Waterville Valley is the first “big” mountain I skied as a child. Set in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, its main peak, Mount Tecumseh, consists of mostly north facing slopes cut in classic New England fashion: a mix of narrow tree-lined trails and broad boulevards that offer consistent steepness. I had not skied the mountain since high school and have yearned to return for too many years to count.
My trip began in Framingham, Massachusetts, where several of my relatives live. I first drove to Manchester Airport to pick up my wife, who flew up on a short commuter flight from Reagan National Airport. We then drove 1.5 hours to Waterville along Interstate 93, known affectionately as Ski 93 because of the numerous ski resorts it accesses.
As in the Mid-Atlantic, the ski season in New Hampshire this year has been marginal and subject to multiple freeze, rain, and thaw cycles. Nevertheless, we were happy to see snow on the ground as we drove north of Manchester, a former mill town on the Merrimack River.
We stayed at the Snowy Owl Inn in the Town of Waterville Valley. Because the ski resort sits mainly on national forest land, there’s no slopeside development. All lodging is a few miles down the road in the Town of Waterville Valley. A convenient shuttle system links the town to the mountain and obviates the need to drive and park at the resort. Waterville’s parking lots are set along a steep access road and require either a shuttle ride or an uphill trudge to get to the lodge and lifts. When snow conditions permit, it’s possible to ski back to most of the lots.
Lack of slopeside development makes Waterville one of New England’s most beautiful ski resorts. From much of the resort, the only views are mountains and forests.
After booting up, we took a quick warmup run on Valley Run — an easy green — before grabbing the Tecumseh Express to the top. This new high-speed detachable 6-pack is the first U.S. lift built by the French conglomerate, MND Ropeways. MND previously collaborated with the resort to build three surface lifts and install 400 snow guns.
The Tecumseh Express, which features high backed seats in bubble protected chairs, whisked us 1,585 vertical feet up Mount Tecumseh in 4.8 minutes. One can gain another 397 feet of vertical by riding a T-bar from the Tecumseh Express top station to the summit. We only took that latter ride once due to the fog that enshrouded the peak for much of our visit.
We had planned to sample all open trails on the mountain, starting with Oblivion, a narrow but lower angle blue that dumps you onto the Valley Run. Oblivion is the only trail that offers uphill skiing and we had to carefully avoid those hard-working souls as we made our way down.
Every major run at Waterville except for Bobby’s was open, giving us numerous options from the top. On our second run, we made a wrong turn and ended up on True Grit, one of the resort’s two signature double blacks (Bobby’s is the other). Fortunately the trail was mostly groomed, making it no more difficult than many blacks I have skied out West. Still, the headwall was steep and I was skiing rental Rossignol 81 TIs — a good intermediate ski but not as sure-footed on ice as the Blizzard Brahma 88s I left at home.
One of the things we loved about Waterville is that advanced skiers can easily make it down any slope from the top. This allowed us to get our noses out of the trail map and just ski whimsically down the mountain. We loved starting on one trail and then scooting over to another and then another, using Waterville’s cool system of narrow catwalks. Trails blurred together and I simply focused on skiing and the pristine views.
The lift was so fast and the lines so short (or non-existent) that I soon needed a break. We decided to take one last run on the Tecumseh Express before retiring to the lodge for lunch. Poor decision. After passing a couple of towers, the lift slammed to a halt. We then experienced a massive cable wave. “This is not good,” I told my wife, “good thing we pulled down the safety bar.” Apparently, a sensor glitch had triggered an emergency stop.
Alone on the lift but comfortable and not cold due to the mild 32 degree temperature, we chatted for a bit before being informed by a Ski Patroller about the problem. I asked him if they planned to implement an emergency evacuation — i.e. roping people off the lifts via harnesses. He said, “we are ready and prepared to; sit tight for now.” Not long after he left, the chair began slowly inching its way to the summit on reduction gear. We ended up being stuck for 80 minutes on one of the most comfortable lifts in North America. “A first world problem” as my wife put it. Like snowy roads and unpredictable weather, it’s all part of the adventure of alpine skiing.
All trails at Waterville lead to the lodge and from the lodge, it’s an easy skate to most of the mountain’s lifts. For such a large resort terrain-wise (265 skiable acres), Waterville’s main lodge is relatively small — not an issue on a Thursday or Friday but I could see it being tight on weekends.
The resort also has a hut at the top with a limited menu and a restaurant at the base of True Grit that only opens weekends. Food was standard lodge fare: burgers, pizza, chicken fingers, etc. One feature of the lodge we appreciated was the free outside boot bag storage, which saved us from having to rent a locker. On weekends, the resort also offers a free bag check.
After a quick bite, we ski-skated to the Green Peak triple to explore that side of the resort. The Green Peak pod of ski trails along with its triple chair was developed in 2016. It features 40 acres of green, blue, and single blacks on a 1,000-foot vertical hill. Governors Run has some interesting terrain features and Clean Shaven is a short but steep single black. As one skier told us, Green Peak is a good place to rest after Tecumseh because of its slower lift.
In 2020, Waterville Valley applied for a permit to construct a two-stage gondola from Waterville Valley Town to Green Peak and develop an additional 140 acres of terrain on that mountain plus a new chairlift. If this plan is ever realized, Waterville Valley would emerge as one of the biggest resorts in New England.
We made a few runs on Green Peak before heading back up Tecumseh on the Sunnyside Triple — a side lift along True Grit that the resort opened due to the closure of the Tecumseh Express. As we made our way slowly up the mountain, it started to snow. “That’s something we haven’t seen much of this season,” I remarked. During the next three hours, it snowed continually — mostly large, wet flakes but still fun. Surface conditions improved and we found ourselves making run after run in this White Mountain winter wonderland until the closing bell. Tecumseh Express re-opened briefly, giving us faster access to the top.
On February 10-11, 2023, Harvard University hosted its first “Harvard Carnival” in three years at Waterville Valley — a combined series of alpine and nordic ski races. Waterville Valley has a proud tradition of racing dating back to 1969, when it hosted its first World Cup race. The resort continued hosting World Cup races until 1991.
When we arrived at the resort on the 10th, we noticed hundreds of pairs of skinny skis on the racks, and the lodge was packed with high school and college aged racers. Although the weather was warm with wet granular conditions, the racers I spoked with on the lift loved the giant slalom course on Upper Sel’s Choice and Tommy’s World Cup Run. “Stowe and Waterville are my favorites,” one skier told me. Mikeala Shiffrin attended Burke Mountain Academy (which was represented at this race) in Vermont to learn to ski in the difficult snow conditions common in New England, and I have no doubt that some of the skiers I saw racing that day may one day join her on the U.S. Ski Team.
We both enjoyed the soft snow conditions on Friday and tried to get as many runs under our belt before heading back to Massachusetts. We had a wonderful two days at Waterville and hope to return soon. If we had had more time, we could have paired it with a trip to Loon, Cannon, Bretton Woods, or Wildcat. Most DC area skiers choose Vermont when traveling to New England, but the Granite State has a charm of its own.
John Sherwood is a columnist for DCSki. When he's not hiking, biking, or skiing, he works as an author of books on military history.
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