My Subaru — a 2017 Forester Premium — says a great deal about me. It’s utilitarian, with all-wheel drive, good gas mileage (30-plus), comfy seats, and plenty of room, especially headroom for my 6-foot-3 frame. It’s also fun, with a nice (but not exceptional) sound system, a big moonroof, and, most importantly, an increasingly rare six-speed manual transmission. Because I love to actually drive.
As a result, at the dealership, I walked right past a number of other swanky Subarus with all kinds of bells and whistles — Outbacks and Crosstreks and WRXs and other Foresters — to find mine.
That’s why my car reminds me of Cannon Mountain in upstate New Hampshire.
Unless you’re traveling east from St. Johnsbury, Vt., or dropping in from Bretton Woods, you’re more than likely driving north to Cannon. And if you’re motoring along I-93 to get to there, you’re going to pass a number of outstanding ski areas, most notably Waterville Valley and Loon. Just like me marching past a row of fine automobiles. To get to exactly the one I wanted. And that, in a nutshell, explains just how exceptional the skiing and riding is at Cannon, for the right person.
“There’s nothing ‘fancy’ about Cannon,” said John “J.D.” DiVivo, Cannon’s general manager. “We’re just a great big family ski area that happens to have really passionate team members and guests and some seriously kick-ass terrain. And we’re always looking to expand and improve, never sitting back and relaxing.”
My friend and colleague, Lafe Low, who has been making the trek to Cannon since competing in a high school ski race following the Blizzard of ’78, shares DiVivo’s enthusiasm.
“There is no other mountain that has captured my heart and soul like Cannon,” Low said. “Cannon is old-school New England — the deep sense of skiing history, ski racing history, the setting in Franconia Notch.
“People have been skiing there their entire lives. I love the steep, narrow, winding trails, the views, even the wind and cold.”
I knew what Low meant long before I met my good friend. As a teenager growing up in Manchester, N.H., my two favorite Granite State mountains were Wildcat and Cannon, and not necessarily in that order. These were “skier’s mountains,” short on frills and long on pitch. My friends and I had strong wills and strong legs and didn’t mind waking up well before dawn to make the long trek north. On rare occasions, we’d arrive the night before, complete with old down jackets, Army surplus sleeping bags and blankets (note that these days, overnight camping is permitted only in the Cannon RV Park).
I was immediately infatuated with Cannon’s front five — Avalanche, Paulie’s Folly, Zoomer (all black diamonds), Rocket and Gary’s (intermediate trails) — that today spill from the top of the 1,800-foot Zoomer triple chair down to Echo Lake. These runs always have been steep and fast (sometimes too fast, given their penchant for getting skied off), meaning they were perfectly suited for our youthful bomber style.
Next door was Mittersill, a legendary ski area that intrigued me but failed to lure me away from Cannon. At the time — the mid-1970s — Mittersill was in the midst of a long, slow downturn, an unfortunate fall from a heyday that spanned the mid-1950s to the early 1970s (including the installation of snowmaking in 1957, shortly after a connecting trail was cut to the newly opened Peabody Slopes at Cannon).
The privately-held Mittersill ski area and resort — complete with its grandiose five-story inn — was the quintessential European escape, similar to North Conway, and I figured I’d have plenty of time to explore it in the coming years. But then came college and my early newspaper career, and my ski gear got mothballed.
I renewed my love affair with Cannon in my late 20s, after I finally got a reporting job that paid something more than starvation wages. I ran out and got new skis and boots. Then I made the straight shot up Interstate 93 through Franconia Notch (actually, my roommate, Keith, drove, while I slept), past the Old Man of the Mountain, more than a decade before his granite facade came tumbling down in 2003.
It didn’t take me long to get reacclimated. Like getting together with your pals at a high school reunion, Cannon felt right from my first turns. Keith and I hopped aboard the chairlift at the historic Peabody Lodge and headed to mid-mountain. For the next five hours, I was in heaven, trusting my muscle memory and new gear to erase eight years of rust, carving up runs like Middle and Lower Ravine, Rock Garden, Middle and Lower Hardscrabble. What I remember most, though, was the spectacular panorama to the north, and an unmistakable sensation that I was back home.
Cannon’s terrain, remarkably, felt the same as it had a decade earlier. The trails always have been more traditional cuts. Perhaps even more remarkable, that layout really hasn’t changed all that much to this day.
“Most of our trails are more the narrow, old-school New England type — there really aren’t any wide-open boulevard cruisers. Be ready to make turns,” DiVivo said, adding that Cannon’s tree skiing also put a premium on edge control. “Most of our glades are pretty steep and pretty tight, a la Mad River Glen, rather than being steep and semi-steep and much more open, a la Sunday River or Jay Peak.”
