Approaching Loon, discerning skiers instinctively rubberneck the steep cleft of Franconia Notch in New Hampshire's rugged White Mountains. Some eye the stark white slide paths on Liberty and Lafayette peaks, wondering if they're skiable. More reasonable types look for remnants of the Old Man of the Mountain, a rock formation that succumbed to gravity a few years back.
Invariably, though, it's the antique train working Loon's base area that gets the kids kicking the seats. Pile out of the car in time to hear the old J.E. Henry steam whistle blow, and kids of all ages twitter with excitement. After all, it's a cold person who doesn't love a train ride.
"At some point every afternoon, my son will ask if he can go ride the train," reports Walter Protan, a Loon devotee. His 11-year-old son, Michael, happily helps Matt, the liftie-cum-engineer, load wood to feed the train's stove box, readying the circa-1934 locomotive for another run down the narrow-gauge tracks.
The J.E. Henry, named for the prominent logging family that settled nearby Lincoln, looks every bit the storybook Little Engine that Could. And with its renewed purpose—it shuttles some 350,000 skiers from the gondola to the Kanc Quad after years as little more than a kid's diversion—this train is emblematic of a ski area on the move.
A Boyne resort since October 2007, Loon is picking up steam on the largest terrain expansion the East has seen in 25 years. Last season, South Peak opened with a pair of cruisers and a pine glade served by two new lifts. When the final face is cut, Loon will have added 125 acres, 12 trails and three lifts to the map.
Not bad for an area that already had some distinct advantages over its New England competition. Sidled up next to Interstate 93 and just two hours from the Big Green Wall of Fenway Park, Loon has a reputation for being both accessible and family friendly. But with such convenience comes crowds—long a thorn in Loon's side. The added acreage aims to give skiers of all levels a little more elbow room. "What I like about Loon is that I can ski with my mother and my 4-year- old-nephew," says Nicole Porter, a pass-holder from Boston's south shore.
Looking to become New Hampshire's Deer Valley, Loon is fastidious about grooming its flock of blue cruisers. Try Speakeasy, a hidden gem from the summit, or Blue Ox, off the Kanc Quad. But don't be fooled. Loon can make you work for it if you drop into the glades or the expert trails in the north and east pods.
A sucker for trouble, I dismount the summit lookout tower and hook up with my friend Bill, a member of Loon's ski patrol. First I chase him down Angel Street, a misnamed black-diamond with devilish pitches, before lapping Walking Boss above the Camp III Lodge at North Peak. "That's probably one of my favorites," Bill says. "First run, the snow was boot high on skier's left from the wind."
Like any family-friendly resort that hopes to maintain that moniker, Loon will keep you busy off your skis, as well. Ride a steerable tube down the slick, thousand-foot-long track, or check out the only on-mountain spa in the state, located in the Mountain Club complex. Loon has also mastered the mix of amenities, programs and resort navigation. A case in point is the well-conceived childcare and learning area based at Camp Wildwoods: The back door of the daycare spills right onto a learning slope.
But Loon's most appealing attraction might be the stunning White Mountain vistas skiers take in from the top of the four-passenger gondola before wending two miles down Bear Claw. And looming on the horizon, even more dramatic than the snow-capped peak of nearby Mt. Washington (New England's highest at 6,288 feet), is Loon's long-term vision to marry the resort with the charming old mill town of Lincoln, a mile away. The plan is to develop a cluster of new terrain on the ridge above of the village.
Loon may be a mountain on the move, but some aspects will never change, like children's attraction to the J.E. Henry. One afternoon I watch two moms board the train, each with a kid in tow. The engineer stokes the stove and then looks back at his load. "Come on up," he waves, as the kids scamper to the engineer's car. "Oh my goodness," says one mom. "Now they're in their glory!"
Funny, the very same could be said for Loon.
More Info: Loon Mountain Resort
336 skiable acres; 2,100 vertical feet; 130 annual inches; 49 runs; 10 lifts, including one gondola. Lift tickets: adult $69; teen 13–18 $59; junior 6–12 $49; 5 and under ski free.
Lodging: The Mountain Club offers the closest pillows to the mountain, plus access to the slopeside Viaggio Spa (from $144 per person; 800-229-7829). In town, the Inn Season Resort: South Mountain provides deluxe accommodations walking distance from dining and shops (from $189; 800-654-6183).
Dining: The Common Man, with its stone hearth, serves comfort food with warmth to spare (603-745-3463). The Woodstock Inn Station & Brewery offers live music and casual fare along with the upscale Clement Room Grille (800-321-3985).
Après-Ski: Gordi's is full of Olympians Gordi and Karen Eaton's race memorabilia, plus $2 beers (603-745-6635).
Getting There: Loon is a two-hour drive from Boston (5.5 hours from NYC), right off Interstate 93 in Lincoln.