New Hampshire Is Ski Country
It’s time you explored some of the most versatile and scenic ski country that’s right in our back yard.
On the slopes at Bretton Woods. Photo courtesy Bretton Woods/Omni Mount Washington Resort
Vermont has cows. Maine has lobsters. But New Hampshire? Why, we’ve got mountains, of course — the biggest ones in the Northeast. Not for nothing are they called the White Mountains — some say they were named by European sailors who saw the snow-capped peaks glistening from afar. Had Scandinavians, those inveterate skiers, been the first Europeans to settle in what we call New England, perhaps rather than opting for Plymouth or Strawbery Banke, they would have hastened inland to this magical realm of notches, crags and snow-clad slopes. We now know it as some of the best, most versatile and most scenic ski country anywhere.
Although Norwegian immigrants were cross-country skiing around Berlin by the 1870s, skiing became a really big deal in New Hampshire only after 1939, when Conway-born businessman Harvey Gibson prevailed upon the Nazi government to release Austrian ski instructor Hannes Schneider, then under house arrest for his non-cooperation with Germany’s annexation of Austria, and allow him to relocate here. Anyone versed in the history of alpine skiing understands how momentous this was.
In his youth, Schneider had been the pioneer of the nascent sport — he was to downhill skiing what Paul Bunyan was to logging, only real. In bringing him to New Hampshire, Gibson gave Granite State skiers an opportunity to drink straight from the source. And we’ve drunk deeply.
By the skiing equivalent of apostolic succession, over the last century a rich, colorful and unique ski culture has taken shape here. It continues to morph as the sport and its lifestyle evolve. But as the very name of our state implies, what is new here is never uninformed by a backward glance toward where we’ve come from — in New Hampshire, “tradition and innovation” is more than a marketing slogan.
Contours of a Culture
Few athletic pursuits have a culture the way skiing does. Otto Schniebs, the celebrated Dartmouth coach, famously said, “Skiing is not just a sport, but a way of life.” In 1998, sliding down mountainsides on planks became the state’s official sport. “Ski Free or Die” stickers are nearly as ubiquitous as summertime’s motorcycles.
Travel to Lincoln or North Conway, and you get a palpable sense of the culture’s importance. Ski shops line the roadsides, restaurant and hotel walls are hung with autographed portraits of celebrated winter athletes and maps of ski trails resembling white lace carelessly cast on the flanks of spruce-studded mountains.
“Skiing in New Hampshire is different,” says Jessyca Keeler, executive director of Ski NH. “I think it’s mostly the mountains. They’re not like in Maine or Vermont. They’re so … rugged. The marketing offices don’t like us using that word. They prefer ‘dramatic,’ ‘bold,’ ‘awe-inspiring’ — all of which are also accurate. But there’s no getting around it: our mountains are rugged.”
Despite this ruggedness, there has traditionally been a rustic elegance associated with skiing in the Mount Washington Valley (once genteelly dubbed “the Eastern Slope”) in particular. Old promotional posters capture this. And the classic designs of Jackson ski apparel maker Carroll Reed were trendsetting in 20th-century ski fashion.
Nor should the ruggedness scare off newbies. Our mountains are not inaccessible or impossibly challenging. Opportunities abound for skiers of all levels.
But ski culture is as much about stories as place. Stories are everywhere in these hills, as tales told, but also in the historic lodges, trails, towns and quirky ski lifts. The mountains themselves — with their bold dividing lines (north and south of the notches, the Mount Washington Valley vs. the Western Whites) — tell stories too and breed micro-cultures.
After the storied summits, it is people who create the distinctive atmosphere. In addition to “locals” from Maine and New Hampshire, Massachusetts is the feeder of the tourism economy and many of our ski scene’s founders had strong Boston ties. Here you find a heady distillation of New England.
The views at Wildcat are hard to beat. Photo courtesy Wildcat Mountain
While not the oldest, Wildcat — the Lion of the North — is the most old-school of New Hampshire’s ski areas. No other “resort” emanates our state’s character quite so neatly. Sprawling down the northwest side of one of New Hampshire’s 4,000-footers, smack across Pinkham Notch from Mount Washington, it also affords what Ski magazine readers consider the best scenery in the East.
Although not developed commercially until the 1950s, Wildcat as a ski spot dates to 1933, when Charley Proctor laid out a racing trail that was cut by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Some of New Hampshire’s all-time boldest skiers were behind the resort’s design and development. To this day, Wildcat remains a skier’s ski area.
“You could arguably call this place one of the single best trail pods in America,” writes ski reporter Jim Kenney, “since the entire 47-trail layout can be accessed by the Wildcat Express Quad chair.” That lift is also the fastest and longest detachable quad in the state. The Polecat Trail, at nearly three miles, is our longest ski trail and the perfect place for advanced beginners to hone their skills. It is widely regarded as one of the most scenic ski trails around. Wildcat’s snow cover also lasts longer than at any other Granite State resort.
