As the ski industry pendulum continues to swing the direction of homogenized mega-resorts, a balancing trend has begun to emerge, with skiers seeking out more authentic mountain experiences. Though you won’t find luxe, Frette linens or a ski concierge who buckles you into your boots, each of these scrappy, independent ski areas treats schussers to that mellow mountain magic and vintage ambience — great snow, après ski in your long johns, affordable lift tickets — often jilted by Instagrammable cocktails and highfalutin’ amenities.
While I enjoy maple-sugar body scrubs, artisanal lattes, and heated, high-speed bubble chairs as much as the next gal, there’s a lot to be said for a weekend away from the high-end mountain distractions that make time spent on snow second fiddle.
This list is by no means comprehensive — countless old-school mountain gems exist across the country and the people who love them remain fiercely loyal. From east to west, here’s a sampling of some of the best.
Under the dedicated leadership of local co-owners Rob Lally and Matt Hancock, this western Maine community mountain retains a soulful vibe and unpretentious attitude while setting a high standard for sustainability and clean energy. Five lifts, including the Way Back Machine double chair and two fixed-grip T-bars, service 51 trails. Monthly full-moon hikes, a tubing hill served by the Flying Squirrel lift, and a retro-après scene — mountain staff are treated to dollar drafts at the end of their shifts — create the recipe for a perfect ski trip.
Rescued last November by a group of friends who united to form Ski Magic LLC., Magic Mountain, opened in 1960 by Swiss ski instructor Hans Thorber, touts steep and deep mountain verticals paired with a low-key vibe. Magic delivers skiers back to a golden era of Vermont skiing — its winding trails have never been widened into boulevards — and acres of classic tree skiing await glade enthusiasts. The Black Line Tavern’s family-friendly après scenes and retro-themed weekend events round out the fun.
Mad River Glen
Home to the infamous single chair and the tagline, “Ski It If You Can,” Mad River Glen’s iconoclastic culture seeps into every aspect of the place. Known for having the most challenging terrain on the East Coast and an aversion to grooming, people flock to Mad River like pilgrims to a holy shrine when it snows. No on-mountain lodging means that skiers (and only skiers — Mad River doesn’t allow snowboarding) bunk in one of the many classic inns and lodges in the surrounding Mad River Valley for a true vintage experience.
Cochran’s Ski Area
Christened by the Cochran family as their personal winter playground in 1960, Cochran’s Ski Area feels like being on the local sledding hill. Despite humble roots, Cochran’s has cranked out champion skiers for decades and continues teaching and training local kids. Old school to its core, a rope tow and a T-bar serve four trails including the classic, gated Race Trail. The best time to visit is on Fridays when Cochran’s holds Friday Night Lights, offering $5 skiing from 5-8 p.m. A few more bucks gets you dinner in the small lodge, which is decorated with memorabilia from family members’ championship races.
Pinkham Notch, N.H.
With 100 percent of its terrain within the White Mountain National Forest, the views from Wildcat prevail as the East Coast’s most spectacular. A few of its trails were among the first to be cut by the Civilian Conservation Corps more than 80 years ago and the ’Cat, as it’s fondly known, offers diverse New England-style terrain accessed by four lifts. Polecat, a winding, forested green run, is a top-to-bottom classic. A few miles away, the town of North Conway makes for a great home base.
Originally known as Butternut Basin, Ski Butternut, nestled within the Berkshires’ bucolic country landscape, has a strong local following and a welcoming, family atmosphere. The mountain’s 22 trails all lead to a central base area, making it small enough for kids to ski with their friends. Though Butternut shuts down at day’s end, the charming hub of Great Barrington is home to plenty of lodging, dining, and cozy pubs for après ski.
Glenwood Springs, Colo.
Consider it the anti-Aspen. Coming off its 50th anniversary celebration, Sunlight features the same spectacular, Rocky Mountain terrain as its glamorous neighbor, yet with deep, untracked powder and no lift lines. Nearby, two of Colorado’s healing hot springs up the ante on the après experience while the iconic ski towns of Glenwood Springs and Carbondale offer a host of off-mountain amenities.
Alta Ski Area
As purists have known for years, Alta is all about the skiing. Celebrating its 80th anniversary this season, Alta visitors demonstrate an unyielding loyalty to a mountain soulfully entrenched in the alpine experience. The five retro-hip base lodges see a solid 70 percent return rate and few people venture from one to the next, preferring to head down to dinner in their slippers. And though the Alta Peruvian Lodge Bar remains an all time après favorite, nights tend to end early — the endless powder starts calling at sunrise.
As long as it’s safe for you and for people around you, you’re good to go at Brighton, where fun on the snow reigns and the prevailing all-are-welcome spirit rules the mountain. Utah’s first and oldest ski area, Brighton is home to a huge variety of terrain with everything from chutes to groomers to glades among within its 1,050 skiable acres. Known for its 500 inches of annual snowfall more than its amenities, most Brighton visitors set up shop in neighboring Salt Lake City, a mecca of après festivities.
Ashland is a ski town that doesn’t know it’s a ski town, owing its fame more to the Bard than to the pristine nearby slopes. A community mountain at heart, Mount Ashland sits like an eccentric, old uncle 4,000 feet up from Ashland, which hosts the popular Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The historic Tudor-style lodge pays homage to that Elizabethan heritage, while the mountain itself takes pride in cultivating make-your-own adventures within a high alpine playground where trails sport names like Avon, Romeo, and Tempest.
Homewood Mountain Resort
Tucked between Tahoe’s glitzy giants, Homewood is the clear standout when it comes to vintage spirit. Opened in 1961, powder hounds savor Homewood’s 450 inches of annual snowfall, sweeping Lake Tahoe views, and more than 750 acres of cat-served backcountry terrain. Though plans to develop a mountain village are on the horizon, for now Homewood remains a low-frills throwback. Folks can bunk in at the cozy West Shore Inn across the street or in nearby Tahoe City. For a bit more action, the eclectic hub of Reno and Tahoe is less than an hour away.