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  • Writer's pictureAdam Kaufman

Wilderness and Ski History in Boston's Backyard

Waterville Valley offers big White Mountain terrain, world-class racing, and classic New England charm just two hours from Beantown.

World Cup racing returns to Waterville in 2019 after a 28-year-hiatus. Photo: Adam Kaufman

The road to Waterville Valley is like a door to a winter wonderland.

Driving north on I-93, the White Mountains sneak up on you. One moment you’re passing through suburban America, then all of the sudden you’re surrounded by towering, white-capped peaks. Mellow foothills grow craggy and wild, their faces dotted with imposing cliffs too steep to hold snow. There are few other places in the East quite like it.

Excitement builds as you exit the Interstate and head east on Route 49, past the town of Campton, into the wilderness. The roadways are perfumed with the scent of fireplaces warding off the New England winter in the scattered farmhouses and country homes you’ll pass on this more leisurely, bucolic part of the drive (and always carefully below the speed limit because, wow, New Hampshire police). Tucked high up here in this corner of the Whites, you’ll find Waterville Valley, a venerated New England resort steeped in both ski race history and even a bit of political history.

It’s a medium-sized ski area located just two hours north of Boston and eleven miles east of the highway, but standing at the summit looking at the surrounding wilderness, at the untamed creases burrowing beneath these craggier peaks, you would think you had travelled ten times as far.

It’s remote and undeveloped, save for the tiny town of Waterville nestled in the valley below, which locals compare to living in a snow globe, with its persistent snowfall and charming alpine aesthetic. It was the perfect place to visit for a dose of winter ahead of last week’s Grinch of a rain storm.

An old tractor makes for a fun jib spot. Photo: Adam Kaufman

New Englanders have skied on the towering 4,004-foot Mount Tecumseh since 1934, when the Civilian Conservation Corps cleared two ski trails there, but Waterville Valley as we know it was established in 1966 by Tom Corcoran, one of the all-time great American ski racers. Since its inception, Waterville has been a pillar of East Coast Skiing – a small mountain with a worldwide reputation. The Kennedys skied here, and Robert Kennedy even helped Corcoran secure funding to establish the resort. You can still ski the eponymous “Bobby’s Run,” named for the late senator following his 1968 assassination.

Freestyle skiing was also born here in 1969, when the resort became the first in the word to tout a freestyle skiing program, defined at the time by moguls, jumps and tricks. The following year, Waterville Valley hosted the first ever National Championships of Freestyle Skiing, and it’s still strongly engrained in the culture to date.

Waterville Valley also had a long history as a World Cup racing venue from 1969 until 1991, and was the last East Coast ski area to host a World Cup event until Killington became a host on the Women’s FIS tour in 2016. Not to be outdone, the FIS World Cup will return to Waterville in March after a 28-year hiatus. From March 23rd through the 26th, the best skiers in the world, male and female, will compete here in Slalom, Giant Slalom and Parallel Slalom competitions.

Yet for all of that ski history, the resort’s base area is humble, with a modest lodge, a shop, an administrative building, and one restaurant. While there is a resort town, with all the requisite condos, restaurants, hotels, and shops, located five minutes down the road, Waterville doesn’t ski like a massive, conglomerate ski resort. It’s an old-school New England ski area. You won’t ski through condos here—just plenty of snow-covered spruces and firs.

“We’re in the middle of the White Mountain National Forest,” says Stacie Sullivan, the Waterville’s Communications Manager, who joined me for a few laps along with their snow reporter, Jonathan Klutsch. “If you’re on the north side of the mountain, you don’t really see any signs of civilization. You feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere.”

Like any resort within a two-hour drive of a major city, Waterville has a reputation for being crowded. However, when I arrived on a chilly and sunny Wednesday morning, there was barely anyone in the parking lot. I booted up and headed straight to the White Peaks Express, a detachable quad that swiftly transports skiers to the subpeak of Mount Tecumseh, roughly 1700 feet above. On this particularly clear day, the White Mountains seemed to stretch north to eternity.

Old-school New England-style trails mix with White Mountain majesty at Waterville. Photo: Adam Kaufman

I warmed up with a run down Tippecanoe. Like its neighboring trail, Old Tecumseh, the sustained fall-line slope is steep, wide, and lacking in surprises and thus, on an empty midweek day with perfect lighting, an irresistible playground for making fast, long carved turns.

I visited in the wake of a multi-day storm that, after putting a literal wet blanket on top of Snowvember’s base, dropped a few inches of snow across the Northeast’s highest peaks and blasted it with gale-force winds into much deeper drifts. These winds put the upper-mountain lifts on wind hold the day before, so when I ventured to the steep black diamond trails on the main peak’s south-facing Sunnyside area, I was greeted with some textbook dust on crust. The natural conditions on True Grit and Lower Bobby’s Run, the resort’s two steep double-diamond trails, were as fun as they were challenging. On the far left side of a trail coated in slick, barely-edgeable ice were shin-deep pockets of fluffy powder just begging to float you up. A long sliding fall might await those foolish enough to veer too far to the right, but if you hugged the line all the way to skier’s left, you could enjoy a steep, 1,000-foot powder line all day long.

