Passing Through: North Conway

North Conway is rooted at the center of New Hampshire skiing

Growing up ski racing in New Hampshire, my parents woke me up early on race days and ushered me into the car, where I’d fall back asleep on the drive to our destination, which was, more often than not, North Conway. Located along the southeastern border of the White Mountain National Forest, the little town of 2,300 is at the heart of New Hampshire skiing. It’s home to Cranmore and Attitash Mountain Re-sorts, 20 minutes south of Wildcat Mountain Ski Area, and 40 minutes from Bretton Woods Mountain Resort.

The town, which developed along U.S. Route 16, has grown steadily since the historic train station was completed in 1874 and began shipping Bostonites in on “snow trains.” A few years back, the town built the North-South road, a bypass that cuts around the congested downtown strip lined with boutiques and ski shops and restaurants. Officials promised that the bypass would never be developed—and they’ve stayed true to their word, but a mega-Walmart at the southern terminus worries some locals. Despite the box stores and the outlets (no sales tax!), NoCo is still a quaint New England ski town. All in all, each year’s new development isn’t more than a harmless new hotel or rotary.

Cranmore, which sits within walking distance from downtown, is always in sight. The mountain leaves its trail lights on all night throughout winter, and it twinkles above town providing perpetual cheer. This re-sort attracts mostly families, and a school program that makes sure every kid learns to ski or snowboard buses students here after class. Bretton Woods, to the west, is another family friendly hill that gets a fresh layer of talcum powder almost every night, but is geared toward intermediate skiers.

Most locals stick to Wildcat and Attitash. Wildcat is cold, and with less snowmaking and grooming than the other resorts, it isn’t as refined. By high school, I’d sworn off Wildcat races because I am a wuss, but on a good day, Wildcat offers some of the best skiing in the Mount Washington Valley. The runs are cruisers, cut the old-fashioned way—they’re narrow, and skiers make their turns with the curvature of the windy trails. If there’s good snow, the most well-known secret stash can be found on Thompson Brook, a playful riverbed with skinny, steep sections. There’s also adventure on the backside, which doesn’t offer highly technical terrain but is more rugged and requires a hike out. The most challenging skiing is over at Attitash; there, hit Tim’s Trauma, Idiot’s Option, and Ptarmigan’s.

And of course there’s the region’s steepest skiing at Tuckerman Ravine on Mount Washington, the Northeast’s highest peak, at 6,289 feet. The only official avy center on the east coast watches over skiers here, but they still frequently take overconfident gambles to prove their mettle, usually at the urging of the springtime party-goers down at the Lunch Rocks. Hike up to the base of the bowl from Pinkham Notch and try your hand at any number of lines, including Left Gully, Chute, or the Center Bowl.

If you’re skiing Tucks or Wildcat, the first thing you should hit on your way down from the mountains is the Shanon Door Irish Pub in Jackson, which has excellent pizza. Continue into town to the Moat Mountain Steakhouse for nachos and Moat Mountain Beer, brewed in-house. There’s also the Red Parka Pub, a skier’s institution since anybody can remember that serves a hearty steak dinner.

When it comes time to lay your head to rest, the most spectacular lodging is at the beautiful red-roofed Mount Washington Resort just across the road from Bretton Woods. The secluded, stately hotel has welcomed presidents and provides stunning views of Mount Washington. But rooms start at $179, and there are scores of cheaper inns and hotels lining Route 16 from Conway to Jackson. The Wildcat Inn and Tavern is known for its lively night scene, and you can book a room there for $79. The Moat Smokehouse also rents rooms, though availability is limited. The Appalachian Mountain Club keeps a few backcountry huts open through the winter for skiers exploring the Whites.