FRANCONIA NOTCH, New Hampshire ??вЂќ Cannon Mountain sits perched above Interstate 93 like a gate to New Hampshire’s snow-covered North Country, lined on one side by the two large cable cars that glide effortlessly up steel cables to the mountain’s peak. From the highway, Cannon’s white trails seem too accessible, too close to civilization, and just too normal to compete with the best ski areas in the country.
But when you turn off the exit, drive a few hundred yards to the base lodge, and strap on your skis, you begin to see a mountain that measures itself not by the number of stars of its dining room, but rather by the number of families that come back to its slopes year after year.
Cannon has always been a skier’s mountain first. According to local legend, the first trails from the top of the 4,186 foot high peak were carved into the evergreens a century ago by releasing huge boulders from the summit. The curving, bouncing paths the rocks took became trails like Upper Cannon and Upper Ravine – natural ski runs that are marked by snow-crusted pine trees and a view that goes all the way to Canada on a clear day.
It wasn’t too long after the boulders carved out their trails that Cannon became the home to the first aerial tramway in North America. From its birth in 1938 until an expansion and modernization in 1980, the bright red cable cars of the tram carried 6.5 million skiers up the side of Cannon’s eastern face.
But more than the new red and yellow cable cars have changed with time. Two decades ago, when the original 27-passenger cable cars replaced with modern 80-person models, Cannon wasn’t just a skier’s mountain first. It was a skier’s mountain, period.
Today, improved snowmaking, new lifts, and trail expansions have turned Cannon into a place where entire families can ski together, with one of the widest ranges of skiing in New England. Snowmaking now supplements New Hampshire’s winter snowfall on a majority of the mountain, and the tram’s ascent to the summit competes with modern, high-speed quad lifts.
Embracing change, the mountain opened a new Brookside area last year, with nine trails for beginners that combine the gentle slope of a training run with the tree-lined paths of the higher elevations.
Along with these new expansions, the same runs that have challenged serious skiers for decades still stretch across the mountain’s east side with a deceptively inviting smile. Standing at the top of Gary’s, a trail that separates the intermediate skiers from the beginners, the view of the highway snaking through Franconia Notch is the same as it was twenty years ago when the tramway got its facelift.
Cannon’s evolution – from a mountain for ski racers to a mountain for their friends and families as well – is due in part it its unique status as the only ski area in New Hampshire’s White Mountains that is also an official state park. Families skeptical of spending a fortune at a four-star resort (after all, what the kids really want is a plate of good chicken fingers.) are eager to take advantage of the mountain’s value. Current discounts allow a family of four to ski for only $98 on Tuesdays and Thursday, and even on peak holidays lift tickets at the state-run facility are among the least expensive in New England.
Being a state-run facility doesn’t keep the people who work on the mountain from feeling a sense of pride. Far from it. Above the ski rental window at Cannon’s base lodge is a promotional poster of a local ski racer who made it big, crouched over and leaning into a right turn with the edges of his skis almost vertical to the powdery snow. The writing scrawled at the top in silver marker is more of a yearbook message than an endorsement. “For the boys at the Cannon Mountain rental shop,” it says proudly.
The “boys” at the rental shop – along with the ‘lifties,’ the ruggedly hansom ski patrol director, and the 74-year old local who shovels the walkways at 4 a.m. every morning – are what make the mountain often feel more like a big family or a summer camp than a resort.
“Families come to Cannon Mountain because they see the same people working the lifts year after year,” explains Marketing Director Amy Bassett, who sheepishly admits she has only worked on the mountain for twelve years. “Twelve years is nothing here.”
No one knows whether it was the younger ski patrollers or the kids visiting the mountain that christened the red and yellow tram cars ‘ketchup” and “mustard,” but the name stuck.
The views from “ketchup” and “mustard” are so good that they run all year for sightseers, but it nothing beats a tram ride with snow still clinging to your boots from your last ski run. On a foggy day, the cables extend up into the sky like great big telephone lines to heaven, with no end in sight, and on a sunny day the views from the tram are nothing short of spectacular. It’s easy to get a bit mesmerized by the size of the treeless peak of Lafayette Mountain, staring down at Cannon from across the highway like a distrustful older sibling.
The mile-long tram ride last only about eight minutes. But standing at the window watching families laugh, teenagers pant out of breath, and couples hold each other close, you realize that maybe a quick glance around a cable car can sum up a mountain after all – even one as unique as Cannon.
Cannon Mountain, in rugged Franconia Notch State Park, NH, is operated by the Division of Parks and Recreation of New Hampshire’s Department of Resources and Economic Development. With nine lifts and 55 winter trails, lift tickets at Cannon begin at $25 for teens and children and $38 for adults midweek ($38/45 weekends).
For more information on Cannon Mountain visit www.cannonmt.com or call 603-823-8800.