Northeast Cross-Country Ski Roundup
Northfield Mountain Cross Country Ski Area
99 Millers Falls Road
Northfield, Massachusetts 01360
(800) 859-2960, (413) 659-3714
Trail System: 40 km groomed (40 km classical, 40 km skate)
Our Personal Estimate: An exciting, mountainous area; wide, well-groomed trails make it easily accessible to intermediate skiers.
Scenic Beauty: 2
Touring Center: Rentals, lessons, vending machines, and some retail
Payment: No credit cards accepted
Lodging: Brandt House-Greenfield (800-235-3329, $$$); Deerfield Inn-Deerfield (413-774-5587, $$-$$$)
Favorite Trail: Sidewinder, a delightful romp across the mountainside.
Local's Tip: Eat breakfast at the local yokel hangout: Shady Glen Restaurant in Turner's Falls, ten miles away. Good homemade food, dirt cheap prices, and lively banter. The restaurant opens at 5 a.m.
If you long for a crackling fire in a central woodstove, if you like to warm your fingers around a cup of homemade chili at day's end, if it thrills you to be greeted by a clear-eyed, idealistic family of ex-hippies - in other words, if you want romance in your Nordic center keep reading. You will rarely find a touring center with less character than Northfield Mountain. It is a concrete cube of a room in a decidedly business-like building. It is owned and operated by the impersonal (and decidedly un-hip) Northeast Utilities power company.
That said, Northfield Mountain Cross Country Ski Area is well worth a two-hour drive from Boston. The friendly, no-frills touring center on the side of forested Northfield Mountain has pleasant, wide trails and exquisite grooming. Besides the knot of flatter trails on fields by the lodge, skiers face a choice: they can chug straight up the mountain or make a series of passes across it. Coming down is fun, no matter which route you choose. Even the steepest trails are wide and well-groomed with few abrupt turns. This cuts down exponentially on the fear factor. A strong set of legs and a love of hills will serve you well at Northfield.
As we mentioned, the ski touring center is run, oddly enough, by the Northeast Utilities power company. The power company operates a pumped-storage hydroelectric station on the land. At night, when energy use is low, they pump water up to the reservoir at the top of Northfield Mountain. That stored energy is released during the day, when the water flows back down to the Connecticut River and generates electricity during peak power times. In the summer, you can visit the station itself, which lies a half mile inside Northfield Mountain. In the winter, ski trails climb right to the top of the property, where you can picnic and look out at nearly six billion gallons of stored water.
This combination of hydroplant and recreation center is not unusual, although it is more common in the West than the Northeast. Before granting a license, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission requires utilities to come up with a recreation plan for the local area, the idea being that since utilities profit from the people's water they should provide something in return.
In the case of Northfield, this arrangement works very well. Aside from the skiing, the Recreation and Environmental Center runs mountain biking and hiking programs seasonally, has a permanent exhibit, and hosts a barrage of natural history programs. The top shelf of the library upstairs is loaded with a stuffed Great Horned Owl and a flock of other fierce-looking birds; the staff naturalist uses these to give talks to school children and local people. If you want to learn something about the area's geology, natural history, and human history, buy the Northfield Mountain Interpreter ($3), a fascinating 150-page book.
Since Northfield is built on a mountain, beginner terrain is generally confined to the lower region near the touring center, known as Fuller's Pasture. The pretty, exposed Rattlebone glides gently over fields below the road and into the woods. The bump at the trail head is a huge rock pile from the excavation of the reservoir at the top of the mountain; while trying to give it a smooth grade, the bulldozer operator claimed he could feel his bones rattle. Angel's Roost is a pretty comma of a trail with rolling terrain; it curves off Rattlebone through a tall pine forest.
For a satisfying elevation change, take the Reservoir Road to the top of the mountain. A road in summertime, this trail is the wide, popular, interstate of skiing at Northfield. The oh-so-gradual three-mile climb seems interminable without any of the imaginative dips and curves of a good ski trail, but arriving at the top is well worth it. The reservoir looks like a crater on the moon. From here there is nowhere to go but down!
The Chocolate Pot is a three-sided shelter in a sunny mid-mountain spot at the meeting of many trails. On weekends, the staff lights a fire there and serves hot chocolate, lemonade, and Snickers bars. Sheltered from the wind, picnic tables and benches encourage skiers to stop for a bite.
Most of the intermediate trails crisscross the mountain. Going up them, the crisscrossing mitigates the climb; going down them, you'll have a blast. Hill and Dale meanders flatly on a surprising plateau at the top of the mountain, then gathers speed through an intermediate section and hurtles down the mountain into expert terrain.
Sidewinder traverses the mountain through an open hillside forest; through the trees you can see out into the blue hills beyond for some of the best views at Northfield. The trail dips into Told-Ya-So Pass and down into the evergreens, where the grades get steeper and the corners more thrilling. The exciting Jug End dives down a narrow tunnel of dark trees; in the middle section, woods and clearings alternate like stripes on a zebra, and the final segment levels out into a sedate jog.
Expert skiers are going to have fun here. The 10th Mountain descends from a hardwood ramble over Bugaboo Pass, down the full height of the mountain, and over exciting terrain. One section resembles a runaway truck ramp: just let your skis go! The fast and curvy Ecstasy Ramble feels like a waterslide with good speed and smooth turns - a great trail for venturesome intermediates.
Skiing up Tooleybush Turnpike is like watching a trail grow up. The not-very scenic broad, flat lower section obediently follows the power lines; then, suddenly enlightened, the trail ducks into the woods for some pretty twists and turns. After the junction with Hemlock Hill, Tooleybush Turnpike turns into a match for the most dedicated climber with a kilometer of shifting grade changes, where the only constant factor is up. Daredevils can ski it downward, through the famous Chute.
Finding Your Way: Take I-91 to Exit 28 in Bernardston. Follow Route 10 east for five miles to where it hits Route 63 just south of Northfield. Take Route 63 south for five miles. The ski area will be on your left.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication