Northeast Cross-Country Ski Roundup
Mount Washington Valley
Ski Touring Association
P.O. Box 646
Intervale, New Hampshire 03845
(800) 282-5220 (This number rotates among the trailside inns), (603) 356-9920
Trail System: 60 km (60 km classical, 30 km skate, 5 km backcountry)
Our Estimate: A fabulous, ten kilometer out-and-back through the Saco River Valley, a few shorter wooded loops, and plenty of extra kilometers in Whitaker Woods.
Scenic Beauty: 3
Touring Center: A tiny annex to a ski shop with rentals, lessons, hot drinks, and outhouses. You're better off buying a ticket at one of the trailside inns.
Favorite Trail: Intervale, which provides spectacular views of the valley and surrounding mountain.
Payment: No credit cards accepted.
Lodging: The 1785 Inn-Trailside (800-421-1785. $$$); Riverside Inn-Intervale (603-356-9060, $$-$$$); Telephone 800-282-5220 for information on other trailside inns!
Local's Tip: Every touring center has a run-of-the-mill moonlight tour. MWVSTA instead sends you on a gut-wrenching inn-to-inn chocolate moonlight tour, with several hundred calories waiting at every stop!
In 1990, the Mount Washington Valley Ski Touring Association (MWVSTA) stitched together a trail system out of scattered patches of ski trails strewn through the valley. Local merchants and innkeepers joined forces to create a European-style network a network where tourists and shoppers could step out of the inns and outlets of North Conway and directly onto their cross country skis. A first-rate, wide-open, western-style valley trail succeeds in luring skiers back year-after-year. Unfortunately, however, with Route 16 and a slew of back roads slicing through the trails, the network lacks a unified feeling, and there is very little isolated terrain for skiers with a penchant for escapism.
Although a few hundred kilometers of skiing lie just up the road at more extensive touring centers, most skiers are completely satisfied (and completely exhausted) with a solid 10 or 15 kilometers of touring. This is how MWVSTA stays alive with a single superstar trail and several other second-rate players. The wide, flat hayfields of the Saco River Valley cradle the meandering Intervale Trail and offer some of the most beautiful skiing in New England. With cliffs rearing out of the valley to the west and the snowcapped Presidentials to the north, you may find yourself looking over your shoulder for the rocky peaks of the Grand Tetons.
The touring center is at Joe Jones North, four miles out of town on Route 16. Unless you need to rent skis or chat with the manager, there's really no point to the drive. The center has only a single couch, a few hot drinks, and a port-a-potty. Start your tour closer to town, at the 1785 Inn. You can purchase your ticket there and step immediately onto one of the most scenic sections of the Intervale Trail. Beginners may want to walk down the steep hill to the floodplain before putting on their skis. After that, it's clear cruising.
Overall, neophytes have it easy at Intervale. The scenic valley trails can be conquered by the most timid tourist. Even hotshot skiers will fall in love with the Saco floodplain. The major drawback is that the mid-town sections of the trail system have so many road crossings that by the end of the day, you will have perfected the roadway hop and learned that you don't have to take off both skis to cross a road!
Except for a few small hills near the touring center, all of the trails west of Route 16 are fairly flat and easily managed. They provide good rhythm and great tanning on sunny days, but some of the fields can be downright brutal in the wind. The Saco River Trail is a worthwhile side trip to the river. (Notice that the steeper banks of the Saco are always on the outside of the meanders. The water flowing around the outside of the curve flows faster, tearing away at the soils and creating a steep bank. On the inside of the curve, the water is slower; it not only can't tear at the bank, but it drops sand and gravel onto a slowly-growing sand bar.)
The maze of loops in the Lower East Branch system winds through hardwoods near the confluence of the Saco and the Lower East Branch rivers. Trails jump across pinched-off meanders, dip into dry channels, and swing alongside the riverbank. Aimless wandering is the norm.
If the floodplains haven't sapped your strength, try either the New England Inn Trail, Mount Surprise, or Whitaker Woods. The New England Inn Trail is the easier of the three. After a few road crossings, it heads gradually up the valley of the East Branch River.
Mount Surprise was designed to expand into an extended day loop, cruising across a wooded mountainside, skirting the edge of the Cranmore parking lot, then dropping back into the valley via Whitaker Woods. But condominiums and road crossings and intermittent logging are more trouble than they're worth at the southern end; it's best skied as an out-and-back. Climb quickly up the side of Lower Bartlett Mountain, then roll through mixed forests along a hillside terrace for a couple of kilometers, before running out onto the front lawn of a condominium development. Enjoy the view, then turn tail and try your luck on the twisting uphill you just climbed. Although challenging, there are just enough speed-checking turns to make the descent manageable. Don't expect much of the lookout on the Mount Surprise Loop. The only surprises are the trees obscuring the view.
Whitaker Woods has loads of challenging terrain in an evergreen forest set aside by the town of Conway for recreation and conservation. Although not part of the official network, the trails here are very popular and well-groomed. If you simply remember where you are in relation to the power lines and railroad tracks, you'll be able to find your way out.
The all-new Mount Cranmore Trail follows an auto road slowly down the back side of Mount Cranmore. After beginning in evergreens, it descends through hardwood forests of birch, maple, and beech. Buy a one-ride lift ticket for a few dollars, then sit back and enjoy the ride!
Finding Your Way: Take I-95 to the Spaulding Turnpike, which zips up the eastern edge of New Hampshire and eventually turns into Route 16. Continue on Route 16 north through Conway and North Conway. About 4 1/2 miles from Eastern Mountain Sports on the north side of North Conway, the touring center can be seen on the left side of Route 16, hiding behind Joe Jones North.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication