Northeast Cross-Country Ski Roundup
This Northeastern ski roundup was written for cross-country skiers with curious minds and wandering souls skiers itching to adventure beyond the boundaries of their own backyards. The Northeast is teeming with spectacular touring centers, each different, and each boasting its own point of pride. Every ski area has a story to tell, whether it be a ski-through outhouse, an old potato farm, or a homesick Scandinavian host. Every trail system has a unique feel and its own nooks and crannies to explore. You can rest easy - we've done the exploration for you. We looked and skied and peeked and pried until we knew all there was to know about our favorite places to ski.
Whoever you are and whatever type of skiing you enjoy, we're confident that you'll find plenty here to please you. Our only assumption is that cross country skiing is for everyone. It is for the wooden-skis-and-knickers crowd that still thinks skating happens on frozen ponds. It is for the toned, athletic, spandex types that thrive on grueling climbs and precipitous plunges. It is also for the closet nature-lovers cinched into cities by looping belts of highway. Whether your a pro or a plodder, this sport is for you.
How We Picked Them
Our choice of ski areas was based on a systematic and thoroughly scientific rating system which took into account the following factors: length of trail system, scenic beauty, annual snowfall, geographic location, our opinions, our friends' opinions, our families' opinions, and chance. All of these factors were given raw scores, then normalized with respect to our gut feelings. Your favorite ski areas may differ from ours. In reality, any list purporting to select the best must be based upon subjective and personal choices.
If you're a backcountry skier, check out this round-up of eight northeast destinations; we limited our research here to groomed trails. Plenty of space has been set aside in the appendix for a complete list of ski areas without grooming, those with modest trail networks, or without a cozy place to sit inside and warm your toes. We admit it: we're not averse to a little pampering. Our final product is an opinionated encyclopedia of the biggest, best, and brightest in groomed Nordic ski areas throughout the Northeast.
We apologize if we overlooked your favorite ski area. But if it really is your favorite, reading about it wouldn't have done you any good anyway. We simply hope our guide will inspire you to ski off your favorite trail and try something new. Although we have both toured, raced, coached, and taught throughout the Northeast for many years, we were still amazed by the quality of some of the touring centers we'd never even heard of. We think that you will be too.
A little advice on . . .
There are two ways to cross-country ski. You can use the traditional, extended-walk technique, where both skis stay in tracks and you use either a little sticky stuff or scales on your ski bottoms to push yourself forward with the help of the action-reaction principle. If you've never skied before, this is almost certainly the technique you have in mind when you try to imagine what cross country skiing is like. Almost all beginners start with the traditional technique. This isn't to say it's a beginners' technique, per se. It takes many years, substantial strength, and superb balance to perfect the traditional technique. Fortunately, an abbreviated, shuffle version of traditional is extremely easy to learn. Traditional is also referred to as"classical."
Another approach is called "skating," which is just what it sounds like. This is skating with skis instead of skates and with the aid of a pair of poles for an extra push. Most skiers don't try skating until they've had a little experience with classical skiing. Although skating is harder at first, many skiers find it easier to become a master of skating than a master of the traditional technique. Skating is slightly faster, and it's made easier by wider trails, longer poles, and shorter skis. It's a terrific technique for snowmobile trails and skiing on top of crusty snow or frozen lakes.
Although we each have our own favorite technique (and they happen to differ), we try not to gear our writing toward one or the other. You'll find that some of the ski areas have absolutely no trails that are groomed for skating. It's simply too expensive and time-consuming for some of the smaller ski areas to widen their paths. On the other hand, traditional skiers need not worry: all of the ski areas will welcome you.
"Telemarking" is just a fancy way to carve downhill turns when your heels are not attached to your skis. It is a little hard to learn and a bit demanding on the knees, but damned fun once you get the hang of it. Many of the cross country areas in this section offer telemark lessons. Try your luck. Some skis are built especially for telemarking extra wide and with metal edges but you'll do fine trying it out on your own "skinny" skis.
Wouldn't it be nice to reduce all the wizardry of waxing to a few concise paragraphs? Unfortunately, it can't be done. Our advice is to learn to ski wax-free start with fishscales or skating skis. Waxing is a hassle you don't need to deal with when you're still getting a feel for the sport. After a few years, once you start to get annoyed by the loud hum or the drag of the scales against the snow, move on to waxable skis.
Waxable skis are faster. They're faster because they don't have the dragging fishscales slowing down your glide, not because of any magical mixture of waxes applied to the bottom. What the waxes do is provide "kick." They give you something sticky to push off when you want to propel yourself down the track. They help you go up hills, not down. When you push the "wax pocket" (the center part of the ski) into the snow, some of the snow crystals need to become embedded in the wax to provide the friction, or "kick." The trick to waxing is to match the hardness of the wax with the sharpness of the snow crystals. New, cold, sharp crystals need a firm, hard wax, so that the crystals don't penetrate too far and slow you down. Older, warmer, more rounded crystals need a softer wax if they are to penetrate at all; harder waxes will slip. Waxes therefore range from hard to soft to match various snow conditions.
