Skip the lines (and crowds) at these New England ski areas

Winter breaks and fresh powder are nothing short of a match made in ski heaven. Less than divine, however, is navigating crowded slopes and waiting in lift lines with mobs of other enthusiasts.

The good news is that with more than a 130 ski areas in New England, there are plenty of places to carve up the hill without battling the masses, starting with New Hampshire’s Black Mountain.

[Lead Photo: Andrew Drummond]

Located in the charming town of Jackson (complete with storybook covered bridge), Black Mountain boasts 45 trails and five lifts. Nestled among the White Mountains with stunning views of Mount Washington, it’s widely considered classic, old-school skiing, and for good reason: The resort has been around for nearly 84 years.

Installing the first rope tow back in 1935, Black Mountain soon added the first overhead cable lift in the country and in 1957, made history again, installing one of the first snowmaking systems in New England. Since then, it’s grown to 140 acres and is known for its southern-facing exposure, which means that wind holds are seldom, if ever, a problem, and skiers stay a whole lot warmer.

“You can ski in the sun all day long with an amazing view of Mount Washington Valley” said Joe Russo, Black Mountain internal operations manager.

But what really attracts those in the know is the lack of crowds.

“There’s never a lift line,” he said.

And at 1,300 feet, there’s always plenty of snow falling, creating “secret stashes” of powder according to Russo, that don’t disappear after the first couple runs of the day.

The Black Mountain season kicks off on Dec. 8 with a festive snow dance in which homage is appropriately paid to the ‘Snow Gods.’

Several seasonal events follow including chairlift speed dating (yes, please), held annually on the Saturday before Valentine’s Day, and “Friday Night Lights,” an uphill-downhill series held on select Friday nights, challenging skiers of all abilities to climb a lantern-lit course and enjoy some night skiing.

What makes Magic Mountain unique is its challenging terrain, including more than 50 trails and glades (and a few secret ones not on the map). (Courtesy of Magic Mountain)

Oh, oh, oh, it’s magic!

Founded nearly 60 years ago by Swiss ski instructor Hans Thorner, Magic Mountain ski area more than lives up to its enchanted name.

Located in southern Vermont in the quaint town of Londonderry, Magic Mountain is far from intimidated by big-name neighbors like Stratton, Okemo and Bromley. In fact, it relishes in its status as a throwback mountain, a designation well-earned considering its ski trails haven’t been modified since opening in 1960.

According to Geoff Hatheway, Magic Mountain president, what makes the ski area unique is its challenging terrain and the friendly people who come there to ski.

“They’re not here to shop or swim. They are here to ski and hang out with people who want to ski, ride, and have a mindset very much about the sport,” he said. “It’s a vibrant, fun, relaxing social scene.”

Best of all is that without any high-speed lifts to move people en masse, it keeps the pace chill and the mountain uncrowded. Additionally, Magic Mountain limits the number of lift tickets sold on any given day to ensure that the ski experience isn’t a frenetic one.

“We will not sell more than 1,500 tickets a day,” said Hatheway. “We want to keep the lines and slopes open and free of traffic as much as possible. We put a cap on things so the experience doesn’t change.”

Magic offers more than 50 trails and glades, including a few secret glades not on the map (challenge accepted), along with six chairlifts; two to the top, a brand new mid-mountain geared toward intermediates and novices, a beginner carpet and two handle-tows. The resort hopes to open by the first weekend in December.

On weekends and holiday weeks, skiers and non-skiers alike can take a break and enjoy snow tubing down Magic’s three-lane, 600-foot hill, located near the base lodge (hint: the bar provides a first-hand view).

Beginner’s luck

Learning to ski is about as easy as, well, learning to ski. Which for many novices, isn’t easy at all.

Located about an hour and half north of Hartford in Otis, Mass., family-friendly Otis Ridge is a great place for beginners and intermediates to become acclimated to the sport, without the added hassle of fighting the masses.

Established in 1946, the retro-style ski area has four lifts and 11 trails; relatively small in contrast to some of New England’s more high-octane areas, making it ideal for skiers searching for a slower pace. The resort also offers a number of programs for beginners and kids including a ski and snowboard program, with private and group lessons, along with the Otis Ridge Ski Camp.

Operating for more than 70 years, the ski camp is one of the oldest in the country and provides bed, board, instruction, lift tickets and supervision for kids ages 8 to 15. Designed to introduce and improve skiing techniques, as well as recreational fun, sessions last between three to five days and are scheduled around school breaks.

Keeping parental worries at a minimum, according to Otis Ridge business manager Jamie Carr, is that all the runs end in the same place.

“Kids can be really independent here,” she said.

If the weather cooperates, the mountain will open on Dec. 8, and kick off the season with another great beginner benefit, a package including a free lesson, rental, and lift ticket (beginner terrain only).

Although the size of the mountain keeps crowds to a minimum, Carr said, like almost all ski areas, peak times like Martin Luther King weekend and President’s week can get busy.

“It’s all relative,” she said. “Even if there’s a lift line, you’re not going to be standing for 45 minutes.”

And while Otis Ridge’s size and options make it well-suited for families and new skiers, there’s terrain for skiers of all abilities, including four intermediate and three expert trails.

Love on the rocks

Located an hour west of Portland on Pleasant Mountain, is Shawnee Peak, one of Maine’s oldest ski areas.

The resort was founded after a group of townspeople worked together in the mid-1930s to clear six ski trails and in the process, inadvertently spelled out the word, “LOV” on the north side of the mountain.

More than 80 years later, it’s still visible and often referred to as the ‘mountain of love.’

Though it can be seen during the day, the best time to get a look is at night when Shawnee Peak is alight as one of the few night-skiing destinations in the area. With 19 trails and four lifts open for evening skiers, it qualifies as the largest night-skiing operation in New England.

During the day Shawnee Peak boasts 40 trails, seven glades and three terrain parks, and at 249 acres, it’s a Goldilocks destination; not too big, not too small.

“We’re a medium-sized mountain,” explained Rachel Wilkinson, Shawnee Peak director of marketing. “We offer great skiing and riding for the entire family, your little guys, whoever is in the group. Beginners have a fantastic terrain with an allocated beginner area. But at the same time, if you’re skiing with a large group, there’s great terrain for them, too.”

Because it isn’t a big resort, the crowds are considerably smaller, she said, with little to no wait for the lifts.

“You can ski right onto the lift most days.”

Having been around for so long, Shawnee Peak ends up serving as a multigenerational ski resort with guests that learned to ski on the mountain returning years later to accompany their grandchildren, contributing to its family-friendly atmosphere.

Keeping things lively, however, are activity-packed weekends with events planned throughout the season including a zany mattress race down the resort’s main slope, fireworks and an annual Spring Fling weekend. There is no official opening date yet.

And that’s not all

Jeremey Davis, ski history author founder of the New England Lost Ski Areas Project offers a few additional suggestions on where to beat the crowds this season: Mt. Abram in Greenwood, Maine; Dartmouth Skiway in Lyme Center, N.H.; Campton Mountain in Campton Hollow, N.H.; Middlebury Snow Bowl in Vermont; Berkshire East Ski Resort in Charlemont, Mass.; and Mount Greylock Ski Club, a members-only ski club in South Williamstown, Mass., open on weekends and holidays (membership dues, ranging from $75 for a single adult to $150 per family, serve as a season pass to the resort, with no further fees for skiing, and new members are always welcome).

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