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Yawgoo: The tiny Rhode Island ski area with a huge, devoted following

Learning to ski at Yawgoo Valley Ski Area in Exeter, R.I. is a rite of passage for many Rhode Islanders

An instructor works with a student at the Yawgoo Valley Ski Area's snow sports school in Exeter, R.I.Yawgoo Valley Ski Area's Snow Sports School

EXETER, R.I. – Once upon a time, Rhode Island was home to four ski areas, which drew people from all around Southern New England. One by one, they shut down: Pine Top in West Greenwich, Diamond Hill and Ski Valley in Cumberland, and Neutaconkanut Hill in Providence.

Now, only one remains: Yawgoo Valley Ski Area.

“My dad was involved at the beginning when they first opened in the ‘60s,” said General Manager Tracy Hartman. Her father, Max de Wardener, took over management of the ski school in 1968. When he heard that the entire facility was for sale in 1980, he bought it.

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A water park was added in 1989 and a tubing park in the 1990s, allowing Yawgoo to operate all year round.

Learning to ski at Yawgoo is a rite of passage for many Rhode Islanders. With just 14 trails, the ski resort has a tiny footprint, but a large and devoted following.

“There are some people that have been [going] here for 40 years,” said Joel Daglieri, an operations manager whose responsibilities include operating the ski area’s 17 snow guns.

“Everyone knows everybody,” echoed Danielle D’Andrea, another operations manager. She started working at Yawgoo so she could learn to snowboard. She’s now been there for six winters.

“The rustic aesthetic is such an appeal,” said Angela Milas, 36. “I grew up skiing probably from about the time I was 5, and we skied at Yawgoo.”

But it’s not just the cozy, rustic vibe or the friendly neighborhood feel that keeps people coming. Yawgoo hosts Special Olympic events during the winter, and maintains a ski school with 95 instructors who teach approximately 1,200 ski students every week in private and group lessons. The current wait list for group lessons is 900 names long, with people selected via lottery. Daily lift tickets, which cost $33 to $59, sometimes sell out during the winters.

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Patti Davis, director of the Snow Sports School, said multiple generations of families have honed their skiing skills at Yawgoo.

“It’s in Exeter so if the lesson went badly, it wasn’t a situation where my mom was spending thousands of dollars to go to Vermont on vacation,” said Milas, about her childhood ski experience. “It was more affordable, but it was in close proximity to home. So it was a bit more manageable from that extent. So when it came time for my kids to get into Alpine sports—I’m a single mom of two—I elected Yawgoo myself for them.”

“Families come back, and we hire people because they’ve worked here before and they want to get their kids and their grandkids [to learn],” said Davis. “So it’s a family atmosphere.”

The environment is comfortable, but most visitors agree that the instruction is excellent. It’s a low-key but serious approach, with just the right amount of flexibility, according to Davis.

“I think the kids have fun,” Davis said. “Everybody knows everybody. And people can leave their kids here. They know they’re safe.”

“It’s a great place to learn to train, not as challenging as other places,” said D’Andrea. “Nobody’s yelling at you on the trails, they’re helping you… It’s just an incredible community.”

Milas, who grew up skiing at Yawgoo, now brings her kids, Emiliana, 5, and Alessandro, 4, there for private snowboard lessons on the weekends. “It feels like a community there, and it almost feels like a little slice out of life in Rhode Island. It’s only 30 minutes away from me, but I really do have that kind of cozy ‘Have a glass of wine on a Sunday’ ski lodge feel.”

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Yawgoo also features a restaurant, a bar, and a family friendly cafeteria. Ordering hot chocolate from the Snack Shack’s outdoor window is a popular rest opportunity between trails.

Hartman took over operations around 2016, when her father moved to Florida. The ski school he loved has grown into something much bigger.

“I think that has kept this place going,” said Hartman of the ski school. “And my dad was part of that in the early years. He just had a vision that he wanted to see this place thrive and as many people in the state learn to ski as possible.”