New England Ski Area Roundup 4
Author thumbnail By Jim Kenney, DCSki Columnist

Over the span of my 35+ years of skiing I’ve visited almost every major ski resort in New England. Since the 2002-2003 ski season is upon us and DC and Baltimore area skiers and boarders may be planning distant ventures, I thought I’d share a bit of my mid-Atlantic perspective on some of the resorts I’ve visited in New England. If I happen to disrespect one of your favorites, feel free to set me straight. Further, if you have questions about any resort, fellow readers and I can take a shot at answering them in the Reader Comments section at the bottom of this article.

Vermont

New England skiing and boarding means Vermont for most folks. A ski area around every bend of the road, church steeples rising high above snow-covered villages, Ben and Jerry’s ice cream in every little two-bit store; all this (and sometimes frigid weather) epitomize the Vermont ski experience. I suppose I get the same feeling every time I enter the state of Vermont that a young child gets when daddy drives the minivan through the gates of Walt Disney World - the possibilities for fun seem endless.

Mt. Snow: This is a reasonable one-to-three day southern Vermont ski destination for those from the south seeking to save a few hours driving time. A great many trails (around 145) and lifts (close to 20) fan out from essentially one mountaintop (1,700’ vertical) with north and south shoulders. The area typically provides excellent snowmaking and grooming for optimal skiing and boarding possibilities. I hesitate to speak negatively about a resort I don’t know well, but something about Mt. Snow struck me as impersonal and opportunistic. I just didn’t find the place to have a very welcoming character. Nonetheless, it does receive many guests and can get crowded on prime winter weekends.

Stratton: Better. Stratton is only about ten miles north of Mt. Snow, with similar terrain and trail layout (13 lifts, 90 trails), but with a vertical of about 2,000’. It has a 12-passenger gondola providing a quick, comfortable base to summit ride. Both Stratton and Mt. Snow offer excellent terrain for intermediate level skiers and snowboarders looking for some two-mile long trails. Stratton has always pursued an upscale clientele and the bucks spent dressing up the resort base give it more charm than Mt. Snow in my opinion. Very snowboarder friendly, Stratton is where Jake Burton tested his first boards.

Magic Mountain: Magic has struggled to remain solvent over the last dozen years and shut down for part of the 1990’s. This place features relatively cheap lift tickets and slopeside lodging, but chronic financial woes mean current operating, snowmaking and grooming conditions need to be verified before visiting. Magic has 33 trails, 1,700’ of vertical, and a bit of a cult following because of small crowds and a couple of really tough glades and expert trails.

Killington: I make no secret that this is my personal favorite in New England. The place is huge by Eastern standards and has something for everyone, a bit like Tyson’s Corner Shopping Center, Virginia, for better or worse. If you can make your way to less crowded sections of the mountain and you catch fair weather, Killington can provide an Easterner with a nice taste of big mountain skiing. In 1999 I had one of my all time finest family ski days when three of my kids and I covered all six “mountains” of Killington (not including Pico) in about five hours. Always known for great snowmaking and the longest ski season in the East, Killington is definitely big enough to keep an aggressive skier/boarder busy for a long weekend or perhaps a five-day ski week. Manhattan style hustle and bustle often descends over the place during peak weekends. Killington has 200 trails, 31 lifts and a vertical of 3,150’, although you have to be a fan of long lower-intermediate trails to cash in on the entire vertical drop.

Sugarbush: This area is now comprised of Sugarbush and Sugarbush North (formerly Glen Ellen), two sizeable, interconnected mountains with total terrain equal to, in my rough estimation, about 65% of Killington. The one-two punch of Sugarbush has a lot to offer; dual 2,400-2,650’ verticals, 18 lifts, and 115 trails with a bit harder edge than Killington. The Castlerock double black diamond section contains a handful of some of the sickest trails in the East, served by their own double chair. For anyone less than the truly accomplished, this section is downright intimidating. Castlerock aside, if you like Cupp Run at Snowshoe, West Virginia, you might like the nice assortment of fairly steep, fairly long, and mostly unrelenting advanced trails at Sugarbush.

