Before ski season comes list season. Magazines and websites do a wonderful job building excitement for the winter ahead with pieces that rate everything — the mountains, gear, apres-ski options, and even the snow.
They’re all a ton of fun, too. Put anything into a list and it becomes an instant debate or discussion. How many places on the list have you been to, or does one really deserve to be higher than the other become fodder for hours of chatter.
Many even attempt to cover for a lot of the variables inherent in listing things, using a variety of methodologies. For example, Liftopia’s recent “Best in Snow” and Ski Magazine’s “Top 50 Resorts” features both have separate lists for specific aspects of the skiing experience, like best for families, best value, and character.
But here’s the thing: A lot of times these rankings can’t give you a sense of what ski areas are really good for, or what makes them unique. They’re too general, even those that subdivide.
So we’re going to do a list, too. But we’re going to focus on superlatives that help illustrate what truly defines some of New England’s top destinations.
Of course it’s one man’s perspective, although this one man has skied for 35 years, almost entirely in New England, and I’m left with distinct impressions from many ski areas. These are the things I almost immediately recall when certain areas are brought up.
I’m open to debate, though.
Most likely to get you hooked on glades: Jay Peak. I’d been afraid of glades for years, mostly a case of diving into the deep end too soon. But a guided tour from Jay local Susan Graham Staples introduced me to Jay’s ample and varied glades, many of considerably easier levels, and things progressed from there. Now I say bring them on.
Most likely to make you want to ski until last chair: Loon Mountain. Go to the summit of North Peak and take Sunset, then swing behind Loon Peak on Bear Claw Extension to Upper and Lower Speakeasy. It’s the perfect cap to any day, but especially when you can see the sun as it sets.
Most likely to surprise you if you’ve never been: Ski Sundown. This small Connecticut hill has some really interesting runs, especially Tom’s Treat to Canyon Run to Exhibition for a great cruiser, or Gunbarrel for experts.
Most likely to make you want to stay the whole season: Killington. With six peaks and so much terrain, plus a season that can run from late October into May thanks to an amazing snowmaking operation, I’ve often thought that a sabbatical there would probably be just about the most interesting half-year an East Coast skier could spend. Plus the surrounding area, with so many lodging, dining, and entertainment options, really makes Killington just about perfect.
Most likely to make you a sun worshiper: Bromley. There is no better place on a bluebird day, because Bromley’s southern exposure is the reason it calls itself “Vermont’s Sun Mountain.”
Most likely to blow your mind with the view at the mountaintop: Gunstock. The views of Lake Winnipesaukee are breathtaking. Wildcat is a very close second here with its views of Mount Washington.
Most unique: Mad River Glen. By its very nature — it’s the only New England ski area at which snowboarders are not allowed — it qualifies for this designation, but other things also support it. They include the famous single chair, the co-operative of skiers that owns and manages it, and the general philosophy that is embodied in the slogan “Ski it if you can.”
Most likely to get your kids hooked on snowsports: Nashoba Valley. This small hill is perfect for learning, with a gentle beginner area and larger slopes that are not intimidating. You’re also never too far from the base lodge.
Most likely to make you wish you’d discovered it sooner: Ragged Mountain. In addition to being one of the best ticket deals around, Ragged has some really fun terrain for all levels on two peaks. On Ragged Mountain, Easy Winder top to bottom is a blast, and on Spear Mountain, Flying Yankee is a great spot to pretend you’re a ski racer.
Most likely place to ski the same run a dozen times in a row: Sunday River. When the conditions are just right on Lollapalooza at Jordan Bowl — like say a weekday in mid-January – it’s about as addictive as it gets. I know this firsthand, and the Jordan Bowl Express lift makes it possible to hit this 12 times in 90 minutes or less.
Most likely to make you like night skiing: Wachusett. This is another case of something I never really cared for until I found it done right. Almost all of Wachusett’s terrain is open at night, it’s well-lit, and an added bonus is they groom the trails in the evenings so night skiers aren’t just plowing through the leftovers from the daytime crowd. Wachusett also has a vibrant base area, a hidden-away snack shack on the mountain, and excellent lift-line control to manage the crowds.
Most likely to make you feel like you’re skiing the North Pole: Cannon. This is not a slight. What makes Cannon great is its rugged beauty, challenging terrain, and, yes, often the bitter cold associated with north-facing slopes. It’s a go-home-and-brag-you-survived kind of place, but there’s plenty of room around the fireplaces in the lodge to warm you up during breaks, and the conversation tends to be friendly and cheerful.
Makes the most of what it has: Ski Butternut. For years this was a go-to not only because the weekday tickets were such a good deal (I can remember when they were $15, and I can also remember when it was called Butternut Basin), but because it’s such fun to explore. Unlike many connector trails, Crosstown is fun in its own right but is also the doorway to almost everything else. And you can get very addicted to Freewheeler on the right flank of the two-peak area.
Most fun: Okemo. I can recall only one bad experience at Okemo, and it’s not Okemo’s fault in any way. It involved trying to show off for a certain young lady by bringing her to the top of a black diamond, and I’m reminded of it every time Okemo is mentioned when my wife and I plan trips. But what makes Okemo so fun is the massive amount of trails in close proximity, making it possible to ski like 40 different runs in a day.
Most worth a long drive: Sugarloaf. This giant hulk of a mountain has so much to offer. From the above-treeline Snowfields to the amazingly entertaining Moose Alley, which is supposed to be primarily for children but makes anyone feel like a kid, every day is its own adventure. Two added perks — Sugarloaf’s massive banked-turn course is as good as I’ve seen in New England, and The Bag serves the best ski area pizza I’ve had.
Most likely to succeed: Magic Mountain. I’ve spoken with Geoff Hatheway, the mover and shaker behind the revival at Magic, and that plus other stories about Magic have me convinced he’s going to make things work as he redevelops the area without sacrificing the down-to-earth vibe Magic is famous for.
Most likely to see a future X Games star: Mount Snow. With so much to offer in terms of terrain parks and features, it’s only a matter of time before the next Shaun White or Chloe Kim lists Mount Snow as their home mountain.
Most likely to find yourself on the lift with the area owner: Sugarbush. I’m told that not only does Win Smith ski all the time, he can sometimes be found having a cold one or a glass of wine with Sugarbush guests after the lifts close.
Most inexplicable phenomenon: Berkshire East. Even when the parking lot appears to be kind of full, the lift lines are short and the slopes uncrowded. I can’t figure out why, but I’ll happily take it. When I don’t want to fight crowds during peak times, this is always my destination.
Smartest: Mount Sunapee. The requirement that all gear bags be stowed in a downstairs room at the main lodge is brilliant. At some places, I’m not sure if I’ve walked into a garage sale or some crazy mid-season ski swap.
Most appealing to non-skiers who were dragged along for the day: Bretton Woods. The lodge is the best in New England. It’s not only spacious with multiple fireplaces and dining options, it has a climbing wall. How cool is that?
Most hard-core: Wildcat. I once saw a guy cooking breakfast in the auxiliary parking lot, beside the vehicle he probably slept in, in bare feet. I have also seen some of the most skilled skiers and riders here, probably because iron sharpens iron.