Skiing: On Quarry Road Trails, dormant downhill runs bring life back to life

The planned downhill ski run at Quarry Road Trails in Waterville is shown with the tow rope visible to the left. Photo by Josh Christie

A brand new ski area – with new runs carved into never-developed terrain, unconnected to an existing area – is something you hardly ever see.

Here in Maine, the two newest areas originated half a century ago, when Lonesome Pine in Fort Kent and Mt. Jefferson in Lee opened in 1965. A number of factors have held back any sort of new development with cost and regulation foremost among them, something my late father discovered while advocating for the development of Bigelow in the early 1970s. It’s easy to look at the ski resorts that dot the Maine landscape and to feel that what we’re seeing right now is what we’ve got for the terrain, short of backcountry travel or expanding into already established mountains.

Almost as rare as a new ski area is the resurrection of a resort. Once the forces of engagement and economics close the tracks, the same obstacles that keep new spots from opening also tend to keep the closed ones from reopening. The New England Lost Ski Area Project (NELSAP), which tracks the history of ski areas in the region, lists 79 breathtaking runs that once existed here in the state, a far cry from the roughly 20 still in operation today.

But, note this qualifier “almost as rare”. Maine is quite unique among ski states in that it has seen some ski areas rise from the grave over the past decade. The newest of these is Quarry Road Trails in Waterville. The region, which was relaunched as a Nordic mecca in 2007, will soon have lifts for downhill skiing for the first time since the 1970s.

Located just a few miles from Colby College in Waterville, the ski slope at the end of Quarry Road opened in the late 1930s with a single towline (which, according to the Bangor Daily News, was at the time “one of the best ski lifts in the state.”) Over the next three decades, the 250-foot peak – known as Dunham’s Mountain, Mountain Farm, and Colby Ski Area – grew in popularity and with him continued growth, eventually finding himself home of a T-bar, light-up night skiing, snowmaking, and ski jumping. There is no doubt that many central Mainers, not to mention a large number of Colby students, have learned to ski at the small resort over the decades it has operated.

The area eventually closed in the 70s, facing a myriad of challenges. NELSAP notes that insurance costs and lack of snowmaking led to the closure, while attributes the closure to repair costs, and Friends of Quarry Road points to the energy crisis of the 1970s. whatever the reason, the area remained abandoned for decades.

That changed in the late 2000s when the Quarry Road Recreation Center opened. Owned and operated by the City of Waterville Parks and Recreation Department, the area now has over 200 acres of land and approximately 8 miles of Nordic ski trails. The best-in-class trail system was designed by John Morton, a former Olympian who helped plan ski trails across the country, all the way to Denali National Park in Alaska. In addition to Nordic skiing, Quarry Road allows tire biking on groomed trails (conditions permitting) and separate trails for snowshoeing and dog walking.

Even with the popularity of the Nordic network, downhill skiing still attracts. Despite the little elevation gain offered, there is definitely some fun terrain to be found on Dunham’s Mountain. Just south of the Visitor Center, around the line of the old T-bar (whose towers still stand), dozens of trail sets could be found after our recent snow storm. Volunteers have worked to keep the terrain cleared under the glades of the former Colby ski area, and the center encourages butchering, telemarking and alpine treks at your own risk. There’s even a dedicated uphill trail to access the glades and backcountry, and last February Quarry Road hosted a day of snowmobile-assisted downhill skiing.

But, as of this month, skiers should be able to access (at least some) downhill terrain without hiking. A Towpro towline is now visible at the bottom of the old downhill slope, which has been cleared and used for sledding in recent seasons. The 75ft lift will service this beginner run and function both to provide downhill service and act as a sort of proof of concept for further development. Indeed, the Chemin Quarry master plan, drawn up by “Les amis du chemin Quarry” in 2018, proposed the installation of a T-bar to access the highest parts of the old ski slopes. While the tow rope missed its proposed opening date of January 22, all signs point to an opening imminent – is the place to watch for a confirmed start date.

Once the towline opens, it will be among the cheapest lift tickets in the state at $10 for a one-day ticket, while a season pass will cost $50. The low price is in line with the cost of other services at Quarry Road, where a day ticket for the Nordic trails is $15, ski rental passes are $15 for skis, boots and sticks, and classes start at $25 an hour. Access to ungroomed hiking and snowshoeing trails is free, and the outdoor center even offers free use of snowshoes on a first-come, first-served basis.

Once lift services begin, Quarry Road will be Maine’s third ski area to be resurrected in the past decade. It will join Big Moose in Greenville (closed in 2010 and reopened in 2013), and Saddleback in Rangeley (closed in 2015 and reopened in 2020). While coming back from the dead is rare in the ski industry, industrious Mainers – usually with strong community support and dedicated volunteers – prove it’s not impossible.

Josh Christie is the author of four books, including the most recent “Skiing Maine,” and co-owner of Print: A Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Portland. He also writes about beer, books and the outdoors.

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