In Jay, skiing Spruce Mountain is about as different from skiing at a big-name resort as you can get.
The mountain — about a three-hour drive north of Boston — boasts being “Home of the $1 Grilled Cheese Sandwich.” A single tow rope hoists skiers up the modest but neatly groomed hill. At times on a visit there, I had the entire place to myself, meaning no lines and plenty of runs for the $18 I had plunked down for a daylong ticket.
Because I had had my fill by noon, I called it a day and returned to the volunteer-run area’s lodge. The manager, noticing my early return, insisted I take $8 back. How many ski areas anywhere give you a refund?
But if you aren’t hung up on big-resort names and can draw satisfaction from schussing down trails only a fraction as long as those at the big mountains, skiing on the cheap can be easily done at these types of smaller, lesser-known places — especially in Maine, which has some big resorts like Sunday River and Sugarloaf, but is also scattered with small, family- or club-owned ski hills. At these smaller ski areas, a day’s lift ticket might amount to $10 or $20, and a season’s pass to what you’d pay for a couple of days at a large resort. That compares to the $80-a-day or so a larger resort will charge.
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You don’t necessarily have to be frugal to be among those who relish a day at those off-the-radar, out-of-the way spots where it seems everyone has a smile and no one is out to set a ski fashion trend. At least in Maine, small ski areas are a kind of a tradition going back to the days of wooden skis and rope tows.
In Lee, about an hour’s drive northeast of Bangor, what came to be known as Mount Jefferson has been in Byron Delano’s family since Delano’s father and five other men developed the trails a half-century ago. At the top it affords postcard-perfect views of Maine’s highest mountain, the mile-high Katahdin, looming over the wooded, rolling countryside.
To warm up between runs down the trails featuring a 432-foot vertical drop, skiers sip 25-cent cups of coffee and gobble the locally acclaimed doughnuts made by Delano’s 88-year-old mother. Grandpas and grandmas sit by the windows enjoying the view, enhancing the family-atmosphere glow. There’s even a bunny trail called Granny.
“A lot of them come to watch the kids ski and eat and talk,” said Delano.
Thanks to the low overhead — Delano does the bush-hogging and other maintenance — Mount Jefferson can keep lift ticket rates at $20 for an adult full-day, half that for a child half-day, and free for a child 5 and younger with adult. (Kids start skiing early in Maine.) Equipment rentals cost $15 for an adult.
That’s not all. Baker Mountain in Moscow is a $10-per-day gem that charges a whole buck and a half for a grilled cheese sandwich. Located in the western Maine highlands, it’s not only a big draw for kids but apparently for oldsters as well. A sign over the lodge’s rental desk advises dryly “All Men Over 93 (ski) Free.”
At southern Maine’s Powderhouse Hill, an old Ford V-8 engine mounted in the back of a pickup truck powers an 800-foot tow rope up the trail in what’s among America’s smallest ski areas. Lift tickets are $5 at the South Berwick town-owned area, which has a wood-burning stove-heated lodge and snack bar.
Its history illustrates the place little ski areas have played in countless Maine towns through the generations. Started in 1939, Powderhouse was disbanded in the 1970s as the sport expanded and larger areas became more popular. But it was resurrected in the early 1980s as a ski club took interest and has since been sold to the town.
Unpretentious and underappreciated, the little guys fill a gap in a sport that caters in large part to those with money and more uppity tastes. But former three-time Olympian Julie Parisien, who cut her teeth at Lost Valley, a small ski area in her hometown of Auburn, said Europe is covered with little places like this where everybody gets a chance to take a few runs. A weekday lift ticket at Lost Valley, good from 3 to 8 p.m., costs just $24.
If You Go…
Spruce Mountain: Jay, Maine; www.sprucemountain.org/
Mount Jefferson: Lee, Maine; www.skimtjefferson.com/prices.html
Baker Mountain: Moscow, Maine; www.facebook.com/pages/Baker-Mt-Ski-Tow-Club/211892185489436
Powderhouse Hill: South Berwick, Maine; www.powderhousehill.com/
Lost Valley: Auburn, Maine; lostvalleyski.com/