On the road again
Drop everything, grab the gear and enjoy our driving tour of our picks for New England's Best Day Trips
by Brion O'Connor/
The skiing day trip is the close cousin of that great American tradition, the Road Trip. For me, the sense of immediacy always has been the most alluring aspect of a day trip, the “drop everything” flavor of hearing a good forecast, putting the rest of our schedule on hold, pulling the boots and boards out of the closet, fueling up the car and hitting the road at the crack of dawn (or earlier).
Then, after a long day on the hill — simply because we wanted to squeeze every minute out of the day, and every penny out of every dollar we spent — we’d drive back home, exhausted but with a quiet exhilaration keeping us wide awake, well after sundown.
These days, economic realities have forced many families to curtail their skiing adventures, which means Mom and Dad often resort to cherry-picking the days they decide to round up the family to hit the slopes. That’s not necessarily a bad thing from a consumer point of view. Particularly this winter, with the Backyard Effect (no snow in our own backyards) discouraging many folks from making plans for a multiday winter getaway, the day-trippers are coming out of the woodwork as word gets out about the great conditions in ski country.
Resorts managers, cognizant of the fact that folks are holding their ski cards close to the vest, are offering a number of great one-day deals to entice the day-tripper. When you consider how much you can save by planning around a full day of skiing (including nights), and maybe forego the on-mountain lodging expense, the day trip sounds pretty attractive. And you’ve got plenty of choices throughout New England.
Night skiing wasn’t a must to make our list, but it definitely was a plus because it stretches the day, giving everyone a little more flexibility regarding travel times.
So, without further ado, here are some our top picks for day-trip destinations. If you don’t see your favorite hills, don’t get annoyed. With a finite amount of editorial real estate, we opted for hills with fewer accommodations, therefore lending themselves to the day trip. You won’t find top-flight resorts such as Loon, Killington, Waterville Valley, Cranmore, Attitash/Bear Peak, Sunday River, Sugarloaf, Jay Peak, Stratton, Mount Snow, Okemo, Stowe, Smuggler’s Notch and Sugarbush. Rest assured, though, that those areas, just like the ones below, welcome the day-tripper. Just arrive early if you want to get a good parking spot!
From Boston (local)
Bradford, Haverhill, Mass. — Bradford is reminiscent of a safe, family neighborhood, where kids can sow their adventurous oats while their parents can relax, knowing that the youngsters rarely are out of sight. Situated on Boston’s North Shore close to the New Hampshire border, Bradford does a tremendous job with after-school programs, introducing hundreds of children to the sport every year. Plus, their 50-plus years of experience has helped them not only survive but thrive. A nice, broad hill featuring 100 percent snowmaking on 13 trails, Bradford is fully lit for night skiing (groomers smooth out the trails from 4:30 to 6 p.m., ensuring optimum conditions). skibradford.com
Blue Hills Reservation, Canton, Mass. — You won’t find crazy chutes or intimidating steeps, but you’ll appreciate Blue Hills for its tremendous staff that genuinely takes pride in encouraging the next generation. That means top-notch ski school and camp programs, as well as a full-service rental center. For Mom and Dad juggling kids and the stress of work, the 60 acres of Blue Hills is wonderfully simple to navigate. From the summit chair, in addition to great views of the Boston skyline, Blue Hills offers a number of trail choices that will suit any ability level, from the meandering Sonya to the spacious (but steeper) Big Blue. With the ski area open Monday through Saturday until 9, night skiing on half the hill and snowmaking across 80 percent, this enjoyable little area will leave you feeling anything but blue. ski-bluehills.com
Nashoba Valley, Westford, Mass. — If amenities and atmosphere can compensate for altitude, then Nashoba Valley has a winning combination. From its acclaimed after-school programs to a long-running and boisterous adult night racing league, the area best known for producing U.S. Ski Team stalwart Pam Fletcher has grown up, while not getting bigger. Just 25 miles from Beantown, Nashoba Valley is easy to get to, and easy to get used to. The 240 feet of vertical won’t induce any bouts of vertigo, but you’d be surprised how many turns you can snap off amid the evergreens on these well-maintained trails. With an uphill capacity of more than 11,000 skiers an hour, you won’t have to wait long to get back to the summit. Since Nashoba Valley stays open every night until 10 (with 100 percent lighting coverage), chances are your legs will fatigue before the lights dim. skinashoba.com
