King Pine & Gunstock: History, Community & Skiing
By Bart Beeson
“In the age of cookie-cutter ski resorts, this is New Hampshire skiing,” says Tom Eastman, local ski historian and journalist. His sentiment summed up my recent skiing experience at two of New Hampshire’s independent resorts: King Pine Ski Area and Gunstock Mountain Resort. King Pine is a family-owned resort in Madison, NH, while Gunstock, in Gilford NH, is owned by Belknap County in which it’s located. Both mountains boast a rich history, a family-friendly, community-based atmosphere, and of course, great skiing.
My trip started out at King Pine, where I learned how the Hoyt family, who owns the ski area along with nearby Purity Spring Resort, began establishing the ski area nearly a hundred years ago. In 1938, Milt Hoyt constructed a rope tow using a Ford Model A engine to carry people up the hill. In 1962, trails were cut for the King Pine ski area, named after two giant white pines that stood on the property and had been marked by the Royal Navy in the 1700s to be saved for use as ship masts (interestingly, an early source of tension between the Crown and the colonists, who wanted to use the trees for construction). The family continued to develop the resort over the years, adding lights for night skiing, a tubing hill, and snow-making equipment that covers 100% of the runs. King Pine is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, and now offers three triple lifts bringing skiers up the 350 feet of vertical to 17 trails ranging from meandering green runs to short but steep double black pitches.
I started off my day at King Pine by taking the lift to the top of the mountain and heading down one of the central runs, the aptly named King Pine (all of the runs are some variation of the “pine” theme). The ski area takes pride in its grooming capabilities, and I quickly found out why – every run I took during the day was perfectly groomed corduroy. With no lift lines on a quiet weekday, I was able to ski all of the open runs in the course of the morning (the only closed runs were the double blacks, which was fine by me), meandering down the green Pokey Pine Trail or getting some speed up on the black Jack Pine run. For intermediate skiers like myself, King Pine is a great place to get in a bunch of laps and work on your technique on the smooth runs. It also looks like the perfect place to learn to ski, with dozens of kids french-frying and pizza- slicing down a variety of bunny slopes, and taking advantage of the carpet lift and a rope tow.
From King Pine I made the scenic hour-long drive over to Gunstock and immediately jumped on the high-speed Panorama quad lift to the top of the mountain. From the summit, the view of Lake Winnipesaukee and the surrounding mountains is nothing short of spectacular, so I had to take off my skis and really soak it in from the deck of the Panorama Pub. On a perfectly clear day, it’s possible to see all the way to the ocean to the east and Mount Washington to the north. I managed to get in a couple of runs before realizing that I should take it easy if I wanted to ski the following day as well and take advantage of the fresh snow that was coming in overnight. I made my way over to my lodging for the night – the Lake Opechee Inn and Spa, located 15 minutes away in the town of Laconia. It was the perfect place to relax after a long day of skiing, with my lakeview room featuring a whirlpool tub and a cozy sitting area complete with fireplace.
Like King Pine, Gunstock has a fascinating history – dating back to 1935 during the Great Depression when it began as a Works Progress Administration project, creating hundreds of jobs. That history can still be viewed today at the resort’s Historic Lodge, which opened in 1940. Now home to a pub, restaurant and food court, the lodge features a Swiss balcony, towering granite fireplace, and knotty pine walls. As the region’s only county-owned ski resort, Gunstock has a strong community feel, evidenced by the friendliness of the staff and the passion of their leadership team. The mountain recently went through a much-publicized ordeal which pitted the ski area management against local commissioners who were in favor of privatizing the resort. With the strong support of the local community, the management came out ahead and the resort now has plans for a large expansion over the coming years. “That type of support made it possible to facilitate the change that was needed”, said resort President and General Manager Tom Day.
Currently, Gunstock is home to 49 trails including five glades, eight lifts ranging from the Panorama quad to two carpet lifts, a tubing park and nearly 14 kilometers of groomed Nordic trails. They also boast the most night skiing and riding terrain in the region with 22 trails on five lifts. They do limit ticket sales to keep from overcrowding, so skiers are encouraged to plan ahead and buy their tickets online. The Friday I was there, even after a big snow the night before that usually draws skiers to the mountain like moths to a lamp, I was able to explore the mountain and find many quiet runs and very short, if any, lift lines.
After a great two days of skiing, I was able to reflect on my experiences at King Pine and Gunstock. With so many ski areas being bought up by large companies, often accompanied with complaints about overcrowding or price increases, it was refreshing to ski at two resorts that put so much emphasis on community and family. Personally, at the end of the day, it’s not about how many runs I got in or how much vertical drop a mountain has, but the overall experience – whether that be skiing on the perfectly groomed runs at King Pine, or just taking in the amazing views from the top of Gunstock. That, for me, is New Hampshire skiing.
Bart Beeson is a Plymouth, New Hampshire-based freelance travel writer and photographer. He is a regular contributor to Travel Weekly, and has published in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy and other media outlets. When he’s not traveling, Bart can be found hiking with his dog Kesey or spending time at his family’s New Hampshire lake house.