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Mountain Madness

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Mountain Madness

 

If you’re seeking high peaks, head north or west. But don’t overlook our 10 local ski areas that offer a surprising mix of world-class terrain and family fun. They’re growing, changing, and teaching a whole new generation about the wonders of winter. Let it snow!

 

By Jennifer Leba, David Levine, and Rita Ross

 

 

It all started in 1935.

 

That’s when the first rope tow in New York State — and the fourth in the nation — was installed on a slope just outside the tiny Ulster County town of Phoenicia. (The first rope tow, a jury-rig powered by a truck engine in Woodstock, Vermont, had been set up the previous year.) The skiing boom was on.

 

All around the nation, outdoor enthusiasts — who previously could spend an entire afternoon trudging up the side of a mountain, gear in hand, just to ski down once — now had the opportunity to increase their downhill delight exponentially. Phoenicia’s Simpson Ski Slope was an immediate hit. By January 1936, newspapers were announcing the first snow train from New York City; for more than 15 years, the immensely popular train helped bring the masses to the slopes. On the other side of the Valley, in the foothills of the Berkshires, enterprising snow lovers were also getting in on the skiing sensation. Catamount Ski Area, which straddles the New York-Massachusetts border, opened to much anticipation in 1939 with three rope tows: two 1,000 feet long, the third, 800 feet.

But technology was racing ahead, and it wasn’t long before those in the east longed to bring the newly invented chairlift to the region. The first known chairlift was created in 1936 by Union Pacific engineer James Curran for Idaho’s Sun Valley ski resort. Hudson Valley hero (and onetime New York governor) W. Averell Harriman created the Sun Valley resort and financed the building of the chairlift. Curran’s basic design is still used for chairlifts today. And while Belleayre Mountain had been declared “forever wild” by the New York State Forest Preserve in 1885, skiers put pressure on the state legislature to pass a bill to create a state-run skiing facility. In 1949, Belleayre opened with five trails, an electrically powered rope tow, a summit lodge — and New York’s first chairlift, a single-seater. It soon became the center for winter sports in the area, and its success prompted the development of several other large ski areas on private lands in the park, including Hunter and Windham mountains, both of which opened in 1960.

 

From the early ’60s through the early ’80s, wherever you turned in the Valley you found people skiing and shussing down hills of every conceivable size. Not only did the larger resorts of the Catskills and Berkshires grow and thrive, but it seemed that smaller mom-and-pop operations, most utilizing a handful of rope tows, were scattered everywhere from Westchester all the way to Albany. But by the mid-1980s, things had started to change. The rise of several mega-resorts in the high peaks of Vermont, as well as a few warm winters, wreaked havoc on smaller ski areas (which struggled with the excessive expense of snowmaking and grooming). Many of the smaller areas closed (see accompanying article on the Valley’s lost ski areas), reflecting a national trend. The National Ski Area Association reports that, in the 1984-1985 season, there were 727 ski areas in the country; that number had shrunk to 485 by last season.

 

But things have been looking up for downhill devotees in recent years. While even the bigger resorts have had to transform themselves into year-round destinations (think Hunter’s now-wildly-popular Mountain Jam music festival and Octoberfest), the smaller, family-run ski areas have also been reinventing themselves — mostly thanks to the rise of snowboarding, freestyle skiing, and other snow sports like tubing. In 1985, only seven percent of national ski areas allowed snowboarders; now it’s 97 percent. All of our local ski areas not only welcome snowboarders, but most have installed terrain parks where freestyle skiers and riders (that’s the term used for snowboarders) can practice their hot-shot tricks on a variety of half pipes and rail slides. Unfamiliar with terrain parks? Picture a skateboard park with snow. And one of the benefits for small ski areas is that it doesn’t take a lot of snow to keep a terrain park going. In addition, a new statewide program is encouraging kids to return to snow sports by allowing fourth-graders to spend three days skiing or snowboarding gratis at 29 slopes and resorts, including many in this region (go to www.44free.com for more information). 

 

In short, a visit to a local ski area makes for a family-friendly day close to home, with fewer crowds and lower prices. And just think, you can be home in time for dinner. It sounds all uphill to us.