Wachusett, Princeton, Mass. — Wachusett, an Algonquin Indian word meaning “Great Hill,” translates to “Great Escape” for Boston skiers. Fifty miles west of Boston, this family-run resort is one of the most accessible and versatile in the Northeast. The Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps cut the first ski trails on Wachusett Mountain in the 1930s, and the site was selected with care. The panoramic, 360-degree vistas from the summit — the state’s highest eastern point — include a nice view of Boston. Though a small mountain, Wachusett skis big. Each of the 22 trails (covering 110 acres) has its own personality, from the expert 10th Mountain Trail (a nice tribute to the Army’s 10th Mountain Division) to the wide and quick Conifer Connection and the even-tempered Ralph’s Run. With exceptional snowmaking and groomers, conditions are super day and night (night skiing is available on 18 trails). wachusett.com
Ski Ward, Shrewsbury, Mass. — With all the talk about the Wall Street fiasco hurting folks on Main Street, it’s nice to know there’s relief for your skiing dollar on Main Street in Shrewsbury. With snowmaking blanketing 90 percent of Ski Ward’s 10 acres, conditions generally are dependable. Winters Magic gets bumped up underneath Ski Ward’s triple chair, providing an additional challenge for skiers and a diversion for spectators. The hill’s dedicated race course — White Out — is a smooth, blue-square cruiser, while East Bowl, Nor’ Easta and Richie’s Ravine are rated “difficult” but are manageable for most intermediates. Snow Day is a blue trail that skirts around these trails, if you want a smoother option. skiward.com
From Boston (points north, I-95 and Route 16)
King Pine, East Madison, N.H. — King Pine at Purity Spring Resort, a few miles east of the outlet malls in Conway, is an oasis of peace and quiet for families. 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. Before you point the boards downhill, take a moment to take in King Pine’s stunning views to the north, overlooking Purity Lake (and the resort’s cross-country trail network) and the cozy Tokho Dome skating rink. For more variety, the resort offers dedicated snowshoe and cross-country ski trails, the Pine Meadows Tubing Park (with its own tow) and the skating rink. You may need a trailer just to bring the additional gear. kingpine.com
Black Mountain, Jackson, N.H. — Tucked away up a steep pitch behind the quintessential New England village of Jackson is one of the Granite State’s best-kept secrets — Black Mountain. This slope promotes itself as “classic New England skiing,” and it backs up the claim. For starters, at 76, Black is the state’s oldest ski hill. Its surroundings — primarily rolling farmland — appear to be pilfered straight from Mr. Peabody’s WABAC (“way back”) Machine. Plus, the design of the hill itself is a nostalgic tour de force. Instead of wide-open corduroy carpets, Black offers tight, twisting trails over 143 acres of terrain. If you take the Summit chair, you better be able to handle your boards, because there’s no escape route from the top. Instead, you’ll uncover a tree-skiing delight, with Carter Notch and Lostbo glades. True, the conditions at Black are somewhat weather-dependent, and it does takes a little more effort to reach compared to other exceptional local areas, such as Cranmore and Attitash/Bear Peak. The effort, though, is well worth the experience. blackmt.com
Shawnee Peak, Bridgton, Maine — With brand marketing all the rage, Shawnee Peak never will reclaim its original name. That’s a shame. Pleasant Mountain was the ideal sobriquet for this delightful-yet-challenging area just a snowball’s throw from New Hampshire. For longtime fans who’ve developed a sense of ownership in Pleasant Mountain over seven decades, Shawnee Peak has carved an ideal niche between huge resorts and local rope tows. The trails run on the steep side but are well groomed. Carving big, alpine turns is a blast. Upper and Lower Appalachian, fast cruising trails that hug the hill’s east edge, are recognized among the best in New England. Glade skiing in Sherwood Forest is another favorite. Shawnee also boasts one of New England’s largest night-skiing facilities, with top-to-bottom lights on 19 of the area’s 40 trails (afternoon grooming ensures good conditions). shawneepeak.com
