By Jim Kenney, aka JamesJ
EpicSki Travel Correspondent
It starts with pristine Mount Washington (elevation 6,288’), crown jewel of the majestic White Mountains and geologic godfather of all lift served skiing in the state. New Hampshire’s special something includes picturesque Currier and Ives towns like Conway and Jackson, established in 1765 and 1778 respectively, and also extends to panoramic byways through the Lake Winnipesaukee region and across numerous spectacular mountain passes, aka “notches.” The rustic, raw boned, back-to-nature ski country of the Granite State is like nothing else I’ve seen in New England and traversing the region on an epic road trip is one of the best ways to experience its unique appeal.
When it comes to accommodations you can go upscale to the max at iconic institutions like the Eastern Slopes Inn in North Conway or the Mount Washington Hotel at Bretton Woods. Unlike some corners of the ski world, however, you can also find extreme value at hostels like the White Mountain Hostel in Conway and mom & pop motels such as Parker’s near Lincoln. Summertime and Fall leaf peeping are the high seasons in New Hampshire. This means across-the-board bargains for snowriders when the tourism and service infrastructure goes underutilized in winter.
My teenage son Vince and I made a great road trip to north-central New Hampshire in early March 2010. Starting in northern Virginia, over the course of a week we skied one day each at Attitash, Wildcat, Black Mountain, Loon, and Cannon Mountain (Link to NH ski map: http://www.skinh.com/ski-resorts-map.cfm). All five are within about a 50 mile driving radius of each other. The great Nor’easter of 2010 blew through just days before our visit pummeling the region with an intense, but fickle wintry mix. Some of the luckiest locations received more than four feet of snow. By the time we made the scene the roads had been cleared and the freshies mostly tracked-out, but the storm left us with great ski conditions and zero midweek lift lines.
We kicked off the week in New Hampshire with our first-ever visit to Attitash/Bear Peak. It was a quiet Monday and the ski area was reporting 29” of new snow over the previous few days. They had received a wet spring snow that stuck to the trees like cotton candy and made for ego-boosting, packed conditions on the trails.
Attitash offers good variety with a total of nine chairlifts, including two HSQs, serving approximately 75-80 ski runs split evenly between two distinct peaks linked by several cross-trails. Skiing began at Attitash (1750’ vertical) in the 1960’s and many of its trails are the old fashioned, steep and snaky variety that I really enjoy. This original terrain is nicely complemented by Bear Peak (1450’ vertical) which opened in the 1990s. It has a more open layout with straight-down-the-fall-line cruisers and a base-to-summit high speed quad chair. The trail map denotes about seven glades on Bear Peak. We dipped into a couple of them including Broken Arrow and they had good snow, moderate tree density, and were not too steep; good stuff for intermediate-advanced snowriders looking to gain experience in the trees.
Unlike some of the other New Hampshire ski areas on our itinerary Attitash features a fair amount of nearby condos and slopeside homes. There’s even a 143 room Grand Summit Resort Hotel at the base of Bear Peak. We were there for just a day, but it looked like a good resort for an extended visit by families and those seeking ski-in, ski-out accommodations. Although it’s just ten miles from bustling North Conway, Attitash has a remote feel like a tiny island of development within the huge White Mountain National Forest. From the 2350’ summit of the slopes you can climb an observation tower for a commanding 360 degree view of the Presidential Range.
On our second day we headed 30 minutes north from our base in Conway, NH to Wildcat, one of my favorite ski areas in the East. It has an incredible setting on Route 16 just across Pinkham Notch from mighty Mount Washington. We caught Wildcat on a GREAT day with packed powder snow (54" reported in the previous week), 40 degree temps, no wind, tons of sunshine, and only a few mid-week souls to share one of the truly fabulous experiences in Eastern skiing. Stopping part way down one of our first big descents, soft-talking Vince was effusive in his praise for the place; me too. Wildcat’s dazzling array of wide, empty slopes framed by snow-laden evergreens beneath the looming clutches of Mt. Washington is powerful catnip for all snowriders.