Mad River Glen: A throwback to the 1950’s, MRG staunchly operates the last single person chair lift in the US. A ski area, not a resort, MRG has little snowmaking and grooming, all the better to cull out the less than hardcore. This leaves to the persistent few - cheap lift tickets, 45 gnarly trails, 2,000’ of vertical, and an all-natural ski experience; powder, ice, rock, moguls and all. MRG has a strong cult following for its challenging alternative layout when the natural snow is good. When the snow is bad their bumper sticker applies: ski it if you can. If you enjoy the rustic lodge and facilities at White Grass Touring Center in West Virginia, you’ll probably like the similar feel of the downhill facilities at MRG. Last time I checked they still did not allow snowboards. (Note: This is the one area in this discussion I have not actually skied, but rather took a good look at from the base and flank of the mountain before continuing a drive from Sugarbush, Vermont to Whiteface, New York during a snow-poor period in 2000.)

Stowe: One of the legendary ski mountains of the East. The trail and lift system is actually several miles from the center of the quintessential small Vermont town of Stowe, which surprises some first time visitors. Stowe offers the famous steeps of the Front Four trails on Mt. Mansfield, the highest peak in Vermont. The lifts, however, terminate about 300’ from the summit because of the rocky cliffs perched above, leaving Killington to claim the highest lift served terrain in the state by mere feet. The resort includes a fine intermediate mountain called Spruce Peak where major expansion plans are nearing finalization. Stowe has a 2,360’ vertical, 11 lifts, and 48 quality ski trails often touted for their length and distinctiveness.

Smugglers Notch: Smuggs has one of Vermont’s biggest continuous verticals (2,600’), with unexpectedly good variety (69 trails) on three mountain sections. The lift infrastructure (9 lifts) is old, but smallish crowds render that a moot point most of the time. It is possible to crossover to Stowe from Smuggs. An agreement has finally been struck between the two for a common, if pricey ticket. The area is famous for a family friendly base village and trail network, but I enjoyed some very advanced terrain here and my usual attention-deficit tendencies did not surface even after four days.

Jay Peak: More of the same is found at Jay with 75 trails and 2,150’ of vertical. This remote area experiences only smallish crowds, which are often comprised of skiers and boarders from across the nearby Canadian border. Served by eight lifts including an old aerial tram, the terrain here consists of more than meets the eye with the possibility of double black diamond backcountry skiing. Jay is renowned in the Eastern US for receiving copious amounts of natural snow.

New Hampshire

The White Mountains of New Hampshire are much like the Green Mountains of Vermont despite the delta the names seem to imply. New Hampshire ski country, however, has a less developed feel, unless you’re within ten miles of the very touristy town of North Conway; a ski mecca in winter that doubles as a shopping mecca in summer. The summit of Mt. Washington (6,288’) is almost two thousand feet higher than the highest point in Vermont and this often wind blown peak sets a rugged tone for the rest of the state. {Aside: As a kid I used to question why they never built a lift served ski area on Mt. Washington, it could easily accommodate an enormous vertical of 4000’. The hike-in-only spring skiing of Tuckerman’s Ravine is legendary and a cog railway has chugged to the summit in warmer months since 1869. The answer is at least twofold. A manned station sits at the top, but it’s only there to measure some of the worst weather in the world. The peak is just too darn cold and inhospitable for outdoor midwinter human habitation. Further, heavy development of Mt. Washington State Park would, in the eyes of many, desecrate an iconic natural wonder.}

Waterville Valley: Set in a beautifully forested mountain cluster. Good vertical (2,000’), good lifts (12), pretty good variety (52 trails); Waterville Valley is an adequate destination for a one-to-three day visit, but it could get repetitive after that. Something about Waterville Valley’s wide, straight trails reminded me of Whitetail, Pennsylvania on steroids. Formerly a rather upscale sort of place, for 2002-2003 Waterville has a very competitive 7-days-a-week lift ticket price of $39. At 4,000’, the Schwendi Hutte is one of the most atmospheric lunch spots in Eastern skidom.

