Places

Adventure Skiing in Boston’s Hidden Backyard

By Tim Peck

Standing atop Mount Wachusett in Princeton, Massachusetts, I can already feel the buzz of a powder day. Ripping the skins from my widest pair of touring skis on the 2,005-foot summit, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the parking lot is bursting and people are clambering into line at the lift.

For the last few hours, a handful of other skiers and I have been busy cranking out runs, getting fresh tracks, and moving quickly up and down the mountain’s 1,000 vertical feet before the lifts run. Our semi-private powder paradise will not last. The mountain will open soon and swarms of powder-hungry skiers and snowboarders will be deposited on the summit via high-speed lifts. It’ll be a miracle if the freshies last until lunch.

backcountry skiing massachusetts
Sunny pow 60 miles from Boston? You bettah believe it. | PHOTO: Tim Peck

The Big and The Small

Mount Wachusett is one of the country’s busiest ski hills. Because of its location within an hour’s drive of more than 8 million people, Wachusett gets around 370,000 annual skier visits to its 100 acres. To put that in context, Jackson Hole sees about 550,000 skiers—but they disperse across 2,500 inbounds acres. With the huge amount of visitors, a powder day at Mount Wachusett often means excruciating lift lines, and runs get tracked out fast.

So what is a northeastern powder lover to do? We rely on the stashes, often found in surprising corners.

Mount Watatic, located 20 minutes from Wachusett in Ashburnham, is one such stash. Small and unglamorous, Watatic lacks significant vertical relief, steepness, and the “wow factor” of the region’s major backcountry destinations. No convenience, no lift-served hot laps, no groomers. What Watatic does deliver, however, is adventure, solitude, and powder.

You see Watatic’s potential from the car. As the mountain comes into sight from Rindge State Road, so do the faint outlines of its former ski trails. Like many other New England stashes, Watatic was once an operating ski hill. Beginning in the 1940s with a simple rope tow, the area grew to include multiple lifts, snowmaking, and lights for night skiing by the ‘80s. Competition from larger more convenient operations, like Mount Wachusett, forced Watatic to close.

backcountry skiing massachusetts
The former ski trails are Watatic’s steepest and most self-evident runs. | PHOTO: Tim Peck

The old ski trails, which drop 600 vertical feet from the mountain’s 1,831-foot summit, provide the steepest and most obvious descents. There’s enough pitch here to remind you of the runs’ black diamond heritage. They’re fast and vulnerable to heavy wind deposits. Dare I say—steep and deep in Massachusetts.  

Despite being a perfect alternative for city dwellers who want to avoid a long drive to one of the region’s more notable areas—Watatic is only 60 miles from Boston—the place is seldom crowded. Ski the mountain midweek after a storm and you’ll likely have the place to yourself. On the weekend, I’ve rarely seen more than one or two other parties. This is no highway mountain pass in the west; stashes stay fresh days after storms.

The Tour 

Skinning up Mount Watatic takes you through a museum. Beginning on an access road—remnants of a plan to build a cell tower in the early 2000s—you pass a few small, derelict buildings at the mountain’s base, including the charred remnants of a lodge, before turning uphill. Skeletons of an old lift poke through thick scrub and pines. Light towers hide in high-up tree boughs. Earning your turns here involves playing detective. Despite trimming underbrush in the off-season, the locals don’t want you to find the goods; too-tight trees are left intact, and outside the best glades, the tangled undergrowth is allowed to flourish. Many skiers opt to traverse into their favorite tree run from more established trails, rather than dropping straight in from the top and leaving an obvious trail.

Why the secrecy? Well, preserving stashes is an East Coast tradition, especially on a mountain so close to the masses. Rows of perfectly spaced pines hide in the otherwise dense woods, approaching 30 degrees in pitch. North-facing and shaded by the forest, these runs preserve powder better than anywhere else on the mountain. They’re the gold, and locals aren’t going to draw an X on your map.

When you reach the treeless summit, you get one of the best views in the state. On clear days, you strip skins and switch to ski mode while gazing at the Boston skyline to the east, the Wapack Range to the north, and Mount Wachusett to the south. I’m always blown away by the utter solitude so close to both a major metropolis and resort. 

backcountry skiing massachusetts
Short, sweet pitches = dreamy human-powered hot laps. | PHOTO: Tim Peck

Days after yielding Wachusett to the masses, I drop from Watatic’s summit silence into a series of chutes. Rather than gouging through sheer cliffs and spires like western couloirs, the chutes here are lined and shaped by ledges, impenetrable trees and unpassable scrub. It’s the scraggly, adventurey terrain where East Coasters hone their technical prowess. I pick up speed fast, torn between wanting to savor the run and wanting to rip. I duck into an open tree line and bust through shrubs with fluff flying around my waist.

In the Watatic parking lot, I pull out out the beers I buried in a snowbank hours earlier, and the value of this lonely stash clarifies. Nestling deep inside my puffy coat, I nibble on some cookies and slowly sip my beer. I can’t help but think of Mount Wachusett. It’s now après hour there, too, and the bar is bustling as people who spent the day jostling for a spot on the lift now scramble for a seat at the Coppertop Lounge. Competing for powder gives way to vying for the bartender’s attention.

At Watatic, my friends and I sit in makeshift seats on open hatchbacks and tailgates, reliving the day’s best runs and joking about who was fast and who was slow on the skintrack. Between the barbs, the silence is striking. It’s just us, our tracks, and the thick trees. Fresh snow brings us to Mount Watatic, but these small stashes deliver more than just powder.

Read about more adventures at abandoned ski areas here

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