Editor’s note: This feature originally appeared in the January, 2021 issue of New England Ski Journal.
If there was a contest asking which ski area best blends the best of old and new, it would be difficult to bet against Bretton Woods in northern New Hampshire. At least that’s where I’d put my money.
Sure, there are a number of worthy nominees, including New Hampshire neighbor Cranmore under the guidance of recent Hall of Fame inductee Brian McFarland and native-son president Benjamin Wilcox, or Stowe in Vermont, which now benefits from being under the Vail Resorts umbrella.
But if it were my hard-earned coin, Bretton Woods would get the nod. And here’s why. True, Bretton Woods isn’t the oldest ski area in New England, launching in 1973. And I utterly refuse to call any ski area younger than me “old.” But the area has great history, dominated by the Mount Washington Hotel, which is the flagship structure of the Omni Mount Washington Resort in the shadow of the Northeast’s tallest peak. This quintessential grand hotel dates back to 1902, built by Joseph Stickney, a New Hampshire native who made his fortune in the coal and railroad industries (the Stickney name can still be seen throughout the resort and ski area).
And that proximity, and current association with Bretton Woods, can’t be ignored. Is that cheating on my bet? Well, maybe. But when I set off from the summit of Bretton Woods on a bluebird day, taking in the wonderful views that include the grand hotel and the looming Presidential Range, I can’t help but feel that this resort offers the best of yesteryear and modern times. Clearly, I’m not the only one who has felt the same over the past 60 years.
More than a half-dozen ski areas were proposed for the region surrounding Mount Rosebrook in the years since skiing captured the imagination of winter enthusiasts, shortly following the construction of the Taft Trail at Cannon Mountain in 1933. Just to the south of Twin Mountain, at the crossroads of Route 117 and Lover’s Lane Road in Sugar Hill, a historical marker denotes the location of the country’s first ski school. “In 1929, on the slopes of the hill to the east, Austrian-born Sig Buchmayr established the first organized ski school in the United States. Sponsored by Peckett’s-on-Sugar Hill, one of the earliest resorts to promote the joys of winter vacationing in the snow, the school provided an initial impetus to the ski sport America knows today.”
In the subsequent years, numerous proposals were introduced for ski areas on Mount Agassiz, Mount Jefferson, North Twin Mountain, Mount Pierce, Mount Tom and Willard Basin, but the greater Twin Mountain/Crawford Notch region was still without one by the time the 1970s rolled around, according to the New England Ski History website (NewEnglandSkiHistory.com).
Admittedly, I’m still intrigued by Lancaster businessman Raymond V. Hartshorn’s bold plan to build a massive, three-peak, 5,000-acre resort named Willard Basin in the early 1960s, before his financing for the $5 million project fell apart. During that time, however, Interstate 93 (now dubbed Ski93) had been completed to Lincoln, N.H., home of Loon Mountain, providing fairly reliable and convenient access to the western White Mountains from cities to the south, including Manchester and the lucrative Greater Boston market.
As a result, the lure of the region — and the Rosebrook Mountains in particular — remained strong for developers who were captivated by the area’s promise. In the summer of 1969, Philadelphia-based investors under the name of the Mount Washington Development Co. purchased 10,000 acres of land, as well as acquiring the stock of Mount Washington Hotel Corporation. The $100 million project, according to New England Ski History, included a ski area, two golf courses, 2,000 homes and 500 condominiums, and was spearheaded by Donald Cohan, a young lawyer who had ventured into real estate in the late 1960s (at the age of 42, Cohan won a bronze medal in sailing at the 1972 Olympics).
The new ski area, designed by Sno Engineering and christened Bretton Woods, opened for business just after Christmas day, 1973. For the 1973-74 season, Bretton Woods featured 1,100 feet of vertical, two double chairlifts, a T-bar, 30 acres of snowmaking, and 18 miles of nordic trails. The alpine trail network consisted of seven intermediate ski trails and one beginner slope. Skiing magazine reported that New Hampshire Gov. Meldrim Thomson was so impressed with the area’s grand opening that he returned the following month to learn to ski.
The honeymoon didn’t last long. By 1975, Bretton Woods was immersed in one of the biggest bankruptcy cases ever in New Hampshire, and the real estate portion of the project ran into serious roadblocks, both financial and environmental. What followed was a litany of ownership groups, and the eventual merger with the Mount Washington Resort. In reality, during a good portion of its first two decades, Bretton Woods provided a shiny veneer as a family-friendly ski hill that hid a tumultuous underbelly of financial strife, though the 1980s saw the installation of the Fabyan triple chairlift and the resort’s vertical increased to 1,500 feet, including some much-needed expert terrain.
