This season certainly offers proof that the further north you go, the better the snow. Still it is strange driving by grassy golf courses with your ski gear strapped to the car. Even stranger is telling friends you are going to Saddleback, and they respond, "where's that?"
I am torn between keeping Saddleback a secret, and sharing this sweet stash of high elevation snow in a year when folks are jonesing for the real feel of winter. While most New England trail counts are 50-80% open, Saddleback is 99%, including the double black diamond steeps and glades of the Kennebago area.
Saddleback does not get the attention Maine’s other big ski areas with an S do. The Rangeley resort does not see the alpine droves either. New owners since 2003 have quietly improved snowmaking, grooming, cut expansive glades, and added two new quads – but nothing high-speed so as to preserve the un-crowded downhill experience.
Saddleback has the charm and character of an old school ski resort, fixed grip lifts deliver you to the 4,120' summit where skiers find natural gritty glades, and narrow winding groomed trails. You often have a trail all to yourself, and can still find untouched cord on trail sides at 3pm. Most of Saddleback's 66 trails offer gorgeous lake views, and the summit runs are lined with snow ghosts. Don’t know what a snow ghost is? There is another secret to be revealed at Saddleback.
Saddleback is more than just under-discovered skiing; there is an unassuming vibe amongst the friendly staff and families here. The classic post and beam lodge, added in 2004, serves hearty fare by a big stone fireplace. Upstairs, the Swig ‘n Smelt offers fun, not fancy, après ski. Don’t bother wearing your Bogner here, camo and hunters plaid are fine enough.
Saddleback’s Ski and Ride School holds to old-fashioned principles as well, with the lowest student to instructor ratio I have seen, 5:1, and children 3 to 6 receive 1:1 instruction until they can ski independently. I should mention that Saddleback has an ideal beginner South Branch area with its own quad lift, completely segregated from the intermediate and advanced upper mountain terrain.
Saddleback offers terrain parks, winch cat grooming off the steep summit, and free wifi in the base lodge. But what makes Saddleback special is not that new fangled stuff, it is skiing on the unique, inherent trails of untracked snow, the unhurried pace, and the people - or lack of. Saddleback is becoming discovered, so you should go soon, this season when their snow is deeper, softer and less-skied than others.
Saddleback has on slope condominium lodging or you can stay seven miles away on Rangeley Lake. I recently discovered The Loon Lodge. Watching the sun set over the snow-covered Lake with an après ski beverage at the fireside pub of this 1909 log cabin is the perfect end to a Saddleback ski day. Snowmobilers zip by on the frozen lake, then turn toward the Lodge. They ride in to dine at Loon Lodge’s cozy fireplace dining room too. Word around town is that The Loon Lodge's chef is Rangeley's best, another Saddleback secret shared.
Photos by Greg Burke
Eric Wilbur is a lifelong recreational skier who spends most of his winter and spring in the mountains of New England. He does not ski in jeans. You can read more of Eric's work here.
Heather Burke is an award winning ski journalist with over a decade of ski news coverage. As a former ski instructor and a ski parent, she knows the ski biz from the inside out. She and her family visit New England ski resorts, as well as the West and Canada, to report on the latest trends and their best family finds. Her husband Greg takes all the accompanying photos, and their work can be seen at www.familyskitrips.com and www.luxuryskitrips.com.