- Vertical: 1,350 feet
- Trail breakdown: 25 beginner, 45 intermediate, 30 advanced
Ragged Mountain, Danbury, NH
Some of my earliest, and fondest, memories of strapping on the boards have their origins at this rustic area. Started by a group of friends in the early 1960s, Ragged is synonymous with old-time New England skiing. Leave any pretensions in the parking lot – Ragged draws a core following of locals, and they don't take kindly to folks putting on airs. Instead, you'll find a warm, inviting atmosphere as genuine as a Yankee farmer. Plus some wonderful ski terrain, explaining why Ragged was dubbed "The Alta of the East" after the epic, no-frills Utah resort.
Two brothers – Al and Walter Endriumas – revived Ragged in the mid-1980s when they bought the run-down area. With plenty of undeveloped terrain and an ample water supply (for snowmaking), they began expanding. Today, Ragged has 57 trails, with 85 percent snowmaking coverage. Add a solid grooming crew (which has mastered the art of knowing when to leave well enough alone), and Ragged offers a superb day on the slopes. The area doesn't have night skiing, but it's a small price to pay for authenticity. With more than 220 acres (including glade terrain), you'll get your fill before sundown.
- Top elevation: 2,250 feet
- Vertical: 1,250 feet
- Trail breakdown: 30 percent beginner, 40 percent intermediate, 30 percent advanced
Nashoba Valley, Westford, MA
If amenities and atmosphere can compensate for altitude, than Nashoba Valley has a winning combination. From its acclaimed after-school programs to a long-running and boisterous adult night racing league, the area best known for producing US Ski Team stalwart Pam Fletcher has grown up, while not getting bigger. Just 25 miles from Boston, Nashoba Valley is easy to get to, and easy to get used to.
The 240 feet of vertical won't induce any bouts of vertigo, but you'd be surprised how many turns you can snap off amid the evergreens on these well-maintained trails. With an uphill capacity of more than 11,000 skiers an hour, you won't have to wait long to get back to the summit. Since Nashoba Valley stays open every night until 10 (with 100 percent lighting coverage), chances are your legs will fatigue before the lights dim. The on-site ORestaurant, which also stays open until 10, offers excellent dining and great views of the hill from atop the lodge. The snow-tubing park, which first opened in 2001, has been a fun addition.
- Top elevation: 440 feet
- Vertical drop: 240 feet
- Trail breakdown: 30 percent beginner, 50 percent intermediate terrain: 20 percent advanced
Suicide Six, Woodstock, VT
A few miles outside center Woodstock – the quintessential Green Mountain enclave – is a ski hill teeming with history and charm, but not overrun with skiers. Suicide Six isn't the most inviting moniker, but don't let that discourage you. According to legend, the area's name was born when founder Bunny Bertram and some buddies were scouting local hills in the 1930s, looking to build a new ski run. At the top of Hill No. 6, the group peered down the slope, and one of Bertram's friends stated, "It would be suicide to ski down that." Naturally, that's where Bertram carved his new ski area in 1937. And the name, understandably, stuck.
By today's standards, Suicide Six isn't all that intimidating, though there are a few precipitous pitches, including an aptly named run called The Face (which I inadvertently steered my 9-year-old down one winter, much to her consternation and my embarrassment). However, most of the 24 trails, covering more than 100 acres, are exceedingly user-friendly, especially for youngsters, thanks to state-of-the art grooming and solid snowmaking. The lodge, which doubles as a ski museum, is also one of the most comfortable in New England. That's not surprising, considering that Suicide Six is now owned by Laurance Rockefeller's Woodstock Inn, the region's most elegant hotel.
- Top elevation: 1,200 feet
- Vertical: 650 feet
- Trail breakdown: 30 percent beginner, 40 percent intermediate, 30 percent advanced
Black Mountain, Jackson, NH
Tucked away up a steep pitch behind the quintessential New England village of Jackson is one of the Granite State's best kept secrets – Black Mountain. This slope promotes itself as "classic New England skiing," and it backs up the claim. For starters, at 85, Black is the state's oldest ski hill. Its surroundings – primarily rolling farmland – appear to be pilfered straight from Mr. Peabody's WABAC ("way back") Machine. Plus, the design of the hill itself is a nostalgic tour de force. Instead of wide-open corduroy carpets, Black offers tight, twisting trails over 173 acres of terrain. If you take the Summit chair, you better be able to handle your boards, as there's no escape route from the top. Instead, you'll uncover a tree-skiing delight, with Carter Notch and Lostbo glades.
Lower on the hill, from the East Bowl triple, intermediates and beginners have a treasure trove of trails to choose from (Galloping Goose is a favorite blue, while my girls love Sugarbush and Black Beauty). Black's southern exposure means chilly mornings but relatively balmy afternoons. True, the conditions at Black are somewhat weather dependent, and it does takes a little more effort to reach compared to other exceptional local areas, such as Cranmore, Attitash/Bear Peak, and Wildcat. The effort, though, is well worth the experience. An added bonus is the revitalized Whitney's Inn, located next door.
- Top elevation: 2,380 feet
- Vertical: 1,380 feet
- Trail breakdown: 34 percent beginner terrain, 34 percent intermediate, 32 percent advanced
Bigrock, Mars Hill, Maine
Few motorists familiar with the legendary Route 1 – which runs the entire length of the eastern seaboard – have ventured this far north, above Vacationland's Baxter State Park and Mount Katahdin. But on this ribbon of two-lane along the edge of New Brunswick, Canada, you'll find a series of small towns, with names like Madawaska, Caribou and Presque Isle, that have a poignant, Edward Hopper quality (the result of a declining economy) offset by the resiliency of those who live here. These are a proud and inviting people, and that feeling translates to this intimate little ski area in Mars Hill that first opened in 1960.
