If you’ve wondered when is the right time to introduce children to backcountry skiing, best-selling guidebook author David Goodman recommends waiting until they’re in the “middle schoolish” years. His daughter, Ariel, skied the backcountry for the first time at age 13; Goodman is taking his son, Jasper, already an experienced downhill skier at age 10, on his first backcountry ski trip this winter. Whatever their ages, young skiers should be comfortable skiing a range of slopes at ski areas and be reasonably strong. One sign of backcountry readiness: A teen or pre-teen skier finds the groomed slopes at ski resorts too wide, too predictable, or too boring.
The following eight backcountry tours and trails have been teen-tested and approved:
Stratton Pond, Catamount Trail, Vermont. 7.8 miles. Starting elevation: 2,218. Vertical drop: 525 feet. If it weren’t for the pond — “kids like destinations,” Goodman says — this gentle ski tour through “an unspoiled pocket of wild country” on the undeveloped west side of Stratton Mountain Ski Area might not get the kids’ seal of approval. On moderate backcountry trails without a lot of steep uphill or downhill, such as this showcase section of the Catamount Trail, Goodman suggests using lighter touring gear. Goodman describes the Stratton Pond trail in “Skiing the Classics” (AMC Outdoors, November/December 2010).
Greeley Ponds, Kancamagus Highway, New Hampshire. 4.4 miles. Starting elevation: 1,800. Vertical drop: 445 feet. “I’m a big fan of mountain ponds,” says Goodman — and few ponds come with as a dramatic backdrop as the two Greeley Ponds. Skiers emerge from dark green woods to breathtaking views of cliffs and ice chutes on the east face of Mount Osceola.
Avalanche Brook Trail, Pinkham Notch, New Hampshire. 6.2 miles one way. Starting elevation: 2,022. Vertical drop: 1,450 feet. This trail isn’t exactly deep backcountry, as it traces close to Route 16 for its entire length. But it does travel through mixed forest and a variety of interesting terrain. Follow it north to south, starting at the Gulf of Slides trailhead south of Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, for a thrilling 2.5 downhill run. It may be easiest to drop a car at the Rocky Branch parking lot, where this trail ends, and hitch to the start.
John Sherburne Ski Trail, Mt. Washington, New Hampshire. 4.8 miles. Starting elevation: 2,022. Vertical drop: 1,928 feet. The approach trail to Tuckerman Ravine is an excellent introduction to backcountry down-mountain skiing. The trail steepens over its two uphill miles from the AMC Pinkham Notch Visitor Center to just above the Hermit Lake shelters and offers plenty of thrills on the way back down.
Wildcat Valley Trail, Jackson, New Hampshire. 8 miles one way to Dana Place Inn on NH 16. Starting elevation: 4,062. Vertical drop: 3,000 feet. The 3,000-foot descent off the backside of Wildcat Ski Area is one of the most popular backcountry skis in New England. The best way to ski the trail is to take the Wildcat Express Quad to the top of the mountain. Even with the gift of a motorized ascent, the Wildcat Valley Trail remains a serious backcountry route, with steep slopes and sometimes icy conditions. It also requires a solution for getting back to the ski area once you reach the road. (Most backcountry skiers stick out a thumb and hitchhike back.)
Mt. Cardigan, Alexandria, New Hampshire. The eastern slopes of Mt. Cardigan offer a splendid variety of trails — ski classics cut in the 1930s by AMC volunteers and CCC trail crews and still some of the best down-mountain ski trails in the Northeast. The gentle slopes of Duke’s Pasture, uphill from AMC’s Cardigan Lodge, are a perfect practice area. Above the pasture, Duke’s Trail continues up through old hardwoods, with plenty of room for traversing turns on the way back down. A rolling 5-mile tour heads out from the lodge on the 93Z trail. Come with gear; Cardigan Lodge has no rentals. Goodman describes Cardigan trails in “Skiing the Classics” (AMC Outdoors, November/December 2010).
Jackson Ski Touring, New Hampshire; Trapp Family Lodge, Vermont. Let’s say you’re planning a ski trip weeks or even months in advance, Goodman says. “The thing about backcountry skiing: This could be the weekend the backcountry stinks.” Two reasonable bail-out options are the groomed ski trails in Jackson, New Hampshire, and out of Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, Vermont. The world’s not a bad place when your backups offer world-class cross-country skiing and fine backcountry options if conditions improve.
A final word to families who already enjoy downhill skiing with their kids: Several downhill ski areas in New England feature “off-piste” or glade skiing. Two areas famous for their backcountry are Jay Peak in northern Vermont and Mad River Glen in the heart of the Green Mountains.
… Buy Best Backcountry Skiing in the Northeast by David Goodman
… Read “Skiing the Classics,” Goodman’s article about four of the best backcountry ski tours in the Northeast (AMC Outdoors, November/December 2010)
… Read about Goodman’s backcountry ski trips with his teenage daughter and his tips on teaching cross-country skiing to kids.
Photos: Ariel Goodman skiing Wildcat Valley Trail; David and Ariel Goodman. Photos courtesy David Goodman.
“Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.