Cannon Mountain: First opened in 1938, this is the granddaddy of New Hampshire skiing. A modern aerial tram and six other lifts serve a 2,100’ vertical. This place skis much larger than its 42 designated trails might imply and enjoys one of the most picturesque mountain settings in the East. In 1997 I had fun on the intermediate level bushwhack over to a section of the nearby bankrupt Mittersill ski area, where a quiet return trail can be taken back to the base of Cannon. Firm expansion plans for 2003-2004 include the long awaited reopening of lift served terrain in the old Mittersill section. Cannon is located in the Franconia State Park, so nearby lodging and other commercial development is not as extensive as many Eastern areas of the same magnitude.

Wildcat: My favorite Eastern “discovery”. It’s been around for many years, but may be somewhat underutilized and overlooked due to a remote northern location and little commercial development at the base. Long cruisers, steep bumps, glades, and more descend Wildcat’s 2,100’ of vertical opposite an impressive view of Mt. Washington. Wildcat has 47 diverse and entertaining trails, four lifts including a new base to summit express quad, and some big-time backcountry skiing possibilities in the surrounding White Mountain National Forest. Wildcat is infamous for seriously cold temps, even though its summit is 2,000’ lower than nearby Mt. Washington. For all of the above, Wildcat reminds me of Blue Knob, Pennsylvania on steroids.

Gunstock: This mountain is not a bad choice for those looking for a day or two at a more accessible central New Hampshire ski location. It has 45 trails, eight lifts, and a 1,400’ vertical with some lengthy cruisers. Gunstock is near the major summer resort of Lake Winnipesaukee, which means good restaurants and possibilities for ice fishing, snowmobiling and cross-country skiing on a large frozen lake.

New York

Whiteface: This is a big, rawboned place, which probably takes more exploration time than I’ve had to fully appreciate. For the East, Whiteface has a monstrous 3,200’ vertical, but it is not really an enjoyable top to bottom ski. It’s better skied in sections. Important new lifts have been installed in recent years including a gondola and a high speed quad, but I found snowmaking/grooming to be lacking during both my long ago and more recent February 2000 visits. Even though the two time Olympic venue of Lake Placid is nearby, I wouldn’t build a ski week around Whiteface unless I was hardcore and befriended some locals for help accessing super expert terrain like The Slides. This nearly 5,000’ monadnock stands out dramatically from its surroundings and as a result the 73 trails and 10 lifts often catch some wicked cold winds blowing down from Canada.

Gore Mountain: It’s been many years since my visit in the late 1980’s. A new eight passenger gondola has been installed since then serving the always respectable 2,100’ vertical. Gore has about 65 trails, 11 lifts, and might make for an interesting component of an upstate New York ski trip if combined with a visit to Whiteface (about an hour further north).

Hunter Mountain: 1,600’ vertical, 52 trails, 11 lifts; this Catskills resort can be quite interesting on weekdays, but it can be a (Bronx) zoo on prime weekends. One of the birthplaces of snowmaking, to me it’s always represented the first taste of serious skiing for northbound skiers up from NYC and points south. “Huntah” is a seven hour drive from DC and has a fair amount of terrain variety, lodging, restaurants, and other commercial development. It’s not a bad weekday choice if you can’t get further north.

Ski Windham: Located not far from Hunter, I didn’t find Windham particularly memorable. It seemed like a smallish mountain that was developed well for maximum effect, not unlike southern corporate cousin, Liberty Mountain, Pennsylvania in that respect. It has 33 trails and 7 lifts, but I find it hard to believe its current claim of a 1,600’ vertical. Perhaps it has expanded since my visit back in the 1980’s?

