The soul of skiing isn’t (always) about the vertical drop and luxe amenities.

By Todd Plummer
February 19, 2021
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In recent years, it feels like the ski world has been all about explosive growth — just consider the addition of high-speed lifts and heated gondolas; of posh hotels with bougie spas; of ultra-exclusive (and ultra-expensive) heli-skiing experiences; and of villages with heated sidewalks and Louis Vuitton boutiques. Dig a little deeper and you'll see that a lot of this growth is driven by what can best be described as an arms race of acquisitions between the ski industry's two largest rivals: Vail Resorts and Alterra Mountain Company, each of which owns dozens of resorts both big and small from Washington to New Hampshire. When financiers and private equity parent companies get involved, it seems that skiing gets a whole lot fancier, expensive, and homogenous.Perhaps there is a time and a place for slopeside ski butlers and Michelin-starred après-ski, but the resort-ification of the sport begs the question: what gets lost along the way? 

Those who prefer a grittier, more authentic approach to the sport should turn an eye towards New England, where there still seems to be a thriving cluster of locals-endorsed, old-timey ski areas. Many of them were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps as part of the New Deal nearly a century ago. We're going to be honest — these aren't the kind of international destinations where people are jetting in to sample the powder. But passing through one, two, or five on a New England road trip could nonetheless be a rewarding experience.

New England's local ski areas are the kinds of places where locals pop by for a few runs after work, and where parents prop up their children on skis as soon as they learn how to walk. Sure, the snow might not be super consistent and the chairlifts might be a little janky. But what they lack in vertical drop and waist-deep powder, they more than make up for with $10 lift tickets, owners who are still involved in day-to-day operations, cheap beer and — perhaps best of all — a genuine sense of community that can't be replicated no matter how many ski butlers you have. Here are a few of our favorites. 

Blue Hills Ski Area — Massachusetts

At just ten miles south of downtown Boston, this is probably the only ski area to which you can take an Uber from your hotel. It's very, very, very small — but the proximity to town means there's always a contingent of Bostonians catching some turns after work. 

Vertical drop: 175'

Total trails: 8

Total skiable acres: 60

Après-ski: Head back into the city for a choose-your-own adventure of breweries, bars, and restaurants

Credit: Gregory Rec/Portland Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Powderhouse Hill — Maine

Have five bucks, your own equipment (they don't do rentals), and a love of rope tows? This community-run ski hill is about as local and beginner-friendly as it gets. Just check their Facebook page to make sure they're open, first.

Vertical drop: 175'

Total trails: 5

Total skiable acres: 5

Après-ski: Cross the border into Rollinsford, New Hampshire for some of the best cider around at North Country Hard Cider.

Credit: Gregory Rec/Portland Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Cochran's Ski Area — Vermont

Thanks to donations and a corps of local volunteers, this, the country's first 501(c)(3) ski area, might just be the only hill to lower its ticket prices in recent years. Seniors ski for free. A weekend ticket will cost you $19. Come during the week and it's only $10 — but the best deal of all is night skiing with all the jolly locals with a "Friday Night Lights" ticket for just five bucks. 

Vertical drop: 350'

Total trails: 8

Total skiable acres: 15 

Après-ski: It's hard to beat a hot cup of tomato soup from the base area's snack bar.

Credit: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur

Mad River Glen — Vermont

You'll find some of the trickiest trails and most challenging glade skiing in the country at this famously, fiercely independent ski area — which happens to be the only cooperatively-owned ski area in America. At the annual "Roll Back the Clock" event, tickets go for a mere $3.50. Basically, you can't afford not to ski this old-time favorite at least once. 

Vertical drop: 2000'

Total trails: 52

Total skiable acres: 115 

Après-ski: Cabot cheddar potato skins at General Stark's pub

Mount Ascutney — Vermont

If you're keen on trying your luck with backcountry skiing, this is the place to start. After the first iteration of Mount Ascutney went bankrupt in 2010 and was forced to sell its chairlifts, the locals of Windsor, Vermont decided to reclaim their mountain and raised the funds to purchase a new rope tow. The thing is, the tow only goes part way up the mountain — which means that if you're willing to hike up to the top, this is one of the best places to access fresh snow on a powder day in southern Vermont.

Vertical drop: 450' from the rope tow; 1,800' if you hike up

Total trails: 8

Total skiable acres: 200 

Après-ski: Harpoon Brewery's HQ and taproom is just down the road.

Credit: Austin-Washburn/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

Dartmouth Skiway — New Hampshire

How many colleges can boast their own ski hill? There's definitely an abundance of college kids running around — whether it's the Dartmouth Ski Team practicing their slalom turns, or the student volunteers on ski patrol. But this area's collegial vibe is just part of the charm, because there's nothing more quintessentially "New England skiing" than a teeth-chattering ride up the Winslow Ledge double chairlift, erected in 1968.

Vertical drop: 968'

Total trails: 28

Total skiable acres: 104

Après-ski: Make a bee-line to Murphy's On The Green, located on the Dartmouth College green, and order the Mac'n cheese.

Northeast Slopes — Vermont

Opened in 1936, this tiny hill is home to the oldest continuously-operating rope tow in the country — and locals will claim it's still the fastest, too. Keep an eye on their Facebook page for last-minute updates, such as full moon skiing or extended night ski hours if there's especially good powder falling. 

Vertical drop: 360'

Total trails: 12

Total skiable acres: 35

Après-ski: The base hut's "Nor'easter Burger" made with local beef and Vermont cheddar is almost as famous as the area's rope tow itself.

Pat's Peak — New Hampshire

For almost sixty years, this southern New Hampshire ski area has operated under the same family's ownership — a testament that they know how to run a good operation. There are local and historic touches everywhere you look, like the base lodges built from the mountain's own trees and hewn in the owner family's own sawmill.

Vertical drop: 770'

Total trails: 28

Total skiable acres: 103

Après-ski: Stop by the cafeteria for the hill's signature jumbo-sized M&M's cookie, and prepare for the ensuing sugar high.