From New York City
Catamount, South Egremont, Mass. — This fabulous hill, which actually straddles the state line dividing New York and Massachusetts, recently celebrated its 70th anniversary since opening in 1939. Over the past few years, Catamount has increased snowmaking by 30 percent (the area now boasts 99 percent coverage) and added to the grooming fleet, which should help keep even more snow cover on this area’s steep-but-smooth runs. So what you’ve got today is a hefty 1,000 feet of vertical featuring 33 trails and park areas spread over almost 120 acres of terrain. Add night skiing on 15 trails and terrain parks (more than four miles in all), and you’ve got great choices morning, noon, and night. catamountski.com
Bromley Mountain, Manchester, Vt. — For something a little more intimate, take the clan to one of Vermont’s oldest ski areas, Bromley Mountain in Manchester Center. Founded back in 1936, Bromley warms the nostalgic heart, with 44 classically carved trails. This is where I got back to skiing basics by learning to telemark with the crew from Dickie Hall’s North American Telemark Organization. The vertical isn’t huge (a shade over 1,300 feet), but the trails offer a nice mix. The east-side runs can be challenging, while those on the mountain’s western flank are more fun and forgiving — another plus from the family perspective. To top it off, the programs for children, including the Kids’ Center and Mighty Mites club, are exceptional. bromley.com
Ski Butternut, Great Barrington, Mass. — Over the past few years, the area formerly known as Butternut Basin has more than doubled its snowmaking capabilities, making sure that all of its 22 user-friendly trails (covering 110 acres of terrain) got ample coverage. By adding three new Magic Carpets, this family-friendly area guarantees that youngsters and first-timers will spend more time learning to make turns, and less time standing around waiting. That same principle holds for the Progression Park, a snowboarding park specifically designed to help shredders learn the tricks of the snowboard trade gradually. For something different, check out the tubing park. skibutternut.com
Mohawk Mountain, Cornwall, Conn. — Mohawk Mountain in northwest Connecticut gets a special nod as the birthplace of snowmaking. Skiing Hall of Fame member Walt Schoenknecht opened Mohawk in 1947. The following winter, Schoenknecht invented snowmaking, which essentially saved the sport. Can you imagine skiing anywhere in New England (outside of Tuckerman’s Ravine) without the man-made stuff? Today, Mohawk offers 25 trails comprising 107 acres (serviced by seven lifts) over 650 feet of vertical, with snowmaking covering 95 percent of the hill. There’s also night skiing on 12 trails, extending your day. mohawkmtn.com
Berkshire East, Charlemont, Mass. — Berkshire East near Pittsfield, in western Massachusetts, boasts a 1,200-foot vertical from its 1,840-foot peak, but that doesn’t begin to tell the whole story of this wind-powered hill. First opened a half-century ago as Thunder Mountain, Berkshire East certainly can bring the noise. Simply put, it’s all about the pitch. The Summit Triple Express services the best of Berkshire East, a series of steep double black (Tomahawk and Beast) and black diamond runs (Flying Cloud, Lift Line, Jug and Upper Competition) that will energize your fast-twitch muscles. Each has a long run-out back to the base of the lift (think a junior Jay Peak), giving those same muscles a chance to work out the lactic acid before the next run. berkshireeast.com
Jiminy Peak, Hancock, Mass. — Short, steep and sweet. That sums up this superb resort in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts. The “bowl” at Jiminy Peak boasts 44 trails over 170 acres of terrain (almost half are lit for night skiing), plus a true base village. Now add the outstanding lift capacity — one six-passenger high-speed summit lift, two quad-chair lifts, three triple-chair lifts, and one double-chair lift — and the area starts to sound like your basic uber resort. Yet Jiminy Peak strikes a neat balance between big mountain perks and small area atmosphere. That’s a real testament to the mountain, and the resort staff. Mother Nature even appears to have jumped on the Jiminy bandwagon, with an annual snowfall of nearly 100 inches (complemented by a first-rate snowmaking system). The lift system spreads out the skiers, and the trail network truly offers something for everyone, from three diverse terrain parks, dedicated bump runs, fast, wide cruisers and smooth, gentle beginner slopes. jiminypeak.com
From Concord, N.H.
