Even as ski areas across New England make it more and more enticing to venture their way, adding an array of exciting activities like tubing and zip-lining, many of us want to avoid the crowds. We savor the opportunity to get lost in the wilderness, breathing in the scent of pines in relative quietude. Add a sport that will wipe away the worries of the world and you’ll quickly remember why we live in New England. Try these six options:
Cross-country ski hut-to-hutin Carrabassett Valley, Maine
Maine Huts & Trails (207-265-2400, www.mainehuts.org) is a nonprofit organization determined to build 12 backcountry huts over 180 miles of trails in the remote western mountains of the state. It recently unveiled its fourth property, Stratton Brook, overlooking the 4,000-foot peaks of Carrabassett Valley. When the 180-mile route is complete, it will be the longest groomed ski trail in the country. But there’s no need to wait. This winter, you can choose from staying at one of the four comfortable lodgings and going out on daily excursions, or self-guided or guided cross-country ski trips that lead from one hut to the next. Each of the four huts is spaced about 11 miles apart, so people can reach it within one day of cross-country skiing or snowshoeing. The ultimate adventure is a four-night, five-day package that includes 50 miles of skiing and spending each night at a different property. All meals, shuttle for gear, and lodging are included in the price ($404 for members, $464 for nonmembers). Nightly rates at the huts start at $69 for members, $84 for nonmembers, including lodging and meals.
Dogsled Umbagog Lake on the Maine-New Hampshire border
Polly Mahoney and Kevin Slater, owners of Mahoosuc Guide Service (207-824-2073, www.mahoosuc.com), have chosen a good base for their dogsledding operations. They live on the outskirts of Grafton Notch State Park in the heart of the Maine woods. Almost every weekend in winter, the couple, with 15 of their dogs, drive some 30 miles to the remote shores of Umbagog Lake. Here, guests learn the basics of the sport: standing on the back of the sled and shouting the magic words “Let’s go!” (never “Mush”) to see the dogs romp through the snow or yelling “Whoa!” to slow them down. You’ll take turns dogsledding and cross-country skiing on iced-over lakes, fringed by mountains of pines. At night, you’ll sleep in heated tents on a floor of cushiony fir needles, only to awaken to the sounds of the dogs howling in the predawn hours.
Mahoney breeds her own type of dog, which she calls a Yukon husky. A native Mainer, she spent a decade learning her trade in the Yukon bush. She returned home and met Slater at a nearby Outward Bound center when he was in dire need of a skilled dogsledder. Two- and three-day outings start at $575 and include food, tents, sleeping bags, even cozy parkas, mukluks, and leg gaiters. If winter camping sounds too ambitious, ask about their cabin-to-cabin option in late January, where you stay at three classic Maine sporting camps now run by the Appalachian Mountain Club.
Snowshoe to an AMC high hut in the White Mountains
The Appalachian Mountain Club (603-466-2727, www.outdoors.org) keeps three of its huts in the Whites in New Hampshire open in winter. For snowshoers who relish a good climb, try the 3.8-mile (one-way) hike from Pinkham Notch to the Carter Notch hut. The 19-mile Brook Trail will bring you to this unique accommodation, situated between the dramatic ridges of Carter Dome and Wildcat “A.” Here, you can spend the night at the AMC’s oldest standing hut, a stone building constructed in 1914, perched just above two glacial lakes. The trail splits at the 1.8-mile mark, veering left to the top of Carter Dome or straight to Carter Notch. As you cross a bridge and continue the ascent to the notch, the northern hardwood forest is soon replaced by a boreal forest of sweet-smelling spruces and firs. The last section of the trail snakes between the ridges and the majestic glacial lakes to the old hut. Inside the cozy walls, you’ve earned your dinner and a night’s sleep on a mattress.
An easier hike is the 1.75-mile trail from the campground at Franconia Notch State Park to Lonesome Lake Hut. The trail leads through a sheltered birch, pine, and spruce forest to the shores of this bowl-shaped lake. Savor Franconia’s carved granite and the surrounding 5,000-foot mountains in all their splendor, with rarely a peep heard. All three huts, including the Zealand Falls Hut, are self-serve, so bring winter sleeping bags and food. Rates start at $26 a night for members, $31 for nonmembers.
Hike and ski at Tuckerman Ravine in New Hampshire
Expert skiers who want to carve some turns away from the masses should head to a mountain that has no tow ropes, T-bars, or even super quads. Tuckerman Ravine (www.outdoors.org/recreation/tuckerman) is a large glacial cirque on the southeast shoulder of Mount Washington that fills up with snow from the mountain’s summit. By spring, this natural amphitheater is ready for skiers to cut their line down some of the steepest pitches in the country. “Tuck” should only be attempted by expert downhill and telemark skiers. The rest of us will find it just as exciting to watch the spectacle.
In 1932, the US Forest Service constructed a Fire Trail from behind the AMC Pinkham Notch visitors center. This is still the only way to get to Tuckerman. Called the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, it is an unrelenting, 2.4-mile, two-hour climb to Hermit Lake Cabin, or HoJo’s, as regulars call it, and another 0.7 mile to the base of the ravine. Throw on a fresh pair of polypropylene up top so you don’t freeze. Then decide your destiny. You can ski Left Gully, Right Gully, or the longest run, Hillman Highway. Pitches range from 35 to 55 degrees depending on the trail you choose. It’s wise to talk to other skiers to see which trail has the best snow and is the easiest to climb. On a sunny spring day, hundreds of spectators and skiers congregate on the Lunch Rocks. These large boulders on the lower right side of the headwall are the place to cheer on skiers.
Ice climb, then find comfort at the Omni Mount Washington Resort
There’s a reason inn-to-inn bike and hike trips are growing in popularity. People love to have a day of adventure and then reward themselves with a night of fine food and pampering. That’s the premise behind Mount Washington Resort’s customized backcountry adventures (603-278-8938, www.brettonwoods.com). Steve Nich-ipor has been leading the intrepid on winter explorations of the Whites for two decades. Now he’s offering more adventurous guests the chance to partake in an introductory ice climb on the Bretton Woods property or tackle the legendary Frankenstein Cliff. Located in Crawford Notch State Park, Frankenstein Cliff attracts all levels of ice climbers, from beginners just learning to use their ice ax and crampons to experts who can climb up an iced-over waterfall like Spiderman. Then it’s back to the historic Mount Washington to rave about your experience over a four-course meal in the formal dining room, while listening to the pianist play Count Basie tunes. Cost of a semi-private tour with Nichipor is $185 per person, private tour at $275 per person. Rates at the resort start at $170 a night per room in winter.
Extreme sled at Smugglers’ Notch, Vt.
Not far from the shores of Lake Champlain are the corporate headquarters of the Hammerhead Sled. This is not your grandmother’s Flexible Flyer with heavy wood and steel gliders. The Hammerhead boasts a lightweight aluminum frame with skis. You lie down on the mesh fabric and steer the sled from the front, easily maneuvering away from any obstacle, be it an uprooted tree or another sledder. To slow down, you can either drag a foot or make turns like you do on skis. Vermont roads that are closed in winter, like the pass that connects the Stowe Ski Resort to the town of Jeffersonville through Smugglers’ Notch, have become popular venues for the sport. Every Wednesday and Sunday afternoon in winter, Stowe’s Umiak Outfitters (802-253-2317, www.umiak.com) leads people on snowshoes up the notch and then back down on a Hammerhead Sled. Cost is $69 per person and includes a snack of hot apple cider from the nearby Cold Hollow Cider Mill and cheese from Cabot.
Stephen Jermanok can be reached at www.activetravels.com.