In Praise of Small Hills
Make Tracks to the Granite State’s smaller, lesser-known ski areas
This story is not about Alpine ski resorts. No, no, no, that would be too easy, too broad. This is about ski areas. Small ski areas, to be precise. Ski gems, if you will.
Today’s mega-resorts have amenities galore and the financial wherewithal to install high-speed lifts and pump tons of man-made snow to ensure a superlative experience. Absolutely nothing wrong with that. But they can’t always pull at our heartstrings the way small ski areas can. So when the mercury dips and nostalgia rules my winter compass, I often find myself heading toward smaller, lesser-known hills.
Why? I want my girls to have memories like the ones I cherish (minus the lace-up leather ski boots and bear-trap bindings). What these smaller areas lack in bells and whistles they more than make up for in character. Do they take some liberty with the slope ratings? Sure. But you’re almost guaranteed to find genuine customer service, supportive ski school programs, shorter lift lines and a few extra bucks in your pocket at the end of the day. That generally adds up to more smiles per ski outing.
“In many instances, the smaller, independently owned ski areas have been able to retain a bit more of how many of us remember skiing from our youth,” says Thomas Prindle, director of marketing for King Pine/Purity Spring Resort in East Madison. “That’s not to say that small ski areas haven’t made substantial investments in snowmaking, grooming, lift infrastructure improvements and maintenance to keep up with modern operations. But there are some aspects to the nature of a small ski area that feels a bit more authentic.”
Likewise, Kris Blomback, general manager of Pats Peak in Henniker, was raised in a skiing family. “We went to a lot of ski areas when I was growing up,” he says. “I remember my parents always had an affinity for the smaller areas, as they’d say ‘all the roads, or trails, lead to Rome, meaning the base lodge.’ They could let the kids cut loose, and perhaps have an adult beverage or two at the end of the day, and not worry about us getting lost.”
“The world is all about hustle and bustle — with most small ski areas, time slows down,” says Blomback. “You generally have less people, less commercialism.”
Admittedly, selecting just a handful of ski hills seems unfair, but the reality is that there are fewer and fewer to choose from these days. Places like Bretton Woods in the shadow of the famed Mount Washington Hotel, Mount Sunapee in Newbury and Cranmore Mountain in North Conway are worthy of consideration, but were a smidge too big (in my humble estimation) to be included.
We’ve also lost several small areas in the past few years, such as The Balsams in Dixville Notch (though former Sunday River resort impresario Les Otten plans to reopen and expand this northern jewel at some future date). Tenney Mountain, on the outskirts of Plymouth, is scheduled to resume operations this winter, but that particular hill has had more lives than a snowcat over the past 40 years, so I would recommend playing the “wait and see” card before purchasing any season passes.
Still, don’t assume that all small ski areas are the same, simply because they’re similar in size.
“While all the ski areas in the region certainly compete with each other, they all have their unique identity. Skiing is not a commodity, it’s an experience,” says Blomback. “You go to Best Buy or Walmart and you can compare the pricing on TV sets and things make sense. You can’t do that with a ski area. Whether it’s the staff, the lodges or snow, things are always changing and different.”
So, consider the following a “starter list.” Explore all of New Hampshire’s small ski gems. You won’t be disappointed.
Black Mountain — Jackson
Tucked away up a steep pitch outside the quintessential New England village of Jackson is one of the Granite State’s best-kept secrets: Black Mountain.
To ski this slope is to immerse yourself in New Hampshire’s skiing heritage. Black is the state’s oldest ski hill, having first opened in 1935. Its surroundings — primarily rolling farmland — appear to be pilfered straight from Mr. Peabody’s WABAC (“way back”) Machine.
“We haven’t sold out to corporate conglomerates,” says John Fichera, Black’s general manager. “There’s no need for multiple high-speed lifts — just classic New England skiing; the way it used to be and the way it was meant to be.”
“We’re like ‘Cheers,’” he says, referring to the popular TV sitcom from the 1980s and early ’90s. “When you ski here, everybody knows your name. Comfortable, responsive and just plain fun. No stress, no lines and no crazy skiers, just good, old-fashioned winter recreation.”