Early birds will enjoy a hearty breakfast at neighboring Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, whose lodge has an old-fashioned feel, with ski history so thick in the air you can smell it. Getting in touch with these ghosts is part of the experience and the perfect way to fuel up for a hard day of skiing at Wildcat (where the ghost of the famous gondola, gone almost 20 years now, persists as a powerful symbol).
If Wildcat proves too wild, lift tickets can be used interchangeably at cushier Attitash.
Bretton Woods. Photo courtesy Bretton Woods/Omni Mount Washington Resort
While Wildcat offers visitors a Spartan ambience, Bretton Woods is for bon vivants. Not by accident was the 1944 gathering of dignitaries that established the World Bank and the IMF held here.
Situated across the Presidential Range from Wildcat, Bretton Woods commands a view not only of the massif’s abrupt western slope, but also of the grandest of the Northeast’s grand hotels. Before 1999, the Mount Washington Hotel (now officially the Omni Mount Washington Resort) remained closed in winter — but no more. The recently renovated resort boasts a 25,000-square-foot spa and special packages for guests wanting to ski across the way.
The setting is nothing if not marvelous. When Abel Crawford launched American alpine tourism two centuries ago, he did it here. The local scenery is unrivaled — be sure to stop for a peek at the Silver Cascade, Frankenstein Cliff and Arethusa Falls (those splotches of color are ice climbers) if you arrive from the south. Bretton Woods is also centrally located for those wishing to sample the offerings of both the Mount Washington Valley and the Franconia Notch area. For an extra thrill, don’t miss the panoramic zip-line tour, open year-round.
But if you think Bretton Woods is just luxe and leisure, you are sorely mistaken. New Hampshire’s largest ski area offers a wide spectrum of terrain for all levels. Ski magazine calls it the best grooming in the east and few mountains are as beloved by snowsports novices.
Cranmore is recognized for its quality family programs. Photo by Ernie Mills/Cranmore Mountain
Hannes Schneider brought his Arlberg technique to Cranmore in 1939. With its distinctive terrain-based approach — which develops confidence, comfort and balance in one’s movement over pitched and slippery surfaces — this resort remains an innovator in winning converts to the sport. It is among the top five resorts in the East for the quality of its family programs, and proximity to North Conway means lots of off-hill activities. Cranapalooza and the Hannes Schneider Meister Cup are two annual events worth putting on your calendar.
Black Mountain, which began offering lift-served skiing in 1935 with the installment of its overhead cable tow (now a J-bar, it is the oldest operating lift in New England), is the old man of the New Hampshire ski scene. Benno Rybizka, one of Schneider’s protégés, landed here in 1937. As one of a tiny number of New England resorts whose slopes face south, it may also be the state’s sunniest ski spot.
While not in the Whites, Gunstock also ranks among the state’s oldest ski areas. Looking north over the island-speckled expanse of Lake Winnipesaukee, its views are second only to Wildcat’s. It is one of Snow East magazine’s top 10 overall favorite resorts and number two for night skiing nationwide, according to Snowbound. Parenting Magazine chose it as its Family Favorite Ski Resort in 2014. It is also the closest major ski area to Boston.
The Aerial Tramway at Cannon Mountain in Franconia. Photo by Greg Keeler/Cannon Mt.
Offering “big mountain skiing at a small mountain price,” Cannon has the most vertical drop (2,330 ft.) in New Hampshire. It consistently rates among the East’s top resorts for value, challenge, lift service, accessibility and overall satisfaction. Everyday prices are among the most affordable, with jaw-dropping discounts for savvy Granite Staters.
Steep and fast, Cannon is a racer’s mountain with serious attitude. It part-hosted the first US-held World Cup in 1967. And champion racer Bode Miller grew up here. Cannon’s no-nonsense vibe (and refreshing absence of commercial sprawl) will remind visitors of Wildcat, but I-93 makes it a handier proposition for southern daytrippers.
Six miles west is Sugar Hill, a Vermont-toned reminder of bygone days and home to the first ski school in the US. Nowadays, skiing has shifted to Cannon, but you can enjoy breakfast in the 1830s atmosphere of Polly’s Pancake Parlor (Thursday to Sunday). Their simply crafted pancakes, served alongside New Hampshire-cured breakfast meats, will give you the zip you need to tackle Cannon’s bold pitches or slice through the Mittersill glades.
The Ski Towns
What do you do with those long winter evenings when you’ve skied until your legs are wobbly? Ski towns are as important as the resorts themselves and New Hampshire vaunts some top-notch exemplars. Most were mountain towns in their own right long before skiing came along.
North Conway calls itself “the birthplace of American skiing.” The hub of the Mount Washington Valley boasts four major resorts within 30 minutes. In 2012, National Geographic ranked it among the world’s 25 best ski towns. Famous for its many outlets, this is a place where you can shop till you drop. Its array of restaurants, bars and lodging will leave you spoiled for choice.
