Thirty years ago, shortly after my future wife and I discovered the joys of off-road pedaling, we were invited to join a few friends at Killington in Vermont for a little fat-tire adventure. These were the early, heady days of lift-service riding, when many ski areas first envisioned the mountain bike as the perfect vehicle to keep resorts busy through the summer and fall.
They also were heady times for Lauri and I, a fledgling couple, young and energetic, in our physical primes. So, naturally, we eschewed the mechanized chairlifts and proclaimed that any mountain biker worth their salt would opt to pedal up the hill under their own power to “earn” their downhill thrills. Our bikes — a sweet gloss black and neon pink Trek 970 Singletrack for me, and an apple red Trek 870 Antelope for Lauri — were considered top notch back in the day, even though they lacked suspension and tipped the scales at over 30 pounds each.
What a difference three decades can make. Though my wife may be even stronger now then she was in 1990, my body has paid dearly for my longtime sporting addiction. Years and years of old-man hockey, soccer and basketball have taken their toll, and I’ve got new titanium body parts and the extra weight to prove it. Pedaling up hills no longer has the same attraction.
Plus, over the past 30 years, mountain bikes have undergone a sea change. They now offer full suspension with minimal weight penalty, burly “point and shoot” rigs that float over obstacles. Resort mountain biking has changed as well. Back in the day, trails were primarily hand built, incorporating natural elements — roots, rocks, pitch — and fire roads to create routes. Today, machine-built trails literally change the landscape, as trailbuilders can sculpt Mother Nature to their vision, resulting in dedicated fat-tire tracks that swoop and swerve down the slope. The best builders still employ the technical features the hill provides, but the goal is still all about the flow.
As a result, I no longer scoff at the concept of riding downhill all day, without all the suffering that normally comes with climbing.
So, when Lauri and I decided we needed a mountain bike escape, we targeted four lift-service areas with every intention of actually riding the lifts.
Our plan was simple and elegant. We would follow a counterclockwise loop from our home on Boston’s North Shore, which would allow us to visit four lift-service areas — Mount Abram in Maine, and Cranmore, Loon and Highland in New Hampshire — over four days. What could be better?
Friday | Mount Abram Family Resort
From our base camp, my wife and I packed up our trusty Subaru and headed due north on Interstate 95. Just above Portland, Maine, we hopped onto Route 26A, which would bring us right to our first stop on our agenda, Mount Abram Family Resort (mtabram.com).
This rustic little hill, first established in 1960, has existed in the shadow of its behemoth neighbor, Sunday River. But when the corporate owners of Sunday River opted to discontinue lift-service mountain biking, Mount Abram seized the opening. Greg Luetje, who worked at Sunday River for close to two decades, was brought on board as general manager. Together with his team, which includes Diane Barras, the bike school director, and Alex Graves, who designed and constructed Mount Abram’s machine-built trails, Luetje unveiled the new park in late June.
The response was nothing short of sensational, exceeding all of Luetje’s first-year expectations.
“It’s been much better than expected, probably because of the COVID situation,” said Luetje, echoing many regional bike shop owners who have sold out their inventories. “We’ve had around 90 to 100 riders per session, and 180 to 200 per day. We’ve been adjusting our capacity based on the state guidelines and trail availability to manage crowds at the lift line and other areas.”
Mount Abram offers two distinct three-hour sessions each day, from 9:30-12:30 and 1:30-4:30. Likewise, enduro-style bikes — Rossignol and Rocky Mountain — are rented by the session, not the day. Since we didn’t register early enough, Lauri and I saddled up our cross-country rigs for our afternoon session. Since the terrain doesn’t feature huge drops or crazy technical sections, my Specialized Epic Comp and Lauri’s Cannondale hardtail were up to the task (those bikes also shine on Mount Abram’s dedicated uphill trail, which is a nice option if the lift line gets unwieldy or you want a cardio workout).
The Westside Chair is, to be fair, comfortable but glacial. Be sure to have a good friend join you, because you’ll have plenty of time to chat. The lift also provided us a bird’s-eye view of Graves and his trail crew creating the resort’s latest intermediate flow trail, Whiplash. Seeing a trail during the early stages of construction certainly gives riders a greater appreciation of the work required to deliver their downhill jollies.
The trails themselves are a testament to Graves’s vision and trail-building talents (Luetje also gave full props to the “incredible efforts” of Graves’s crew). We started out with a nice traverse along George’s Jungle, a beginner trail that meanders east across a number of alpine routes, including Dudley Do-Right and Wossamotta U, and opens up to some marvelous views to the north.
Superchicken, another beginner route, is a veritable playground of groomed switchbacks, while Sneaky Pete is a curvy, more traditional cross-country trail. The intermediate Greaseslapper adds some pitch as it drops into the Mahoosic Meadows ski trail, while the advanced Yellowjacket is chock full of technical features.