The hill’s design is a nostalgic tour de force. Instead of wide-open corduroy carpets, Black offers serpentine trails over 143 acres of terrain. If you take the Summit chair, you better be able to handle your boards, as there’s no escape route from the top. Instead, you’ll uncover a tree-skiing delight, with Carter Notch and
Lower on the hill, from the East Bowl triple, intermediates and beginners have a treasure trove of trails to choose from. (Galloping Goose is a favorite blue, while my girls love Sugarbush and Black Beauty.) Black’s southern exposure means chilly mornings but relatively balmy afternoons.
“We’re unique in that we have maintained the original ski area designs of narrow trails with twists and turns,” says Fichera. “Even on our busiest days when we are at capacity, the lift lines are maybe five minutes long.
“You can ski all the way down and enjoy the peace and solitude of what skiing is all about. You can even find a trail that allows you to ski alone.”
True, conditions at Black are somewhat weather dependent, and it does takes a little more effort to reach compared to other local areas, such as Cranmore and Attitash. The effort, though, is well worth the experience. An added bonus is the revitalized Inn at Whitney’s Farm, located next door.
King Pine/Purity Spring Resort — East Madison
King Pine at Purity Spring Resort, a few miles east of the outlet malls in Conway, is a snow-covered oasis of family adventure. If members of your ski clan have varying skiing and snowboarding abilities, they’ll appreciate King Pine’s 17 trails spread over 48 acres, ranging from the gentle Pokey Pine and the Slow Pokey to the double-diamond Pine Brule and Pitch Pine.
“We have a tradition here, where many have learned to ski or snowboard,” says Prindle. “In fact, it’s often been the case that we see successive generations of families who will claim King Pine as where they learned to ski.
“We recognize that as children grow older the family may gravitate to ‘bigger’ mountains or resorts, but when those children get to be of an age when they begin having children, we know they’ll be back at King Pine to pass on the tradition of winter fun.”
One visit will convince you. The lodge — we’ll call it “rustic” to be kind — is typically a beehive of happy commotion. Three triple-chair lifts keep the skiers moving up and down the hill, but don’t be surprised to find an afternoon migration away from the resort’s western runs, as the sun starts throwing long shadows early here. Shredders will love the air-inducing elements in the Twisted Pine Terrain Park along the
hill’s eastern rim. Before you point the boards downhill, take a moment to take in King Pine’s stunning views to the north, overlooking Purity Lake (which provides ample water for the hill’s highly efficient snowmaking system).
Once you’ve had your fill of the hill, the resort offers a slew of activities to keep everyone moving, including dedicated snowshoe and cross-country ski trails along the lake, the Pine Meadows Tubing Park (with its own tow) and the cozy Tohko Dome skating rink across the street from the ski area. You may need a trailer just to bring all the required gear.
“Both Purity Spring Resort and King Pine Ski Area combined are unique in that ‘small’ does not necessarily equate to being ‘limited,’” says Prindle. “With the variety of slopeside, lakeside and mountainside lodging options at Purity Spring Resort, and the ability to do more than just skiing and snowboarding at King Pine, whether it’s snowtubing, ice-skating, snowshoeing or cross-country skiing, there is a greater opportunity to enjoy a winter weekend or week-long stay.”
Two of the resort’s most popular events — the cardboard box derby and the King Pine Splash Pond contest — are typically scheduled for late March. Whether you’ve enjoyed earlier stays or are visiting King Pine for the first time, you don’t want to miss these signature events.
Pats Peak — Henniker
Convenience, thy name is Pats Peak. A quick drive up I-89 to Route 9, and you’ll see the snow-covered trails to your left (I admit to getting a little adrenaline boost every time I spy the trails from the road if I’m heading further north). But Pats Peak’s “secret sauce,” according to General Manager Kris Blomback, is “service and quality.”
“We may not be the biggest area in the region, but in almost every aspect we punch well above our weight,” says Blomback. “And we think we beat others in snow quality, lodge space, cleanliness of buildings, ski school lessons and, most importantly, our staff. We keep the sport affordable and offer tons of ways to save money and still get out on the slopes.”
