Unassuming Shawnee Peak, located on Mountain Road in Bridgton, looms large in the world of Maine skiing. First opened as Pleasant Mountain in 1938, Shawnee is the longest continually operating ski area in the state. Despite myriad changes in ownership (and even a name change) over the last seven decades, Shawnee has survived and thrived while other Maine community hills have disappeared.
The ski area opened in January 1938 as Pleasant Mountain, developed by 125 workers, largely funded by a Works Progress Administration grant. While Pleasant wasn’t the only ski slope in Maine developed with funding from the WPA (there were also trails cut on Bigelow, Cameron and Megunticook), it’s the only one still in operation. The mountain was served during that first season by an 1,100-foot rope, which pulled skiers to the top of a single trail – the Wayshego Trail.
In the ’40s and ’50s, Pleasant Mountain flourished. Its proximity to Conway, N.H., and Portland brought lots of traffic, and the two decades saw many improvements. In the early ’40s, the first ski school in Maine was founded. Pleasant was also home to the state’s first T-bar and chairlift, both installed in the early ’50s. In 1972, Pleasant expanded to open the East Area, four miles of intermediate and expert terrain served by a double chairlift and a new second base area.
Eventually the resort’s luck soured. Low snow years in the early ’80s sank the mountain’s days of operation, and a 1983 fire destroyed the base lodge. Hundreds of thousands of dollars of much-needed snowmaking was installed but it was too little, too late; the financially strapped owners sold the resort to Pennsylvania’s Shawnee Mountain Corporation. Along with changing the name to Shawnee Peak, the new owners added lights for night skiing, improved facilities, and added a chairlift before running into their own financial issues. Chet Homer of Tom’s of Maine fame bought Shawnee in 1994.
There’s a lot to love about Shawnee Peak. Looking down the lift line of the Summit Express, skiers are treated to a view of Moose Pond, often dotted with ice fishing huts and snowmobilers. A glance to the west reveals New Hampshire’s presidential range and the imposing Mt. Washington. Shawnee even shines at night; 20-some lit trails make the resort the largest night skiing spot in northern New England.
My favorite way to work Shawnee Peak is east to west. After a quick warm-up on The Headwall and East Slope, it’s worth moving over to the Sunnyside Triple. The sun hits these trails first, and by midmorning they soften up beautifully.
Upper Appalachian, The Gut and Tycoon are no-joke expert trails, steep and narrow and worth hitting early. Next come The Dungeons and Cody’s Caper, tight glades in the New England tradition. All the summit glades are pretty visible from both of the long chairs.
The middle of the mountain is home to a couple straightforward, wide-open cruisers, including that original trail from 1938 (now renamed Jack Spratt). The central trails get loads of traffic and it’s best to hit them before they get too skied off, especially if there’s not much fresh snow. The trails to the west of the summit are skinny and loaded with turns.
Shawnee also has a slick terrain park, complete with a massive inflatable pillow that sits below an 8-foot kicker. Tickets can be purchased for the right to jump onto the inflatable feature at a rate of $12 for two jumps or $15 for four. On Saturday nights, it can be used as a landing pad for snowtubers.
If you’re headed up to ski without packing a lunch, Shawnee offers a few options. The main base lodge is home to a cafeteria with the expected ski area spread – soups, sandwiches and made-to-order food on the grill. There are similar options at the cafeteria in the East Lodge, which is open on weekends and holidays. Blizzard’s Pub, on the upper floor of the lodge, is a homey and traditional ski pub, with burgers, nachos and local beer on draft.
Located less than an hour from Portland and about 30 minutes from Conway, Shawnee Peak is an easier day trip than other Maine mountains coming from Portland. There are plenty of motels, hotels and B&Bs in Bridgton and Fryeburg. Shawnee also has unique lodging options; in addition to on-mountain condos, the mountain just opened the East Lodge Bunkhouse, an apartment above the East Area’s base lodge that sleeps 12. There’s also the Pleasant Mountain Yurt and Cabin, both lift-accessible and near the mountain’s summit.
If you’ve put off skiing Shawnee, it’s time to reconsider. The historic resort has plenty to offer skiers and riders; there’s a reason people have been visiting for more than 75 years.
Josh Christie is a freelance writer and lifetime outdoors enthusiast. He shares column space in Outdoors with his father, John Christie. Josh can be contacted at: