Fifteen family-friendly snowshoe hikes in the Northeast
By Kristen Laine
AMC Outdoors, December 2011
Snowshoeing is a simple way to enjoy the outdoors in winter. Even very young children can get the hang of walking in snowshoes in a short time. The equipment is relatively inexpensive to buy or rent, and you don't need special clothing.
Walking on snow takes more time and effort than walking on bare ground, and steepness and snow conditions slow the going. But a slower pace is one of the pleasures of winter walking. Winter changes even familiar surroundings and allows you see them anew. Snowshoers are rewarded with the thrill of walking near frozen rivers, seeing fresh tracks in the snow, and discovering the fantastic shapes and textures of winter. And the effort involved helps keep you warm.
The fifteen trails listed below have been selected especially with families in mind. All are limited to human-powered travel (no snow machines speeding by) and offer easy route-finding. Most are also close to food and drink, bathrooms, snowshoe rentals, and other family-friendly services.
Mount Willard has been called "the best little hike in the Whites." Its advantages as a family hike extend into winter, as well: The broad, well-marked trail ascends through forest, protected from wind, and opens up at ledges near the summit for fine views of Crawford Notch. Of special appeal to families: The trail starts and ends at the Crawford Notch Depot, right near AMC's Highland Center, which provides snowshoes and other winter equipment free to guests, sells hot chocolate, and offers numerous snowshoe skills workshops and guided walks—some of them up Mount Willard.
Details: 3.2 miles round trip. Elevation gain 900 feet. High point 2,800 feet.
It can be hard to catch a glimpse of New Hampshire's tallest—and most visited—waterfall in the summer, especially if you're a child whose view is blocked by camera-wielding adults. In winter, the hike to Arethusa Falls is a popular (but not crowded) half-day trip. One sight you won't see at other times of year: ice climbers making their way up the frozen waterfalls. Park at the trailhead for Arethusa Falls, off U.S. Route 302.
Details: 2.6 miles round trip. Elevation gain 760 feet. High point 2,000 feet.
Whether you mean the trail, the lake, or the hut perched on its shore, Lonesome Lake is a great winter destination for families. The trail climbs steadily to the lake over one mile, starting at the Pemigewasset River and ascending through a forest that gradually changes from hardwoods to evergreens. A level traverse along the lakeshore brings you to the hut, operated on a self-service plan with reduced family rates in the winter months. On a clear day, you can get dramatic views of snow-draped Mount Lafayette (5,260 feet) and Mount Lincoln (5,089 feet) from the lake. The closest place to rent snowshoes is the Franconia Village Cross-Country Ski Center; you can also find snowshoes at downhill ski resorts nearby.
Details: 3 miles round trip. Elevation gain 950 feet. High point 2,760 feet.
Lincoln Woods is another trail that's heavily used in summer. It's a popular cross-country ski trail, too, so you're not likely to have this trail to yourself during the winter, either. The gently graded trail crosses the East Branch of the Pemigewasset River on a suspension bridge and follows the river north and east to the boundary of the Pemigewasset Wilderness. Walk the full 2.8 miles each way or only as far as you wish. Or try the East Side trail, which follows a narrower and less trod path up the other side of the river. (Attempting to cross the river and connect the two trails is not recommended.)
Details: 5.8 miles round trip to the wilderness boundary. Elevation gain 300 feet. High point 1,440 feet.
Mount Tom, Mount Peg, and the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park
In the winter, the carriage roads in Vermont's only national park become snowshoe and cross-country ski trails. Try the trails to the summits of Mount Tom (elevation 1,357 feet) or Mount Peg (elevation 1,060 feet). The Faulkner Trail offers the gentlest grade up Mount Tom, with (count 'em) 23 switchbacks in a 3-mile loop. The walk to the rounded summit of Mount Peg and back down is easier yet and half as far, at 1.5 miles round trip. The farm museum in the national park is closed between November 1 and April 30, but you'll find hot chocolate and other treats in Woodstock. Snowshoe rentals and trail maps are available at the Woodstock Ski Touring Center in the center of town.
Details: 1.5 and 3-mile round trips to two summits, each more than 1,000 feet high. 12 miles of trails inside the park.
Little River State Park
Little River State Park has several things going for it as a family outing. For one, it's easily accessible off Interstate 89 near Stowe Ski Resort. For another, there's no entrance fee during the winter months. It also maintains several trails for non-motorized winter use, including level Stevenson Brook Trail, which is signed for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing only. Follow it past snow-shrouded signs of abandoned former settlements for a 4-mile round trip hike. And, last but possibly not least, the park is less than 5 miles from Ben & Jerry's, where factory tours are offered year-round by the ice cream company. From December through March (weather permitting), the cold-loving company offers short snowshoe tours right at the factory. Snowshoe rentals are available in Waterbury and at nearby ski resorts.
Details: 4 miles round trip. Elevation gain 300 feet. High point 1,500 feet.