Meanwhile, Mittersill, which had shuttered in 1984 after its National Forest permit expired, continued to deteriorate, though it was regarded as a gem by backcountry enthusiasts. In 2009, after years of negotiations and inactivity, Mittersill and the Taft CCC Ski Trail (dating back to the 1930s) were acquired by Cannon via a land swap with the federal government. At the time, DeVivo was quoted in The Boston Globe as saying that “I can’t overstress the fact that it’s going to remain rough,” adding that “once we do clear-cutting or full-blown grooming, you can’t go back.”
That work began in earnest, with new lifts and snowmaking established and a number of trails widened over the next six years, all while backcountry skiing was banned.
Under DeVivo’s watchful eye, Cannon has continued to improve over the past decade, and like many New England resorts, weathered the COVID pandemic. This season, Cannon is expected to open on Nov. 26 for its 84th winter, giving even more credence to its moniker, “New Hampshire’s Living Legend.”
For those who prefer to paint a picture with statistics, here’s what Cannon offers by the numbers: Combined with Mittersill, Cannon has 97 trails and glades, which translates to 25 miles of trails over 285 skiable acres (Cannon: 185, Mittersill: 100) and 2,180 feet of vertical from the 4,080-foot Cannon Mountain peak (the longest vertical drop in the state from the highest ski area summit, while Mittersill’s peak measures at 3,650 feet). The trail network breaks down to 15 percent beginner, 52 percent intermediate and 33 percent expert. Snowmaking is provided on 192 of the 285 acres, which supplements an average annual snowfall of about 160 inches.
The fleet of 11 lifts, able to withstand a capacity of roughly 11,000 skiers per hour, includes the famed 70-passenger Aerial Tramway; one detachable quad chair; two fixed-grip quad chairs; three triple chairs; one fixed-grip double chair; one T-Bar; one handle tow; and one wonder carpet.
In short, there are plenty of options for everyone.
“There’s really no ‘typical’ Cannon skier or rider, per se,” said DiVivo. “Our terrain is a bit more aggressive than most of the other areas in New Hampshire, and we feel that that breeds a bit more aggressive skier or rider.
“But we really are a big family, with most of our core families having been here for three, four, five generations. And we’re always welcoming new families.”
For those with youngsters and/or first-timers in tow, the Tuckerbrook Family Area, just to the west of the Peabody Lodge, accessible from both Cannon and Mittersill, allows parents and kids to dabble in the sport in a safe and secure environment.
But Cannon’s bread and butter continues to be the mountain’s exceptional variety of terrain. DiVivo encourages guests to “ski and hike up and over The Saddle — upper intermediates and above — to get to Mittersill, and ski all of the lift and terrain areas.”
“You’ll be amazed at how the folks at the bottom on the beginner terrain actually share all of the same fantastic views,” he said. “After riding the Tram or Cannonball Quad, take the mandatory selfie or group photo with Mount Lafayette in the background. And if you’re truly an upper-level skier or rider (be honest with yourself) and if they’re open, then give DJ’s Tramline and the Mittersill Liftline a try.”
I personally approve of DeVivo’s approach. The Aerial Tramway, on the east side of the mountain, is a special treat for those of us who don’t travel to western resorts often. If we get to Cannon early enough, before the crowds descend, I like to start my day at the Tramway, and then ski the mountain east to west, turn around at Mittersill, and head back. That gives me a chance to explore everything Cannon has to offer, twice.
Of course, everyone has his or her preferred routes. That’s going to happen at a place that offers this kind of range.
“One day, skiing Zoomer, the snow was simply perfect,” Low said. “It was mid-afternoon and I kind of had to get going. Zoomer was skiing so beautifully, I think I had five or six ‘last runs.’ My favorite run though, or rather combination of runs, would be Upper Cannon to Paulie’s Extension, and down Paulie’s Folly. Perfect.”
All that skiing and riding will work up an appetite. To satisfy the resulting hunger pangs, check out the Lafayette Food Court, a full grab-and-go-style cafeteria located in the Peabody Base Lodge, the Cannonball Pub (also at the Peabody Lodge) with a full bar and menu, the To-Go Window located slopeside at the Brookside end of the Cannonball Pub (with chicken tenders, mac and cheese, chili and burgers), Powder Makers at the Notchview Lodge (waffles, chili, soups, hot beverages, beer and wine), and Café 4080, with light fare and a full bar at the Tram Summit Lodge. The Tramway Country Store at the Tram Base Lodge has prepackaged snacks and drinks, but I also like to warm up with coffee, hot cocoa and muffins to start the day.
What’s new for 2021-22? According to DiVivo, visitors can expect to find “several tweaks” to Cannon’s mid-mountain slopes to enhance “skiability and to improve snowmaking operations,” plus a new groomer to help buff out those trails. The new Mittersill Performance Center is a 9,000-square-foot, public-access mini-lodge and headquarters for the Franconia Ski Club, and there’s a new bag-check room at the Peabody Lodge.
