When I arrived at Cranmore Mountain in North Conway, New Hampshire, I stared in awe at the peak, which seemed to tower above the Mount Washington Valley. As a 14-year-old southern New Jersey native who spent most days skateboarding with the neighborhood kids, I had never tried skiing or snowboarding, save for a few attempts at riding my sled while standing up on a nearby 15-vertical-foot slope. They were mystical sports, present in my life only through movies and photos.
But on that bluebird day in 2002, the trajectory of my life changed. As soon as my first lesson concluded and I was set free, knowing little more than how to strap my boots into my snowboard bindings, I was attempting turns, throwing myself off drops and bumps, frequently landing face-first in the snow. And I was always smiling.
Eighteen years later, living just minutes from Cranmore Mountain, I’ve learned my experience isn’t unique, although most valley natives had their first Cranmore experience at a much younger age.
“I started going to Cranmore with my grandmother when I was 3 years old,” said Parker Haynes, a Mount Washington Valley native who now has 28 years of skiing at Cranmore under his belt. “It had a super local feel — there was a big community there. Cranmore was really like a family. And I felt like I was a part of that family.”
Cranmore’s history dates back much further than our relationship with the mountain and sport.
While skiing in the U.S. arguably began with the Nansen Ski Club, Peckett’s on Sugar Hill, and the Civilian Conservation Corps’ cutting of the Richard Taft Trail on Cannon Mountain, which was the country’s first ski-specific downhill trail, North Conway’s rise to fame as a ski destination started with the acquisition of Cranmore (known as Lookout Mountain at the time) by Harvey Gibson in 1937.
Gibson, a North Conway native developer and businessman, opened the mountain with a rope tow to the 1,680-foot summit for the 1937-38 ski season. By the following season, the infamous Skimobile — a sit-down-style lift — was constructed to the mountain’s midway point. At the time, such a lift was cutting-edge technology and was one of only three lifts in the state that allowed riders to be seated.
Local historian and ski journalist Tom Eastman, author of “The History of Cranmore Mountain,” notes that famous Austrian ski instructor Hannes Schneider earned release from house arrest in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, thanks to Gibson’s international influence. Schneider came to North Conway to teach at Cranmore in February 1939. With Schneider’s international recognition and his years of experience, Cranmore was propelled to the top of a growing industry.
Shortly after arriving, Schneider had an upper portion of the Skimobile constructed to the summit and continued to expand the skiable terrain over the coming years. With the help of the snow train from Boston, which brought as many as 4,000 passengers to Conway on any given Sunday during the winters, Cranmore Mountain and the surrounding town was quickly becoming a major ski destination.
“It was a leading resort,” said Jeff Leich, executive director of the New England Ski Museum and ski historian. “After a year or two (Cranmore) really started humming in part because Schneider was there, and in part because Gibson had created a resort at a time when there weren’t many resorts around. There were a lot of things that really only Sun Valley, Idaho, and Cranmore had in the late ’30s and early ’40s. Integrated resorts were rare.”
With the help of President Roosevelt’s CCC, skiing was taking off throughout the Northeast. And while Cranmore was dwarfed by mountains like Cannon and Wildcat, it continued to lead the way as a world-class destination. In fact, in 1940, Cranmore became the first ski destination to heavily groom its trails — an obvious necessity we take for granted now, during the days of high-speed quads and advanced snowmaking systems.
By the 1955-56 season, trail expansion to the mountain’s east face was completed, despite the death of Schneider. His son, Herbert Schneider, continued his father’s legacy with the opening of the East Bowl — an open slope reminiscent of the Alps that Hannes grew up skiing.
As the Interstate Highway System was developed into the 1960s, making access to other, larger mountains easier, Cranmore’s popularity began a temporary decline. Regardless, trail expansion and lift upgrades continued in subsequent years, and by the 1970-71 ski season, a snowmaking system was installed, giving Cranmore an advantage over other Mount Washington Valley ski areas.
Today, after more than eight consecutive decades of operation, Cranmore continues to pay homage to its rich history and contribution to the growth of the ski industry in the U.S.
“When I became Cranmore’s general manager in 2004, I realized that everyone here was proud of Cranmore because of our history and a standard that was set years ago,” said Ben Wilcox, Cranmore’s current general manager. “I felt the whole appeal and passion of skiing that Hannes Schneider brought to the Mount Washington Valley and to New Hampshire. Not everyone has that rich history.”