Somehow Wildcat retains a homey feeling despite the expansive setting. 47 trails and a vertical drop of 2112’ are served by just four chairlifts, but they spread across 225 acres and include wide groomed runs, glades, bumps, steeps, and renowned side-country. Once you pick your jaw off the ground from the in-your-face sight of Tuckerman’s Ravine you’ll discover the 6700’ Wildcat Express Quad serves memorably fun ski runs twisting and undulating down a full 2000 feet of continuous vertical. Wildcat’s 4062’ summit, one of the higher lift served spots in the East, is a major reason why it received all snow and no rain from the spring Nor’easter that preceded our visit.
While the bumps and glades are extremely appealing to advanced skiers (Thompson Brook trail reputedly one of the East’s hairiest OB routes is just off the trail map), Wildcat is nonpartisan with its charms and has fantastic, long intermediate-advanced groomers like Lynx and the eponymous Wildcat trail. Even adventurous novices are in for a treat with Polecat (2-3/4 miles long) and Wild Kitten, two of the longest and prettiest green circle runs in the East. The lack of base area development and Wildcat’s relative remoteness means this pristine hill is rarely swamped with patrons.
In October 2010 an agreement was reached for the purchase of Wildcat by Peak Resorts, which also owns Attitash and ten other ski areas across the US. Reciprocal lift ticket products have already been announced for Wildcat and Attitash. Peak Resorts seems to be well regarded in the ski operations business. My sincere hope for Wildcat’s future is that this scenic gem of Eastern skiing continues to benefit from good stewardship.
If Attitash is woodsy and Wildcat is old school, then Black Mountain is an absolute time warp. From the low prices, to the active horse corral beside the base lodge, to the vintage double chair with lattice lift towers, the vibe at Black isn’t reminiscent of the old days, it IS the old days. The first lift we took at Black was an ancient platter pull. Sentimental fool that I am, I felt a twinge of emotion halfway up the ride while reflecting on the 75 year history of skiers enjoying this mountain, the oldest ski area in the state. The place oozed with soul and though it may be long in the tooth, it’s still got some bite!
At first blush Black Mountain looks like a benign little mom and pop establishment. It’s extremely affordable. A family of four can ski weekends for less than $30 each and on the non-holiday Wednesday of our visit an afternoon lift ticket was just $15. There are some interesting and wonderfully sheltered green circle runs on the lower mountain, but any ski area that has been continuously operated since 1935 must have more going for it than nursery slopes and nostalgia. Warning, if you underestimate Black’s terrain you will get your backside kicked.
The longer Vince and I snooped around, the more steep, little glade shots we found all over the 1100 vertical feet of Black. Among the approximately 45 marked trails are some short, but very steep drops and tight, corkscrew type runs. It’s a funky mountain with many nooks and crannies. An abbreviated list of our black diamond explorations included Carter Notch and Lostbo glades, Hanger Cliff, and the short, but scary Mr. Rew trail - the single steepest thing we skied all week. When making an extended visit to the Mount Washington Valley I can recommend Black Mountain as a budget-friendly, low crowd alternative capable of entertaining every skill level in your group. Vince and I can also attest to the very tasty plate of french fries they serve in the base lodge.
After skiing Black Mountain we took a magnificent 50 mile apres-ski drive west across the state on Route 302 through a rugged area of 4000’ peaks in Crawford Notch State Park. We drove past the Mount Washington Hotel and Bretton Woods. When we arrived in the vicinity of Loon Mountain it was apparent this part of New Hampshire had received a bit more mixed non-frozen precipitation from the Nor'easter than Wildcat and Attitash. But there is nothing retrograde about the Loon product. It’s a very robust, full service resort and had the snowmaking and infrastructure to offer excellent conditions nonetheless.
We saw far more folks on the hill here than anywhere else during our visit, but still lift lines were virtually nil. Loon’s 2100’ vertical and 56 trails are served by 12 crowd eating lifts, including three HSQs and a fast gondola. We rode the gondola and hit the 3000+ foot Loon summit and the advanced terrain of North Peak early in the day to ski big, fast groomers like Walking Boss and Angel Street. The bump run du jour was called Flume. It starts near the summit and had great views. Later we made a visit to Loon’s newer South Peak terrain pod and our favorite in this area was a steep run called Ripsaw that dropped about 1500 vertical feet.