The late 1980s also witnessed the opening of the long-anticipated Franconia Notch Parkway, greatly improving access to Bretton Woods, and the ski area was sold off from the Mount Washington Resort. New owners quickly brought upgrades to the area, including a detachable quad chairlift, but the financial downturn of the 1990s caught Bretton Woods in its grip. By the fall of 1997, the MWH Preservation Limited Partnership, which bought the Mount Washington Hotel at auction in 1991, brought Bretton Woods and the resort again under a single ownership group. It was the start of something big.
Combined with the winterization of the Mount Washington Hotel, the ownership group opened West Mountain in 1999-2000 season with a fixed-grip quad, offering additional intermediate trails and expert glades. In the past 20 years, the resort has continued to change hands (the current ownership group — Omni Hotels & Resorts — acquired the properties from CNL Lifestyle for $90.5 million in 2015) while offering more and more terrain. The Mount Rosebrook area was introduced in 2003, with more steep terrain, and 30 acres of glades in the Mount Stickney area were opened in 2010. In 2019, Bretton Woods debuted the state’s only eight-person Skyway gondola, which was just the first punch of the resort’s potent one-two combination with the unveiling this year of the spectacular summit Rosebrook Lodge.
Today, Bretton Woods seamlessly combines the superb intermediate layout that made it such a delightful ski experience from its earliest days with a impressive sampling of glades and more advanced terrain and raft of modern amenities across its 464 acres (making it the largest ski area in the state). The 1,500 feet of vertical from the summit is criss-crossed with a total of 63 trails and 35 glades, plus a total of 10 lifts providing an uphill capacity of 14,000 skiers and snowboarders per hour (though that number has been reduced this year due to distancing requirements).
What do those statistics represent for current visitors? Fortunately for Bretton Woods fans, these stats reflect the happy fact that the resort’s winter experience has improved steadily since the turn of the century. Take, for example, snowmaking. For many years now, the resort has consistently claimed more than 90 percent coverage with its snowmaking operation.
But coverage and quality can be two different things. Suffice to say, while the amount of coverage has remained relatively constant, the quality of the manmade snow is dramatically better these days. In 2013 and 2014, old snowmaking pipes were replaced and 60 new snowguns and 35 new, high-efficiency HKD SV10 towers were installed as part of a $1.8 million snowmaking overhaul, followed by another $600,000 capital infusion in 2016. Combine that with a superb snow grooming squad, and it’s no surprise that Bretton Woods consistently has been voted “Best in the East” for snowmaking and grooming by Ski magazine readers (speaking of awards, Condé Nast Traveler readers chose Bretton Woods as the No. 12 ski resort in the world and No. 6 ski resort in the U.S. and Canada).
If Old Man Winter conjures up a powder party — the area receives, on average, about 200 inches of natural fluff each season — you’d be wise to head west to the gladed sections off West Mountain. Highlighted by three intermediate trails — Starr King, Oscar Barron’s and Jacob’s Ladder — and the beginner Avalon trail serviced by a high-speed quad, West Mountain really shines in the trees that separate the intermediate terrain.
Bretton Woods’ stock-in-trade, however, is the collection of trails that spill from the summit of Mount Rosebrook. Beginners and intermediates have plenty of choices from the top of the Bethlehem Express quad and B-Chair double. The Rosebrook Summit Express quad and Fabyan’s Express triple — along with the new Skyway gondola — get skiers closer to the top of the mountain, opening up a slew of black diamond trails and glades (the Rosebrook Glades off the Two Miles Home trail, with fresh snow, are a real treat). McIntire’s Ride, Bode’s Run, Snake, Upper Express and Zealand all will test your thighs, and your mettle.
If you lose your nerve or fatigue, don’t worry. There are beginner (High Ridge to Outer Bounds to Triple Traverse) and intermediate (Panorama to Two Miles Home) escape routes available. To the east, Mount Stickney’s Telegraph T-bar provides entry to some intermediate glades, which translates to an inviting introduction to tree skiing.
On a related note, Bretton Woods also has embraced the free-heel revolution, and telemark and randonee skiers who enjoy skinning up the hill as much as skiing back down have been welcomed with open arms (with many gravitating to the glades at Mount Stickney). However, uphill access tickets ($21) are required.
Snowboarders, likewise, have their run of the resort. Like most ski areas not named Alta in Utah or Mad River Glen in Vermont, allowing snowboards was a financial necessity at Bretton Woods. However, unlike the late 1980s, when my brother Mike and I were restricted to three “snowboard trails,” boarders now have full access to the trails and glades, with plenty of natural obstacles. But boarders also will find entertaining, man-made elements at the progressive Midway Park terrain park.
