On Jan. 29, a blizzard tore through New England and laid as much as 2 1/2 feet of snow throughout southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island. That’s not exactly where skiers and riders had hoped the fluffy, dry powder that the storm produced would wind up.
If more than two feet of snow, the quality of which usually could be found in Utah, had dropped farther to the north, in the White and Green mountains, we’d be talking about an epic powder day. Instead, it was in Boston, where diehards were taking the most advantage of the goods, skiing down the streets of Beacon Hill after the blizzard’s southernly track.
The resignation that the storm wasn’t headed for the mountains came with some snide settlement that the storm was, at least, giving Yawgoo Valley a quality powder day.
So, what’s a powder day like anyway at Yawgoo Valley, the only ski area in Rhode Island, where skiers can expect a peak elevation of 315 feet and a vertical of only 245 feet?
Well, for starters, it’s groomed.
“Skiing in a bunch of powder without a vertical is very difficult,” Yawgoo general manager Tracy Hartman said. “That’s one thing people don’t understand. They like to come out in the powder. What’s actually better for us is if it’s a couple of inches of powder over our base. That makes for a nice day. But a foot of powder does not make for good skiing at Yawgoo.”
Yawgoo Valley always has held a sort of mystical presence to many skiers and riders, a trivia answer that Rhode Island can boast as the only one of its kind within state borders. Yawgoo, located in Exeter, isn’t a household name, even in Rhode Island itself, where Hartman said she still meets plenty of residents who are surprised the ski area is located right in their backyard.
According to New England Ski History, the idea for the ski area dated back to the 1960s, when Richard Downs was working on his parents’ summer camp property and sought to develop a winter business. At the suggestion of a neighbor, Downs acquired property on the 295-foot, southeast peak of Yorker Hill and began cutting trails. Yawgoo opened in time for the 1964-65 season.
Since the beginning, getting the word out about a ski area in Rhode Island always has been challenging. But that’s nothing compared to what the weather can do in a state more known for sailing.
“Rhode Island, I think, is a little more used to the ups and downs, the roller coaster, because of where we are situated, right near the ocean,” Hartman said. “We have a lot more to contend with those rain/snow lines. A lot of the time we’re in the rain line.”
It is, of course, no surprise then that snowmaking — and getting creative with the product — is vital for Yawgoo’s viability.
“It’s taken a very long time to get people to understand that we do make our own snow,” Hartman said. “We know how to strategically make some piles that last a couple of days and then we put if back together. Like a puzzle, really.”
With snowmaking on 100 percent of its terrain (14 trails serviced by two lifts and two rope tows) Yawgoo also depends on temperatures cold enough to make snow, something that isn’t as consistent as it might be in more northernly regions. “It’s all weather-dependent for us,” Hartman said.
Yawgoo has 17 snow guns at its disposal, pumping out 56,000 gallons of water per hour
This season, a warm stretch lingered into December in Rhode Island, which meant Yawgoo saw a late start, finally opening for the season on Jan. 3. That meant missing out on valuable school vacation visitors.
Even so, Hartman said it has been a fairly busy season.
“This year, we’ve had more snow than we did last year, so that kind of helped draw people out,” she said, adding that the ski area’s five-week learn to ski or snowboard program made it through its duration with no problem. The January lesson program is one of Yawgoo’s calling cards.
“We feel like we’re a learning area, for sure,” Hartman said. “Our programs and lessons are really geared toward the tiny kids — 3- to 4-year-olds, up to 12, 14. We do adult programs as well but they’re not as popular. Once the kids kind of know what they’re doing, they get their driver’s licenses, and they’re definitely moving on to other, bigger places that challenge them.”
Due to the short season in Rhode Island, Yawgoo is able to offer only one learning program each season. This program, which attracts some 1,400 students to the slopes, begins in January with classes held once a week for five consecutive weeks. Registration for the January program takes place during the second or third week of September every year. There is a lottery enrollment process due to high demand. More details are typically announced around Labor Day.
Yawgoo also has a junior race club that is available to join. No prior racing experience is required. Private lessons are available for groups up to five ($119 for one student, $299 for a group of five).
Lift ticket rates begin at $40 for adults (Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, 3-8 p.m.), $35 juniors (ages 5-12). Add $15 to the cost for full-day weekend sessions. Season pass information for the 2022-23 season will be made public later this month. Equipment rentals are $30 for any session, day or age. Rental includes skis, boots and poles or a snowboard and boots. It does not include helmets or goggles.
Hartman has been the general manager at Yawgoo for seven years, but her family has owned the ski area since 1980. That has allowed her to witness multiple generations learning to ski at Yawgoo Valley.
“If you have a good product, consistently, people tell their friends,” Hartman said. “I think what has really helped us over the last couple years was people looking for outdoor activities.”
On that note, visitors also will find snow tubing, a 90-minute session ($30) that requires no skills in order to thrust yourself down one of seven carved lanes.
“That really propelled us through the pandemic,” Hartman said. “(People) not wanting to go through the whole process of renting skis, taking lessons. That takes investment. Tubing, it’s get together and have some fun for 90 minutes.”
The tubing park is open Friday-Sunday through the end of March.
During the summer months (beginning in July), Yawgoo has a small water park (it also happens to be the only one in the state) that features a water slide and pools. There’s also a summer camp, with more information coming later in February at yawgoo.com/waterpark/camp.
Note: March 13 was the final day of the 2021-22 season for Yawgoo Valley.
Eric Wilbur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.