One look at the suspended obstacle course, the zip line tour with suspension bridges and rappels, the giant inflatable, fall-like-a-stunt-person bag, and the bungee trampoline, and you’d swear you were auditioning for “American Ninja Warrior.”
Nope. This is Okemo Mountain Resort, summer edition. If you think the thrills disappear at New England ski resorts when the snow vanishes, you are very, very wrong. Wary of fickle winter weather and eager to increase their summer business, the region’s ski mountains are ramping up the adrenalin level with action aplenty when those white hills sprout velvety green.
It’s no secret that mountain bikers take to the ski lifts and pound down the slopes on knobby tires after mud season, including at a brand new bike park at Mount Sunapee, but every summer brings more to do in the mountains. Zip line courses through the treetops are practically obligatory these days, and who can resist the stomach-churning allure of a mountain coaster? Those who’d rather just savor the pine-scented summer breeze can take it down a notch with gentler pursuits, including scenic gondola rides and waterfall hikes, even panning for gold. Here are some fun reasons to head for the (ski) hills this summer.
Just two hours west of Boston, the tiny town of Charlemont, Mass., is outdoor fun central. It’s the base for whitewater rafting trips on the Deerfield River, and home to the Berkshire East ski resort (www.berkshireeast.com), where thrill-seekers can experience the Thunderbolt, North America’s longest mountain coaster. An alpine slide-roller coaster hybrid, the Thunderbolt chugs along 1,580 feet through the woods, and then the cart disengages, and, whoa, baby! Gravity takes over, whooshing the cart and its squealing inhabitants around banked corners, swooping turns, rolling drops, and 360-degree spins. Each cart has a braking system, so you can slow it down if the fun gets too terrifying. But how bad can it be? The minimum age for a driver is 9, and even 3-year-olds can ride along. Make a day of it, and have a go at the zip line canopy tour, and the new mountain biking trails at Thunder Mountain Bike Park.
We can’t wait to visit the new Gunstock summer tubing park, where sensation-seeking types like us can zoom through the woods on the new Alpine Coaster (set to open July 4th weekend), glide down a 300-foot track, or bounce onto a “Big Air Bag” used by professional stunt people. Or, to get that “I’m-the-next-big-Marvel-hero-slash-heroine” feeling, try jumping off a 12- or 20-foot platform into a stunt bag. To sample all of this, and a dozen more activities, pony up for a Discover Pass at Gunstock Mountain Adventure Park (www.gunstock.com).
Anyone who thinks ski resorts are sleepy in summertime has never been to Stowe. More than a million folks head to this Vermont mountain town in summer, three times as many visitors as Stowe hosts during ski season. This year, they’ll be queuing up for the new, $80 million Adventure Center, featuring the Stowe Rocks climbing gym. And while zip-lining tours are becoming ubiquitous in these parts, the one at Stowe (www.stowe.com) is pretty major. Its operators contend the Zip-Top adventure is among the world’s fastest, hitting speeds up to 80 miles per hour. Guests take the gondola to the top of Mount Mansfield and zip down three spans to the bottom. The tree top adventure course sounds cool, too, for those young and old with the skills to navigate an aerial challenge course strung between 60 trees.
Your pulse will be racing before you even get to Smugglers’ Notch (www.smuggs.com), if you choose notorious Route 108, the fiendishly twisty Smugglers’ Notch Pass, as your route. (This road is closed in wintertime. Obviously.) Once you get to this Vermont family favorite, you can keep the action amped up or mellow out. The former: a zip line canopy tour and tree top obstacle course, plus mountain biking at every level, including single track for expert riders. The latter: eight heated outdoor pools and two reservoirs for swimming and lounging. We had one of our best family vacations ever at Smuggs in the summertime, playing in the pools, hiking nearby trails, and making S’mores every night. Smuggs’ summer appeal is no secret; the resort hosts approximately the same number of families in summer as winter.
Test out your mad ninja skills at Okemo Mountain Resort (www.okemo.com), in Ludlow, Vt. In addition to one of those set-ups where you leap from a platform (either 15- or 30-feet tall) into a giant inflatable bag, they’ve got a bungee trampoline, a climbing tower, a zip line course, a challenge course — basically anything you’d need to train for a reality TV competition. There’s also have a fun option for little ones: the newly-opened Coleman Brook Mining Co., where kids can use a screen tray and water as a sluice to pan for gems, minerals, and fossils.
Besides being located in Bethel, one of the prettiest of Maine’s western mountain towns, Sunday River Resort is the only off-site home of the L.L. Bean Outdoor Discovery Schools. These folks are total champs when it comes to teaching newbies how to shoot an arrow at a target and paddle a kayak. For information, visit www.sundayriver.com/llbean.
Meanwhile, Sugarloaf (www.sugarloaf.com) isn’t loafing when it comes to summer fun. Guided adventures are the ticket at this Carrabassett Valley resort — where guides will lead you on paddle tours of the Dead River, hiking treks to local waterfalls, and — always a favorite — evening moose-watching safaris.
And if it seems really strange to get into a gondola or chairlift without ski boots on, get over it — the views are quite incredible when the snow is gone and the ski hills are carpeted with Alpine wildflowers. If you get the chance to do this, take it, but there are a couple of scenic rides that boast extra-cool views. The aerial tramway cable car at Cannon Mountain (www.cannonmt.com) whisks you up the 4,080-foot summit in less than 10 minutes, with views of mountain peaks in four states and Canada. Spend some time at the top meandering the walking paths or taking in even loftier views from the observation deck. And you can’t beat the views of Lake Winnipesaukee from the chairlift at Gunstock Mountain in New Hampshire’s Lakes Region.