“This bike park was built and designed around the idea that families can have a fun and safe experience,” said Luetje. “We have a great mix of abilities and riders that have ridden here this summer, but we’ve seen more families and kids riding here than any other participants.”
The current mountain bike network, including the aforementioned Whiplash, offers roughly six miles of riding. But, according to Luetje, that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
“Mount Abram has plans to build bike trails for five more years and utilize the rest of the mountain and the other chairlift,” he said. “We’re planning to build from the top of the mountain next year and connect to our current trail network. We’re also going to make another long flow trail that goes to the bottom of the main side.
“After that, we plan on making some more technical trails on our steeper terrain for more advanced riders,” said Luetje. “And we’re hoping that through Mahoosuc Pathways — a local nonprofit trail organization — that we can start seeing some connections between the trails in (nearby Bethel).”
Though I was tempted to grab an adult beverage afterward at Mount Abram’s base bar, we still had a few miles to go. So we loaded the bikes atop the Forester, picked up Route 2 west in Bethel, and then in Gorham, N.H., dropped south on Route 16 toward North Conway.
After a long day of driving, and riding, we rolled into the Wentworth Inn in Jackson for a relaxing dinner. Whether we’re staying at this classic New England grand inn, or just stopping by for a bite, the Wentworth never disappoints. This Friday evening, we took advantage of the beautiful evening temperatures to dine on the outside deck (where live flame towers provide not only ambiance, but added warmth). From cocktails to entrees — Cosmo and swordfish for Lauri, Manhattan and filet for me — the meal was simply amazing. It was the perfect end to a great first day in the north country.
Saturday | North Conway
We rose bright and early after a restful night at the historic Cranmore Inn in North Conway (see “Check In, Check Out” feature), only to find that heavy rains had rumbled into the Mount Washington Valley. Of course, because it’s New England. So we quickly defaulted to Plan B, which consisted mainly of a good soak in the hot tub, shopping and energy conservation (otherwise known as napping).
Our bodies — particularly our legs, lower backs and shoulders — were surprisingly stiff, due to being unaccustomed to the technical, high-speed style of riding we indulged in on Friday. So we made a beeline to the Cranmore Inn’s hot tub and let the powerful jets and warm waters untie all the knots in our “more mature” muscles. Sweet relief indeed.
Next up was a little “casual” shopping excursion in town. The problem, unfortunately, was everyone else within a 30-mile radius of North Conway seemed to have the same idea. Whether we went to the quaint shops of North Conway Village or the sprawling outlet mall complexes farther south on Route 16, most of the stores had long lines of patient consumers. While I was grateful to see folks adhering to pandemic precautions (with most, but not all, people wearing facemasks), I didn’t have the patience to wait my turn.
Instead, I decided to grab a mid-afternoon nap back at the Cranmore Inn, justifying my laziness with the knowledge that we’d be doubling up the next day, pedaling during both the morning and afternoon.
Fresh from a 90-minute snooze, we went looking for supper. North Conway is awash in dining options, including those with an ethnic flare, from Thai to Mexican, and Indian to Italian. We choose the Black Cap Grille, in part because of its creative “wait list” policy, and the fact that we could enjoy a little retail therapy at the REI next door.
Similar to most stores, the Black Cap Grille employed reassuring COVID precautions, with tables appropriately separated, and masks required until you were seated. The menu is classic American cuisine, with appetizers, soups, salads, “build you own” burgers, and entrees ranging from seafood and chicken dishes to steaks and ribs. Diners on the deck are allowed to have their pets join them, and general manager Theresa Gray recently introduced a playful “Furry Friends menu” for our four-legged friends.
Sunday | Cranmore and Loon
Due to our compressed schedule, Lauri and I wasted little time getting rolling. After another rib-sticking breakfast at the Cranmore Inn, we made the quick drive to Mount Cranmore (cranmore.com). I’m familiar with this area, having spent a number of visits riding the extensive local network carved out on the east side of the valley by the White Mountains chapter of the New England Mountain Bike Association and the newer Ride NoCo group. These are terrific trails, full of lung-busting climbs and technical singletrack, but nothing like what we’d discover at Cranmore.
Thanks to our early start, Lauri and I sprinted right through registration. Gregg Ludvigson, Cranmore’s bike and ski rental shop manager, met us with our Rossignol rental bikes. These are impressive rigs, with ample travel, front and rear, and dropper posts that allow riders to get the seat out of the way on steep pitches. Suffice to say, they’re a far, far cry from our old steel Trek steeds.
