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Massachusetts: Family Skiing in the Berkshires

The ski mountains of the Berkshires lie tucked away in the southwestern nooks and crannies of New England. To reach most of them, you drive on pretty two-lane roads that take you through villages that seem to have come from a Rockwell tableau.

Their names will rarely be spoken when hard-core skiers and snowboarders boast of hair-raising plunges or thigh-burning runs that never seem to end. These mountains boast no gondolas, and few feature rows of gleaming high-speed chairlifts. They are like family treasures hidden in Grandmother’s attic. When you finally visit one, you’ll wonder how it is you’ve never discovered them before. There may be no finer family outing in winter than skiing or snowboarding in the Berkshires’ friendly mountains, which spill north and south of the Massachusetts Turnpike as it edges into New York State.

These are the kinds of places where parents turn their children loose to ski or snowboard or even plunge down the mountain on tubes and feel secure that they will show up at lunchtime pink-cheeked and happy. More likely, parents will bump into their kids on the slopes or spot them waving from the chairlift. The lift prices in many cases will be lower — by as much as 50 percent — than at the resorts farther north, and if you start early and stay late, you’ll have just as many miles under your legs.

You don’t even have to shake the kids out of bed for first tracks or feel the clock winding down as light begins to fade in the early afternoon. Lighted night skiing began almost 70 years ago in the Berkshires — on Christmas Eve in 1936 — when General Electric’s lighting division, based in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, erected lights along the hill behind Clarence Bousquet’s farm. Nights still see skiers on that hill.

Night skiing is a world that combines mystery with sport, where all around you darkness has descended. As you ride the chairlift, the houses in the valleys sparkle as if they are suspended in a distant world. The air is chilled and bites a bit more without sun. But the snow is softer, far fewer skiers fly by, and it doesn’t matter that the steeps are not always really steep, or that the bumps won’t make the pages of ski magazines. It is a winter night, the kids are laughing, and the trails seem to reach to eternity beyond the lights.

Ski Butternut, 380 State Rd. (Rte. 23), Great Barrington, MA. This is as far from the conglomerate feel of some of the big resorts as you can get. Beginning in 1963, Channing Murdock cut trails along the northern slopes of East Mountain State Forest. He named it Butternut Basin, and though it has sported a new name for about seven years, Ski Butternut retains much of its old-fashioned flavor. You’ll find Einar Aas, a former Norwegian ski racer, still here after more than 40 years of directing the ski and snowboard school. The Alpine-style base lodge was Channing’s fancy; if you get the sharp bite of nostalgia for a skiing day from your childhood when you see it, that’s no accident. This is one of the friendliest mountains around, especially to beginners and lower intermediates. Vertical drop: 1,000 feet; trails: 22. Tubing. 413-528-2000.

Berkshire East Ski Resort, South River Rd. (Rte. 8A), Charlemont, MA. One of the region’s largest ski areas, Berkshire East has some of the best glades skiing in southern New England. Hotshots head to Minnie Dole, Upper Competition, and Avalanche. Intermediates can cruise all day on Broken Arrow and Big Chief, while the mountain gives beginners a treat: a 2-1/2-mile-long smooth run on the Outback and Roundabout Trails that takes in the pretty Deerfield River scene. It’s a perfect stretch for novices to learn on. Vertical drop: 1,180 feet; trails: 45. Night skiing. 413-339-6617.

Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort, 37 Corey Rd., Hancock, MA. Jiminy Peak was the first major winter resort in the Berkshires. Today, a new visitors’ center, four newly cut trails, and the only six-passenger high-speed lift in the area bring some 240,000 skiers and snowboarders each season to its 157 acres of trails and slopes. Jiminy Peak also operates Snowy Owl Resort a few miles away, which is devoted solely to tubing (413-443-4752). Vertical drop: 1,150 feet; trails: 43. Night skiing. 888-454-6469, 413-738-5500.

Bousquet Ski Area, 101 Dan Fox Dr., Pittsfield, MA. Here is a hill that could fit inside any big mountain’s pocket, yet it was home to three racers who went on to make the U.S. Ski Team — Heidi Voelker and Krista and Kim Schmidinger. This has everything you’d look for when taking kids on their first ski adventures. Vertical drop: 750 feet; trails: 21. Night skiing, tubing. 413-442-8316.

Blandford Ski Area, 41 Nye Brook Rd., Blandford, MA. Since 1936, this is where kids from Springfield (a half hour to the east) have put their first miles beneath their skis. Blandford is the oldest club-owned ski area in North America, and though the drop is small, the rewards for families are not. Vertical drop: 465 feet; trails: 22. Night skiing. 413-848-2860.

Catamount Ski Area, 3200 Rte. 23, Hillsdale, NY. Smack on the New York-Massachusetts border (at South Egremont), Catamount is one of the finest places for beginners, whether snowboarding, telemarking, or Alpine skiing. Vertical drop: 1,000 feet; trails: 32. Night skiing. 518-325-3200, 413-528-1262.

Otis Ridge, Rte. 23, Otis, MA. As the oldest operating ski camp in the country, this bump of a mountain has turned out thousands of kids eager to ski or snowboard for the rest of their lives. With an old double chair and three surface lifts, you’ll feel you’ve stepped back about 40 years to when skiing was truly a neighborhood affair. Vertical drop: 400 feet; trails: 11. Night skiing. 413-269-4444.

Updated Wednesday, November 30th, -0001

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