Maybe I was hallucinating. But as I skied the tunnel-like passageways of the Pemigewasset Wilderness, I felt as if I was sliding down railroad tracks,kicking and gliding to the rhythm of the rails. Poetic fancy, I rationalized, and returned my attention to the task before me: skiing across the Pemi in a day. This 21-mile ski traverse is a New England classic that’s full of surprises. In an effort to minimize the unexpected, I had reviewed the ground rules with my ski partner, Rick Gordon, at the trailhead: “We can’t break any body parts or equipment. We have a long way to go and not a lot of daylight. We have to go fast. Whatever happens, we can’t stop.”
Not an hour into the tour, we encountered our first surprise: two men, in a tree, looking terrified. Their snowshoes and backpacks lay strewn in the snow, jettisoned in a panic.
I knew to expect the unexpected, but…this?
“Um, why are you in the tree?” I asked, trying to suppress a smile at the absurd sight of these two young men clinging to branches 15 feet up in the air.
“There’s…a…moose!” stammered the guy in the furry bomber hat. “And it’s trying to kill us!”
They had been in the tree for over an hour, and both declared that they weren’t coming down. I offered to ski ahead and confront their would-be assassin and report back.
I glided around the bend and quickly came nose to wet nose with the murderous beast: a moose calf, contentedly munching on small branches. The animal was completely uninterested in me. I skied back to the treed snowshoers and informed them that I thought their chances of surviving an encounter with the calf were excellent.
With that, we had only 19 miles of wilderness to go.
As for my railroad reverie, it turns out that my delirious mind’s eye was right: Miles of railroad tracks built by logging tycoons once crisscrossed what is now known as the Pemigewasset Wilderness. Ironically, today’s “wilderness” was once the scene of ecological devastation wrought by these rapacious lumbermen (see sidebar). For backcountry skiers, this story has a surprising silver lining: The well-graded old rail beds make for excellent ski trails, even in low snow.
The area in and around the Pemigewasset Wilderness, part of the White Mountain National Forest, is home to some of the most beautiful backcountry skiing in New England. The official Pemigewasset Wilderness Area designated in 1984 consists of 45,818 acres. The highlights of skiing in the Pemi include access to alpine ponds rarely visited in the winter, spectacular views of the Franconia Ridge and the Presidential Range, and a sense of isolation that is unusual in the heavily traveled mountains of the Northeast.
Following are a few of my favorite ski tours in and around the Pemi. More details and maps of these tours are included in my book, Best Backcountry Skiing in the Northeast: 50 Classic Ski Tours in New England and New York (AMC Books).
The 21-mile north–south traverse of the Pemigewasset Wilderness is one of the great long-distance backcountry ski tours in New England. The tour begins on NH 302 near Crawford Notch, and ends at the Lincoln Woods trailhead on the Kancamagus Highway (this requires you to shuttle a car to the finish). This traverse can be done in two days, staying overnight at AMC’s Zealand Falls Hut, or experienced and fit backcountry skiers can ski it in one big day. One of the challenges of this tour is navigating the 5-mile Thoreau Falls Trail through the heart of the Pemi; it alternately appears and disappears and is sparsely blazed. You will inevitably lose the trail, only to find it again 30 minutes later, then repeat this routine. The challenges have been increased by damage from Tropical Storm Irene, so caution is required. Still, this route has the advantage of being relatively flat and it closely follows the North Fork, a major waterway. You can ski on and alongside the river (beware of holes and thin ice), and also on the Thoreau Falls Trail…when you can find it.
Pemigewasset River Tours
The East Branch of the Pemigewasset River lies at the heart of the wilderness area. The river forms the centerpiece of several picturesque ski tours. The Lincoln Woods Trail and Pemi East Side Trail both start and finish at the Lincoln Woods Visitor Information Center located on the Kancamagus Highway. You can obtain maps and information there. Lincoln Woods/Bondcliff Trail: Lincoln Woods/Bondcliff Trail: From the information center, ski across a suspension bridge, and turn right onto the Lincoln Woods Trail. The wide, flat trail follows the bed of a logging railroad that last ran in 1948. The trail is groomed on weekends by the U.S. Forest Service up to the wilderness area boundary (2.9 miles in), so it should make for fast cross-country skiing. The East Branch of the Pemigewasset meanders alongside the trail, offering glimpses of the peaks beyond.
After you cross a bridge over the Franconia Brook, a sign informs you that you are entering the official Pemigewasset Wilderness Area. The path now becomes the Bondcliff Trail.
Ski for another 1.8 miles until you arrive at a former junction, where the section of trail that continued straight ahead has been decommissioned. A short distance ahead on the decommissioned trail, you can see the last of the old logging railroad bridges that is still standing. This bridge is suspended in more ways than one: It is in legal limbo because it is a “nonconforming artificial structure” in a wilderness area that by law must be removed; but it is also a significant historical artifact, which by law must be preserved. Nature is resolving this dispute her way: The old railroad bridge is slowly disintegrating, and skiers should not attempt to go on it. Skiers must turn around at this point and head back to the Lincoln Woods trailhead.