Cranmore, like most lift-service parks, also provides full-face helmet and body armor rentals. Lauri and I, eager to get on the hill, declined, comfortable with our own helmets and skills. That would prove to be a mistake. We boarded the South Chairlift, which is mountain-bike only. (Cranmore runs the Summit Chair for sightseers and hikers, which helps keep liftlines to a minimum for both groups. Don’t forget to take in the stunning views behind you, which features the Presidential Range and Cathedral Ledge.)
“When I started researching the bike park I noticed that most parks catered to the avid rider,” said Benjamin Wilcox, Cranmore’s general manager. “Many of these successful parks were working to build easier trails and offer instruction to first timers. It’s interesting, as the ski industry started by catering to the avid skier and then realized they needed to teach people to ski to grow the sport. I see the same progression with lift-service mountain biking.”
At Ludvigson’s recommendation, we jumped onto Learning Curve, Cranmore’s smile-inducing beginner trail. Within minutes, I was giggling like a kid. Cranmore, which launched its bike park in late June, is all about the flow. Construction started in the spring of 2019, with the trails constructed by Chris Lewando, owner of Tyrol Trails in Glen (Lewando also is a main trail builder for White Mountains NEMBA, which maintains roughly 60 miles of trails in the Mount Washington Valley).
Lewando, in his first “official” project as a professional trail architect, did his work well. Cranmore’s three primary routes — Learning Curve, the intermediate Day at the Beech, and advanced Stembogen — are an absolute blast to ride. Despite a bone-dry summer, the trails, and especially the bern sections, have held up well. With a self-assured pilot, the bike practically rails around these turns, as if on tracks. That breeds confidence. Usually, that’s a good thing. Usually.
On our second run along Day at the Beach trail, however, things went sideways. Lauri came into a right-to-left berm a little hot. She high-sided the turn, got into some loose dirt. She tried to self-correct, and her front wheel tweaked. She hit the front brake in a panic, sending her over the handlebars and tumbling off the trail. It was, to be blunt, a terrifying fall at that dangerous intersection of enjoyment and inexperience.
Fortunately, Lauri, a healthcare professional, was able to slowly, and calmly, evaluate the extent of her injuries. I stopped a passing rider, and asked him to tell the lift attendant to send help. Moments later, a Cranmore EMT, Katie Dukehart, arrived to help put Lauri’s mind at ease, and colleagues Shawn Waters and Abby Burnell brought her and her rental bike down the hill. I was grateful for their help, and relieved that Lauri wasn’t hurt too badly.
“Maybe someday I’ll learn to ride berms and enjoy the flow trails at Cranmore,” said Lauri. “This wasn’t my day for that. However, I did learn what special folks are employed here.”
With a few bags of ice strategically placed on her neck and back, and a few Ibuprofen in her belly, Lauri gingerly settled into the Subaru and we motored off toward the Kancamagus Highway and Loon Mountain Resort (loonmtn.com) in Lincoln. After Lauri got comfortably situated at the RiverWalk Resort in Lincoln, by the ski area’s South Peak complex, I ran up to Loon’s main base area — the Octagon Lodge — where the mountain bike shop is located.
The bike park employs Loon’s Seven Brothers Triple chairlift (capacity of 330 bikes per hour), which accesses some 750 feet of vertical and four fabulous brand-new trails, built in conjunction with Highland Trails LLC (a subsidiary of Highland Mountain Bike Park).
“The master plan called for a phasing approach, beginning with beginner and intermediate trails first,” said Brian Norton, Loon’s vice president of operations. “Construction officially began on the Phase 1 trails in early May of 2019.
“Construction was going better than expected, so we decided to open for five consecutive weekends in the fall of 2019,” said Norton. “The response at the time was amazing. That excitement grew into where we are now.”
Ten minutes into my first run, I could completely relate to that excitement. Even though I meant to take a “warm up” lap, I accidentally turned onto Bandit, a ridiculously cool mix of flow and technical terrain with a dizzying number of banked switchbacks. Mainline, a “beginner” flow trail, may be one of my favorite routes of all time, with a spine-tingling incline that encourages speed through the rollers and berms. My rental — a Cannondale Reign — felt better the faster it went, soaking up bumps and rocks with aplomb (Loon has a rental fleet of roughly 50 bikes, so advanced reservations are recommended).
Truth be told, I couldn’t stop smiling. Two exceptional intermediate trails — Steam Punk and Derailleur — round out the initial downhill network of five miles (with another 2,000 feet expected to be added this fall), complementing a separate cross-country system of more than six miles. Cardio fans can even pedal up the mountain along Brookway and Bear Claw.
“Our approach to downhill mountain biking at Loon is very similar to our approach with winter,” said Norton. “We want the experience to be a great one from beginner to expert.