Harvey Gibson acquired the iconic Eastern Slope Inn in 1937 as part of his successful effort to make North Conway a major skiing destination. Today it offers stay-and-play packages paired with Cranmore, Attitash and Wildcat. It’s worth quitting early one day to hit the Stonehurst Manor for a fireside fondue in their Library Lounge. Cross-country skiers can come as they are, with easy access off the Mount Washington Valley Ski Touring Foundation trails.
For those favoring the Franconia Notch area, Lincoln is the place. The erstwhile logging town provides everything a winter sports enthusiast could want, not least hassle-free access to Loon and Cannon. With its fireplace, live music and seasonal microbrews, Woodstock Inn is the perfect place to unwind after a day in the snow. They offer half-priced appetizers and discounted pints between 3 and 5 p.m.
If quaintness and a dash of gentility are more your speed, Jackson is nestled like a picture-book illustration halfway between Pinkham Notch and North Conway offering a mecca for quiet-seeking cross-country enthusiasts. Should the urge to party come calling, however, never fear: two of the state’s finest après-ski venues are nearby. Tuesday’s Hoot Night at the Wildcat Tavern runs late and brings the Valley’s best musical talent together under one roof. The Red Parka Pub, just down the road in Glen, is a local institution. Mondays are open-mic nights.
If you want an authentic taste of the North Country, Littleton and Gorham, a few miles north, are your best bet. Easily reached off both I-93 and I-91, Littleton is convenient to Cannon and Bretton Woods. Be sure to stop in at the country’s oldest ski shop, Lahout’s, whose charm is undiminished since it opened its doors in 1920. Thayers Inn, likely the oldest hotel building in the White Mountains, still offers lodging today, including stay and ski specials with Cannon.
Gorham is literally surrounded by wilderness. Award-winning Mount Washington Bed and Breakfast is in Shelburne, east of town, as is Philbrook Farm Inn, the “oldest hotel in the United States to be managed by the same family at the same site.” With more conventional accommodation options too, Gorham makes a convenient alternative for Wildcat skiers. Nordic lovers will find the spectacular Great Glen Trails just 10 minutes south.
So whether you’re new to skiing or have been sliding across the snow for as long as you can remember, New Hampshire’s slopes and mountain towns have something for everyone — and there’s always more to discover. Block out a few days this winter and head up to the hills where the air is fresh. Stretch out your legs, take in the view, click into your skis and feel the rush of “flight without wings.”
Savor and relax. Linger by the fireplace, perhaps, and watch the flames. Finally, when it comes, welcome sweet sleep so you can get up and do it all over again the next day.
This is what skiing is all about. This is winter in New Hampshire.
Steve DeDenedictis. Photo courtesy of Bretton Woods/Omni Mt. Washington Resort
Learn to Ski
Want to start skiing but don't know where to begin? Let Steve DeBenedictis, the director at Snowsports School at Bretton Woods, help you get on your way to learning to ski.
Q&A with Steve DeBenedictis
When did you start skiing?
Not until 20.
How long have you been instructing?
About 35 years.
What’s the most important thing skiers can learn their first lesson?
That skiing is fun and it’s a lifetime sport. All you need is a friend to go with. It’s not like football, where you need 21 other people.
Looking back on your development as a skier, is there anything you had to figure out on your own that made you think, “Gee, I wish someone had taught me that”?
I never took lessons, but when I first became affiliated with a ski school I noticed several less-than-effective habits that needed correcting. So it pays to start with some lessons, because it’s easier to build new skills than to unlearn bad habits. Trial and error is mostly error.
If you had to pick two New Hampshire ski areas for beginners, what would they be?
Cranmore and Bretton Woods, and not because I work here. We have the best trails for beginners not only in New Hampshire, but in the Northeast. It’s our strength.
Best intermediate area?
Best expert area?
Wildcat — hands down. I still think it’s my favorite place to ski.
What are some important differences between learning to ski as a kid and learning as an adult?
For kids it’s a great big, white playground. They love sliding around on the snow. Adults are more hesitant. They tend to be afraid of hurting themselves. Lessons are a big help in overcoming this fear. The equipment today makes the sport much safer and it’s easier than ever to acquire the skills of skiing. The boots are warmer and more comfortable. Rockered skis are easier to use. And you don’t have to be a triathlete — just reasonably fit. I’ve taught people who weren’t athletic at all.
What should people look for in a ski school?
You want a place to give you as much specific information as possible before you start your lessons. The school needs to be a trusted resource. They should provide practical information, like what kind of clothes to wear, what to expect and so on. That way no time is wasted in your first lesson.
What makes skiing in New Hampshire special?
The scenery is beautiful and most of our areas are relatively easy to travel to. The personalities are different here too — more down-to-earth than elsewhere. You feel like you can trust people.
If you could spend a day skiing with anyone, who would it be?
Ted Ligety [two-time Olympic gold medalist].
Any brand-new things we should know about?
At Bretton Woods, we’re learning about the amount of time required to make a good skier while making sure we address everything that’s necessary. We’re also working on improving access and customer service to make the whole process as smooth as possible. The reality is we’re up against Disney World.