My first two ski weekendS this year involved considerable stretches of two-lane. Long, winding, mind-numbing two lane. Granted, those trips didn’t require a seven-hour (or more) haul that many of my friends in the West take on. But a drive of three- or four-plus hours can still suck the life out of a ski weekend.
So, imagine my delight when my daughter Brynne and I buckled up in the family Subaru on Boston’s North Shore on an overcast Friday, just past noontime, and flew up Interstate 93 to New Hampshire’s White Mountains, arriving at Loon Mountain in Lincoln in under three hours. That included a coffee/bathroom break at the rest area just past the Hooksett toll booths.
This has long been Loon’s calling card — quick and easy access. Judging by the crowds on an early January weekend, plenty of skiers and riders, whether they were day-visitors or came up the night before, agree. If we arrive by 7:30 on a Saturday, we might even get a great spot in the Loon parking lot, which is normally overflowing by 9. We also can be first in line in the rental shop if my girls want to try something different, like snowboards.
An early start also allows visitors to avail themselves of Loon’s “Snow Guarantee.” Essentially, the guarantee allows skiers and riders, if they’re not satisfied with the snow conditions, to return their full-priced lift ticket at any Information Desk by 11 a.m. in exchange for a voucher for another day (during the same season). Not too shabby.
As for the mountain itself, I try to take the same approach as the drive: Early is better. The tough part is deciding where to start. A member of the Boyne Resorts family, Loon features 69 trails and glades spread over 370 acres, plus six terrain parks, etched over three peaks in the White Mountain National Forest. The vertical — 2,100 feet — isn’t monstrous, but the trail layout, with 20 percent novice, 20 percent expert and 60 percent intermediate, makes the most of the available terrain.
My siblings and I are dedicated members of the Bamboo for Breakfast Club, meaning we’ll suffer the wrath of surly kids and crack-of-dawn cobwebs to make first tracks (a coffeemaker with an auto-timer is our best friend). At Loon, that means a beeline to the gondola, and then hopping onto Angel Street to the North Peak Quad. Much has been made of Loon’s newest addition, South Peak, but for my money, North Peak still rules. Especially when the snow is good. And it doesn’t get any better than early morning. Trust me: The rug rats will stop complaining once they step off the lifts.
After banging out a few thigh-burning wake-up runs on Walking Boss and Flume, we’ll head into the Camp III Lodge (or maybe the Summit Cafe) for a breakfast bagel while everyone else is just clicking in. Families with younger skiers can scoot around the steep stuff by accessing Haulback via Sunset, getting to Camp III by skiing a large “Z” across North Peak. This is as good a place as any to point out Loon’s underappreciated snowmaking and grooming efforts (major upgrades this season include the installation of semi-automated snowmaking hydrants on several major trails).
The steep pitch of these trails, combined with the well-known vagaries of New England weather, presents a daunting task for the Loon snow crew, and for the most part, they’re up to the challenge. Snow coverage is typically wall-to-wall (the resort claims 99 percent snowmaking coverage), and the base is packed down evenly. Still, these upper trails are the first on the mountain to get skied off, which is another reason why you need to get there early.
After refueling (the lodge food at Loon, like many Northeast ski areas, has undergone a tremendous improvement in the past two decades, even though it’s pricey), if the cover is still good, we might grab another run on North Peak, or take the East Basin chair to make some turns on Big Dipper. Then, depending on the crowds, we’ll head to either to West Basin or South Peak. The lift lines at Loon are as unpredictable as New England weather, though the odds favor a long wait on weekends (the resort, like many in New England, also has adopted an “Uphill Access” ticket, at $25, for hearty souls who prefer to skin up the hill).
Loon’s 11 lifts (including the signature gondola) are capable of transporting more than 15,000 skiers and riders an hour up the hill, but they can still resemble Boston traffic at rush hour at times. The resort once attempted to limit ticket sales to ease overcrowding, which was admirable, but season passes have made that practice unwieldy. Plus, as a skier once memorably protested while standing in line, “What’s the limit? 50,000?” South Peak, fortunately, has remedied some of that congestion.
