As you wind down a narrow, wooded trail that overlooks the valley below, you would swear you were in Vermont. The scene is complete with fencerows, dairy herds, rustic red barns and silos. In fact, all that's missing is the rest of the 2,000 vertical feet above you. Mad River Mountain, located near Bellefontaine, Ohio, may never reach the stature of a New England ski area, but for the half-million or so Buckeyes who have learned to ski here over the past 40 years, it's perfect.
On a sunny February afternoon, the hills and valleys of north central Ohio are barren, but with 100 percent snowmaking capabilities, the 120 acres of runs are covered with 3 to 5 feet of packed powder.
"We specialize in new skiers," says 75-year-old Mark Emerick, who's taught at the ski school for 23 years. On weekends the ski school normally puts 1,000 to 1,500 new skiers through the paces, and even more over the holidays. "Our goal is to get them back three or four times a winter and keep them skiing," says spokeswoman Samantha Rufo. The area posted its biggest winter seasons the last two years with more than 150,000 skier visits annually.
The ski area is spread out over an old 300-acre maple sugar farm originally owned by dairy farmer John Shoots, who had a hilly thicket sitting idle and a vision of a ski hill. Mad River, then called Valley Hi, started with one lift and one 2,000-foot-long run. Through five different owners-the latest being Peak Resorts, which also owns Paoli Peaks in neighboring Indiana and a couple of ski areas near St. Louis-Mad River has continued to grow and prosper.
The runs are evenly dispersed in difficulty and include some gladed terrain-a rarity at ski areas along the southern tier of the heartland. It also boasts some of the only terrain and tubing parks in the lower Midwest.Local skiers love Mad River night-skiing. Not only does it lengthen the ski day, it creates a whole different scene. "They're out there cooking hotdogs and brats in the parking lot. It's like a big party," says General Manager Bruce Mowery. For the cold-blooded, the 2,500-square-foot lodge houses a cafeteria and a bar, and live music on weekends. But the real hardcore skiers aren't in the bar, they're out on the slopes-until 3 a.m.
Mad River, Bellefontaine, Ohio
VITAL STATS 300 vertical feet, 22 trails, 120 skiable acres, five chairlifts, three surface tows, terrain park TICKETS $39; $25 for night-skiing DON'T MISS A tour of the nearby Ohio Caverns, the Buckeye State's largest and one of the heartland's most colorful. INFORMATION 800-231-7669; www.skimadriver.com.