That's an overview. To delve further into the mystery, find a shoulder to look over or buy a few waxes to play with. Don't overdo it though. While it's possible to spend hundreds of dollars on a rainbow of wax, you can get by just fine with the primary colors.
What to Wear
If you feel like becoming a part of the natural freeze-thaw cycle, bundle up as if you were about to go Alpine skiing. While you're in motion, you'll be swimming uncomfortably in sweat. Short breaks will give you the chills, and long breaks will turn you into an icicle. Spare yourself the trouble and dress down. Usually, one or two thin layers on the bottom and a turtleneck and windbreaker on top will suffice. You may be chilly for a few hundred yards, but you'll be perfectly comfortable the rest of the day. If you plan on taking long breaks, just throw a few extra layers in your backpack, or tie them around your waist.
We highly recommend polypropylene and wool as the materials of choice. They efficiently wick moisture away from your skin, keeping you relatively dry and warm. Don't make the mistake of wearing a cotton T-shirt beneath a wool or polypropylene top! Wool socks are especially effective at keeping toes warm.
Wind can be a major factor. Many trails cut across golf courses or pastures, and a strong, cold wind can quickly blow all of the fun out of the sport. Wear a windbreaker and an extra layer on windy days when you're skiing out in the open. Don't forget a hat. Men may want to invest in a pair of nylon shorts for windy days.
It's very important that your gloves not be bulky. In cross country skiing, unlike Alpine, you really use your poles, and your hands must retain some freedom of movement. If you don't own a thin pair of gloves, buy a cheap pair of work gloves at a hardware store - we find that the white cotton gardening gloves work fairly well. On cold days, wear mittens.
A Few Tips
The following cross country tips were collected from friends of ours - veteran skiers eager to share their knowledge:
- Bring a highlighter to the ski area. When you pick up a trail map, you can highlight whichever trails are open that day.
- Wear contacts, not glasses. Glasses fog up very easily during the winter.
- When you put your skis on, after walking around in the snow, be sure to tap the bottom of your boot sharply with your pole before stepping into the binding. This will knock the snow out of the grooves and allow the boot to fit well into the binding.
- Negotiating a downhill corner on cross country skis is easiest with a step turn. Pick up one ski at a time and step 20 or 30 degrees in the direction you want to turn. Don't try to dig your edges in; your skis have no metal edges!
- Snowmobile trails are a great, cheap alternative to cross country centers, especially for skating.
- Road crossings are quicker if you remove only one ski and hop across on the other leg. Look both ways before you try this!
- When you approach steep, abrupt ditches in the trail, try to ski across them diagonally. Skiing straight over them could turn your skis into a temporary bridge, with your own weight in the center. They may break under the pressure.
All five states have ski phones which tell you the snow conditions at Nordic areas.
The Touring Center
For every touring center, we've listed basic information at the beginning. These sections are snapshots of the facts we found and the opinions we formed at each area. Here's what to expect:
The Trail System : The total number of groomed kilometers of ski trails, followed by a breakdown by type of skiing: classical, skating, or backcountry. Generally managers are honest in reporting these numbers, but their enthusiasm occasionally clouds their good sense, and they double- or triple-count a loop or two. We've tried to indicate in the narrative sections where we think they've stretched the truth.
Our Personal Estimate : A one-line assessment of the trail system; a very abbreviated and unquestionably biased account.
Grooming : We've based this judgement on our own experience on the trails, the equipment belonging to a touring center, the area's reputation, and a third degree inquisition of the groomers. Some areas are purposefully"casual;" others groom the heck out of their snow every day. Hoofprints, footprints, pine needles and other minor annoyances all interfere with the quality of skiing - we've tried to let you know if they are a factor.
Scenic Beauty : A purely subjective rating combining trailside beauty and scenic overlooks. Our scale ranges from 1 to 5. Always keep in mind though, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Touring Center : Some areas resemble a small city; others have only a wood stove and a few pairs of skis. All of them are open daily, unless noted otherwise, and offer lessons and rentals. As a general rule they stay open from 9 a.m. to sundown. The price of a trail ticket ranges from $8 to $13; $10 dollars is about average. Most areas knock a couple dollars off their fee for passes sold after 2 p.m.
Favorite Trail : Again, purely subjective.
Lodging : For every area we've listed both budget and more expensive lodging alternatives. Budget establishments tend to run from $25-50/night ($-$$), and the more expensive range from $50 to $200/night ($$$-$$$$). We have not necessarily visited these establishments, but most come well recommended and are viable options to help in planning your trip.
Local's Tip : Every area has some special deal or point of interest that only the locals know about. It might be a restaurant in town, a unique feature on the ski trails, or a police officer who likes to write tickets. We forced them to cough up their secrets.
Maps : These maps are certainly not designed to be used on the trails. They are simply a tool to use while reading the trail descriptions. We hope they will help you develop a coherent image of the ski areas.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication