By Zach d’Arbeloff
Sitting in the quiet town of Ashby, MA, Mt. Watatic is one end of the Wapack Trail and the Northern end of Massachusetts’ Mid-State Trail. It is a small mountain, rising only about 600 feet to the summit, accessed off of quiet Route 119. Most of the mountain is now preserved as a state park, and hiking trails take you both to the summit and into New Hampshire along the Wapack Trail. The northeastern half of the mountain, though, has it’s own history.
Mt. Watatic was an active ski resort that opened, according to available records, sometime in the mid-1960s. During New England’s ski boom, which started in the early 50s and lasted all the way through the 70s, small ski resorts like Watatic starting popping up all over the place. As more people started skiing, demand for any sort of lift access was high. Watatic started with a T-bar and a ropetow and continued to expand, eventually installing snowmaking, night skiing, and even a double chair to the summit. These small resorts became a lifeblood for skiing in New England, representing the neighborhood-community vibe that came to represent the northeast’s ski industry. Unfortunately, it would not last forever.
The ski boom, which resorts tried to capitalize on as a permanent trend, led to unsustainable growth among small resorts like Watatic. By the early 80s, with the economy slowing down and less snow falling, the New England ski boom was essentially over. Where demand for skiing had once been high, families were choosing to spend their winter weekends elsewhere. Facing rising costs and competition from much bigger nearby mountains like Wachusett and Crotched, Watatic was forced to close, estimated sometime in 1983 or 84. This is not an uncommon story, as literally hundreds of similar resorts shut their doors across New England. Some have re-opened, and a few still hold on today, but many places, like Whaleback Mountain in New Hampshire, depend on volunteers to keep the lifts spinning. More information on these areas is compiled at the awesome website the “New England Lost Ski Areas Project” (NELSAP).
Watatic’s sad story doesn’t end in 1984, however. In 1988, after Watatic had been silent for five years, a developer moved in with plans to turn Watatic into an all-purpose “adventure park,” adding water slides, more trails and cross-country skiing, a toboggan park, and more. However, he moved forward without the permission of the town of Ashby and, despite investing a significant amount of money in the project, never managed to re-open the mountain. In 1997, a vandal burnt most of the remaining infrastructure at the base to the ground.
Since then, the Northeast side of Watatic has been in limbo. After being left along for almost 15 years, the Ashby Land Trust purchased the land in 2002. A few years previous, rights to a 150-foot cell tower were purchased to be installed at the top of the mountain, but never developed. From 2002 forward, the land has been preserved for public recreational use by the Town of Ashby, and much of the old ski resort remains skiiable via manpower today.
I first discovered Watatic two summers ago, running a program for the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s Drumlin Farm Summer Day Camp. The “Adventurers” program took kids all over Massachusetts for day trips, leading up to a 4-day overnight during the second week of the session. Searching for an alternative to Mt. Wachusett, we ended up at Watatic not really know what to expect. It was a quick and easy hike for the kids with great views at the top. While eating lunch at the summit, we were talking about the history of the area and discovered in the guidebook that the mountain had once been a ski resort.
That fact hid in the back of my mind as I returned to Teton Valley, Idaho for another winter instructing at Grand Targhee. With over 2600 acres of in-bounds terrain and access to some of the world’s best backcountry, the Tetons were a great place to forget about the mostly mediocre skiing of the Northeast. Unfortunately, all things must come to an end and in fall of 2014 I found myself not returning for another season at Grand Targhee. I began to realize that I was either going to have to ski at a New England resort or find my own backcountry, and I opted for the latter. After cursory research, I stumbled across the NELSAP website and realized that my day was made. Here were old ski areas, many within a half hour of my house in New Hampshire, with cut trails and easy access that meant I didn’t have to slog 4 hours to Stowe or Franconia each weekend. Now all we needed was some snow.
After a full month of winter, it finally happened. The Blizzard of 2015 kicked things off in Boston with almost 30 inches of snow, and there’s been another 70″ since then. There is more snow on the ground than I have ever seen here in Boston and it has made the first winter away from the Tetons a lot more bearable. Small little hills like Watatic have become powder paradises – uncrowded, easy skins with decent terrain and tons of fresh tracks.
So, each weekend, I gather a few willing souls, head up to party at my house in New Hampshire, and wake up each morning to ski. This past weekend we had a crew of five that headed up, capitalizing on the most beautiful day of the winter and an added bonus of eight inches of fresh. The snowiest month in Massachusetts history certainly helped, but little treasures like Watatic have helped me forget that I used to ski every single day.
Backcountry skiing is an excellent way to get in a work out and a day of skiing all at once. While you might not think it, New England provides ample opportunities to make it out under your own power, whether it is lost ski areas or randomly cut trails on other peaks (like Greylock or Mansfield), it just requires a little research and perseverance. And if you’re asking me for directions… well, sorry, you’re going to have to find them yourself. I can’t give away my secret spots that easily.