Rescued by the Maine Winter Sports Center (MWSC) in 2000, Bigrock today offers a ski experience to match its heritage. Five lifts service 35 trails and glades, and snowmaking covers 65 percent of the hill, complementing an annual snowfall of roughly 180 inches. Half the runs are also lit for night skiing, or you can sample the dedicated snowshoe trails. The MWSC has certainly made its mark on Maine's Aroostook County: Further north, in Presque Isle, is the world-class cross-country facility, the 10th Mountain Ski Center, and Lonesome Pines Trails at the northern terminus of Route 1 in Fort Kent.
- Top elevation: 1,641 feet
- Vertical: 980 feet
- Trail breakdown: 20 percent beginner, 60 intermediate, 20 advanced
Wachusett Mountain, Princeton, MA
Wachusett, an Algonquin Indian word meaning "Great Hill," translates to "Great Escape" for Boston skiers. Fifty miles west of Beantown, this family-run resort is one of the most accessible and versatile in the Northeast. It is also located within the Wachusett Mountain State Reservation, home to the only known Old Growth Forest east of the Connecticut River – some trees are more than 350 years old. The Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps cut the first ski trails on Wachusett Mountain in the 1930s, and the site was selected with care. The panoramic, 360-degree vistas from the summit – the state's highest eastern point – include a nice view of the Boston Skyline.
Though a small mountain, Wachusett skis big. Each of the 27 trails has its own personality, from the expert 10th Mountain Trail (a nice tribute to the Army's 10th mountain Division) to the wide and quick Conifer Connection and the even-tempered Ralph's Run. With exceptional snowmaking and groomers, conditions are super day and night (night skiing is available on 18 trails). The downside? Wachusett can get crowded, particularly on Saturday. Plan you visit around peak "rush hour" days on weekends and holidays.
- Top elevation: 2,006
- Vertical: 1,000
- Trail breakdownL:30 percent beginner, 40 percent intermediate, 30 percent advanced
King Pine, East Madison, NH
King Pine at Purity Spring Resort, a few miles east of the outlet malls in Conway, NH, is an oasis of peace and quiet for families. If members of your ski clan have varying skiing and snowboarding abilities, they'll appreciate King Pine's 17 trails spread over 50 acres, ranging from the gentle Pokey Pine and the Slow Pokey to the double-diamond Pine Brule and Pitch Pine. Before you point the boards downhill, take a moment to take in King Pine's stunning views to the north, overlooking Purity Lake (and the resort's cross-country trail network) and the cozy Tokho Dome skating rink.
Three triple chair lifts keep the skiers moving up and down the hill, but don't be surprised to find an afternoon migration away from the resort's western runs, as the sun starts throwing long shadows early here. Shredders will love the air-inducing elements in the Twisted Pine Terrain Park along the hill's eastern rim. Two of the resort's most popular events – the cardboard box derby and the King Pine Splash Pond contest – are typically scheduled for late March. For more variety, the resort offers dedicated snowshoe and cross-country ski trails, the Pine Meadows Tubing Park (with its own tow), and the skating rink. You may need a trailer just to bring the additional gear.
- Top elevation: 850 feet
- Vertical drop: 350 feet
- Trail breakdown: 50 percent beginner, 30 percent intermediate terrain, 20 percent advanced
Jiminy Peak, Hancock, MA
Short, steep and sweet. That sums up this superb resort in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts. The "bowl" at Jiminy Peak boasts 45 trails over 170 acres of terrain (almost half are lit for night skiing), plus a true base village. Those features alone might normally bounce Jiminy Peak out of the "small" category (especially by New England standards). Now add the outstanding lift capacity – one six-passenger high-speed summit lift, two quad chair lifts, three triple chair lifts, and one double chairlift – and the area starts to sound like your basic uber resort. Yet, despite all its infrastructure, Jiminy Peak strikes an uncanny balance between big mountain perks and small area atmosphere. That's a real testament to the mountain, and the resort staff.
Mother Nature even appears to have jumped on the Jiminy bandwagon, with an annual snowfall of nearly 100 inches (complemented by a first-rate snowmaking system). The lift system spreads out the skiers, and the trail network truly offers something for everyone, from three diverse terrain parks, dedicated bump runs, fast, wide cruisers and smooth, gentle beginner slopes. Après ski, Jiminy's Village Center is an all-inclusive getaway, offering accommodations, a retail shop, a 6,500-square-foot children's center, and a variety of dining establishments.
- Top elevation: 2390 feet
- Vertical: 1150 feet
- Trail breakdown: 25 percent beginner, 50 percent intermediate terrain, 25 percent advanced
Featured Image: Chip Allen - Suicide Six.
More Ski Gems!
The Northeast doesn't have a monopoly on terrific, smaller ski areas. Here are a dozen favorites from the Lower 48.
- Windham Mountain, Windham, NY
- Blue Mountain, Palmerton, PA
- Wisp Ski Resort, McHenry, MD
- Appalachian Ski Mountain, Blowing Rock, NC
- Boyne Mountain, Boyne Falls, MI
- Ski Cooper, Leadville, CO
- Sunlight Mountain Resort, Glenwood Springs, CO
- Wolf Creek Ski Area, Pagosa Springs, CO
- Ski Santa Fe, Santa Fe, NM
- Moonlight Basin, Big Sky, MT
- Brian Head Resort, Brian Head, UT
- Mount Bachelor, Bend, OR