The cross-mountain Tote Road Quad to South Peak, to be diplomatic, is a necessary evil, since you can’t ski between the two areas. But it’s slow. Really slow. So make sure you take full advantage of your time at South Peak (in other words, don’t plan on jumping back and forth often). South Peak, though, has its advantages. In a weird way, it seems many Loon skiers still don’t know about it, even though it was the subject of contentious litigation for the better part of more than two decades. It has two long, gentle cruising runs, and when conditions are right, one of the best double black diamonds — Ripsaw — in New England.
Cruiser and Boom Run are marked intermediate, but in all honesty, are gentle enough for most beginners. These are perfect family slopes, with a much different feel and atmosphere compared to “old” Loon. First, due to location and layout, they’re a lot less crowded, which means the lines for the Lincoln Express Quad are shorter. Second, the views of Franconia Ridge and Lincoln are stunning, giving skiers the sensation that they’re sliding right into town. Third, the parking lot at South Peak and the Escape Route parking lot are two more lesser-known gems, allowing folks to get on the mountain quickly (all the lifts open at the same time) without the hassle that the main parking lot can produce.
Upping the ante on South Peak is the challenging terrain you’ll find on the Uppercut glade area and Ripsaw, simply one of the best runs to come along in a long time. Plus, two adjoining trails — Twitcher and Jobber — are outstanding advanced runs. As one Loon veteran told me, Ripsaw, after a good powder dump, is “an awesome trail. It bumps up nicely, and is steep for a long time. It’s truly like a double black out west.” I couldn’t agree more.
Plus, families with members of varying abilities all can ski South Peak, comfortable in knowing that all runs converge at the Pemigewasset Base Camp, provided you don’t take Escape Route off Cruiser (a solid intermediate run that skirts the western edge of the resort), which bypasses the base and heads directly to the parking lot. This base camp feature one of those cool permanent tent structures, which offers all the amenities of its brick-and-mortar counterparts and is a great spot to enjoy an outdoor snack or après-ski beer on milder days.
The latter part of the day is reserved for the middle mountain, which tends to hold its snow quite well and can be a lot of fun when the crowds, and lift lines, thin. I’ve always loved the West Basin runs serviced by the Kangamagus Express Quad, especially Rumrunner, Ram Pasture and Blue Ox. They all have enough pitch to generate a nice tailwind, which leads to some sweet, sweeping GS turns (the perfect antidote to legs quivering from lactic acid build-up). These runs tend to spread folks out, easing the traffic jams that sometimes plague Loon’s trail junctures.
Freestylers also can access the Loon Mountain Park from the Kanc Quad, as well as the Gondola and Seven Brothers chair. Though my airborne days are behind me — my jumps nowadays are rarely premeditated — my muscles still twitch at the sight of these giant ramps, rails and halfpipes (the resort’s Superpipe is 450 feet long, with 18-foot walls!), and I love watching the youngsters who can still go big. It’s no surprise that Loon is consistently rated among the top terrain parks in the East.
If we’re parked close to the resort’s main Octagon Lodge, we’ll try to finish the day with a few carving runs underneath the gondola on Picaroon or Seven Brothers. Late day, like early morning, is probably the best time to jump aboard the gondola, which is still one of the nicest lifts in New England. Just make sure the little ones still have enough left in the tank for that final top-to-bottom run.
Another prime benefit at Loon is the resort’s commitment to safety, both with superb signage and “Family Zones,” and with a top-notch ski patrol. Skiers and boarders have the added security of knowing that the First Aid services feature orthopedic doctors on the hill (full disclosure: My brother, Dr. Sean O’Connor, is one of those Loon docs). When I was young and carefree (i.e. single), the biggest benefit was being able to ski with Sean without have to wait in the lift lines. These days, however, as a 60-something Boomer with a skiing wife and a pair of adult daughters, I think of this benefit much differently. It means peace of mind.
Fortunately for me, and the ladies in my house, we’ve never had cause to visit the Loon First Aid station for anything more serious than a few aspirin (still the best après après-ski relief) and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with my brother.