 

Belleayre Mountain

 

Highmount, NY 845-254-5600; www.belleayre.com

Vital Stats u # of trails: 47 u # of lifts: 8 (2 quads, 1 triple, 2 doubles, 3 handle tows) u Skiable acres: 171 u Longest run: 12,024 feet u Vertical drop: 1,404 feet u Full-day adult weekend lift ticket: $48 uBest specials: Ski free on your birthday (don’t worry summer babies, they fit you in, too); $15 lift tickets one Friday a month; $10 lift tickets from Jan. 28-Feb. 1

Terrain Parks: 5 glades, 1 rail park, 1 terrain park, 1 half pipe

Amenities include: skiing, snowboarding, lessons; Nastar race course; race team and freestyle team; kid’s camp and day care; adaptive skiing instruction; four lodges with full-service cafeterias; party and meeting facilities; cocktail lounge

 

A Wildly Good Value

“Forever wild.” That’s what Belleayre Mountain was declared by the New York State Forest Preserve in 1885. But New Yorkers longed to play on this unblemished beauty in the Catskill Forest Preserve, and in 1949, the first state-run ski area opened to much excitement. (Gore and Whiteface mountains in the Adirondacks are also state-run.) Today, with the highest skiable peak and longest trail — Roaring Brook, which measures 2.2 miles — in the Catskills, Belleayre remains a family favorite for skiers and snowboarders of all abilities. And while the commercial glitz of nearby Hunter Mountain may be missing, loyal regulars say they couldn’t care less. Getting the best bang for your buck is the name of the game here — that’s why Belleayre was recently ranked fourth for value on the East Coast in Ski magazine’s annual reader survey.

 

There’s something for everyone here. Sixty-five percent of the trails are marked for intermediates, and skiers and riders claim that traversing the long, rambling Deer Run and Roaring Brook trails — which pass through silent and pristine woodlands — is what skiing is really all about. It used to take almost 12 minutes to get to the top of Belleayre Mountain, but the high-speed quad lift that debuted last season has cut the travel time to a speedy five minutes. This year, they are forming a freestyle team, and construction on a new lodge is set to begin in April.

 

But the $64,000 question is: Will developer Dean Gitter build his proposed mega-resort on the land adjacent to the ski area? Environmentalists have been battling against the plan for years; a recently reached compromise between Gitter and Gov. Eliot Spitzer calls for a reduction in the development’s original footprint, from 1,960 acres to 663 acres, keeping 1,200 acres “forever wild.” It also allows for two hotels, 259 lodging units, a conference center, a spa, and an organic golf course to be built. The state would buy the 78 acres that was formerly the Highmount Ski Center and merge it with the current ski area.

 

While some fear the deal will ruin Belleayre’s pure and simple appeal, others think it will propel Catskill skiing to a whole new level. Says Scott Brandi, the president of Ski Areas of New York, Inc.: “We’d have three healthy, fabulous resorts here that would match up to any three resorts in the whole Northeast.”

 

Holiday Mountain

 

Monticello, NY 845-796-3161
www.holidaymtn.com

Vital Stats u # of trails: 9 u # of lifts: 4 (2 chairlifts, 1 tube, 1 tow) u Skiable acres: 60 u Longest run: 4,100 feet u Vertical drop: 400 feet u Full-day adult weekend lift ticket: $40 Best specials: Family tubing nights; on Valentine’s Day, couples can smooch and schuss with buy-one-get-one-free admission.

 

Terrain Park

 

Amenities include: skiing, night skiing, snowboarding, tubing, ice-skating, cafeteria, lounge, arcade

 

Winter Fun-derland

After a huge flood in 2005 devastated much of the facility, Holiday Mountain has rebounded in a big way. Completely renovated and expanded, it now offers year-round family-friendly activities — but winter sports are still a big draw.

 

“We like to think of Holiday Mountain as the place where great skiers begin,” says Shane Noble, director of sales and marketing at the Sullivan County facility. “We see a lot of people learn to ski here. Then they return later, when they’re parents, and bring their own kids to learn.”