What you won’t see at Pats Peak are crowds, or lift lines. Drop off your gear at the free bag check, and hit the slopes. Quickly. With plenty of terrain to choose from — 11 lifts servicing 28 trails and seven glades, not to mention three terrain parks — and plenty of ski school options for every ability level, Pats Peak keeps giving even after your legs give out.
“Pats is super easy to get to, a great location near the population centers of Southern New Hampshire, we make fantastic snow, always run all of our lifts, and our lodges are impeccably clean, serve great food and an après ski scene that can’t be beat,” says Blomback. “What’s not to like?”
There’s even 90% night skiing, which means the hill stays open to 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays (allowing you to revive those quads for a second session), and 9 p.m. most weekdays. The Sled Pub is a great spot for an après ski bite or brew — just go easy if you’re planning to drive back home. Celebrating 60 years of revelry all 2023, Pats Peak is one of New England’s true community hills.
Ragged Mountain — Danbury
Some of my earliest, and fondest, memories of strapping on the boards have their origins at this rustic area. Started as a cooperative by a group of friends in the early 1960s, Ragged Mountain is synonymous with old-time New England skiing. Leave any pretensions in the parking lot — Ragged draws a core following of locals, and they’re quick to sniff out any folks putting on airs.
“My favorite part of Ragged is that you feel at home here. Both the staff and the resort are accommodating with a friendly vibe,” says Erik Barnes, Ragged Mountain’s general manager. “Nothing is over the top to make you feel out of place. There’s no confusion on where to go or who to talk with. We’re all happy that the guests have come to experience Ragged and what it has to offer.”
What you’ll discover here is a warm, inviting atmosphere as genuine as a Yankee farmer. There’s also some wonderful ski terrain, explaining why Ragged was dubbed “The Alta of the East” after the legendary no-frills Utah resort. Two brothers — Al and Walter Endriunas — revived Ragged in the mid-1980s when they bought the rundown area. With plenty of undeveloped terrain and an ample water supply for snowmaking, they began expanding.
Today, Ragged has 55 trails, with 95% snowmaking coverage. Add a solid grooming crew (which has mastered the art of knowing when to leave well enough alone), and Ragged offers a superb day on the slopes.
“You can typically get eight laps in by noon time, grab lunch and head back out,” says Barnes. “Or grab eight in the afternoon and grab a drink at the end of the day. But 1,250 feet of vertical each run can tucker you out pretty quick, especially if we had a snowstorm and you’re in the trees.
“The other part is all of the terrain comes back to the base area. Which is fantastic for families to turn their kids loose to ski or ride and not get lost by winding up at a different base area.”
Ragged doesn’t have night skiing, but it’s a small price to pay for authenticity. With more than 220 acres (including glade terrain) and non-existent lift lines, you’ll get your fill before sundown. For the really hardy skier, skip the lift lines altogether with a $10 uphill ticket.
Gunstock Mountain Resort — Gilford
At this county-owned area in central New Hampshire, just minutes north of Concord, you’ll find spectacular views of Lake Winnipesaukee (especially from the Flintlock trail) stretching all the way north on a clear day to Mount Washington.
“Gunstock is just a great hill that’s close to a larger population base,” says Tom Day, the resort’s general manager. “We still have some narrow, winding New England-type trails, not the wide, crowded highway trails.
“It’s also the home mountain to all of Belknap County, which has four or five generations of families that skied here together.”
That lineage is important, exemplifying Gunstock’s rich ski history, beginning with New England’s oldest ski club (now known as the Gunstock Ski Club, the Winnipesaukee Ski Club was first established in 1917). The Belknap Mountain Recreation Area, as Gunstock was originally named, was birthed during the Great Depression, when widespread unemployment prompted President Franklin D. Roosevelt to create the Works Progress Administration to fund state and local projects. The federal government matched every local dollar raised with six dollars, and Gunstock opened in 1936 with a lodge, a chairlift, four rope tows and four miles of terrain.
