December 22, 2013

Josh Christie: Lots to like in Maine’s ski highlights

From night skiing to best lodge chow, a look at life on the slopes.

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.

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Mother Nature smiled on Maine’s downhill fans this past season – piling on the snow early and often – and many resorts across the Northeast reported a healthy increase in visits.

Press Herald file photos

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Several skiers head out on the Full Moon Hike up Mt. Abram. At left is a grooming machine that brings their ski equipment up to the top, and from there, well ... it’s all downhill.

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.

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