It has been an exciting year for skiers and snowboarders in Maine. The 2012-13 season stretched into May, and resorts all over the state reported one of their best years on record. In fact, the Northeast saw an increase in visits of 20 percent over the prior season, nearly double the increase in skier visits nationally.

Maine ski areas took this momentum into expansions and improvements over the summer, as well as an early start to the 2013-14 season. As we bring 2013 to a close, it’s a good time to look at the best of skiing in Maine. From brand new to tried and true, there’s lot to celebrate in Maine winter sports.

BEST LODGE FOOD

The $1 Grilled Cheese at Spruce Mountain

I am, typically, a brown-bag lunch kind of guy. Given the price of food at most ski areas, can you blame me? However, I will make an exception for the homey comfort food served at many of Maine’s community resorts. The king of these is the grilled cheese sandwich at Jay’s Spruce Mountain. The whole Spruce menu (priced between $1 and $3) is a steal, but the gooey grilled cheese has gained well-deserved legendary status.

BEST EXPANSION

Tie: Snowfield Expansion and The Eastern Territory at Sugarloaf

I’ve written in “Skiing in Maine” about my love of side-country skiing multiple times, so this pick shouldn’t come as a surprise. With a 7-acre expansion of the backside snowfields, Sugarloaf brought some previously out-of-bounds local stashes into its official terrain. Add to that 70 new acres in the mountain’s “Eastern Territory,” which now stretches from the mountain’s former eastern boundary to the summit of neighboring Burnt Mountain. The terrain additions cement Sugarloaf’s position as the place to go for off-piste skiing and riding in the east.

BEST PLACE FOR NIGHT SKIING

The Downhill 24 at Mt. Abram

Ever since learning to ski under the lights of the Camden Snow Bowl, I’ve had an affection for night skiing. The WinterKids Downhill 24, previously known as the Downhill Derby, takes the idea of late-night skiing to the extreme. The annual fundraiser challenges teams of skiers and snowboarders to log a full 24 hours at Greenwood’s Mt Abram. The event is a big, all-night party with food, a beer garden, prizes, live music and a DJ around the clock. The only thing cooler than skiing or riding through the night is doing it while raising money for a good cause.

BEST EXCUSE TO EXPLORE MAINE

The SkiMaine Mountain Pass

It’s tough to get to all of Maine’s 21 ski areas. Travel time, cost and unfamiliarity are all big hurdles to clear. Thankfully, the Ski Maine Association’s Mountain Pass program makes it a bit easier. The $425 passbook, which contains 32 transferable lift tickets to Maine resorts, is one of the best deals in skiing. In conjunction with the association’s Peak to Peak Challenge (which challenges skiers to visit as many Maine areas as possible), there’s no better time than the present to explore Maine’s many resorts.

BEST ON-MOUNTAIN LODGING

Mountaintop Cabins at Shawnee Peak

We’re all familiar with so-called “on-mountain” lodging – condos and cabins on the side of the trail that you can ski to at the end of the day. At Bridgton’s Shawnee Peak, on-mountain lodging is meant a bit more literally. The Pleasant Mountain Cabins are located just off Shawnee’s summit, to the side of the Sunset Blvd trail. The pack-in, pack-out cabins sleep between four and six people, and offer a unique overnight experience. And, at $170 apiece, they’re a great deal to spend a winter night on a Maine mountaintop – not to mention to grab first tracks.

BEST KEPT SECRET IN MAINE SKIING

Rangeley’s Saddleback Mountain

How long can you refer to a mountain as a “hidden gem,” a “local secret,” a “little-known treasure?” That’s how skiers and riders I know have been talking about Saddleback for years now. With a summit past the 4,000-foot mark and 2,000 feet of vertical, the resort rivals its biggest peers in terms of terrain while retaining a community mountain feel. Despite a new lodge, new lifts, and terrain expansions in the last decade, the mountain is still sometimes forgotten among Maine’s larger resorts. I feel a twinge of guilt giving away the secret of Saddleback’s great skiing and long-lasting powder stashes, but the fact remains; more people should know about this place.

SKIING MVP FOR 2013

Mother Nature

All the improvements, deals and snowmaking won’t get people on the slopes if there’s no snow. The biggest contributor this year has been snowstorm after snowstorm. Last season ended exceptionally late, and cold weather made for early openings this season – eight resorts were open last weekend, and nearly everyone else should be open by this Sunday. In a press release, Ski Maine’s Greg Sweetser noted that November was colder in Maine than it has been for two decades, and December has seen below normal temperatures and several snowstorms. The weather has made for a great – if frigid – end to a stellar season.

Josh Christie is a freelance writer and a lifetime outdoors enthusiast. He shares space Outdoors with his father, John Christie. Josh can be reached at:

joshua.j.christie@gmail.com