For winter adventurers looking for an experience that counters the pre-fab alpine ambiance at Mont-Tremblant, the smaller, less-trodden mountains of the Laurentian region — home to the largest concentration of ski areas in Eastern Canada — are the answer.
The Laurentians have an intriguing ski history, one that began in the early 20th century when a smattering of ski clubs popped up throughout the region. The clubs attracted swarms of skiers from nearby Montreal, who came by train and spent winters schussing through the snowy woods on an extensive network of trails blazed by local legend Herman “Jackrabbit” Smith-Johannsen. Though Nordic skiing reigned in the Laurentians, the advent of the rope tow introduced the effortlessness of downhill. With Smith-Johannsen’s help, Fred Pabst, of Milwaukee beer fame, installed one of the earliest tows (ropes) on Hill 70 at Saint-Sauveur-des-Monts in 1933 and Quebec’s alpine tradition was born.
These days, a dozen snug resorts dot the mountain landscape along Autoroute 15, which winds north from Montreal through quaint French-Canadian villages with names like Sainte-Adèle, Saint-Faustin-Lac-Carré, and Saint-Donat. Though the region’s trails skew toward the milder side — with the exception of the venerable Mont-Tremblant, the vertical tops out around 1,000 feet — the terrain is both varied and interesting. You’ll find plenty of steep glades tucked in among easy greens and blue groomers, while hidden powder stashes and a handful of terrain parks deliver thrills.
The current strength of the US dollar paired with the Laurentians’ affordable ticket prices and accommodation options makes now an excellent time for a winter trip to La Belle Province. Not to mention, lunch in a traditional sugar shack or après-ski poutine washed down with a brew from one of the region’s many microbrasseries never hurt anyone.
One of the region’s oldest ski areas — and the site of Pabst’s 1933 rope tow — Saint-Sauveur is part of Les Sommets, a collection of five hills spread throughout the Saint-Sauveur Valley. Two peaks make up Saint-Sauveur — the main mountain and the adjacent versant Avila, home to a freestyle park, a dedicated learning area, and an impressive, lift-served snow-tubing area. Renowned for its snowmaking, which covers 100 percent of the resort’s 143 skiable acres, as well as boundary-to-boundary night skiing, Saint-Sauveur remains a local favorite. It’s not uncommon for folks to pop in to ski a few postwork runs under the lights and then stay for the vibrant après scene at T-Bar 70.
Be sure to stop into Saint-Sauveur village for a meander along Rue Principal. Spend an hour or so learning about the region’s captivating snowsports history in the Musée du Ski Laurentides. Tucked down a side street, the snug museum houses a trove of artifacts — antique skis and snowshoes, old photographs, original trail maps — alongside a bounty of back story and local lore. Afterward, tuck into sweet and savory crêpes as well as classic raclettes and fondues at the cozy Crêperie Bretonne, a longtime Saint-Sauveur institution.
After Tremblant, family owned Mont Blanc is both the second highest mountain in the Laurentians and the region’s only other full-service resort, with both a ski-in, ski-out hotel and slopeside condominiums. 43 trails zigzag across three mountain faces and feature a respectable mix of terrain including some alluring glades and a reimagined freestyle park packed with dynamic new features.
Families aiming to accommodate multiple ability levels will find something for everyone on Mont Blanc and Mont Faustin — from wide green cruisers like Yodel and Panda to steeper runs down Lynx or the challenging, double-black Sous-Bois. Meanwhile, skiers and riders looking to up the adventure ante will find a cluster of intermediate and advanced trails — many with vine-inspired names like Beaujolais, Chianti, and Chardonnay — on Mont Blanc Nord. When it’s time for a break, head to the cabane à sucre — sugar shack — at the summit of Mount Faustin to partake in the Quebecois tradition of tire sur la neige, drizzling hot maple syrup onto the snow and, after letting it cool for a moment, twisting the gooey treat onto Popsicle sticks.
Another member of Les Sommets, Morin Heights has been described as a miniature Vermont, with 36 trails that wind through 90 acres of snowy, New England-esque forest. Perfect for families, Morin Heights’ terrain runs the gamut from beginner to expert, including a smattering of black diamond runs with fun names like Fritz’s Fling, Flying Dutchman, and Lollipop. In addition to its alpine offerings, Morin Heights continues to nurture the Laurentians’ Nordic tradition, maintaining 80 miles of cross-country trails amid a picturesque winter landscape. A network of scenic snowshoeing and fat-biking trails rounds out the snowy adventures.
Le P’tit Train du Nord
The Little Northern Train, as it translates, delivered thousands of skiers to the Laurentian Mountains from Montreal beginning around 1910. The “snow trains” stopped running in 1981 and in 1996 the former rail line became a recreational trail in an effort to boost tourism in the region. Today the linear park, which runs for 145-miles from Saint-Jerome in the south to Mont-Laurier in the north, is a prime cross-country corridor, providing skiers with a beautifully groomed pathway into a pristine winter wonderland.
Nordic enthusiasts can ski the park’s easy grade on a 27-mile stretch between Saint-Jerome and Val-David, part of which winds through the Parc régional de la Rivière-du-Nord, or on a 10-mile stretch from the village of Mont-Tremblant to Lac Mercier. Along the way, historic railroad stations have been transformed into cozy cafés, some with their own pocket-size museums and galleries, while trailside villages like Prévost and Val-David invite skiers to rest for a spell in their boutiques, bakeries, and pubs.
Gina DeCaprio Vercesi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.