Pros: mellow vibe, engaging terrain, natural snow quality & quantity, glades, un-crowded trails, affordable, beautiful, remote, sympatico management
Cons: weak on lodging quantity and variety, popularity beginning to overwhelm lift network
MarcusBrody’s review is spot on. As a Saddleback regular, I have nothing to correct and only a couple little things to expand upon. If you read the pros and cons above, you have most of it.
The new management, in place since 2003, has done a great job of attracting enough business to make the place a going concern for the first time in decades. This is a boon, in that we are enjoying the new lodge, the new upper lift, a slew of new trails in the last few years, good service, and good grooming where and when needed (and not when not).
I’ll get the one and only critical comment out of the way right up front. And really there is only ONE serious downside for passionate skiers, and we hope that it will be resolved in the next year or two. So here it is: It has become a trial to get up and out of the base area on busy weekends and holidays. For all but beginners, there are effectively only two ways out of the base. One is a slow double – the Rangeley chair - that takes you 2/3 of the way up the mountain. If you want to take this lift (and you do want to), basically your windows of opportunity are 8:30 – 9:45, 12:00 – 12:30, and 3:00 – 3:45, when it closes. Otherwise you are in for a solid 15-minute wait in the line (plus the rather long ride up). The other option is to take a very short (and even slower) double over the terrain park, then take a T-bar that takes you about halfway up – just barely high enough to follow a long catwalk over to the new quad that serves the upper mountain. On paper this sounds like a fine idea, but in practice if the Rangeley chair is crowded enough to make you want to take this route, the wait for the T-bar will be almost as long as the wait for the chair, and you won’t get as much of a run for your money. The plan had been to replace the Rangeley lift with a quad this past summer. That did not happen for complicated reasons, but those of us who love Saddleback are all praying that our wish will be granted this year. My understanding is that this will not be a high-speed lift. Saddleback management rightly wants to retain the spacious, un-crowded trail experience that is such a welcome contrast with many other major Eastern areas.
That’s it. Everything else about the skiing experience is magic. At least it is if you have a skier’s heart with a sense of adventure, history, and romance. If you insist on fast lifts, gasp if you see the occasional root or rock sticking out of the snow, and need a big selection of ultra-wide fall-line groomers on which to run your metaphorical Hummer, this is absolutely not your hill. Note: there are several excellent wide fall-line groomers – Grey Ghost, Silver Doctor, and Tight Line – and I love skiing them. It’s just that they don’t really represent what the place is about.
The beginner area below the lodge, served by a newish quad, is superbly designed for its purpose. I spent several hours there on a snowboard, very contentedly learning to link turns for the first time, on a day when it was far too cold and windy to be on the upper mountain. I was happy to be completely out of the way of anyone skiing or riding faster than I can go on my skate skis.
When it’s not crowded - and 9 days out of 10 it’s not - yo-yo-ing on the T-bar can be totally delightful, as it serves three of the best trails on the mountain, in a somewhat secluded sector that feels like you are re-living some cherished childhood skiing memory. These trails are Blue Devil, which is a twisty blue cruiser with fun blind corners and a couple of little rolls; Silver Doctor, a carver’s dream slope with a steepish top where you can wring out your slalom turns, followed by a floor-it lower section where you can lay down blistering arcs; and finally Parmachenee Belle, a grin-inducing intermediate bump run with wonderful variety, including a large island. It’s the perfect place to speed up your feet before hitting the trees later on. The moderate pitch means that bump skiers of even modest talent can start to feel like Johnny Moseley on a soft-snow day.
On the main part of the mountain, two can’t-miss trails are Golden Smelt and Peachy’s Peril. Golden Smelt is an old-fashioned very narrow run, with a challenging double-fall-line pitch at the top, mellowing as it descends. It gets bumped up, but it’s not essentially a mogul run. It’s more or less the archetype for what we used to call “an expert trail,” with a certain hushed reverence, when I was a kid circa 1970. If you like Mad River Glen, you will like Golden Smelt. Peachy’s is a medium-width slope that typically has gentle, round moguls and excellent snow quality due, I speculate, to its more eastern exposure. A run down Peachy’s on a powder-over-bumps day is one of life’s truly great pleasures. Take the first left off Peachy’s to hit Thrombosis and get your first taste of Saddleback’s glades. If you like it, there is a lot more where that came from! Before you ski over to the Kennebago quad, serving the upper mountain, sample the lower Nightmare and lower Intimidator glades. I honestly have a hard time choosing which of these three tree runs I like best; they’re all good.
Off the Kennebago lift, the signature open run is Supervisor. This is like a steeper version of Blue Devil – medium width (narrow if you’re from out West) and twisty, but not so twisty that you can’t open it up a bit if you are feeling feisty. The snow on this run is generally excellent, as they groom it carefully and it’s more protected than several of the other upper slopes. Two-thirds of the way down Supervisor, where the pitch finally begins to ease, dive into the woods on skier left to hoot and holler through lower Dark Wizard. This is a first-class stretch of trees. Take the same lift up. (You are going to spend a while here, assuming you have a Clif Bar in your pocket to keep you going. If you don’t, stop at the yurt and have a chili dog and a Gatorade now. You’re gonna need the fuel.)
