When it comes to skiing I like it all, including four season mega-destinations with more golf holes than ski runs. But as I enter my 45th ski season I must admit there’s a special place in my heart for the “anti-resorts”: those standalone ski areas with no slopeside lodging and few, if any, resort trappings. They’re not trying to be all things to all people. The good ones remain in business because of one compelling characteristic - top notch skiing. I’ve experienced some notable examples of this dinosaur of the ski world and they can be most worthy of a visit.
In my mind the definition of a ski area that qualifies as an anti-resort is nebulous, but the common denominator is that they exist for skiing/riding and pretty much nothing else. They often have low crowds and prices relying on a local base of day trippers. The best anti-resorts have terrain, snow, or other attributes that are interesting enough to attract guests from two or three hours away, and even the rogue ski-weeker. Anti-resorts get to the heart of the matter. Without pretension, attitude, or glitz, they provide access to unvarnished skiing and riding usually among guests that share the same unadulterated love for the sport. When you connect with an anti-resort on a good day it can provide a magical dose of the essence of skiing: you, the mountain, and the elements.
Locally, most of our ski areas don’t quite fit my definition because they are set up as weekend resorts as well as day-trip areas. There are a couple of mid-Atlantic candidates, however, that I see as anti-resorts. If you’ve ever been to the White Grass Ski Touring Center in Canaan Valley, WV you would agree it must be labeled an anti-resort. The focus is on Nordic/Cross-Country/Telemark skiing. There are no chairlifts, but if you don’t mind earning your turns it’s renowned as a quiet escape for touring Weiss Knob (elevation 4,459’) and other nearby summits of the Cabin Mountain Range. The onsite and down-to-earth White Grass Cafe serves excellent home-cooked food with a funky, welcoming freeheeler/pinhead vibe.
Curiously, I might also categorize Roundtop Mountain Resort (yikes) as an anti-resort. The clientele are strictly day-guests and there are no slopeside accommodations. Located about two hours from Washington, DC in Lewisberry, PA, Roundtop has a slightly less frenetic tempo of operations than ski areas closer to the city. Although the vertical is small, the heart is big. Roundtop has a couple of short, but challenging black diamond runs, a race club, and an active terrain park scene.
Moving beyond the mid-Atlantic, the Northeast United States hosts several classic anti-resorts that are flat-out fantastic. Wildcat, NH has no hotels or resort infrastructure at the base, but is set in an awesome location directly across Pinkham Notch from Tuckerman’s Ravine and Mount Washington (elevation 6,288’). A good day at Wildcat will make you forget why you ever wanted to fly West to ski. The trail layout features a legit 2,000 vertical feet of varied terrain imparting a genuine big mountain feel with long runs, dispersed crowds, and scenery unparalleled in the East.
Set about 50 miles due west of Wildcat and surrounded by 5,000 foot tall mountains, Cannon Mountain, NH enjoys similar pristine White Mountains scenery with the added attraction of an 80 passenger aerial tramway rising approximately 2,100 vertical feet. Interstate 93 passes right beside the base lodge giving Cannon good accessibility for an anti-resort. It has an extraordinary array of side country in the Mittersill trail pod and around the aerial tram that will entice you to abandon the groomed runs and go bushwhacking. When the snow gods cooperate some of the terrain around the tramline is considered among the gnarliest in the East. There are overnight accommodations within a few miles of the ski area, including a lodge/condo facility at quasi-lift linked Mittersill, but for many guests Cannon serves as a giant day-trippers delight.
Northern Vermont is home to one of the nation’s quintessential anti-resorts, co-op owned Mad River Glen (MRG) ski area. MRG is about 15 miles south of Waterbury and its rockin’ terrain, steep glades, and mostly all-natural snow surfaces are legendarily challenging. It may be the only place I’ve skied where a lazy cruise down a marked green circle run can suddenly include a field of sharply defined moguls 100 yards in length. Don’t get me going on the glades, they are amazing. The last time I was there lifties were playing the sweet sounds of Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson around the single chair loading area at the base. I got the feeling, whatever your tastes, at some time during a visit they’ll be playing your favorites. The special appeal of MRG is hard to describe succinctly, but on a weekday it’s like a private club for diehard skiers where everybody “gets it”.