Visitors to the mountain are greeted by a restored Skimobile car and a statue of Hannes Schneider at the base area, right outside of Zip’s Pub. Inside Zip’s, which is the local après-ski watering hole, the walls are lined with photos from Cranmore’s golden days, including antique ski memorabilia and awards honoring winners of the Cranmore Mountain Meisters, said to be the oldest weekly recreational racing league in the country and which this year is celebrating its 50th season. The bar area has a rustic, classic ski-bar feel, with wood rafters and walls that seem to transport visitors back to Cranmore’s early days.
At ski resorts nationwide, the base-area bar typically hosts visitors to that resort, looking for a celebratory beer after a day of skiing and riding. But Zip’s is home to a different kind of atmosphere. It’s more of a North Conway-area après ski bar than a Cranmore-specific bar. It isn’t uncommon to hear conversations about how the conditions were up at Wildcat, Attitash or even Bretton Woods earlier in the day. It’s often filled with a mix of ski vacationers and locals — although things may look a bit different this season due to the pandemic.
The mountain lends itself to being the perfect family-friendly destination due largely to its wide variety of terrain, family-oriented events, and location in North Conway.
“When you’re running a family resort, you don’t have to be bigger,” explained Wilcox. “You really want to have a nice combination of runs that are family friendly, allowing people to graduate up to the black diamonds. Cranmore has a mix of terrain that makes that achievable for people. Steeper and deeper — all that stuff isn’t that critical.”
But the mountain’s 1,200-foot vertical drop and more than 200 acres of skiable terrain is enough to keep even the most experienced skiers busy — especially if you know where to look. Two of Wilcox’s favorite runs are Skimeister and Koessler.
“Skimeister is a blue trail, but it’s really fun,” said Wilcox. “It starts off narrow with a perfect view of Mount Washington and then it gets wider as you get lower and you can really let it rip at the bottom.”
Cranmore’s terrain, which breaks down to 24 percent beginner, 46 percent intermediate and 16 percent expert, varies from wide-open runs somewhat reminiscent of Western resort snowfields to narrow, winding trails to glades. Advanced skiers will find themselves at home on runs like Ledges and Koessler, while beginners may want to stick to terrain on the south slope, like Beginner’s Luck or Snow Train.
And today, Cranmore continues to lead the way in ski instruction in a manner that would make Hannes Schneider proud.
The resort has implemented a new terrain-based learning program that utilizes specifically shaped features conducive to controlling speed and body position, making the learning process even more enjoyable. Five distinct features help new riders and skiers get used to the feel of sliding on snow and the body movement associated with the sports while reducing the anxiety inevitably experienced by first timers. Students will start on the flats, learning the basics of how their gear works, before graduating to a mini pipe, where they’ll have their first experience sliding on snow. After that, they’ll move to rolling terrain, which not only allows new skiers and riders to get the feel for sliding downhill, but also helps them control their speed — we’ve all seen new skiers and riders pick up speed uncontrollably, often ending in a less than smooth way. Before trying newly learned skills on a straightforward learning slope, students will practice their turns on a banked slope, which helps guide the board and skis in the necessary direction. This new instructing style prepares new skiers and riders to hit the slopes much quicker than if they were left to their own devices.
At the mountain’s summit, the Meister Hut overlooks the Mount Washington Valley, offering spectacular views of North Conway, Mount Washington, Cathedral and Whitehorse ledges, and the Moat Mountain ridge. Skiers and riders gather at the Meister Hut to warm up with a hot chocolate or snack — or cool down with a beer — before their run. While the Meister Hut doesn’t have the full bar or menu that Zip’s has, the experience of sipping on a hot chocolate from the deck, watching skiers and riders descend to the valley below, with a backdrop of the snow-covered White Mountains, makes it worth taking the time out of your day.
Cranmore has plenty to do for the non-skier in the family — or during rest days — as well. On the southern end of the mountain, visitors will find 10 lanes of lift-serviced tubing, providing the perfect opportunity for non-skiers to get their fix of sliding on snow. There also is a mountain adventure park that operates in the winter, with a mountain coaster, seated zipline, and a giant pendulum swing.
Cranmore is in the midst of a $50 million base lodge redevelopment project. So far, the construction of 37 condominium units around the mountain’s base is nearly finished, which will conclude the completion of phase 1 and 2 of the project. Phases 3, 4, 5 and 6 will focus on both residential and day-ski facilities, including a new restaurant, base lodge, rental shop and ski shop.
Some people may see this change negatively, fearful that the resort’s rich history could be erased. But at a place where the roots of skiing in the U.S. run so deep, that’s unlikely to happen.
“With our new lodges, we’re going to make sure we tout our history and have it continue to be a clear piece of who we are,” said Wilcox. “I think sometimes people fear we’re going to lose our history. But that’s not going to happen — not as long as I’m around.”