Speaking of families, Brynne and Maddi, my aforementioned daughters, always enjoyed the camps and lessons at Loon. That’s a real testament to a caring and qualified staff. Loon offers a series of unique experiences for skiers and riders of all ages. First Class Beginner’s Weekends is an intensive weekend program that includes lessons, the use of a private learning lounge, as well as a free pair of Head skis or a Burton snowboard, plus boots and bindings. The Beyond the Boundaries program provides female campers a unique opportunity to learn from professionals and Olympic athletes, while expanding their freestyle skills in a supportive setting.
Last, my advanced age has given me carte blanche to explore another wonderful slopeside amenity at Loon — the Viaggio Spa & Wellness Center at the Mountain Club. I always try to make the après-ski pilgrimage to my favorite watering holes (see sidebar), but the spa helps put my body right. Which means I can get up the next morning, really early, and do it all over again.
You can still find the beer crowd, as well as many Loon employees, hanging out at the Paul Bunyon Room in the Octagon Lodge. Yes, the “Bunyan Room” is still a favorite of this old-school skier. Located in the Octagon Lodge, it’s also super convenient after your last runs. Equally accessible (there’s that word again), Babe’s Blue Ox Lounge in the Governor Adams Lodge, at the opposite site of the main parking lot, draws more of a cocktail crowd (though you can still get beer there!). The Black Diamond Bar & Grille at the Mountain Club is a bit more upscale, but a very comfy and classy alternative once the sun drops.
Where to eat
Dining spots abound along (or near) Main Street, Lincoln. The Common Man in Lincoln is, simply, an uncommon value. The food is really good, the portions are large, the brews are plentiful, and the atmosphere is warm and friendly. Ditto for Woodstock Station in nearby Woodstock. Though it’s a little farther away, Woodstock Station boasts a dizzying menu, mouth-watering local beers, and you’ll save a few bucks, too. Thai 9 brings a nice exotic flair to the local dining scene (with a extensive take-out menu for condo dwellers who don’t care to cook), while El Charro and Nachos Mexican Grill offer two fun “south of the border” options. The Gypsy Café in Lincoln is a quaint little bistro with a menu that boasts “food from around the world.” Entrees range from Ethiopian peppercorn sirloin to Brazilian shrimp to Navajo pumpkin pasta. Yum!
Where to stay
Loon and Lincoln are condo heaven. Too many were built in the boom times of the 1980s, when South Peak was first proposed, and there are still plenty available for skiers looking to stay for a few days, from the sprawling Nordic Inn Resort (nordic-inn.com; 866-734-2164) to The Lodge at Lincoln Station (lodgeresort.com; 800-654-6188). Shop around for the best deal (and don’t worry about driving to the resort — the Loon shuttle service is tremendous). Though it’s not cheap, the RiverWalk Resort at Loon Mountain (riverwalkatLoon.com; 603-745-7500), a newer addition to the Lincoln lodging scene, is the consummate “ski and stay” spot, with comfy rooms and suites, plus the Solstice North Day Spa, Seven Birches Winery and La Vista Italian Cuisine on premises. The Mountain Club at Loon (mtnclub.com; 800-229-7829) is the ideal slopeside option, with spa, health club, indoor/outdoor pools, and terrific restaurants. Park the car (in a garage, no less), and forget it for a few days. For something a little cozier, and farther from the crowds, try the Wilderness Inn (wildernessinn.com; 888-777-7813) in North Woodstock, or the Sugar Hill Inn (sugarhillinn.com; 800-548-4748; no children) to the north in Franconia.
What else to do
We’ve already mentioned the spa, right? You also can enjoy ice skating and indoor rock climbing at Loon’s Adventure Center by the main parking lot. Yes, skate rentals are available. For a bird’s-eye view of Loon during weekends and holidays, check out the center’s Zipline Tour ($25). Another great way to slide on snow is tubing, and Loon offers lift-served tubing with 250 feet of vertical, day and night, on the resort’s Little Sister run for anyone age 8 and older (there’s also “tot tubing” for youngsters ages 7 and younger). Cross-country skiing and snowshoe enthusiasts will find more than 20 kilometers of trail along the Pemigewasset River and into the White Mountain National Forest. The “shop ‘til you drop” crowd will love knowing that Lincoln is home to a number of great outlets, including my longtime discount fave, Lahout’s.