If Black Beauty or Frostbite is open and the snow is soft, ski one of them. These are absolutely fabulous runs on a good day. Like so many of the best trails here, the moderating pitch makes you feel increasingly like a hero as you get farther down the hill, so that by the time you’re at the bottom you’re ready to conquer the ski world. Don’t mind all the roots and stumps in the top 50 yards. It gets better, and it will be worth it.
Finally you’re ready for the piece de resistance, Casablanca. It’s a bit of a hike across the Dazzler catwalk. Don’t take your six-year-old out there unless s/he has some stamina or you are ready for a carry. Snowboarders beware: this is a test for you, too. If the snow is deep the traverse can evoke Alta … two ski tracks on the side of a mountain and that’s it ... definitely made for skiers, not riders. Once you get to the Casablanca entrances, just pick one. They’re all interesting. The first 100 feet of all 4 entrances are unpleasantly low and tight, but after that you are home free, so just swallow that pill. The trees become more open as you move from entrance 1 toward entrance 4, but it’s all good. My favorite line is to start out on skier left in section 3, then migrate over towards 4 about halfway down, before the little chute in section 3 funnels you into claustrophobia. Second favorite is to just stay left in section 1 all the way down, eventually popping out on lower Black Beauty.
Lodging, honestly, is a challenge sometimes in the Rangeley area. The best option, if you can afford it, is to share one of the Rock Pond condos with someone(s). These condos are above the base lodge. Some of the others are below the base, and are “ski-in / ski-out” only if you don’t mind an extra ride on the long lower bunny lift every time you want to start skiing, such as after lunch. (This makes them perfect for families with little kids, though.)
There’s a small handful of motels, B&Bs, and inns in Rangeley, about 15 minutes away. I’ve stayed at most of them. Some are better than others, but honestly I have never fallen in love with any of them for the price.
A third option, that for sure gives you the best taste of what Rangeley is all about, is to rent a camp. “Camp” is Maine-speak for “cabin.” Most of these are on the shores of the many beautiful lakes in the area. (The smaller of these are called “ponds” up here, but if you are from New Jersey you would call most of them lakes if they were near your house.) It can be fun to stay in these, but remember that many of them are quite rustic and/or idiosyncratic (such as the one we rented a couple years ago whose heating system sounded like a jet taking off three feet away and woke us up at least a dozen times during the night), and are typically small and oriented more toward summer use, when people spend most of their time outside. The other thing to be aware of when arranging lodging in Rangeley is that it is a very active hub for snowmobilers. If you are one of them, you will feel very much in your element. I am not one of them, and have been a bit bummed on at least two occasions to find that my camp was right near a major snowmachine artery, and that as a consequence nights were not as quiet and peaceful as I might have hoped. These locations are considered especially desirable for many renters who sled, so make sure your rental agent knows if you don’t want this. She may think she’s giving you one of her “best” camps. (Note to those “from away,” who might not be familiar with snowmobile culture: a lot of it tends to happen at night.)
Weather: Yes, it's likely to be cold now and then. You knew that. But here's what you might not know, that you need to. You need to check the forecast for wind. Saddleback - and, to be fair, its neighbor, Sugarloaf - is prone to lift closures due to wind. Don't make the mistake of driving all the way up on a very windy day. You will be sorry. (Unless you decide to do some nordic at the touring center, or otherwise find something to do.) If you must alpine ski on a windy day in Maine, choose one of the low elevation areas such as Shawnee Peak, Mt. Abram, or Sunday River.
The final - but not least important - thing to mention is just how nice it is to be at Saddleback. The skiers are considerate and friendly. They are not, for the most part, thoracic surgeons who roared up in their Porsches with a sense of entitlement, expecting someone to unload their skis for them. (Someone WOULD have unloaded the skis, of course, cheerfully; that is the glorious conundrum of Saddleback – sort of like the poor Buddhist monk who humiliates the invading General by treating him very kindly.) The expanded lodge is very welcoming, architecturally. People tend to bring their lunches. No one is telling them not to eat at such-and-such a table reserved for café food, or not to leave their bags in the lodge. (If you’ve skied at big areas out west, you’ll know what I’m talking about.) There are a lot of families and kids. Saddleback has this extremely cool program where Maine kids who make the honor roll at school can get a full-on season pass for $59.00. How’s that for putting your money where your mouth is? This ski area has a whole lot going for it, and you owe it to yourself to check it out.
- Blue Devil
- Parmachenee Belle
- Peachy’s Peril
Update: New video from December 2012, filmed on Parmachenee Bell and Family Secret.