New Loon

Travel East
Loon 1102 Pic G

It's midmorning on the first Saturday of school-vacation week, and as my 12-year-old son Andrew and I shuffle along with scores of other people in the gondola line, we can only shake our heads at the transformation we've witnessed at Loon Mountain Resort. We've been skiing here, together with Andrew's mom and sister, since Thursday, and we were getting quite used to having the place all to ourselves. I even began to wonder, between countless runs down its uncrowded flanks, whether reports of its immense popularity were exaggerated.

But as the busiest week of the season dawns, it is abundantly clear: This place is anything but undiscovered. In fact, Loon is New Hamp-shire's most popular ski resort, recording about 325,000 skier visits per year. The reason for its success? It's a perfect-storm result of five converging factors: Loon's location amid the stunning 770,000-acre White Mountain National Forest; its consistently strong corduroy cruising; a pleasant, well-rounded ski town in nearby Lincoln; an area bed base of 13,000; and, perhaps most importantly, its proximity to metro Boston, just two hours south on nearby I-93.

Sherman Adams must have been pleased with the success of his creation. When he founded the resort in 1966, he hoped to revitalize the local economy after its lifeblood-logging and paper mills-dried up. Adams, an avid outdoorsman, was himself a logger for 25 years before launching a successful political career. The resourceful Yankee conservative was elected governor in 1948 and later served as chief aide to President Eisenhower, though an influence-peddling scandal abruptly ended his political career.

The current owner is Booth Creek Resorts, which acquired Loon in 1998. Booth Creek owns a total of six resorts, including New Hampshire neighbors Waterville Valley and Mount Cranmore as well as similar-size resorts in California and Washington. When it took over Loon, Booth Creek also inherited plans for a badly needed expansion onto nearby slopes. The expansion has been stalled for 15 years, mired in controversy over appropriate use of U.S. forest land. But no one skiing Loon on a busy weekend would deny that in order to meet growing demand, it needs to expand, and Loon finally received the go-ahead from the U.S. Forest Service in June. The expansion will ease Loon's notorious congestion on weekends and holidays, when finding a seat for lunch can be a challenge.

The South Mountain project, as it is known, will increase Loon's terrain by about 75 acres (it's 275 now) and boost its daily skier and rider capacity nearly 50 percent, from 6,100 (the most tickets Loon will sell on a given day) to 9,000. The timeline is uncertain, but groundbreaking for Phase 1 could happen as early as next summer, with new terrain open for the 2003-04 season. South Mountain, just west of West Basin, will offer six intermediate and expert trails, a high-speed lift and a vertical drop of about 1,600 feet.

The new terrain will also add an extra jolt of adrenaline to Loon, an ego-boosting intermediate's hill. Three of South's seven trails were cut several years ago in anticipation of the expansion. But then the Forest Service demanded a full Environmental Impact Statement, and they've been in limbo ever since. The new trails even have names: Cruiser (a wide blue square), Undercut (an intermediate glade) and Ripsaw, which Rick Kelley, Loon's general manager, says is "steeper than anything we've got open now. It's got a sustained pitch of up to 45 degrees that's 300 to 400 feet long."

Initially, skiers won't be able to ski between the existing area and the South Mountain terrain, though they'll be able to drive to and park there, and a new "transport" quad will connect it to West Basin, carrying skiers in both directions. The project will extend Loon's boundary to the edge of downtown Lincoln, if not quite connect it to the village. Loon plans a new base lodge for the area, as well as slopeside condosnd single-family homes.The project approved by the Forest Service also includes improvements to Loon's existing terrain, including six new trails, 50 additional acres and the replacement of the North Peak and Seven Brothers triples with high-speed lifts. Those should be installed within a year or two of South's opening.

In its current configuration, the resort has a broad, shallow base area fronted by the Pemige-wasset River and bookended by two base lodges: the Octagon to the east and the Gov. Adams to the west. The parking lot is crossed all day by a Loon icon, the J.E. Henry, a miniature steam-engine train that shuttles visitors the several hundred yards between the lodges.There's lots of beginner terrain, most of it served by the Kissin' Cousin double in West Basin, though novices also can ski confidently from the summit on Bear Claw, an easy descent with great views. For experts, the steep trails-Flume (usually bumped, Andrew's favorite) and Upper Walking Boss (usually groomed, mine)-are on North Peak, reachable via the gondola or North Peak triple. For tree fiends, Loon offers five glades: from black-diamond (Bucksaw, Mike's Way and Skidder) to blue-square (Missing Link and Scaler, new last year). The toughest run is Triple Trouble, a narrow, ungroomed, natural-snow classic.

On busy days, skiers line up by 7:30 a.m. to catch the gondola's first car at 8 a.m. By 10, the line may strain your patience. Fortunately, the Seven Brothers triple offers access to upper mountain lifts. Stay up there until lunch, cycling on the East Basin and North Peak chairs.

There are two on-mountain choices for lunch: the Camp III Lodge, at the base of North Peak, with an outdoor barbecue on sunny days, and the mountaintop Summit Lodge, with stunning views. In the base area, the Octagon lodge deli is known for its two-fisted sandwiches.

Other diversions include a Burton Method Center snowboard school, snowtubing (day or night) and rentals of three different types of snowsliding toys. Off the hill, there are 35 km of groomed nordic trails, horseback riding through snowy woods along the river, skating, snowshoeing and climbing. The slopeside Adventure Center has cheery bonfires and family entertainment on weekends and holidays.

We're staying slopeside in a two-bedroom unit in The Mountain Club, a hotel with rooms and suites that sleep up to eight people and have kitchens. It has underground parking, fitness facilities, two restaurants, and indoor and outdoor pools. On each of our three mornings the hotel loses money on us at its all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet.

Other lodging options include The Village at Loon condos, a number of inns and other condo developments. In town, there's the modern, 96-room Mill House Inn, with a shopping center next door. The most romantic accommodations are three miles from the ski area in North Woodstock. The 24-room Wood-stock Inn has its own brewery, which makes root beer in addition to handcrafted ales. Its pub, The Station, has nightly entertainment and good pub food. And its Clement Room is the area's toniest restaurant. It will spoil breakfast lovers for life.

But with tired kids in tow, we stay in Lincoln for dinner our second night, landing at The Common Man, which boasts "Great American Fare." If not great, the food is quite good: salads, thick lobster corn chowder and rock crab cakes to start, then entrees of Cape Cod style haddock, a N.Y. sirloin, chicken pot pie and a two-story-high grilled pork chop.In the afternoons, with candy bars at stake, Andrew and I race down intermediate cruisers-Rampasture, Blue Ox and Lower Picked Rock-off the Kancamagus quad in West Basin.

All get ample late-day sun, particularly welcome on a cold day in the Whites. We also enjoy Angel Street, a short, steep black-diamond headwall off the East Basin chair. And we discover that even when the adjacent North Peak triple is crowded, the East Basin lift often has no lines. In other words, once you get the hang of the place, it's not hard to find open slopes, even on a busy day.

As we leave Loon on Saturday afternoon, headed for the interstate, a pewter-colored sky that smells of snow makes it difficult to see South Mountain's three cut but unused trails. Even so, the promise that they and runs yet to be carved hold for Loon could not be more apparent. g of the place, it's not hard to find open slopes, even on a busy day.

As we leave Loon on Saturday afternoon, headed for the interstate, a pewter-colored sky that smells of snow makes it difficult to see South Mountain's three cut but unused trails. Even so, the promise that they and runs yet to be carved hold for Loon could not be more apparent.