Gunstock in the Heart of the “Switzerland of America”

Gunstock Mtn. NH
Gunstock Mountain, New Hampshire. Photo taken by Bill Hemmell | © Aerial Photo NH

Gunstock Ski and Recreational Area is not your typical New Hampshire ski area. There is something special about it. Initially, you might not be able to put your finger on what makes it so while you are caught in the flurry of its exciting four-season activities. But if you will look past the state-of-art facility and great events, you will see how the old title for New Hampshire as the “Switzerland of America” suits Gunstock perfectly. That’s what makes it special.

When you think of Switzerland, an idyllic picture of lakes and mountains fills your mind. One trip up Gunstock’s summit chairlift, summer or winter, offers an exceptional alternate that is unbeatable. Everywhere you look, lakes and mountains surround you. Alton Bay sweeps into the broads of Lake Winnipesaukee. The bays at Meredith, Wolfeboro, Moultonborough, and Center Harbor jut into the Ossipee Mountains and the foothills of the White Mountains. Smaller lakes are scattered about the 360-degree panorama including Squam, Wicwas, and Waukewan. To the east, Winnipesaukee narrows to the Weirs and into Paugus Bay. Here Lake Opechee and Lake Winnisquam dominate the vista. To the north, Mount Washington and the White Mountains can be seen rising grandly. All and all, Gunstock’s view is as Swiss-like as it gets.

But there is something more about Gunstock that gives you that lighthearted feeling that you have happened on a little bit of a European vacation. Two hours earlier you may have been in the center of Boston, but as you near Gunstock you begin to pass little chalets along the road including those that are part of the 1960’s development called Chalet Village. When you reach the main parking of the ski area, you are confronted with a massive old ski lodge built in the 1930’s with a distinctive Swiss flair. The wood and stone structure houses a great room lit by wagon wheel chandeliers with vaulted ceilings, mammoth stone fireplace and hearth, and a perimeter wooden balcony. The sight alone will cause a relaxing feeling to flow over you. It’s that feeling you get when you arrive at a resort in the middle of the Alps, knowing you are far removed from the stresses of work and life in general. Even if you must eventually make the trip back to the city, right now you are in an alpine paradise.

Gunstock’s history is distinct from all the other ski facilities in New Hampshire. It is the only county owned ski area in New Hampshire. Built in the 1930s, it was a post-Depression WPA project. Hundreds of unemployed men were hired to construct the main lodge and auxiliary buildings, as well as the first single chairlift in the East, rope tows, cross country trails, camping facilities, and hiking trails. A 60-meter ski jump was finished in the mid-1930s and put the ski area (called Belknap Ski Area at the time) on the national map with championship meets attracting national and international ski jumping stars. In 1960, a local skier propelled the ski area into greater national attention. Penny Pitou, who trained at Gunstock, won 2 silver medals at the 1960 Winter Olympics. After the Olympics, Penny returned to Gilford and married fellow Olympian Egon Zimmermann, Gold medalist at the 1964 Olympics in the downhill. Penny and Egon started the Penny Pitou Ski School at Gunstock during the 1960’s and brought in a number of Austrians as ski instructors, adding to the European atmosphere at Gunstock.

Gunstock’s long skiing history means it also has a host of local characters that still grace its slopes. If you are lucky, you might meet one. These are not Swiss folks, but hardy old Yankees who are just as independent and colorful. Many are still skiing or hiking in there 70’s and 80’s. These locals may clue you in as to where the best patch of wild blueberries can be found in the summer or maybe direct you to the slope with the most favorable afternoon snow in the winter. They’ll have stories to share as to the old-timer reputed to hold the record for consecutive ski days and other important matters in the world of Gunstock. Just like in Switzerland, for many growing up in the Lakes Region, skiing and hiking at Gunstock is a way of life.

The present day Gunstock hosts the old but also the best of the new. Their ZipTour Zip Line was awarded Best Of New Hampshire 2015. There are over 1.6 miles of lines, making Gunstock’s one of the longest in the continental U.S. You can reach speeds of up to 70 miles per hour as you zip along from the summit. Gunstock’s Arial Treetop Adventure is New England’s largest aerial obstacle course. There are 91 different challenges within 8 distinct courses. Gunstock has just received approval to add a $2.6 million dollar Alpine Coaster ride. Other activities include Segway tours on the cross-country trails, stand-up-paddle boarding on the resort pond, walking along the wetlands boardwalk, hiking the numerous trails, fishing, mountain biking, camping, and, of course, premier skiing and snowboarding. Gunstock has also recently expanded its Nordic center.

Gunstock hosts many special events such as the annual Soulfest (which draws more than 13,000 people a day), the Timberman Triathlon Festival, horse drawn wagon rides, craft fairs, wine and beer tasting, Halloween-themed events, car shows, and the upcoming Public Safety Day. Their Landing Zone restaurant is situated on a new 3,000 square foot patio at the end of the main lodge and offers something for everyone. The area is a popular venue for weddings. It also hosts proms and the Miss Winnipesaukee and Miss Weirs Beach pageant.

Today Gunstock is the 3rd largest by skier visits in New Hampshire. Its summit elevation is 2300 feet. There are 227 skiable acres and 90% of the mountain is covered by state-of-the-art snowmaking. The 8 lifts offer an uphill capacity of 12,400 skiers/hour. Greg Goddard has performed an outstanding job as general manager. He has tremendous respect from all his employees, and he and his team have exceeded expectations in expanding Gunstock into a true four-season vacation mecca.

Come take advantage of all the activities at Gunstock. While you’re there, let your mind peacefully slip into that “I’m away-from-it-all” attitude that an extended trip to the Swiss Alps would provide. One thing is for sure. New Hampshire may not have received its well-deserved title as the Switzerland of America because of Gunstock. But for almost eighty years Gunstock surely has contributed to making the title true.

TIMELINE

1937: first season at newly-constructed Gunstock

1941: Torger Tokle set the hill record on Gunstock’s 60-meter jump

1954: Belknap’s first T-Bar installed

1960: Gunstock skier Penny Pitou wins 2 silver metals at the Winter Olympics

1970s-2000s: constant improvement in infrastructure and snowmaking technology

2011: Aerial TreeTop Adventures, ZipTour, and off-road Segway tours open

2015: Gunstock receives approval to add $2.6 million dollar Alpine coaster

This post was written by Mary O’Neill.

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