WINDSOR - "The trails are fast today," cautioned the winter ranger, Mike Brighenti, spreading out a trail map at Notchview's sign-in desk. "But the groomer has been out since 4:30 this morning, so they're in great shape."
The night before, an inch of fresh powder had dusted the slick crust capping two feet of older snow at this 3,100-acre former estate in the Hoosac Mountains. Outside, the sun pierced the still, crystalline air without warming it, bouncing off fallen snowflakes in cold sparks of light. A young man in the cross-country skiers' garb of choice - tight, high-tech ski pants and jacket and knit cap - snapped into a pair of blade-thin orange skis and sprinted up the trail, leaving a chiseled wake of herringbone tracks.
The Trustees of Reservations, a private, statewide land conservation and historic preservation organization, owns and maintains Notchview, a cross-country skiing paradise pieced together from 18th-century farms and Mahican hunting grounds. The Western Massachusetts facility features pastures and woodlands, long views and tunnels of snow-laden evergreens, and hills that rise to almost 2,300 feet.
"That's why we tend to have snow when some other places don't," said Brighenti. "And we usually have skiing through early April."
In the other three seasons, hikers lay claim to the place, but in winter, cross-country and backcountry skiers ply the 25 miles of trails, including groomed and track-set trails for classic cross-country, ungroomed backcountry trails, and skate-skiing areas. Snowshoers can get a workout on an equally scenic and varied parcel across the road, where skiers can also glide along with their leashed dogs. (Snowmobile trails pass through parts of the property, although this year the local snowmobile club closed off its Notchview trails.) A visitors center-and-lodge houses bathrooms, a warming stove, and self-serve hot and cold drinks. Two trailside lean-tos offer shelter from the wind.
If you plan a visit, you'll need to make some preparations. There are no ski or snowshoe rentals available at or near Notchview, so rent equipment before leaving home. And Notchview hosts several weekend races, so check in advance if you prefer a less-crowded experience.
The trail system, clearly marked with signs bearing names and color codes for skill levels, has been continually improved since the Trustees received the land as a bequest almost 38 years ago, says Jocelyn Forbush, the group's Pioneer Valley regional director. In 2007 the organization received a $20,000 grant from the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, which will enable the staff to make strides toward delivering a smoother experience, says Forbush. "We inherited the skeleton of a system, which was not ideal for skiing because of a high water table."
In years of high rainfall, she explains, some low-lying passages don't drain quickly, creating potential for erosion. A long-term plan for managing and redesigning the system is gradually treating the problem. Workers have recently reshaped parts of the Judge's Hill Trail, for instance, so that it's "now a seamless ride on beautiful snow cover," says Forbush. "With the grant, that kind of work will continue on other spots throughout the property."
Skiers weren't complaining on that bright, frigid morning. "There's so much variety here," said Celeste Drumm, who had shared a 25-minute ride from Pittsfield with her friend Christine Kielpinski. "You can extend your run by hitting a snowmobile trail or a backcountry trail if you feel like it."
"The grooming is wonderful, too," added Kielpinski, who skis here as often as five times a week if conditions permit. "It's great to ski in the woods, and there are really nice views from the fields on the mountaintop." The key to feeling good about traveling a distance to get here, she said, "is to ski longer than you drive."
Jane Roy Brown, a writer in Western Massachusetts, can be reached at regan-brown.com.