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It is my humble opinion that Bethel is the greatest ski town in the Universe. But I may be biased: My wife and I just moved here. Whenever people ask us, “Just where is Bethel?” we tell them it’s near Paris, Norway, Denmark and Mexico. It’s also in Maine’s Western Mountains, glacier-smoothed extensions of the Presidential Range that run along the New Hampshire border. Bethel is close enough, but not too close, to Portland, Boston and Gorham, and it’s just seconds from the world’s finest combination of skiing, biking, canoeing, hiking, swimming and humanity.
Most skiers, rushing to Sunday River six miles north, barely notice the village of Bethel. This in part explains why it still looks like the set of a Victorian-period movie: no flashy ski chalets, just well preserved white clapboard churches and Colonial, Carpenter Gothic and Classical Revival homes. But more than wood and stone have survived; there’s still a 19th-century decency in the air. People greet each other by name at the Bottle and Bag coffee shop, columns in the local newspaper report who had visitors last weekend, and the chirp of a car alarm is an exotic (and unnecessary) disturbance. Not only do Bethelites leave their cars unlocked, they leave them idling in front of the post office.
But you can’t blame the Bostonians for rushing past, because the skiing’s pretty fabulous, too. Sunday River, still known to the locals as “The Skiway,” has grown from a ropetow that a handful of Bethel residents built in Newry in 1959 into the flagship of the American Skiing Company. Sunday River is the proud pioneer of expansive snowmaking and, thus, the purveyor of perhaps the most consistent snow conditions in the East. A long ridge with eight peaks, Sunday River doesn’t have the vertical of Sugarloaf to the north, but it is so vast that for the first year I skied there I was almost always lost.
Sunday River is best on a mid-week powder day, when the hardcore call in sick and race to the mountain, crazed for first tracks. In a posse that numbered 16 last time we counted, we test our mettle on the steep, double-black bumps of Agony, arguably the mountain’s hardest trail and definitely its most humiliating, because it’s under the Barker lift. Then we might explore the trees of Last Tango or cool down with wide, sweeping turns on Lollapalooza. Bethel is also close to miles of untracked backcountry trails, at least three touring centers and the family-friendly, Fifties-style tranquility of Mt. Abram, a few miles south on Route 26. Here the burgers and lift tickets are a bargain and the lift attendants welcome people by name. My kids will probably make their first snowplows on Skyline Drive, while I continue to get a thrill on the ungroomed, Mad River-like bumps of Rocky’s Run.
And winter is just one of many perfect seasons in Bethel. What many urbanites to the south haven’t figured out yet is that, thanks to the deep base created by all those hard-working snowmakers, locals now enjoy great skiing at Sunday River right up to May Day-at which time we head straight to Mt. Washington and Tuckerman Ravine. When bugs appear around Memorial Day, we outrun them on our bikes. Summer and fall we can hike the Appalachian Trail, paddle canoes below eagles and beside loons, or swim across lakes that taste like a blend of mineral water and champagne.
What really drew us to Bethel, however, is the perfect blend of people. Despite the invasion of skiers and telecommuters like us, Bethel still has a robust population of natives who are determined not to let the flatlanders run amok. Descendants of the first settlers still live here, carrying on local stories, traditions and culture. It may not have a swinging nightlife or a restaurant scene likely to be written up in a gourmet magazine anytime soon, but Bethel nonetheless maintains a sense of calm, quiet and decency that seems to have disappeared in the cities and suburbs to the south. And unlike many other small rural towns, Bethhel also has a sophistication that’s bred in the bone.
Stan Howe, Ph.D., is a lifelong resident and director of Bethel’s historical society, which at 1,200 members strong is one of the largest in the state. Howe says that since Bethel was settled just after the American Revolution, it has had regular injections of worldliness, producing a cultured air and a nickname: “the Athens of Oxford County.” The Rev. Daniel Gould, the town’s first minister, was a Harvard graduate who lent his name to Gould Academy, an excellent private school whose campus resembles a small college. The railroad’s arrival in 1851 made Bethel a popular summering spot for writers and artists, which in turn attracted Dr. John Gehring, who in the 1890s built a clinic here to treat nervous disorders. Gehring’s clinic filled the town with Harvard professors, New York socialites and millionaires, some of whom stayed on and helped fund local institutions. After World War II, several MIT professors studying group dynamics began a summer school here that grew into the National Training Laboratory; today social scientists from around the world call Bethel “the best-known small town in the world.”
Scott Berglund, logistics coordinator at the Outward Bound base in Newry, sums up why Bethel is the world’s best ski town when he says, “It’s like the perfect sitcom. You know the characters, you like them, they’re warm, they’re diverse, they’re wacky, but they’re not David Lynch. It’s Northern Exposure, only better-because we didn’t get canceled.”