 

Lessons are available for all ages and skill levels, from newbies to pros. “We offer programs throughout the season,” adds Noble. The ski and snowboard club, for instance, encourages youngsters to develop self-confidence as well as athletic skills. High school ski teams also train at Holiday Mountain, and there’s even a gentle-paced Kinderski program for children ages four to six. When kids want a break from snow-style fun, they make a beeline for the arcade, which is packed with more than 50 state-of-the-art video and other games, plus bumper cars. And we feel pretty confident in saying that this is the only regional ski area where you can hop aboard a mechanical bull. Happy riding!

 

Hunter Mountain

 

Hunter, NY 1-800-HUNTERMTN; www.huntermtn.com

Vital Stats u # of trails: 53 u # of lifts: 11 (3 quads, 2 triples, 5 doubles, 1 handle tow) u Skiable acres: 240 u Longest run: 2 miles u Vertical drop: 1,600 feet u Full-day adult weekend lift ticket: $59 u Best après-ski treat: Head to the nearby town of Tannersville and indulge in some down-home goodness at the Last Chance Cheese Shop — a restaurant and store rolled into one.

2 Terrain Parks: including a half pipe and rails

Amenities include: 3 distinct ski areas; skiing, snowboarding, tubing, snowshoeing, ski shop, lessons, health spa, 12 eateries, hotel with full-service restaurant, day-care services, 3 drink venues, slopeside lodging

This season u FDNY and East Coast Firefighter Races (Feb. 12-13): teams of five firefighters dressed in full gear navigate a race course while carrying a 50-foot fire hose

 

Big is Beautiful

Bigger, in this case, does mean better. With three distinct ski areas (actually on three different mountains) spread out over 240 Catskill Mountain acres, Hunter has perhaps the most diverse and interesting terrain in the region. It is the only regional ski resort that is routinely compared to the big boys in Vermont when talking about East Coast skiing.

“The engineering of our trails makes us unique,” says Jessica Pezak, communications director. “People remember going down our trails.” Indeed. On some of the expert trails, exposed rock face — some of it stemming from dynamite blasting that was used to blaze the trails — offers a stunning backdrop for better skiers.

 

Not ready for that? Hunter’s comprehensive and expanding Learning Center prepares newbies to leave the bunny slope and takes intermediate skiers to the next level. Want to learn to slalom? Hope to handle moguls better? Stop by with four or more partners, and an instructor will run a group lesson on the spot.

 

Conditions at Hunter tend to be top-notch. In 1967, it became the first area in the world to feature summit-to-base snowmaking; 13 years later, it topped that feat by achieving 100 percent snowmaking coverage (another world’s first). In 1989, the site was the first in North America to have an automated snowmaking system — so the title of “snowmaking capital of the world” is well earned.

 

 

Of course, there is much more than skiing and snowboarding going on at Hunter. The year-round resort has a dozen restaurants, several après-ski drink spots, and a full-service spa featuring natural products made from local flora and fauna. And for those who don’t want to leave the big city too far behind, there’s a delicious sushi bar at the chic Summit Lounge. The charming town of Hunter literally overflows with happy hours; if one can’t put a smile on your face, it’s not going to happen. And about that reputation for being a wee bit overcrowded? What can we say — people are attracted to good things.

 

 

Mount Peter

 

Warwick, NY 845-986-4940; www.mtpeter.com

Vital Stats u # of trails: 9 u # of lifts: 3 u Skiable acres: 60 u Longest run: 3,960 feet u Vertical drop: 450 feet u Full-day adult weekend lift ticket: $39 u Best après-ski treat: The facility’s Pete’s Place Tavern, with tummy-warming food and a pool table

Terrain Park: A park suitable for young skiers is currently under construction

Amenities include: Skiing, night skiing, snowboarding, tubing; lessons; lodge, tavern; ski shop

 

Learn to Ski for Free

Generations of Orange County residents and other Valleyites have a warm place in their hearts for the cold days they spent learning to ski at Mount Peter. The facility has a fascinating background. Said to be the oldest operating ski area in the state, it first opened in 1936 and was operated by Macy’s department store in order to show off and sell its fashionable ski garb and related winter wear.