For those who prefer skinny skis, the Bretton Woods Nordic Center offers a network, of more than 100 kilometers of trail (yes, kilometers; it’s a nordic thing) that mirrors the alpine area in terms of variety and grooming. The trails, prepared for both classical and skate styles, cross open fields, stands of hardwoods, spruce and fir, beaver ponds (keep an eye out for paw prints) and mountain streams. The Mount Stickney High Country Nordic Loop is particularly challenging, and rewarding. Stop by the Mount Stickney Cabin for a warm beverage, while on the lower levels the warming hut on Porcupine Trail is a nice respite (check beforehand, however, to make sure these two facilities are open, as state social distancing guidelines required them to be closed during the Christmas holidays).
The Bretton Woods Canopy Tour, first introduced in 2008, also is closed for the season, since, as one resort official quipped, “You can’t have proper social distancing on a small platform 70 feet above the ground.”
For visitors who need to rent gear, the Bretton Woods rental shop opens an hour before the lifts start humming — 7 a.m. on weekends, 8 a.m. weekdays — which means you can get sized, fitted and still make it to the chairs for first tracks (always a priority in my clan). The shop also has telemark skis and snowshoes. (Note, at the time of publication, state COVID guidelines required that rental packages had to be purchased, online, 72 hours in advance.)
Prior to the pandemic, Bretton Woods also had a great selection for lessons, from the Red Carpet Learn to Ski/Burton Learn to Ride programs to group and private sessions. When our daughters were younger, my wife and I would put our daughters in morning lessons, meet them for lunch, and then spend the afternoons taking turns together. I’m still not sure what part of the day they enjoyed more. This year, only one-on-one private lessons are being offered, with 72-hour advanced online registration required, though resort officials say they expect a full menu of ski school options, including group lessons, to return next season. Staff and guests will be required to wear a cloth face covering over their nose and mouth when on the premises of the ski resort unless they are skiing on a trail, physically distanced six feet or more, or eating or drinking. This includes time spent on the lifts.
Night skiing, which the resort has offered in the past, is also on hiatus this season, but is expected to return in 2021-22 with a new lighting system.
Have an aspiring racer? Check out the resort’s Competition Center, which will continue offering a number of age-appropriate programs — like Team Inferno and the Bretton Woods Race Team — designed to introduce, develop and train your little Ted Ligety or Lindsey Vonn (ages 6-17). However, the recreational race programs for day visitors, such as the Saloon or Fireball race series, have been suspended, while the NASTAR course will be available.
For midday munchies, I highly recommend the newly opened Rosebrook Lodge, a truly stunning edifice at the top of the Skyway gondola, offering jaw-dropping views and three different but delightful dining options. The Crystal Hills café has wood-fired pizza, charbroiled burgers, artisan paninis and a variety of “grab and go” options, while the Switchback Grille allows patrons to nosh on European-inspired appetizers such as raclette, charcuterie and Bavarian pretzels, or fill up on a variety of salads, soups, gourmet sandwiches or a full meal from the daily specials menu. Meanwhile, the Peaks Café serves hot and cold beverages, fresh bakery items, light breakfast fare, sandwiches and wraps, and decadent hot chocolate offerings.
On the main level of the base lodge, Lucy Crawford’s Food Court continues to offer a variety of “grab and go” options much like Crystal Hills at the Rosebrook Lodge. Visitors are encouraged to bring brown bag lunches but won’t be allowed to congregate at the lodges, in order to maintain proper social distancing and keep the bathrooms free for those who need to heed nature’s call. Likewise, visitors are asked to “boot up” at their cars, to prevent overcrowding. Other on-mountain options would typically include the mid-mountain Latitude 44 for Bretton Woods Club members, but it is temporarily closed due to COVID restrictions (the club’s Ski Membership offers access to the Alpine Club, first tracks and preferred lift lines, plus discounts on some of Bretton Woods’ most popular winter programs).
Treetop Sports will be open in the base lodge daily, opening every day 30 minutes before the lifts start and closing 30 minutes after last chair. Nash’s General Store, however, will be closed.
Après-ski activities (including Kids Après Ski) also have been curtailed, due to the state’s limitations on bars and the need to avoid large gatherings, but dining options still include the Grille the Bretton Woods Clubhouse & Nordic Center, the Slopeside Restaurant & Pub at the base lodge, and, of course, the Mount Washington Hotel. The eclectic Fabyan’s Restaurant (a converted train depot) across the street and the Bretton Arms dining room are shuttered for the season.
Of course, all the pandemic restrictions have Bretton Woods fans yearning for the good old days. And once they return, we can again take full advantage of this superb resort that blends the best of old and new.