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  • Writer's pictureJohn Giuffo

Hunter Finds Its True North

A Catskills mainstay constrained by geography blasts a new path forward. Nine of them, actually.

The $9 million Hunter North expansion includes five new trails, four new glades, and a new high speed six-pack chair. Photo: John Giuffo

Hunter North is the stuff of dreams.

Well, daydreams. Mine, at least. On every visit to Hunter, I spend some lift time playing “what if”? Alone or with friends, it can be fun to visualize potentially-sick terrain off the sides of the ski area that, if somehow incorporated into the resort’s footprint, would help make Hunter a truly world-class mountain and a steep force to be reckoned with.

“If they cut trails on just that bowl alone, they could double the size of this place,” I said to the legendary Sendin’ Brendan, pointing left from the Kaatskill Flyer during a visit to Hunter Mountain last week. We’d been invited to take a few introductory laps down the brand-spanking-new Hunter North expansion with the resort’s reps, and even though we were enjoying the hell out of these fun (and much-needed) new trails, we couldn’t help ourselves from imagining more potential lines.

“They wouldn’t even have to cut that many trails,” said Brendan, who agreed about the scope of untapped potential badassery that surrounded us. “They could just clean out those woods a little bit and you’d have a bunch of amazing glades.”

Of course, located as it is in the middle the Catskill Mountain Park, surrounded by state land that is designated to remain “forever wild,” acquiring and developing those parcels would be extremely difficult. One might even say it’s unlikely, but then again, Hunter is an unlikely place.

It’s always been a place where big dreams collide with hard reality, and sometimes the big dreams win. When the state first studied Hunter Mountain for development as a ski area in the late 1950s, the report concluded that the parcel was too craggy and steep, but Orville and Izzy Slutzky, the construction company guys who owned the land, had big dreams. And, being construction guys, they also had dynamite.

So what if the rocky summit didn’t allow for trails that naturally followed the mountain’s contours? Boom, new contours.

Hunter was an early innovator in snowmaking technology, and even with the new expansion, the mountain remains completely covered by snowmaking systems. Photo: John Giuffo

Sure, maybe Hunter sits in a region that gets less snow, and less reliable snow, than some ski areas to the north, but it was among the first resorts in the state to install a snowmaking system (another Slutzky innovation), and it was the first ski area in the world to have full mountain snowmaking capacity. Peak Resorts has only expanded on that snowmaking reputation, with the installation of a host of new, more efficient snow guns, including complete coverage on each new North side trail.

Hunter is a unique mix of things: A midweek no-line haven for three-runs-and-done retirees, and a crowded weekend daytrip destination for visitors from The City, Long Island, and Jersey. A home for passionate regulars and an eye-opener for first-timers. Fun, go-fast slopes that, on a good snow day, stay entertaining until last chair, and that on busier days grow scraped off and crowded with overconfident power-plowing jabronis. It’s both party mountain and Jerry central – which, let’s be honest, makes for fantastic people-watching.

It has a great beginner’s area with Hunter East, a smaller section of trails off to the side of the main face, and physically separated from the rest of the resort. Similar to Morse Mountain at Smuggler’s Notch, or the Snowshed section of Killington, these areas help filter apart true beginners and speedy experts, keeping both groups happy and less likely to collide with one another.

Hunter North was designed to address three of the resort’s shortcomings – its relative paucity of blue trails, an almost complete lack of glades, and a need for increased capacity. With the exception of Belt Parkway, which wraps around the summit and switchbacks down the backside, there was very little in the way of intermediate-friendly terrain accessible from the summit. And the short stretch of The Milky Glades was the only real tree skiing available on the mountain. Until Hunter North, that is.

With five new trails (that were intended to be blues), and four new glades, as well as a new high-speed six-seat chair – The Northern Express – Peak Resorts has spent $9 million to expand Hunter’s terrain by one-third. There’s also a new parking lot near the base of the chair, and there are discussions about building a Hunter North base lodge once the permitting hurdles can be cleared. And since it’s all located on land already owned by the mountain, there were no state park usage concerns.

The Northern Express is Hunter's second high-speed six-pack, and third detachable chair overall. Photo: John Giuffo

It’s the largest ski area expansion in the Northeast in decades, and it’s a giant vote of confidence in the future of skiing in the Catskills. It’s also a ski area capital improvement project that feels deeply informed by feedback from locals and regulars. Visitors have griped for years that Hunter didn’t have enough intermediate terrain or glades, and this expansion addresses both concerns.

“We wanted to say to our customers, ‘We’re listening to you,’” said Daniel Kenney, Hunter’s communications manager. “We’re listening to them, we hear their feedback, and we’re working to make the improvements people have asked for.”

But the best laid plans of mice and engineers often go awry…somewhat. “While we originally planned to have Overlook and Twilight sport a Blue, or Intermediate rating, we've since made the decision to assign them a Blue/Black, or Intermediate/Advanced rating,” said Kenney.

“With any new trail, a large amount of surveying, planning, and design work takes place ahead of time, but you never really know how a trail is going to ski until you finally get out on the surface and make some turns,” Kenney added. “After assessing Overlook since Hunter North’s opening, a decision was made to scale up the rating to better convey the type of terrain our guests can expect to find on these trails.” In the end, the mountain’s gonna do what the mountain’s gonna do.

We were surprised, too. Brendan and I dropped into Hunter North from Belt Parkway and we were immediately impressed by the wide-open rippability of Twilight and Overlook. The snow was great that morning, firm and grippy, and we gathered speed faster than we anticipated for blue trails. “That should really be a blue-black,” I told Brendan after our first run. We wouldn’t realize the trails had been re-graded from their planned designations for a couple more mind-bendingly fast runs.

In fact, the unexpectedly-steep new North side trails inspired a re-think of the mountain’s other trail designations, and Jimmy Huega Express and White Cloud have been re-designated as blue-black trails, to have those trails better reflect the new grading categories.

On the other side of the new area, the preexisting Way Out, a solid intermediate run with small sections of steep pitch, flows down Hunter North’s western edge, allowing access to the intermediate Rip’s Return, and the mellow green connector trail, Rusk Road, which funnels down from the Hunter West bottom station toward the Hunter North base. The fifth new trail, Sleepy Hollow, a blue cruiser that loops back around from Belt Parkway at a lower point, hadn’t yet received enough snow to open. (The rains of late December and early January have kept most Northeastern mountains fighting to maintain open terrain, and the Catskills have been hit particularly hard. It’s a testament to their snowmaking acumen that Hunter has been able to keep open and expand terrain in the two weeks since winter returned.)

Fresh gun snow on Lower K27 made for some of the softest manmade pow turns we've ever taken. Hunter's snowmaking game is very on-point. Photo: John Giuffo

No two ways about it, Hunter North is a game-changer. It’s an ambitious project meant to add more terrain that will appeal to skiers and riders that are still learning, or who prefer mellow, reliable cruisers, but it also makes more room all over the mountain by allowing Hunter’s weekend crowds to spread out and explore.

There’s something irrepressibly wild about Hunter Mountain, and there always has been. From that initial state assessment declaring Hunter too steep and rocky, to the forced creation of a new trail category in order to adapt to the mountain’s fickle nature, there’s always been this sense that Hunter is barely tamed.

But with this new expansion, it feels like Hunter has finally begun to grow into the resort it’s wanted to be this whole time. And you don’t have to squint and imagine possibilities to see it. Ride up the mountain on the new Northern Express and a more fully realized Hunter is staring you in the face.


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