I grew up ski racing in Vermont before transplanting myself to North America's big mountain mecca – Jackson Hole – in my early twenties, but I'm a Connecticut kid at heart. I have an affinity for preppy button-down shirts and the salted scent of Long Island Sound, as well as an ambiguous tristate area accent that people can't quite place. I also have a sweet spot in my soul for the classic New England ski area: the small, unpretentious mom-and-pop style hill with ropetows, old double chairlifts, and lodges that smell like french fries and source heat from a central wood-fired stove.
The slopes of these small, often privately owned or not-for-profit ski areas are reminiscent of bygone days. Far from the glitz and glamour and crowds of major ski resorts, mom-and-pop style mountains pride themselves on simplicity, affordability, and sincere hospitality. The locals tend to welcome visitors to their home hills with open arms; some have small ski schools that cater to beginners; no-frills food counters offer good, budget-friendly lunches. They may be harder to find than their major resort counterparts, but these hidden gems of the ski industry are well worth the day trip, whether you're trolling for cheap turns in the Rockies or seeking a Friday night out with the family somewhere in rural New England. Here are our top reasons to ski a mom-and-pop mountain this season:
- Save big bucks. A major criticism of the ski industry in recent years is the surge in lift ticket costs (not to mention the expense of equipment, lessons, and lodging). It's not uncommon to pay upwards of $120 for and all-day adult lift ticket at major resorts like Vail and Stratton. You'll pay a fraction of that $54/day, at medium-size areas like Bridger Bowl in Montana. Even smaller ski hills – like Mt. Southington in Connecticut – that offer night skiing options size up at $35 for an evening pass. "Flex" passes – which can be used for different hours in a 24-hour period – are also popular.
- Feel right at home. Walking up to a massive resort – complete with dozens of chairlifts, thousands of people, and heavily corporate atmosphere can be overwhelming, to say the least. The small ski hill experience is quite different. Homey lodges and friendly locals create laid-back spaces to ski, kick back and relax, and enjoy the richness of small moments (like learning to ski with your kids). Keep in mind that days and hours of operation can change frequently based on weather, so be sure to call ahead or check websites for updated information.
- Say goodbye to lift lines. One reason several mom-and-pop style ski areas closed in the late 1990s is because of a lack of customers. While many reopened some years later during a resurgence of skiing as a community sport, you'd be hard-pressed to find a small ski hill with any serious lift lines. Get more runs in, avoid the stress of antsy kids, and enjoy the rickety rides of old-school doubles and delightfully tiring ropetows.
- Find everything in one place. With so few trails and not more than one base area, small ski hills are ideal for families who want to stick together (or parents who want to give their kids a little freedom, but keep them in sight). It's not uncommon to find a small cafeteria, equipment rental, and ski shop all in one place. Parking is close, free, and available. Sometimes the beginner slopes double as tubing areas at night. There may not be masses of activities, but those offered will all be in close proximity.
- Support local business. Yes, there are still some ski areas in the world that are owned by families, communities, or volunteer associations. When you choose the small, local hills, you support community operations rather than major, publicly traded corporations. Patronizing mom-and-pop style mountains means supporting places that support local community. And that's an important investment.