A year later, Gunstock unveiled the Northeast’s first chairlift (one which I had the distinct pleasure of falling off of in the late 1960s). In the past three years, thanks to a leadership team spearheaded by Day and former Gunstock commissioner Gary Kiedaisch (who revitalized Stowe in Vermont), Gunstock is enjoying a renaissance of sorts (following an unsavory power struggle this past summer, which saw Day and his top staff resign temporarily).
The toughest decision you’ll have at Gunstock, as you look out over the hill’s 227 acres and 48 trails, is what to ski first. Don’t be shy about asking a lift attendant or any other Gunstock employee for suggestions. With an employee return rate of more than 80%, Gunstock staff members are obviously familiar with the mountain, and are more than happy to share their know-how. That’s an enormous benefit for visitors, especially those dropping by for the first time. (Pro tip: Gunstock’s only detachable lift, Panorama, and the trails that run from it, are the first on the hill to draw a crowd.)
Still, if you crave the old-school vibe at Gunstock, go soon. The resort’s Master Plan, which narrowly avoided getting derailed during last summer’s contretemps, calls for adding four more acres of terrain, replacing the Tiger and Ramrod lifts with a detachable quad, and possibly replacing the Panorama Pub with a new mountaintop restaurant. Future plans include an Eastside Expansion, with more than 70 acres of new terrain (11 trails) and a new detachable lift, enough to accommodate another 1,000 skiers and snowboarders daily. The Alpine Ridge Expansion proposes another 11 trails (generally more advanced terrain) over 37 acres. The hope, of course, is that Gunstock can grow without sacrificing its charm. That’s not an easy task.
For a change of pace (and incline), Gunstock also has 30 groomed Nordic trails (22 kilometers) that are multi-use for cross-country skiers, fat bikers and skijoring.
Crotched Mountain — Bennington
Admittedly, I had reservations about including this fun little hill in southern New Hampshire, since it’s now part of Vail’s assortment of resorts (which also includes Sunapee, Wildcat and Attitash). By extension, Crotched should have access to the deep pockets that other small areas don’t have. However, Vail has proven to be a somewhat schizophrenic owner (judging from the protests from Wildcat and Attitash patrons last winter), so I’ll let Crotched Mountain stand on its own merits.
Like many small areas without great access to urban centers, Crotched has gone through its ups and downs over the decades, with a convoluted history that helps explain its significant starts and stops. The original ski hill, which opened in 1964, was actually located around the corner, on the northeast side of the hill in Francestown. The current site, on the mountain’s north face, was unveiled in 1970, first as Onset and subsequently renamed Bobcat. The two areas combined in 1980 and ran under the Crotched Mountain banner until closing up shop in 1989.
The Midwest-based Peak Resorts rescued the mountain from the New England Lost Ski Area Project scrap heap in 2002. The company pumped roughly $9 million into the hill, including construction of a new lodge, reconfiguring the trail system and improving snowmaking, grooming and trail lighting capabilities. Crotched re-opened the following year, and has slowly re-established itself in the southern portion of the Granite State. When Vail purchased Wildcat and Attitash, Crotched was included in the sale.
“Crotched is always evolving and the resort team takes pride in having the resort’s amazing snow, impeccable grooming, open and spacious facilities and highly regarded lesson programs,” says general manager Sue Donnelly. “Crotched has that local charm with a big mountain feel once you take a few runs. It truly is a hidden gem.”
Here’s what awaits skiers and snowboarders today: A detachable high-speed chairlift takes visitors from the base to the true summit in under four minutes. The hill now boasts a total of just about 1,000 vertical feet spread over 100 acres of terrain. There are a total of 25 trails, four glade areas and three terrain parks, with a breakdown of 28% beginner, 40% intermediate and 32% expert (though even the “black diamond” trails are on the tame side).
The trails, in broad terms, are all fairly user friendly. That’s a credit to Crotched’s snowmaking system, which does a respectable job blanketing every trail and park. Add a solid grooming fleet, and Crotched cultivates a solid base early and keeps it through the season.
“Another thing to highlight is our premier night skiing option with 100% of our trails illuminated,” says Donnelly. “We also have specially designed racing and freestyle teams offering world-class training from dedicated coaches.”