Le Massif de Charlevoix in the province of Quebec, eastern Canada, wants to be a fancy four season resort in the worst way. It could be only one more year before a 150 room hotel sprouts at the base of the slopes cementing a new era as a true skiing/snowboarding destination. But until then the ski area remains primarily a day tripper spot from Quebec City and is so removed from the rest of the East Coast megalopolis that it qualifies as one of my anti-resorts. This uniquely beautiful mountain-by-the-sea has long runs, expansive glades, and a 2,500’ vertical drop served by three long high speed chairs and a new gondola. Hopefully, as the long and painstakingly planned development of Le Massif unfolds it will not spoil the primordial fjord-like setting beside the St. Lawrence River.
I can’t leave the East without mentioning Plattekill Mountain, NY, set in a remote western corner of the Catskills. The day I visited was a lousy one, rainy and foggy. I didn’t see Plattekill’s 1,100 vertical feet at its best, but this family-run ski area is surely an anti-resort. It’s got the gnar (on and off piste), the no frills infrastructure, and an unmistakable vibe; the only people that go there are the ones that really want to be there.
I have greatly enjoyed visits to several Rocky Mountain ski areas that fall into the anti-resort category. Loveland and Arapahoe Basin are two neighboring ski areas in Colorado’s front range that fit the bill. Both have moderate crowds and prices, wonderful high alpine terrain, but no slopeside lodging. A-Basin is heavy on the double diamonds, while Loveland features a ton of wide-open intermediate slopes. Both have lift served terrain rising to almost 13,000 feet and are renowned for some of the longest ski seasons in the nation. They straddle the Continental Divide in close proximity and the scenery from their summits is awesome.
About 20 years ago I visited Ski Santa Fe, NM. It’s sort of the Roundtop of Albuquerque and caters to day trippers without any onsite overnight lodging. It’s not the most hardcore anti-resort, but I give it major style points for steep tree skiing and awesome afternoon views of the New Mexican desert and the Sangre de Cristo mountains bathed in alpenglow.
Exactly how one defines an anti-resort is not as important as making sure you don’t miss out on their authentic brand of skiing/riding. You can find them in many places around the country. Other candidates, some of which I know only by reputation, include Silverton Mountain and Wolf Creek CO, Beaver Mountain UT, Mount Hood Meadows and Mount Bachelor OR, Mt. Baker WA, and Whitewater BC.
The list could go on and on including many small, remote ski areas, such as the ones my colleague Robbie Allen writes about on DCSki. The experience usually starts with a free parking spot close to the lifts. Enjoy the scenery, hopefully unspoiled by slipshod slopeside development. Take a run with a few rocks and weeds showing through the thin cover. It will ski more like a West Virginia country road than a spin around the Capital Beltway at rush hour. And finally, observe the clientele. Chances are they’ll leave you with the impression that the sport is not all about fancy ski outfits, $30 lunches, and constantly checking the BlackBerry during lift rides. At the anti-resorts it’s about skiing and the big, wide grin on your face.
There is an evolution we recreational skiers/riders go through during our time enjoying snowsports. It starts with mastering the lowliest beginner slope at our local ski area, then setting out for the largest conglomeration of intermediate groomers we can zoom, and finally on to conquering the toughest black diamonds in skidom. Every destination serves its purpose, but sometime in your personal ski evolution I hope you take the road less traveled to the anti-resorts.
Husband, father and retired civilian employee of the Department of Navy, Jim Kenney is a D.C. area native and has been skiing recreationally since 1967. Jim's ski reporting garnered the 2009 West Virginia Division of Tourism's Stars of the Industry Award for Best Web/Internet/E-Magazine Article.