 

Renowned for its popular policy of free beginner ski and snowboard lessons, Mount Peter also gives advanced group and private lessons, taught by a PSIA (Professional Ski Instructors of America) and AASI (American Association of Snowboard Instructors) crew.

 

“We’re a family mountain. My parents have owned the facility for more than 30 years,” says Amy Richardson, director of sales at Mount Peter. “We watch people grow up skiing here, and they sometimes leave to go to college – or to a bigger mountain. Then, years later, they’ll come back when they have a family, so their own kids can learn to ski. 

 

“My parents met here at the mountain, and so did my husband and I – he was the bartender at the tavern. We also have a slew of longtime employees and customers who met here and married. In fact, one guy who was a member of our ski patrol met his wife at Mount Peter, and they renewed their vows here a few years ago. After the ceremony, they rode down the mountain together on a toboggan. It was really neat,” Richardson adds.

 

Kids love Mount Peter’s racing programs, which are specially designed for youngsters ages eight to 18 (the facility’s Alpine racing program dates back to the 1960s). Other less-rigorous classes help skiers ages five and up get ready to tackle the slopes.

 

One favorite choice among Mount Peter regulars is an eight-week ski and snowboard program during which students can pick classes a la carte, allowing you to choose which skills you want to perfect. There’s also a ladies-only ski clinic weekend, featuring tastings given by local wineries, as well as several other special-interest winter programs.

 

And the day’s not over when you wrap up your final run on the slopes. Après ski, Mount Peter patrons like to head to its western-style tavern for some hearty chow — maybe a simmering bowl of soup or a toasty mug of hot chocolate — to warm up inside and out after a winter’s day full of fun.

 

Catamount

 

Hillsdale, NY (518-325-3200) and South Egremont, Mass. (413-528-1262); www.catamountski.com

Vital Stats u # of trails: 32 u # of lifts: 6 (1 quad, 1 triple, 2 double, 1 wonder carpet, 1 handle tow) u Skiable acres: 119 u Longest run: 2.5 miles u Vertical drop: 1,000 feet u Full-day adult weekend lift ticket: $52u Best après-ski treat: fondue at the Swiss Hutte across the street

Terrain Park: including a 400-foot half pipe, jumps, jibs, an 800-foot boardercross, and a new “Junior Jib” park for terrain-park beginners

Amenities include: Skiing, snowboarding, night skiing; racing and freestyle teams; adaptive skiing/snowboarding program for the disabled; two lodges; ski shop; tavern; cafeteria; children’s playroom

This Season: “Chix on Stix,” a girls’ month out with special packages and events for females only, starts in January

 

Variety is the Spice of Skiing

“We have big mountain skiing only two hours from New York City. We have the only true double-black diamond [in the Berkshires]. We have a terrain park and a 400-foot half pipe that draws the teenagers. We have a big learn-to-ski area. If you are over 80, you ski for free. We’ve got something for everyone.”

 

Spoken like the true marketing person she is, Winette Harrington nevertheless knows that variety is what makes Catamount unique among regional mountains. Straddling the New York/Massachusetts border (where else can you ski from one state to another and back again, all before lunch?), Catamount also boasts one of the steepest trails in the Northeast: the thrill-seeker’s dream, the double-black diamond, aptly named Catapult. The 2.5-mile, blue square Ridge Run is the longest trail in the Berkshires and offers stunning views for both intermediate and expert skiers as it wanders from state to state. This year they have added more snowmaking — they are now at 98 percent — and more lights for nighttime skiing.

 

Many snow-sports enthusiasts have commented on Catamount’s “retro” facilities (if the Main Base Lodge doesn’t take you back to the ’70s, nothing will). And while the jury is out on whether this is a positive or negative (some people treasure the old-fashioned feeling), the slopes, they are a-changin’. Last year, the mountain debuted their new Summit Quad Chairlift; this past summer, final approval was reached for a luxury condo-hotel complex that will be built around a lake at the base of the mountain with ski in/out access. The new, year-round facility will also include retail shopping, dining, and a spa. And there is one area in which Catamount is completely modern: 100 percent of the electricity they use is now supplied by wind power.