“We really want it to be a family experience,” he said. “We want grandpa to be riding the green flow trail with his granddaughter at the same time mom, dad and the college-age twins are having fun on the blue jump trail.”
Much like a great ski day, I didn’t want my downhill outing at Loon to end. But the lift eventually did stop, and I had to check on my bruised bride (who found some blessed relief in the RiverWalk’s whirlpool). But Loon is promising plenty of reasons to return.
“Currently we have three phases of bike trails planned that could take up to five-plus years to complete,” said Norton. “The first two phases are roughly five acres and the third is even larger. This year we are only completing a third of the Phase 2 trails, as well as the last portion of Phase 1 building.
“Next summer we intend to pick up right where the excavators leave off this summer,” he said. “We should be building a few more green and blue trails next summer and possibly our first black trail. The planned trails for next year will directly connect the downhill network into our cross-country network, as well as the new Kanc8 lift that will be constructed next summer.”
That evening, Lauri and I kept things simple, dining at the Loon Mountain Club’s Black Diamond Pub. A few glasses of Kendall Jackson chardonnay and a Mountain Club Burger were just what the doctor ordered for my iron-craving wife, while I relished a savory pasta dish, Vegetable Puttanessca. Back at RiverWalk, we put our feet up on our room’s back deck, taking in the cool evening breezes, before we both drifted off into a deep, rejuvenating sleep.
Monday | Highland Mt. Bike Park
With Lauri still convalescing from her spill, we made our way south on Interstate 93 (the famed Ski 93) to a former ski hill tucked away in Northfield. Highland Mountain Bike Park (highlandmountain.com) is the brainchild of Mark Hayes and Will Gaudette, opening back in 2006 about a decade after the ski area shut down in the mid-1990s.
This place is an unmitigated monster, the peerless standard of New England mountain bike parks. Think Story Land in Glen, or Canobie Lake Park in southern New Hampshire. Now, think Florida’s Disney World or Universal Orlando Resort. Yup, really no comparison at all. That’s not to say that Mount Abram, Cranmore and Loon aren’t worth the visit, because they all have their own redeeming qualities (including fewer riders). But Highland is in a class by itself.
“In 20 years, the bike park industry will be as big as the skiing industry,” said Hayes. “Say that. If you don’t say that, it’ll never happen. Keep letting people know until it sinks in. They just have to start building.”
The numbers alone are eye-popping. A dedicated mountain bike park, Highland boasts 29 flow and technical trails covering nearly 600 feet of vertical on a thickly forested hillside (in addition to 11 contiguous cross-country trials), five jump and skill parks, and an indoor training facility. Make no mistake: This can be an intimidating place for beginners.
Open seven days a week (Thursday through Sunday starting in October), the Highland base area is usually teeming with fully armored riders, making the place look like a “Star Wars” movie set. Then there are the enormous manmade jumps designed for big-air competitions (in full view of the spectators gathering on the base lodge deck, naturally). Meanwhile, most of the flow and technical trails are hidden by the evergreens and hardwoods.
Though the park advertises five beginner trails and six intermediate trails, those ratings are relative (especially when you consider that other published reviews show Highland terrain as 5 percent easy, 35 percent moderate and 60 percent difficult). Those figures assume that Highland puts a premium on instruction, and it does.
Since Lauri and I were relatively new to downhilling, we signed up beforehand for Highland’s “Find Your Ride” program.
Obviously, I got things backward by putting this on the back end of our weekend. The detailed one-hour session, where coaches go over all the key characteristics of an enduro bike and rider positioning, and the basics of safe downhill riding, would have been a huge plus for Lauri prior to her big biff. In fact, it likely would have prevented the fall altogether. Live and learn.
The coaches for my group session, Kevin Owens and Brad Bursey, were young but knowledgeable and attentive. The lesson was a true “judgement-free zone,” with Owens and Bursey providing constant encouragement, both in the practice area and on the hill. The chairlift ride reveals some of the more jaw-dropping elements at Highland, including hair-raising drops, nose-bleed jumps and vertigo-inducing wooden berms (most trails, however, do have “escape routes” that skirt the most difficult sections).
Following two quick rips along Easy Rider/Meadows End and the Freedom Trail, I checked on Lauri, who was still ailing from the aftereffects of her fall two days earlier. Moreover, my chronically balky right ankle was starting to throb after three days of hard riding. Taking a good look at my wife, still brandishing fresh scrapes, I decided that discretion was the better part of valor, and called it a day.
But I plan to do this weekend loop again. Soon. Likely clockwise, starting with Highland next time. Because there’s a crazy number of trails that we still need to explore.
For additional details on each resort, including hours, lessons, camps and rentals, and prices for each, visit each resort’s respective website.