“On a powder day you can get all the way down without having to push,” said Klutsch, referring to the Sunnyside trails’ sustained pitch, and we both dreamed of powder for a moment.

Next we hit up the newly finished Green Peak, the crown jewel of Waterville’s recent $7.5-million renovation and expansion, which included over 500 custom-built high-efficiency snow guns, two new snowcats, a 33,000 square-foot base lodge renovation (still ongoing thanks to constant November snow), a gateless RFID system that will soon include passes integrated into helmet stickers, and a new summit T-Bar replacing the 1966 fixed-grip double that was on wind-hold more often than not.

Three inches of powder are just what the doctor ordered in the midst of the holiday season. Photo: Adam Kaufman

Green Peak features 1,000 vertical feet of skiing on ten trails across 45 acres, all accessed by a fixed-grip triple that formerly served as the World Cup Triple on the main peak. Each of the trails are named after a variety of locals and past Waterville employees. There is a wide mix of terrain, from the gentle groomed slopes of Chandler’s Way, a scenic green trail with sweeping views of Mount Tecumsah, to Wayne Wong Way which, when it opens this season, will boast the steepest pitch at the resort. While the entire peak is equipped for snowmaking, Green Peak’s steep north-facing slopes have a decidedly more natural design. “They didn’t grade the new Green Peak trails much, so you get more of the natural features,” says Klutsch, comparing them to the distinctly manicured trails on Mount Tecumseh.

Those who prefer natural terrain should also check out Preston’s Path, a narrow chute that runs beneath the Northside chair off the main peak, as well as the variety of glades scattered across the resort. “Psyched Out Glades is a lot of fun,” says Sullivan. “It looks pretty dense when you first go in, but then it opens up with a lot of cool features. There’s even a cliff if you’re feeling daring.”

Take a quick glance at Waterville’s trail map and you’ll notice that the beginner terrain is almost entirely separated from intermediate and advanced trails. While this does mean that a group of mixed abilities may have to split up for some runs, every trail eventually funnels back to the same main base area. This layout is ideal for skiing with less-skilled friends, as well as for allowing children to have some freedom to ski on their own. It also means the resort can leave the advanced terrain open in challenging conditions when other resorts might typically put up the ropes. “We know a lot of people who come here know how to ski well, and we want them to be able to ski to their best level,” says Klutsch. “With our beginner trails separated from the rest of our terrain, we have the opportunity to leave advanced trails open and let people make their own decisions about how they want to ski them.”

This segmented layout facilitates learning and development, as skiers and riders can work their way incrementally to new parts of the mountain as their skills improve. “We want people to progress to their next level,” says Sullivan, echoing the resort’s new slogan. “Whether that means skiing from top to bottom for the first time or learning to ski glades or bumps. We just want people here to be having a good time and learning something new.”

During the offseason or for those who choose not to ski or snowboard, Waterville Valley offers plenty of other activities that take advantage of its remote, natural setting in the White Mountain National Forest. “There is a great trail system for hiking, snowshoeing, Nordic skiing, mountain biking, and fat biking,” says Sullivan. “There’s always something to do no matter what the season is.”

When it comes time to eat on a sunny day, make sure to grab a bite at Schwendi Hutte located at the subpeak of Mount Tecumseh, which features soups, salads, and sandwiches as well as beer, wine and hot drinks. Also check out T-Bars at the base, where you’ll find burgers, sandwiches, and the liveliest bar on the mountain, complete with live music on weekends. In nearby Waterville Town Square, locals, employees and visitors alike head to Mulligans Tap Room and Eatery. They have all of the apres-ski staples; a mug club, darts, a foosball table, and the usual assortment of pub fare. If tacos and margaritas are more your speed, take a walk to La Hacienda Mexicana just a block down the street. Upscale dining is also available at Coyote Grill, with options like swiss fondue and elk meatballs that will make you believe you’re in the Alps. While Waterville may be a tiny ski town, it has a surprising variety of options, all very conveniently located.

Waterville has fun for kids and adults of all ability levels. Photo: Adam Kaufman

Whether it’s Boston day trippers, weekday-skiing retirees, or families looking for a place to enjoy winter weekends, Waterville Valley has something to offer for everyone. The steep slopes, broad variety of terrain for all abilities, and gorgeous mountain views are impressive for any ski resort, let alone one located just a two-hour drive from a major metropolitan area.

It was the perfect spot for a weekday escape – a place to decompress and prepare for the bustle of the remaining holidays. I wanted to experience Waterville Valley like this – blanketed in white and Christmasy. I wanted to ski the slopes, take in the scenery, feel the history, watch the races, and settle into the snow globe.


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