Northeast Backcountry Ski Getaways


Three days into a seven-day backcountry ski trip and time has frozen to a crawl. The only sounds are the squeaking of snow underfoot, the crackling moan of a lake eternally changing its mind about whether to freeze or thaw, and the ragged sounds as I draw breaths of cold air.

The Northville-Lake Placid Trail in New York's Adirondack Mountains is a lowland trail, eschewing the exposed peaks for sheltered valley forests interspersed with frozen lakes. In the middle of summer, it's blackfly country, but now, in the dead of winter, the earth lies suspended in silence under a blanket of snow. The trail is flat, easy to ski except where it takes a sudden dip or presents you with an under-snow obstacle course of boulders and deadwood; when the snow cover is light and the obstacles dense, it is better to walk than ski. Camping is easy: The trail sports a series of lean-tos, deserted this time of year except for a handful of optimistic mice. The days are short; the sun, glaring and stingy, sneaks away early in the evening after slouching all day in the southern sky, shirking its job of warming the world. The temperatures are cold: 10 degrees, 0 degrees, even colder at night. It feels as if I have been gone a month.

If you live in the Northeast, you're no stranger to winter. For some of us, winter means coming face-to-face with the mercurial gods of December mountain summits. For others, it's the season of dead car batteries and snow-choked roads. But there is a kinder, gentler side to winter — the winter of protected valleys and gentle forests, where you can glide away from the frenetic hype of the holidays.

Get Away From It All

Backcountry skiing, touring, racing, bushwhacking, ski-packing, and telemarking: In the last few years, cross-country skiing (loosely defined as the kind of skiing where what glides down must climb up) has burgeoned. Just look at how its section has grown in your local outfitting store. When I bought my first pair of cross-country skis some twenty years ago, my choice was limited to a couple of brands of skinnies, waxable or waxless. For mountaineering skis, I had to go to a specialty shop. Today, you can take your pick of skis designed for touring, floating, turning, and packing — and almost any combination thereof. The reason? It's healthy, fun, inexpensive, and as close as your nearest golf course, hiking path, rail trail, or state park.

To find the best places for a quick winter getaway, I went to the experts: ski-trip leaders of the venerable Appalachian Mountain Club. Whether your holiday schedule gives you a few free hours or a few free days, here are some of their favorite places, and a few suggestions for how you can make the most of winter.

But before you head out, a warning: Winter trips, even in the sheltered valleys of the so-called temperate zone, require winter gear. Always be prepared to encounter Mother Nature in one of her fouler moods. A cross-country ski outing requires a daypack stuffed with the 10 essentials, including extra layers of insulating clothing (hoods, hats, gaiters, and mittens). You might also want to throw in a couple of chemical-powered warming packets (available at your local outfitter) as spot treatment for cold fingers and toes.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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