In the afternoon we skied the original, central part of the ski layout served by the Kancamagus Express Quad. It features a bunch of family friendly blue cruisers and a lengthy terrain park with huge features. Vince enjoyed a nearby seeded bump run and we also saw a race team running gates in this section of the mountain.
Loon is one of the most convenient big mountains to the Boston metropolis and is just a two hour drive from the city on I93. It has three base lodges with loads of parking and amenities. Numerous stores, restaurants, and lodging options line the scenic Kancamagus Highway that runs past the base of the slopes and intersects with I93 in nearby Lincoln. Loon Mountain hosts more skiers than any other resort in the state. The layout is set up to handle major mobs, but on a weekday it’s all yours for the taking.
We spent our last day in New Hampshire at Cannon Mountain, a classic New England ski area if ever there was one and only about a dozen miles north of Loon. The first passenger aerial tram in the US was built at Cannon in 1938 and faithfully served skiers and tourists until the current Cannon tram (70 passengers, ~5300’ length, ~2100’ vertical) replaced it in 1980. Cannon is located within the Franconia Notch State Park and the focus is all about skiing/riding/racing with minimal commercial development around the base. There is serious gnar on and off the trail map and the area’s tremendous racing tradition is best-known for producing Olympic Gold medalist Bode Miller. I first visited Cannon with my parents in the 1970’s and have been back several times since, but never on a day as pretty as this first Friday of March 2010; 35 degrees, blue skies, no wind, and super visibility. Nearby Mt Lafayette (elevation 5260’) was a gorgeous backdrop for our ski runs all day long.
Cannon got almost as much snow as Wildcat from the Nor’easter that preceded our trip and I credit its north/northeast exposure and 4100’ top elevation for that. Cannon has it all in the way of ski terrain including numerous bump runs, challenging glades, many long, steep groomers that descend the full 2000+ feet of vertical, and renowned side-country (we never made it to fearsome Kinsman Glade). We saw quite a few young racers on the hill for a weekday. When not training on steep lower mountain runs beside the Zoomer lift, they showed-off with some rapid freeskiing on wide open Cannonball Run near the summit.
It was Vince’s first time riding a tram and he really enjoyed using it for numerous top to bottom runs on nonstop advanced terrain. One of my highlights was the short hike over to the former Mittersill ski area. This is a fun side-country experience on old fashioned narrow trails with all natural snow surfaces. As I write this Cannon Mountain is in the process of installing a double chair to finally provide lift service for a batch of the Mittersill ski trails ending a quarter century as strictly a poacher’s domain. Management hopes to get the new lift operational by the end of December 2010.
We used the lot next to the aerial tram base on I-93 for a convenient spot to park our car. After our final turns at Cannon Mountain I demanded a brief visit to the small, but fascinating New England Ski Museum located just a few hundred feet from the tram building. It was a great way to augment our appreciation for the depth and breadth of New Hampshire skiing and Vince really got into the displays of old gear and photos. I made a point to show him the trophy awarded to the legendary Toni Matt when he schussed/bombed the super steep Tuckerman’s Ravine headwall on Mount Washington to win the 1939 American Inferno race.
We had a great week in New Hampshire, where the unadulterated love of snow sports is deeply embedded in the local culture. It’s easy to generate a list of superlatives to justify a ski trip to this beautiful region; challenging, unspoiled, snowy, scenic, traditional, affordable, and not overly crowded. That special something about skiing New Hampshire has been the stuff of Eastern snowrider’s dreams for more than 75 years.
New Hampshire skiing video provided by Vince and Jim Kenney:
- Black Mountain
- Cannon Mountain
- Ski New Hampshire Web Site
- The New England Ski Museum
- The White Mountain Hostel in Conway, NH
- Parker’s Motel near Lincoln, NH
About the Author
- Husband, father and 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. To read other articles by Jim, click here.