Finally, for my money, the Day Trip Ski Capital of New England also happens to be the capital of the Granite State. Centrally located at the intersection of two beautifully maintained highways, Interstates 93 and 89, Concord gives skiers tremendous access to hills north and west. In fact, I have friends in the Greater Boston area who routinely take their families to Concord, find economical accommodations and then select the areas that look to have the best conditions. Really, does it get any better than that?
Pats Peak, Henniker, N.H. — 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 (don’t you just love that little adrenalin boost every time you see the trails from the road?). What you won’t find at Pat’s 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 — 10 lifts servicing 22 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. There’s even 100 percent 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 have to drive back home. patspeak.com
Gunstock, Gilford, N.H. — At this under-appreciated hill 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 also has a 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) and highlighted by the Northeast’s first chairlift, unveiled in 1937. In the past decade, thanks to the infusion of new capital, Gunstock is enjoying a renaissance of sorts. The toughest decision you’ll have at Gunstock, as you look up at the hill, 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 percent, Gunstock staff members obviously are 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. gunstock.com
Cannon Mountain, Franconia, N.H. — This is my nostalgic choice, because when I was a teenager in Manchester, Cannon was the mecca. For many, it still is. The state-owned area won’t wow you with over-the-top amenities, but you simply can’t duplicate the terrain. The mountain a straight shot up I-93 (yes, you have to pass Gunstock, Loon and Waterville), so make sure you keep an eye on the speedometer. At Cannon, you’ll want to check your speed too — it’s easy to get cranking on the state’s longest vertical drop (2,180 feet) from the 4,080-foot summit. Combined with Mittersill’s 86 acres of backcountry skiing, Cannon offers more than 260 acres of skiable terrain (23 miles!) over 72 trails and glades. Ten lifts, including the historic 70-person Aerial Tramway, scoots 11,000 skiers and boarders up the hill every hour. Add 97 percent snowmaking over Cannon’s 168 acres, and you’ve got all the ingredients for an epic ski day trip. cannonmt.com
Ragged Mountain, Danbury, N.H. — Started by a group of friends in the early 1960s, Ragged is synonymous with old-time New England skiing. Leave any pretensions in the parking lot — Ragged draws a core following of locals, and they don’t take kindly to folks putting on airs. Instead, you’ll find a warm, inviting atmosphere as genuine as a Yankee farmer. Plus some wonderful ski terrain, explaining why Ragged was dubbed “The Alta of the East” after the epic, no-frills Utah resort. Today, Ragged has 55 trails, with 95 percent 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. The area 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. raggedmountainresort.com
Suicide Six, Woodstock, Vt. — On the outside of our Concord day-trip bubble, just a few miles outside center Woodstock — the quintessential Green Mountain enclave — is a ski hill teeming with history and charm, but not overrun with skiers. Suicide Six isn’t the most inviting moniker, but don’t let that dissuade you. According to legend, the name was born when founder Bunny Bertram and some buddies were scouting local hills in the 1930s, looking to build a new ski run. At the top of Hill No. 6, the group peered down the slope, and one of Bertram’s friends stated, “It would be suicide to ski down that.” Naturally, that’s where Bertram carved his new ski area in 1937, and the name stuck. By today’s standards, Suicide Six isn’t all that intimidating, though there are a few precipitous pitches, including an aptly named run called The Face. However, most of the 23 trails, covering more than 100 acres, are very user-friendly, especially for youngsters, thanks to state-of-the art grooming and solid snowmaking. The lodge, which doubles as a ski museum, also is one of the most comfortable in New England. woodstockinn.com
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of New England Ski Journal.
Brion O’Connor can be reached at email@example.com