Cannon also is “easing up a bit on COVID polices, but we’re all aware that this certainly isn’t over,” DiVivo said. “We’ll encourage mask usage indoors by staff and guests alike, and we’ll encourage and embody a ‘fresh air outdoors’ mentality.”
Visitors are encouraged to visit Cannon’s website (cannonmt.com) for the latest policies.
“We’ll likely run the Aerial Tramway Friday through Sunday each week, and daily during holiday periods,” DiVivo said. “And we’re still finalizing specific building schedules. As an example, this year we’ll use the building known since 1976 as ‘Ernie’s Haus,’ the longtime headquarters for the Franconia Ski Club, as a warming hut and not a base lodge from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekends and holidays. But it may eventually be transitioned to a lodge or food-and-beverage venue.”
The rental and repair/tuning shops, also located at the Peabody Lodge (if you’re renting, advanced reservations are recommended), are expected to be open during regular hours. The same holds for the New England Ski Museum. DeVivo expects the Snowsports School at the Brookside Learning Center to operate, but those programs were still being evaluated in late October. Unfortunately, childcare won’t be offered this season.
“With this being a bit of a wait-and-see type season, we’re still utilizing our advance online ticketing program to manage our weekend and holiday crowds,” DeVivo said. “We’re happy to be running an events and fireworks schedule again this season.”
But all these things — amenities and events — are, quite honestly, bonuses. Bells and whistles, if you will. Because the real attraction at Cannon is the hill. Pure and simple. It’s been that way for me for almost 50 years. And I’ve got company.
“Cannon is indeed a unique place, or at least it is certainly unique to me,” Low said. “I’m happy when I have skis on my feet anywhere, but for me it’s always better at Cannon.”
Where to stay/eat
Franconia boasts an interesting mix of lodging options, from the “walk back through time” experiences of the Mittersill Alpine Resort (originally opened in 1945 by the Baron Hubert von Pantz), the fabulous Inn at Sunset Hill, which dates back to 1880, and the delightful Franconia Inn, which has been hosting guests since 1863 and features a cross-country ski center and 45 kilometers of groomed trails, plus ice skating, tubing and snowshoeing. The Adair Country Inn and Restaurant in Bethlehem — a country estate built in 1927 — is another historic option.
There also are a number of more traditional “big box” hotels, such as the Best Western White Mountain Inn in Franconia, Holiday Inn Express and Suites, Quality Inn and Suites, and the Days Inn by Wyndham, all in Lincoln.
Iron Furnace Brewing in Franconia is a terrific après-ski alternative, as are Rek-lis Brewing Company or Rosa Flamingos, in nearby Bethlehem.
A few miles north of Cannon is Littleton, a funky little community right on I-93. There are a number of great amenities here, starting with the Irving gas station at the bottom of the exit ramp. Yup, a gas station, with one of those cheesy-but-handy convenience stores. Most gas stations in the North Country apply the “tourist penalty,” charging top dollar. This Irving doesn’t, and that’s a welcome relief when we have to refuel after the long drive from Boston’s North Shore.
Downtown, Littleton features a classic main street which is called, predictably, Main Street, and a terrific collection of cool shops, ethnic restaurants and a thriving arts scene. I love staying at the historic Thayers Inn, sandwiched between Main Street and the mighty Ammonoosuc River, the driving force in Littleton’s early establishment as a mill town (named after Colonel Moses Little when it was incorporated in 1784).
There’s also a robust dining scene in Littleton that offers great rewards for those famished after hours of skiing or riding. Two favorites are Schilling Beer Company and Littleton Freehouse Taproom & Eatery. Asian foodies have numerous choices, with Chang Thai Cafe, Taste the Thai, Asian Garden Restaurant and Jing Fong Chinese Restaurant, while Mexican enthusiasts can sample Alburrito’s Mexican Restaurant.
Need to chill after a day making turns? Check out one of several yoga studios — Iyengar Yoga North, “The Barn” Yoga Studio, Root to Bloom Studio, or Restorative Health Therapies.
Finally, if you’re a breakfast person, stroll over to the Littleton Diner. Trust me on this. In operation since the mid-1930s, this diner is a favorite for both locals and visitors, and deservedly so. The portions are generous and the prices are fair, so you can fuel up for a day on the slopes without emptying your wallet. I can’t stop by without ordering the homemade corned beef hash and eggs.
Major events on the Cannon winter schedule include:
Dec. 4 – Local Food Drive
Dec. 18 – Ski Patrol fundraiser and Matchstick Productions Movie Premier
Jan. 4 – Family Fun Night with fireworks and rope tow (also held on Jan. 15 and Feb. 26)
Jan. 23 – Military Appreciation Day
March 19 – BodeFest
March 26 – ’80s Day
April 9 – Splash Pond
Franconia Notch State Park
260 Tramway Drive
Franconia, NH 03580
Snow Conditions: 603-823-7771
Brion O’Connor can be reached at [email protected].