Whenever I go to Saddleback, I’m always struck by two simultaneous yet conflicting thoughts. The first is how much it’s changed from the mountain I skied as a kid in the 1990s. The other is how much it still feels like a step back in time to classic Maine skiing.
There’s an argument to be made that Saddleback, more than any other Maine mountain, is in my blood. My father owned the resort in the early 1970s, a period that paired his ambitious expansion plans with the crises of gas shortages and terrible winters. Though he’d left the mountain a decade before I was born, it was a regular weekend trip during my formative years as a skier. Compared to our regular haunts like the Camden Snow Bowl and Squaw Mountain, Saddleback’s steep, narrow trails, glades and perpetual hoar frost gave the feel of a real “big mountain” experience.
Under the stewardship of the Berry family (who bought the resort in 2003), Saddleback has seen significant improvement to facilities and snowmaking, not to mention an increase in terrain of nearly 50 percent. Among the material changes in the last decade were two new quad chairlifts, a new base lodge, a mid-mountain “yurt” cafe and warming hut, and increased snowmaking capacity. The beginner’s area below the lodge, friendly to families and brand new skiers, has developed to be light years beyond what it used to be.
One of the mountain’s marketing lines for the last few years has been “bigger than you think,” and it’s apt.
Yet despite these improvements, Saddleback still skis like the resort of two decades ago. The weekend crowds, while larger, never feel as big as those at Sugarloaf and Sunday River. The base lodge still feels like it has more locals than people from away. The terrain is narrow and steep, and loaded with tight corners, and the glades are tightly cut in the old New England tradition. For better or worse, the Rangeley Chair, a decades-old double chair, feels as slow and creaky (and cold) as always.
The Kennebago Steeps, arguably the biggest change to on-mountain terrain in Saddleback’s recent history, splits the difference between old and new. Made up of expert terrain to the southwest of Saddleback’s summit, the Kennebago area was first developed by former owner Donald Breen in the late 1970s. Breen installed a Hall T-Bar in 1979. It was replaced with a fixed grip quad in 2008.
The new lift, yurt, snowguns and trails in the Kennebago area – including the 44-acre Casablanca Glade – all fit into the Saddleback’s identity. The new trails feel like classics. Muleskinner, a favorite of mine and a bit of a hike from the top of the quad, is worth the effort for a narrow, winding trail with fun drops, small chutes and several spots to drop into Casablanca. Black Beauty and Frostbite, both on the other side of the massive glade, offer a fairly straight shot over impressive fields of moguls. Tight Line, just like Bronco Buster before it, remains a ski-chatteringly fast, steep groomer. And of course there’s Casablanca itself, home to some of the best tree skiing in Maine.
While it feels to me like the 12 trails and glades that make up the Kennebago Steeps are old-school northeastern skiing, Saddleback will quickly remind you that isn’t exactly true. The mix of black and double-black diamonds serviced by a single lift (and without any easier trails mixed in) is, in fact, unique.
The mid-mountain is a satisfying mix of beginner and intermediate trails, serviced by two double chairs and a T-bar. Blues like Red Devil, Blue Devil and Silver Doctor benefit from light traffic and late-day sun, making them a great place to spend the afternoon. Grey Ghost, home to many of the resort’s Alpine races, is a fun high-speed cruiser, and Royal Coachman puts exhibitionist skiers and riders on display under the Rangeley Chair. A few terrain parks near the lodge on Wheeler, Montreal and Gee Whiz round out the mid- and lower-mountain terrain.
The base lodge, rebuilt in 2004, offers a great base of operations – ticket sales, rentals, ski school, condo rentals, ski patrol, and even the local bar (the Swig n Smelt Pub). The fact that everything is in one place – and all the trails on the hill lead there – is another piece of Saddleback’s culture that feels like an older community hill.
And while ticket prices have inched up over the last decade, the resort seems committed to keeping the lifts as inexpensive as possible.
Often when I’m recommending ski areas to friends and readers, I try to narrow down their choices by asking what they’re looking for. Thankfully, Saddleback is a place I can suggest to everyone.
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: