The Ice Coast Bucket List
Updated: Jan 2, 2020
Eight must-hit Northeast spots to ski before your knees turn to mush.
One of the best aspects of East Coast skiing is our embarrassment of riches: there’s a ton of great stuff to choose from within a day’s drive, no matter where you live. But there are a few must-do ski experiences to be had on this side of the continent - non-negotiable spots that every serious eastern skier and rider should visit as soon as they can, while they can. There’s a myriad of listicles that inundate the web detailing the “toughest” or “most challenging” ski trails in the east coast, and while I am as guilty as the next person of punching every possible notch in my ski-badassery belt, I also deeply enjoy a winding blue groomer or a scenic green trail through postcard environs. The true Northeast skiing experience includes a medley of trails that vary in their offerings, from steep and technical expert terrain to scenic, relaxing groomers. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of fantastic options across the Northeast that capture the experience without requiring you to run a gauntlet of death-defying, technical obstacles, but this is our compilation of the best among them. Most of these require some level of confident ability, but none of them are limited to experts only.
So we set out on a mission to create our bucket list of quintessential Ice Coast ski experiences; those places that best crystallize what makes skiing in the Northeast unique, fun, historic, and stunningly beautiful. Some of our suggestions are, yes, steep and badass, while others could be ridden at a leisurely pace with your grandmother, but they all add up to the best of what makes the East Coast unique. We couldn’t possibly cover every memorable and indispensable detail, but we’ve put tens of thousands of hours into compiling this list of the top eight suggestions. If you’re serious about the Ice Coast, you’ll make time for these if you haven’t already.
THE OLYMPIC TRAILS AT WHITEFACE
Drive deep into the Adirondacks in upstate New York along the meandering valley curves of Route 73 and you’ll eventually find the quaint town of Lake Placid, host to two historic Winter Olympic Games, once in 1932 and again in 1980. Most well-known for the “Miracle On Ice,” where the U.S. hockey team beat the four-time defending Soviet champs on home territory, Lake Placid is a classic ski town nestled in the shadow of the towering Whiteface Mountain that looms from the east. Boasting the largest vertical this side of the Rocky Mountains (3,430 feet), Whiteface is a tall and steep ski area featuring everything from true beginner terrain to experts-only, big mountain terrain that earns the Empire State some serious ski credentials.
What Whiteface has that no other ski area in the Northeast can boast, however, is a selection of trails featured in the 1980 Olympics. Here you can ski everything from the same Slalom to the Downhill courses skied by the world’s greatest skiers from almost 40 years ago. Start your day by boarding the Cloudsplitter Gondola and taking the Approach traverse to Mountain Run, where you can carve tight turns down a steep pitch that sustains for nearly one thousand feet of vertical. On a clear day, make sure to stop first at the viewing deck past the gondola summit where you’ll find epic views of Lake Placid below with the snowy High Peaks in the background. If you get addicted to the carve, you can board the Little Whiteface Double and lap this 1300’ section of steep to your heart’s delight, and on the rare occasion that they’re not being used for race events or training, Parkway and Thruway lie at the absolute end of Approach and were home to the Giant Slalom events.
Next, head to the Summit Quad and ascend into the clouds where you can access what once served as the men’s and women’s downhill trails. Upper Skyward, home of the 1980 Women’s Downhill start, begins with a steep and often-icy pitch that leads into a long, sustained and exposed slice of mountain that dares you to carve swooping GS turns at high speed before ducking into the valley below. Cloudspin, once home to the men’s downhill event, is typically left ungroomed and is rarely open, but when the snow is good you’ll find a playground of natural terrain where you can hop around powdery bumps and slalom through the tops of buried evergreens.
When your legs are spent from playing Olympic ski racer, head into town for a pint of Ubu at the Lake Placid Pub and Brewery, or continue your Olympic experience by watching an aerial skiing competition at the Ski Jumping Complex or taking a bobsled for a spin at nearby Mt. Van Hoevenburg. All are great options to cap off an incomparable day of skiing through Ice Coast Olympic history.
THE SINGLE CHAIR, MAD RIVER GLEN
While they continue to enforce a frustrating policy that excludes our one-planked brethren, Mad River Glen is undoubtedly a Mecca for east coast skiing and perhaps the ultimate crystallization of the “Ice Coast” experience. While the entire ski area features an excellent variety of terrain, some of the best skiers you’ll find anywhere on the continent, and a throwback culture all its own, the main draw at MRG is their iconic single chair.
Built in 1948, the Single Chair is only of only two lifts of its kind still operating in the United States (the other is at Mt. Eyak in Alaska). It is also the fastest fixed-grip lift on the continent, carrying 500 riders per hour up over 2,000 vertical feet in just under ten minutes. As you ride up the face of General Stark Mountain, particularly on a powder day, you’ll be humbled by the daring acrobatics of the droves of expert freeride skiers that call this mountain home. What you’ll find in-bounds is technical and sometimes scary, and those who venture out of bounds will find familiar settings from the most extreme East Coast ski porn — it’s best to know where you’re going here.
Once you reach the top, there’s a feast of options mostly geared to experts, but there’s even a winding blue groomer, Upper Antelope, that is perfect for intermediates seeking the single-chair experience. Turn left and you’ll find the steep and bumpy lift line trail, Chute, or Catamount, an open bowl that is a great place to slash your first few turns on a deep powder day. To the right of the lift exit you can side-step up a small hill to the true summit of the mountain, where you can access Fall Line or the iconic Paradise, a storied glade brimming with frozen waterfalls, cliffs, boulders, endless steps and, of course, plenty of trees.
The Single Chair – and what lies below it - is the stuff of legend, and no serious skier on this side of The Rockies should deny themselves the opportunity to experience East Coast ski culture at its most authentic.
NIGHT SKIING AT MONT SAINTE-ANNE
Many metropolitan areas in the Northeast boast at least one nearby hill that offers night skiing; a great way to get in a few turns after school or work and shred away your Monday blues. But nobody does night skiing quite like the Quebecois, whose province claims over thirty ski areas where you can make turns under the lights, and the best night skiing in the region is found just an hour northeast of Quebec City at Mont Saint-Anne.
A few things set Mont Sainte-Anne apart as the queen of night skiing. First, they operate a gondola at night, which is an obvious draw for anyone who’s experienced midwinter nighttime weather in Quebec City (it can be unfathomably freezing) – which sits at the knife’s edge of the (often ice-clogged) St. Lawrence River. Look, we here at Ice Coast Magazine are not ones to kvetch about a bit of cold weather, but why not be cozy and comfortable on your way up to one of the most frigid ski runs of your life?
And that’s not even taking into account the terrain. Mont Saint-Anne illuminates over nine miles across nineteen trails for your night-skiing pleasure, and every one of those trails descends over 2,000 feet into the dark abyss of the frozen St Lawrence River below, which carves large, unfathomable swathes of unknowable nothingness, backlit by the twinkling nightscape of Quebec City in the distance. What better way to rack up vertical and earn your poutine than to rip hot laps alongside flinty after-work French Canadians?
SPRING SKIING IN KILLINGTON
It can’t be said too many times: Killington is the king of spring. With an abundance of trails that remain open long after other ski areas have called it quits for the season, a comprehensive variety of terrain, and an unrivaled, still-keeping-it-real party atmosphere, the Beast of the East comes alive on a sunny spring day.
If it’s still open, start the day with a trek from the top of the gondola, down the full 3,000-plus vertical feet that Killington offers via Great Eastern, all the way to the Skyship base. The morning views of the Greens, Whites, and Adirondacks are spectacular, and the endless winding bends on this beginner trail are a great place to make those first turns. Beginners and intermediates will also find options on Snowden and Ramshead peaks late into the season.
