Two words come to mind when I think of Shawnee Peak, the 1,300-foot ski area in Bridgton: independence and history.

Independence because it’s one of only a handful of Alpine resorts in New England that is family-owned, as others explore alternative models like cooperative arrangements and community- or state-ownership, or are purchased by large conglomerates. History because Shawnee Peak, nee Pleasant Mountain, is the oldest continuously operated ski area in Maine. On Jan. 23, 1938, a 1,100-foot rope tow opened on the lower slopes of the mountain, marking this month as the area’s 80th anniversary.

Since its founding in 1938 as Pleasant Mountain, the Bridgton slopes have been a keystone in Maine’s ski history. Maine’s first T-bar and chairlift were both installed at the area, in 1953 and 1955. Freestyle skiing rose in popularity in the 1970s, and many of the top qualifiers at the National Junior Freestyle Championships and North American Freestyle Championships at the end of the decade came from Pleasant Mountain. Among these was Greg Stump, the legendary filmmaker who revolutionized the look and sound of ski movies.

In January, Shawnee Peak celebrated its history with an on-hill scavenger hunt, fireworks and entertainment, and specials at its base lodge pub, Blizzards. Revelers were encouraged to wear gear from the years they began skiing at Shawnee, leading to a kaleidoscope of neon, wool and flannel, and skis north of 200 millimeters in length. The resort is celebrating its birthday all season, but last month was the big bash marking the anniversary of the opening of that rope tow.

The 80th anniversary celebration was a “great way to celebrate our past and present,” Shawnee Peak owner Geoff Homer wrote in an email. “It is humbling that with all the consolidation and area closures in the ski industry over the years, that Maine’s oldest ski area has been able to retain its core identity throughout the years, and today continues to thrive and introduce new participants to the sport. Now, more than ever, I am excited about the importance of outdoor recreation and the experience we are able to provide to individuals of all ages.”

Homer’s family bought the resort in 1994. His father, Chet, purchased Shawnee Peak after it spent a few seasons in jeopardy. The following two decades saw consistent improvement at the area, with chairlift additions, upgrades and replacements creating a modern lift system that’s a massive improvement over that of the early ’90s.

Offseason enhancements continued into this season, with a number of quality-of-life improvements made in the base lodge. These included new decking at the East Lodge and at Blizzards, new pavement and paint at the East Lodge, and a new carpet at Blizzards. On the hill, the snowmaking system saw an upgrade, with 25 new HKD snowguns, a new air compressor and an overhaul to some of the system’s snowmaking pumps. Ninety-eight percent of Shawnee’s terrain is covered by snowmaking, a boon after we plow through the inevitable January thaw.

Shawnee Peak has long been a commuter mountain, only an hour from Portland and less than a half-hour from the New Hampshire border. When I wrote a few weeks ago about needing to get up at the crack of dawn to grab first tracks on fresh snow, Homer reminded me that Bridgton is much closer to Portland than Newry and Carrabassett Valley. Midweek, lifts start turning at 9:30 a.m., and there’s more than enough time to grab breakfast and a coffee, and still snag first chair.

And unlike Maine’s biggest mountains, Shawnee offers night skiing, which means you can extend your runs into the evening. In the forward to Dave Irons’ concise 2017 history, “Shawnee Peak at Pleasant Mountain,” Marty Basch captures the charm of Shawnee’s night skiing programs: “You can readily see the love radiating along Route 302 from Shawnee, with keen eyes seeing ‘l-o-v’ spelled out by those lights illuminating the trails.”

Skiing at Shawnee Peak earlier this winter, I was reminded how well Shawnee serves many types of skiers, straddling the line between small “feeder” hill and larger, modern ski area. The base lodge, clean and easy to navigate since its recent redesign, retains the cozy charm of a community hill. The cafeteria food, rentals and lift tickets, while not cheap, are inexpensive in skiing-adjusted terms, and midweek and evening tickets take the sting out even more. And while the slopes are modest compared to bigger spots like Sugarloaf, Sunday River and nearby Loon, there’s more than enough variety to keep skiers busy for a couple days. From the trees of the Dungeons and East Glades, to the steeps of The Gut, to easy cruisers under the Pine Quad, there’s a real feel of variety on the slopes. This is even greater when the East Lodge area is open, spreading skiers between two base areas.

In this season of anniversary celebration, there’s never been a better time to visit Shawnee. Whether you’re visiting for the first time or making a return trip, make that drive down Route 302 to Bridgton.

Josh Christie is a freelance writer living in Portland. Along with his brother, Jake, he writes about great Maine destinations for outdoors enthusiasts. Josh can be reached at:

[email protected]

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