Every year in the national ski magazines, the season starts out with a breathlessly anticipated list of ski areas, rated in order of popularity by readers. The order may shift year to year, but the Eastern lineup is always about the same: Tremblant, Killington, Okemo, Sunday River, Loon.
Great areas all, to be sure. And, of course, though not every rural town has its own ski slope anymore, there are still the small local areas where people get their start and families go skiing together after work.
Then there's the middle ground, areas that ski big but feel small, without miles of backwoods and glades, but with trails still old-fashioned in their twisting, areas where families can brown-bag their lunches and drink cocoa out of thermos bottles, and ticket windows where they can save a few bucks.
The midsize areas date to the age before giants. They were the areas skiers aspired to after learning those first few linked turns at the smaller places, and in fact they were once considered the giants themselves. There are still a handful left.
Long before there was a Killington, the biggest giant of them all in New England, there was Pico (picomountain.com). In fact Pico, in central Vermont near Rutland, is pushing 70, having opened on Thanksgiving Day 1937. Though it is now owned by Killington, it feels worlds apart. Never has the formula - small ski area, big mountain - been more true than at Pico, with its nearly 2,000-foot vertical drop.
Says general manager George Potter: "It's a big mountain with a small ski area's personal touch. There are mogul trails, glades and groomed steeps. But all the trails lead back to the same base area."
Indeed, Pico skis big. Anyone convinced that it takes the biggest of big mountains to get the blood racing needs only to stop at the top of Giant Killer to realize that this double black diamond is not a publicity stunt. And there's more than one tough challenge. Check out Upper KA and Sunset 71, and if you're up for some quick turning, try the new tree ski areas of Birch Woods and Doozie.
Great ski areas are not made on their expert terrain alone, however, but on the ability to serve all comers, and Pico has some superb lower-end challenge cruising off the Golden Express Quad.
As Potter says, all runs lead to a lodge-ski shop area which, no matter how big Pico feels in places on the way down, keeps it well within that coveted definition of a family ski area.
While all sorts of packages are available, the one-day adult ticket price this year is $49, as compared with $67 at Killington, with a season pass available at $399.
In southern Vermont, Ascutney Mountain (ascutney.com) in Brownsville lies within the shadow of Mount Snow and Stratton, and compared with them, the area's 1,800-foot vertical drop and 56 trails qualify it as a true medium-sizer. It has offerings for all skiers, including nine genuine black diamonds. They are steep, bumped and, in some cases, closed-quartered with the trees.
The area averages 15 feet of natural snow yearly, and has a balanced offering of terrain variety: about one-quarter in the green, novice range, and the rest about equally divided between intermediate blue cruisers and the true-black expert range.
Ascutney, just a short drive from Interstate 91 on Route 44, has full off-slope and apres-ski activities, from tubing and ice-skating to an in-house movie theater and fitness center with an Olympic-size pool.
In New Hampshire, where the big-time skiing is dominated by Waterville Valley, Cannon and Loon, some venerable mid-sizers have price tags well under the top tier. One of the most unusual ski areas in the state is Dartmouth Skiway (dartmouth.edu~skiway) in Lyme Center, half an hour's drive from the Dartmouth campus in Hanover.
Host of the NCAA skiing championships and training ground for any number of World Cup and Olympic racers, Dartmouth is steeped in the college tradition, but that includes many alumni and faculty families that keep the small-town friendly atmosphere one of the draws of this area.
The skiing is everything found at larger ski areas, where most skiers use only about half the vertical drop at any one time. Dartmouth Skiway has about 1,000 vertical feet over 106 acres and 31 trails. Most people ski on about half the terrain in the intermediate blue range, while a quarter of the terrain is novice and the other quarter black diamond.
Dartmouth Skiway also offers one of the most attractive base facilities in all of ski country, the McLane Family Lodge, a soaring pine-framed building erected just five years ago and still smelling of new timber. A restaurant, ski shop and other facilities are in the lodge.