From Rails to Skiing Trails, Great cross-country skiing along rail trails

November 19, 2012

Skiers on the snowy Nashua River Rail Trail may feel like they’re inside a Norman Rockwell painting as they move through sleepy New England towns and white forests. The route weaves through the towns of Pepperell and Groton to endpoints in Ayer and Dunstable.

Get out in the morning to revel in freshly fallen snow. From quaint town centers to woodlands, rivers, and wetlands, you will pass through a wide variety of habitats. On a quiet traverse, you might spot beavers, otters, and waterfowl in marshy nesting spots by Ayer, or birds and deer within the heavily wooded areas between Groton and Pepperell.

The Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation plows each parking lot, but they leave the path untouched during the winter months. “Conditions dictate whether there’s reasonably good skiing on the rail trail or not,” says Duane Cromwell, acting director of the Friends of the Nashua River Rail Trail. He has skied on the trail since it opened 10 years ago. “Many of the years, I’m the one to cut the track.”

Community members connected to the trail have not forgotten about its history. Granite mile markers, over 100 years old, still poke a few feet above thick snow along the east side of the route. These markers once informed railroad crews of their exact location. Today, historian Dann Chamberlin continues to maintain the granite posts, repainting the numbers and directional letters (W for Worcester, P for Portland) with historically accurate stencils and font. The trail also passes beneath several bridges in Groton with newly painted murals depicting railroad history and culture.

City residents can easily ride the Commuter Rail to Ayer, and carry their skis to the southern terminus of the trail. It’s located just 300 ft. from the station. Parking lots are also located in Groton, Pepperell Center, and Dunstable.

Distance: 11 miles
Info: Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation

Here are several additional options. Many of these rail trails don’t allow motorized vehicles, but others permit snowmobile use. To avoid loud disruptions or a packed down trail, head out early and celebrate the untouched blanket of white along these historic trails.

Narrow Gauge Pathway

Sugarloaf, Maine
The Narrow Gauge Pathway, also known as the Carrabassett River Trail, sits below Sugarloaf ski resort. Here you can find some amazing views packed into a short distance, and all without the distraction of motorized vehicles. Start at the trailhead near the town of Carrabassett for a brief uphill climb, and be rewarded with a nice downhill joy ride to the other end. Highlights include the river, waterfalls, mountains above, and even a 400-foot boardwalk over a beaver pond.

Distance: 6 miles
Info: Carrabassett Valley

Rockingham Recreational Trail

Manchester to Newfields, N.H.
Bought by New Hampshire in 1988 and converted into a rail trail, this historic route still has railroad structures left over from the Boston and Maine Railroad. Either begin or end your trip at Lake Massabesic, a popular section that hugs the shoreline. In addition to the lake, you will pass through small towns, forests, and wetlands. For an educational pit stop, the Historical Society at the former Raymond Depot has restored railroad cars sitting outside. The trail is open to snowmobilers.

Distance: 25 miles
Info: New Hampshire State Parks

Missisquoi Valley Rail Trail

St. Albans to Richford, Vt.
Traveling along and across the Missisquoi River, this trail through the northwest tip of Vermont brings skiers past farms and forests. For the best views of the river, agriculture, wildlife and the Jay Peak ski resort, start at Sheldon Junction and head towards Enosburg Falls, a 5-mile one-way route. On quiet mornings, keep an eye out for fox, deer, and other wildlife. Snowmobilers are permitted on the trail, and ride frequently throughout the winter.

Distance: 26 miles
Info: Missisquoi Valley Rail Trails

East Bay Bicycle Path

Providence to Bristol, R.I.
This rail route connected Providence with the surrounding towns from 1855 to 1974. It remains popular for community purposes, but now by bicycle. The trail, lined with mile markers every half-mile, hugs the beautiful Narragansett Bay the majority of the way. Some park and conservation area pit stops include Colt State Park and the Rhode Island Audubon Society’s Environmental Education Center in Bristol, as well as India Point Park, the path’s northern terminus near Providence.

Distance: 14 miles
Info: Rhode Island State Parks

Larkin State Park Trail

Southbury to Naugatuck, Conn.
A railroad until 1939 and an equestrian bridle trail since 1943, the Larkin State Park Trail now welcomes bicyclists, pedestrians, and cross-country skiers in addition to horseback riders. Trail-goers primarily traverse heavily wooded forests as well as the towns of Southbury, Oxford, Middlebury, and Naugatuck. Motorized vehicles are not allowed, but cross-country skiers are asked to give horseback riders the right of way. The meandering route avoids hilly spots and wetlands.

Distance: 10 miles
Info: State of Connecticut, Rails to Trails Conservancy

Harlem Valley Rail Trail

Wassaic to Millerton, N.Y.
In the mid-1980’s, local citizens began planning the development of a rail trail along the bed of the Harlem Railroad, which ran from New York City to Chatham, N.Y. for over 100 years. Section by section, and with the help of the Harlem Valley Rail Trail Association, the dream is slowly coming true. City residents can grab the MTA to the Wassaic Metro North Station and find themselves immersed in nature. Highlights of the trail include scrubland, farm pastures, beaver ponds, and historic train stations in Amenia and Millerton.
Distance: 11 miles
Info: Harlem Valley Rail Trail Association

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Kathryn Barnes

AMC Outdoors, the magazine of the Appalachian Mountain Club, inspires readers to get outside and get engaged. Learn more.