More experienced skiers can head to Bear Mountain to ski the giant bumps on the famed Outer Limits trail, home to the annual Bear Mountain Mogul Challenge – which is as much about the partying and tailgating as it is about the skiing and riding. Not to be outdone, The Canyons area is a big springtime draw thanks to the fact that the entire area acts as one big snow trap, keeping the snowpack deep on trails such as Cascade, Double Dipper, and Ovation, and offering some of the best sustained steep pitches on any of the resort’s six peaks – all easy to lap via the Canyons Quad loft.
And of course, a day of spring skiing at Killington is incomplete without tailgating. To do it best, arrive super early and park in Bay 1 to the right of the K1 Gondola, where you can ski right to your car for lunch. And don’t miss the Umbrella Bar, where you can sip a Lawson’s tall boy while you watch people in shorts, wacky 80s gear, and bikinis crush the bumps on Superstar while you listen to whatever live music is on tap for the weekend.
THE FRONT FOUR, STOWE
Many resorts in the Northeast offer a great selection of expert trails, but none can match the famed Front Four at Stowe, a famous collection of steep-as-hell lines that rival anything on this side of the continent. Starr, Liftline, National, and Goat each have their own unique challenges, but what they all have in common is 2,000-plus unrelenting vertical feet of steep drop (often bumped up) accessed by the high-speed FourRunner Quad.
Starr, the steepest of the four, begins with a descent where the trail appears to drop off the edge of the Earth. After a few hundred feet, the steepness mellows, but you still have half a mile of winding bumps left to go.
Liftline and National start right under the lift and both are in plain view of everyone riding up the FourRunner, so expect some commentary from the crowd as you work your way down what are often van-sized moguls.
The most technical of the bunch, however, is Goat, a steep and narrow ribbon that requires you to navigate scores of boulders and icy cliffs, trees, and must-make turns, until your quads are ablaze.
Make sure not to miss Nosedive, Stowe’s original steep and scary old school New England-style expert trail. Its signature seven turns were cut by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935 and still thrill skiers and riders nearly a century later.
SUGARLOAF CAT SKIING
With its massive vertical and acreage (second only to Killington in the East), its endless variety of trails, some of the best glades in the region, and the only true above-the-treeline inbounds alpine terrain in the Northeast, Sugarloaf stakes a legit claim as one of the Northeast’s very best ski areas. Located deep in the Maine backwoods in the town of Carrabasset Valley, it is, for many in the Northeast one of the hardest-to-reach destinations south of the Canadian border, but it’s all the sweeter for the effort. In 2018, they ascended to the next level by becoming the only resort east of the Rockies to offer in-bounds cat skiing.
Book your spot in advance (especially if you’re going over the weekend or there’s the slightest chance of powder) and arrive early for some hot chocolate at the waiting area warming hut. You’ll then board a snowcat for a ten-minute journey to the top of Burnt Mountain, Sugarloaf’s eastern-most peak and a former logging site, where you’ll unload and choose between one of three routes to the bottom through well-tended trees.
They might not be the steepest trees at Sugarloaf, but they’re definitely the least trafficked and most likely to hold powder. An hour or two spent exploring the Maine sidecountry is one of the easiest ways to feel like you’ve gone full-backcountry local without the investment in a whole freeheel-and-skins uphill gear, lightweight fabric, and new-friend-group side of things.
Who knows? There’s a short distance between your first Burnt Mountain cat ride, to your first Avy 1 course, then to your first visit to Tucks or the Chic Chocs. If there’s one thing about this sport that holds true, it’s that there’s always another trapdoor beneath our feet that threatens to drop us into deeper-junkie territory. Today’s Sugarloaf cat skier is tomorrow’s RASTA member.
In addition to hundreds of resorts and ski areas, the East is also home to an abundance of backcountry skiing and riding possibilities. The Presidential Range in New Hampshire alone boasts dozens of backcountry options, but none are more famous than Mount Washington’s Tuckerman Ravine, or “Tuck’s” if you’re cool.