Maine

I found the state of Maine to pretty much fit its stereotype. Everything is very rugged and very remote with little of what I would call resort or touristy atmosphere, at least away from the coast. Most infrastructure is built for function and must perform under often harsh winter conditions.

Sugarloaf: As one regular told me, you have to pass a lot of good ski areas to get here. Many do just that, but personally, I found it hard to justify the extra mileage when compared to less remote, similarly large New England resorts. I would not, however, discourage those looking for a fun advanced course in rugged individualism, but be aware that the famous open snowfields at the top are difficult to exploit. To enjoy them you have to come in spring when the slabs of wind whipped snow soften, or be lucky enough to be onsite right after a major powder dump. For what is basically a single peak ski area, “The Loaf” has a tremendous vertical (2,800’), good variety (102 trails, 14 lifts), and a sizable self-contained base village. You could build a ski week around it, I did in 1997.

About Jim Kenney

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.

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Reader Comments

JimK
December 24, 2002
Correction: the on again/off again joint Stowe&Smuggs lift pass is apparently off this season. Believe you could still do the bushwhack between Smuggs and Spruce Peak, but you'll have to buy a separate ticket once on other side. Recommend checking resorts for details.
John Sherwood
December 24, 2002
Jim:

Wonderful article Jim. I grew up skiing many of the same mountains, so this article resonated strongly with me. With that being said, there are three resorts that I feel should have been included in mix: Sunday River, Mount Sunapee, and Okemo.

Sunday River is covered in the firsthand report I wrote, so I won't go into detail on this mountain. Suffice it to say, it's a big area with lots of nice terrain, low crowds, and superb snowmaking.

Mount Sunapee used to be like Mad River: limited snowmaking and grooming. The resort was taken over by Okemo in 1998 and has been greatly improved over the past 4 years. Sunapee now features 3 quad chairs (one high-speed detachable quad), 2 triple chairs, 1 double chair, and 4 surface lifts. The mountain boasts the highest skiable vertical in Southern New Hampshire (1510 feet), and has 97 percent snowmaking on 62 trails. However, the best feature of this mountain is its proximity to Boston. At only 90 minutes, the Whitetail motto applies: "nothing close comes close."

Mt. Sunapee's big sister in Vermont, Okemo, is another mountain worth mentioning. Currently, Okemo offers 106 trails and 2150 vertical feet of fun. The mountain does not claim to be an expert's paradise. Rather, it markets itself to families looking for a variety of pleasing terrain. For advanced intermediates, Okemo's legendary groomers are supposed to be paradise. Okemo just opened 7 new trails and a high-speed quad at Jackson Gore, its new expansion project. Eventually, Jackson Gore will consist of 16 trails and four lifts plus a gondola. Many other resorts are anxiously watching Okemo to see if this expansion pans out financially. If it does, we could see a whole new round of expansion in the NE. Unfortunately, I've never skied Okemo, but it's on my list for a "Further Afield" destination.
John Sherwood
December 24, 2002
One final note about Stowe. For the past few years, Stowe, owned by AIG, has refused to make any improvements until its Spruce Peak expansion is approved. The reason is simple: the resort has lost money for the past 15 years and basically sees the expansion as its only hope for survival. The Stowe community, fearing the demise of this great resort, now backs the expansion plan, paving the way for state approval of the project. Once the approval is finally secured, the resort hopes to embark on a 10-to-15 year expansion that will include several phases. When it is over, resort officials have said Stowe could have a total of 10 new lifts, about 135 acres of new ski trails and snowmaking to cover it all.

See the following Ski Magazine article for details:

http://www.skimag.com/skimag/features/article/0,12795,327085,00.html
JimK
December 27, 2002
I only commented on New England areas I have visited, which leaves out some noteworthy biggies like Okemo VT, Loon NH and Sunday River ME, and many other nice places, e.g. Sunapee, Attitash, Bretton Woods, Bromley, Ascutney, etc, etc. So many ski areas, so little time.

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