Evans Notch can seem remote even when the road isn't closed for the winter. This superb winter summit earns its wild feel. The Evans Notch road, Maine SR 113, closes for the winter about a mile before the trailhead. Park at the winter gate and walk along the Wild River on the unplowed road. The trail to The Roost is well-defined, even in winter. It climbs steeply for short sections at the beginning and end, but most of the ascent is moderate and non-technical. Take a side trail from the summit for views of Mount Moriah, North and South Baldface, and the Wild River. Find snowshoe rentals and hot chocolate in nearby Bethel, Maine.
Details: 1.3 miles round trip or 1.8-mile loop. Elevation gain 550 feet. High point 1,374 feet.
Wolfe's Neck Woods State Park
Just a five-minute drive from downtown Freeport, this 200-acre park feels a world away from L.L. Bean's flagship store and other busy factory outlets that define the town. Here you'll find five miles of well-marked trails, some of them deep in the woods, others following the rocky shoreline along Casco Bay and the Harraseeket River estuary. Parking fee at self-service kiosk. L.L. Bean doesn't rent snowshoes, but does offer low-cost guided tours on weekends during the winter months, gear included.
Details: 5 miles of trails. Elevation gain 100 feet. Highest point 130 feet.
Weir Hill Reservation
Trails around this Trustees of Reservations property can take you along the meandering shore of 2-mile-long Lake Cochichewick or up the spine of Weir Hill to a scenic overlook. On a clear winter day, the views stretch to Mount Wachusett beyond Worcester and to Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire. Nearby Lawrence and Methuen offer restrooms and food.
Details: 4 miles of trails. Elevation gain 170 feet. Highest point 308 feet.
Hopkins Memorial Forest
Williams College owns this 2,500-acre research forest that straddles Massachusetts, Vermont, and New York. The Williams College Center for Environmental Studies maintains several cross-country and snowshoe trails. The Lower Loop trail is an easy 1.5-mile loop through the forest. The Upper Loop trail, at 2.8 miles, follows rolling terrain higher along the ridgeline. In March, you may find a maple-sugaring operation under full steam. Restrooms, maps, and information are available at the Rosenberg Visitor Center.
Details: 1.5- and 2.8-mile loops. Elevation gain 450 feet. Highest point 1,200 feet.
Greenwich Audubon Center
This 295-acre national Audubon site is the largest of 12 Audubon sanctuaries in Greenwich. The main sanctuary is open daily year-round and maintains 7 miles of snowshoe and cross-country ski trails. The children's learning area in the Kimberlin Nature Education Center contains regional natural history exhibits. Hands-on nature activities and a large bird-viewing window make this a great family outing even on bad-weather days. Public restrooms are available at the center. There is a small admission fee.
Details: 7 miles of trails. Elevation gain 180 feet. Highest point 500 feet.
Thompson Pond Preserve
Thompson Pond in the winter is a quiet, peaceful spot. The pond, which has been preserved by the Nature Conservancy, is considered a prime stopover for migrating birds. Bird-watching options during winter months are more limited than in spring and fall, but in late winter, you may be lucky enough to see nesting golden eagles. Golden eagles look similar to bald eagles from a distance. Bald eagles were once rare in New York, but their numbers are increasing across the state, while the range of golden eagles—once common in this area—is shrinking. The trail around the pond is level and flat.
Details: 3.0 miles. Elevation gain 50 feet. Highest point 140 feet.
Snowshoe along the Appalachian Trail to New Jersey's aptly named highest point. You'll need to take off your snowshoes to walk the stairs inside the summit obelisk to the panoramic views. There is a small fee to enter the park, which holds educational and interpretive programs throughout the year. High Point Cross-Country Ski Center rents snowshoes, maintains snow-making operations, and sells food at its visitor center on nearby Lake Marcia.
Details: 2.8 miles round trip. Elevation gain 380 feet. Highest point 1,803.
Pyramid Mountain Natural Historic Area and Tripod Rock
Tripod Rock, a huge glacial erratic perched on top of three smaller boulders, makes a fine winter destination. Along the way, take in the sweeping views from Pyramid's rounded summit. The Pyramid Mountain Visitor Center has restrooms and food. The Morris County Parks Commission arranges organized hikes throughout the winter and offers loaner snowshoes.
Details: 2.2 miles round trip to summit. Elevation gain 320 feet. Highest point 934 feet.
River Trail and Mount Joy: Valley Forge National Historical Park
Valley Forge was the site of the Continental Army encampment during the bitter winter of 1777 and 1778, following defeats by the British at Philadelphia and Germantown. Visiting the park in winter is a way to understand the experience of being a soldier in those early moments of the new republic. Try the 3-mile River Trail along the meandering Schuykill River. Or start from Washington's Headquarters and follow the short Mount Joy trail roughly 1 mile uphill to the summit and broad views of the valley.
Details: 3-mile river trail, 2-mile round trip to summit. Highest point 400 feet.