First skied in 1914, Tuckerman Ravine is a 700-foot-tall glacial cirque located just over 1,000 feet beneath the summit on the southern side of Mount Washington – the Granite State location best known for recording the most extreme weather on earth. The home of the infamous three “Inferno” races, wherein the competitors raced from the summit to the base of Mount Washington via the ravine, as fast as they possibly could, and with a disregard to life and limb that has yet to be rivaled in this post-McConkey age.
Today, Tuckerman Ravine is a Northeast rite of passage, particularly in April and May when the thaw-freeze cycle bonds the otherwise unstable snowpack and the weather turns from ice-age apocalypse to partly cloudy with only fifty-percent chance of hurricane-force winds. Hike up the Tuckerman Ravine trail until you reach The Bowl, at which point you can choose from several routes up; each features at least a forty-five degree pitch, and several routes are flanked by cliffs, boulders, deadly crevasses, and frozen waterfalls.
Tuck’s, or “Tux,” if you’re super cool, is comparable to the most extreme big-mountain bowl skiing out west, but with no avalanche mitigation, chairlifts, or base lodge – and earning your turns makes the experience much more rewarding. When you’re done skiing The Bowl, sit back with a cold beer and take in the show. You’ll see the East Coast’s best skiers and riders in action, sometimes even launching off ice cliffs, and you’re guaranteed to see some crazy, YouTube-worthy falls, often of the tomahawk variety. And if anyone has footage of me doing just that on April 19, 2015, I would really love a copy of that video. Descriptions of that day hardly do justice to the experience.
If the weather is bad or the snowpack is unstable, it can be incredibly dangerous to ski here, in which case we recommend making the smart decision and visiting Wildcat across the street instead, if it’s still open. But if your plans work out and you happen to visit on a calm and sunny day, you can pull off a 4,200-foot corn harvest all the way from the summit of Mount Washington to the Pinkham Notch parking lot. Skiing “Tux” is what separates the lifers from the dilletantes, and there’s nothing else quite like it in the East.
THE STRATTON 24
Most of us will never run an ultramarathon or drive a race car at Le Mans, but anyone with skis or a snowboard can participate in the 24 Hours Of Stratton, a quirky and fun charity event held by the Stratton Foundation every January that raises money to provide food, school supplies and other basic provisions to underprivileged communities in rural Vermont. Skiing nonstop for twenty-four hours and raising money for a great charity? Count us in.
The Stratton 24 focuses on the main face of the mountain, accessed by the Ursa and Amex lifts and the gondola, so there is terrain available for all skill levels, making the event accessible to just about anyone except for true beginners, for whom sliding on ice for a full day and night might not sound appealing. At night, the lights turn on and all the lifts except for the Amex turn off, and it becomes a bottomless frenzy of feverish hot laps on a selection of just a few trails. If you need a break from the mind-numbing repetition laps, you’ll find all sorts of activities including snowman-building competitions (ice permitting), ski boot running races, trivia contests, live music, and much more.
The best part of the experience, though, is when the Gondola re-opens in the morning and you take your first dawn turns down your favorite Stratton trail with the blazing red sun on the horizon as you approach the 24-hour mark. It’s like a fever dream finally breaks, and reality slowly spills back into crazy town. You almost certainly won’t win this “race” (leave that to the 14-year-old ski gangs) but you’ll come away with a new appreciation for youth and a deep yearning for your own pillow. Plus, you’ve just helped disadvantaged children get some much-needed winter clothing and educational supplies. That feels nice as well.
So that’s our collection of must-do Northeast ski experiences. Maybe you think we’ve left something off, or we’ve excluded your favorite bucket list item because of some sort of ignorance or myopia on our part? If so, we’d love to hear from you. Let us know in the comments, or send us a (politely-worded) email.