 

Thunder Ridge

 

Patterson NY 845-878-4100; www.thunderridgeski.com

Vital Stats u # of trails: 30 u # of lifts: 5 (2 doubles, 1 triple, 1 T-Bar, 1 handle tow) u Skiable acres: 100  u Longest run: 1 mile u Vertical drop: 500 feet u Full-day adult weekend lift ticket: $48 Best Special: Purchase a travel package from Metro-North, which includes discount train fare, an all-day lift ticket, a free shuttle ride to the mountain, and $5 off ski rentals.

Terrain Park: including half pipe, rails, jumps

Amenities include: Skiing, night skiing, snowboarding; ski shop; cafeteria; ski and snowboard instruction; baby-sitting

This season:  Check their Web site to see when the Verizon Luge Challenge is coming to town. If you’ve ever yearned to experience the thrill of riding a luge (that’s the one where you lie on your back on a sled-like board and zip along, feet-first, at lighting speed), stop by when the USA Luge National team is here; they’ll coach you and give you a chance to ride.  Mar. 18: 1950s Rockin’ Winter Carnival featuring a costume contest, an Easter egg hunt, food, and prizes

 

Family Matters

Family comes first for Mary and Bob Conklin, operations managers at Thunder Ridge. They have been running the place, along with son Tad, for 12 years. Their goal, says Mary, is “to teach kids to love the sport. We want to teach them to do well. We know that when they get better they will go on to bigger ski areas, and we’re happy about that.”

Parents can also learn to ski with their children, or they can enjoy a hot cocoa, sit in the lodge and look out the glass-enclosed atrium to watch their kids slide down the mountain. All the runs end at the lodge, Mary says, “so parents can feel comfortable that their kids will come back to the same area and not ski off somewhere else.” There’s also baby-sitting services so mom and dad can take a few runs of their own. The lodge, complete with a cafeteria and a bar, also has huge glass windows that overlook the slopes.

 

Kids with a need for speed can join the Thunder Ridge Race Team. The development team offers racing instruction to six- to eight-year-olds. Kids nine to 19 can compete against other regional teams. Thunder Ridge is also a mecca for high school ski teams, particularly those from Westchester and Putnam counties.

 

Tuxedo Ridge

 

Tuxedo NY 845-351-1122www.skituxedoridge.com

Vital Stats u # of trails: 6 u # of lifts: 4 u Longest run: 3,000 feet u Vertical drop: 400 feet Full-day adult weekend lift ticket $39

Terrain Park: including 1 half pipe

Amenities include: skiing, snowboarding; ski school; cafeteria

 

Same Mountain, New Name

The former Sterling Forest Ski Area, which closed several years ago, was resurrected last season as the Tuxedo Ridge Ski Area. But those owners only stuck with it for a year. Now, it is under new management once again, and it is too soon to know exactly what to expect. The big question: Will there still be a Starbucks at this ski resort? Pay close attention to the Web site for upcoming news on this up-and-coming recreation spot.

 

 

Windham Mountain

 

Windham NY 518-734-4300; www.windhammountain.com

Vital Stats u # of trails: 46 u# of lifts: 10 (2 high-speed quads, 4 triples, 1 double, 3 surface) u Skiable acres: 265 u Longest run: 12,500 feet u Vertical drop: 1,600 feet u Full-day adult weekend lift ticket: $48 u Best après-ski treat: Heading to the Trail’s End Tavern and Grill

5 Terrain Parks: including 510-foot half pipe, 400-foot jib park, 1,600-foot warm-up park, 3,475-foot warpath park

Amenities include: skiing, night skiing, snowboarding, tubing; lessons; ice-skating; adaptive skiing/snowboarding program for disabled; childcare; slopeside lodging; five restaurants

 

Downhill and Upscale

For the past 47 years, Windham Mountain has combined a family-friendly atmosphere with top-notch skiing. There’s something for ever

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