Looking back on those pandemic winter months, most ski folks probably recall thinking, “I want to get away to ski.”Me? I had another take. Sitting on my couch in my house, locked down and lonely, all I could think was, “I want to get home to ski.”
That’s not because I was lucky enough to grow up in a ski town. Rather, it’s because for me, a visit to New Hampshire’s Mount Washington Valley has long felt like a homecoming. The shop owners and bartenders know me well. The lifties are familiar. When I walk into après, the musicians smile and wave. I am not complete without at least a few Valley visits each winter.I always feel greeted with an imaginary “welcome back” hug each time I arrive. I’m special, right?
This past year of missing it made me realize something: It’s actually not just me. The Valley loves us all, and its unique setup of super-big tucked into a small-town vibe makes that real. Admittedly, I’ve had a lifetime of visits to build that back-home-to-ski relationship with the Valley. You might say it is in my DNA.
When my mother was a young adult, she’d jump on the ski train from Boston and head there, then known as the Eastern Slope Region. She’d ski at Cranmore, which dates back to 1937, and use its “Skimobile” car. I long imagined her, dressed in stretch ski pants with long skis slung over her shoulder, breathing in that vibe. She told me she loved it there.
For town league races, special events, a busier vibe, and a whole lot of history, we’d head to Cranmore. One night, years ago, I had dinner at the top of Cranmore’s Meisterhut, a classic mountaintop chalet. Giddy after dinner before skiing down (yes, they have night skiing), we’d jump into a snowbank and make snow angels. Cranmore brings out the kid in you.
I first discovered the Valley myself in the early 1970s, right around the time the locals renamed it “Mount Washington Valley.” Each summer, my entire family—grandparents from Ireland, cousins from Long Island, us from Minnesota and then Massachusetts—would descend on the Eagle Mountain House for an extended stay.
It was positively Kellerman’s-ish. My cousins loved the lawn games; my grandparents loved the formal dinners that we all dressed up for and had the same waiter for each night.
Me? I loved the mountains, the waterfalls, the magical feel of being in the arms of massive Mount Washington itself. The very air felt—and is—an elixir to me. At just nine years old, I was sold. And as an already committed skier, I thought, “This place would rock in winter.”
The summer of my last preteen year, my dad looked up from the Eagle Mountain House golf course and noticed homes being built on a nearby peak. By that winter, we were second-homeowners and all the areas of the Valley became my backyard.
When skiing with my crew, a melding of locals (all magnificent skiers) and Luckys (kids whose parents brought them there regularly), we would choose our ski days—as well as our après fun—based on our moods. It’s remarkable to me how, more than four decades later, those same spots can still match those moods.
My main mountain was Tyrol, now shuttered. But when we wanted to get all backwoodsy and old school, we’d opt for a day of skiing at Wildcat. With its winding and steep, classic New England trails, a weird gondola that looked like a giant M&M in the sky (and which, on windy days, required a few cement blocks thrown in with you, depending on your size as judged by the lifties), and worn-by-love base lodge, it made us feel retro.
I returned to Wildcat a few years back to ski with some friends from my old posse. We skied the same known-only-to-locals off-piste runs and sat on the same old couch in the bar during après. The gondola at Wildcat has been replaced by a zippy detachable quad, but the rest of the place feels pretty much the same. I’m good with that.
On days when we wanted to jump in and out of tree runs, head for southern exposure for more warmth and softer snow, and have a classic ski day, we’d go to Black Mountain. Other than the addition of quality snowmaking, Black hasn’t changed much at all. True, the only lift to the top is a lumbering cherry-red double, but I love it. There’s something about a slow lift from time to time that reminds you to soak in your surroundings.
Sometimes we’d enter ski races or freestyle competitions over at Attitash, where the family vibe rules and where you can find steeps, mellow cruisers, and possibly the best spring skiing hang-out deck in the biz. I remember sitting out there one fine spring day with the Linne Brothers (Valley legends in their own right—John Linne still runs the ski school at Cranmore), sipping beer, and listening to live tunes. I still do that each spring, and it’s delicious in every way.
And then there are all the places in between: It’s the locals kibitzing over coffee each morning at the quaint J-Town Deli (where they have been doing just that since 1953), always willing to share tips for the day with just about anyone. It’s the local (and visiting!) musicians at the Wildcat Tavern’s weekly Tuesday night Hoot Night, playing incredible music and mixing with the crowd between sets. It’s Jerry, the bartender at the famed Red Parka Pub, namesake of a now famous Bloody Mary mix but still chill enough to get to know you and remember your drink order the next year you swing through.
There’s never a time I step into the RPP and don’t have one of the staff point out the old Tyrol sign for me. I may or may not have won the 1976 Bronzed Bikini Bounce Race they play on a loop on a big screen in the dining room.
I remember, as a child, watching from the back of the VW Bus we used for ski trips for the moment we’d crest the hill near Wakefield, just over halfway through our journey to the Valley. At that moment, you see Mount Washington and the Presidential Range spread before you for the first time. My heart always said “Home.”
That, I think, is just what the Valley is to me. I’m embarrassed at the notion. But then I remember: Mount Washington Valley gets me. It will get you, too.
Locals’ Picks in the Mount Washington Valley
Every Tuesday night, the Wildcat Tavern draws in amateur musical acts—some local, some visitors—to entertain you all night with everything from Irish music to a rock cover of “Billy Jean,” to original tunes.
In Jackson, it’s Yesterdays, where they’ve been slinging pancakes for more than 40 years. On the run, it’s a bag of hot and fresh apple cider doughnuts from the White Mountain Cider Company in Glen.
When Disco Motor Booty plays live at Attitash (usually a spring weekend), you simply must be there. On a cold winter day, things heat up at Lostbo’s Pub at the base of Black Mountain. At Cranmore, Zip’s Pub hasn’t changed a bit since the ’70s and you’ll be glad. For something more mellow on a sunny day, take in the view of Mount Washington from the fire pit outside the Glen House, with a locally sourced cocktail in hand.
Barley and Salt is pure Valley, with lots of local beer taps, great food, and an airy, comfortable vibe. Owner Ben Williams was the original owner of famed Horsefeathers, a Valley legend in its own right.