Pemi East Side Trail: The Pemi East Side Trail is a former truck road that was used in the 1940s to haul timber out of the Pemigewasset Valley. It makes for an easy, scenic ski tour alongside the East Branch of the Pemigewasset River.
From the Lincoln Woods information center, descend a short path to the trail. From here to the wilderness area boundary in 2.8 miles, the trail follows a narrow gravel road that is groomed for skiing by the Forest Service. Just before the gate at the wilderness boundary, you pass by the Franconia Brook Campsite (24 sites). Past the gate, the trail narrows into a footpath. There are numerous views of the mountains and the East Branch of the Pemigewasset as you ski. These views give glimpses into the vast stretches of roadless outback in the Pemi.
Zealand Hut Tours
AMC’s Zealand Falls Hut is a base for the best hut skiing in the White Mountains. The ski tours into and around the hut offer access to a beautiful and dramatic landscape of ice cliffs, waterfalls, and high alpine ponds.
One of my favorite ski tours travels from the hut through Zealand Notch, one of the most dramatic land formations in the White Mountains. It was once a typical V-shaped streameroded valley. But the ice sheets that covered New England gouged their way down to the ocean and left Zealand Notch with the characteristic U-shape of glacial valleys. The notch becomes more impressive as you enter it. The steep rock walls of Whitewall Mountain tower overhead to the north, the blocky refuse of the glacier lies strewn about the valley floor, and the tree-covered slopes of Zealand Mountain rise to the south. A typical ski tour through the notch will usually involve stopping every few minutes just to marvel at the views. From the southern end of Zealand Notch, you have several choices for continuing your tour. A short side-trip brings you to Thoreau Falls, an icy, snow-covered cascade that drops off precipitously, providing a sweeping view of Mount Bond, Mount Guyot, and the Zealand Ridge.
You can also add a trip to Shoal Pond to your tour before returning to the hut. Shoal Pond is just over a mile from Thoreau Falls. Starting down the Shoal Pond Trail, you soon come to the isolated mountain pond that lies at 2,500 feet. After skiing through the deep woods, the sensation of coming out onto a long, white, empty clearing with expansive views of Mounts Carrigain and Hancock is breathtaking.
The Pemi lies in a beautiful neighborhood. Tucked between the Pemigewasset Wilderness and the 35,306-acre Sandwich Range Wilderness are the Greeley Ponds. Skiers to these ponds quickly find themselves surrounded by ice cliffs and towering rock walls.
The Greeley Ponds can be reached by skiing from either the Kancamagus Highway (4.4 miles round-trip) or Waterville Valley (7 miles round-trip). The approach from Waterville Valley may not be open this season; the middle section of the Greeley Ponds Trail, from the Timber Camp Trail junction to the Lower Pond, is closed due to damage from Tropical Storm Irene. Repairs are expected in 2013.
From Upper Greeley Pond, a stunning canvas erupts from the soft green confines of the forest. There are breathtaking views of the cliffs and ice flows tumbling down from East Osceola (4,156 feet). Ski across the frozen pond, or follow the hiking trail around the west side if the ponds are not completely frozen. Lower Greeley Pond is eerie and stunning, with trees jutting up through the ice from bogs at either end. Dramatic gullies appear as gashes torn into the forest cover that slice down the face of East Osceola into the pond.
Nature puts on a dramatic performance at the Greeley Ponds. Enjoy the show.
You can follow the rhythm of the rails and ski to numerous other places in and around the Pemi. Some of my other favorite ski tours include Mount Garfield, the tour around Mount Hitchcock, and skiing old railroad beds into Sawyer Pond. Just take your skis and follow the tunnel of trees. Expect to encounter beauty, solitude, and the unexpected.
From Rails to Ski Trails – The Story of the Pemi
Today’s skiers reap the benefit of skiing century-old railroad beds that once formed an intricate web throughout what is now the Pemigewasset Wilderness.
The Zealand Valley and the Pemigewasset River Valley caught the eye of J.E. Henry, the most famous and colorful logging boss in New Hampshire history. In 1884, Henry opened the Zealand Valley Railroad, which plied a route from today’s US 302 all the way through Zealand Notch to Shoal Pond—a distance of more than 10 miles. Henry employed up to 250 people, housing them in small villages established deep in the woods of the Zealand Valley. Little trace now remains of these logging camps.
Henry’s short-term impact on the Zealand Valley was to create an environmental disaster. Beginning in 1886, large quantities of logging debris caused catastrophic fires that swept through the valley all the way up the slopes of Whitewall and Zealand mountains. The clear-cutting and fires prompted one writer to dub the area “Death Valley.”
The ecological recovery of the Zealand Valley is remarkable. Along the trail to AMC ‘s Zealand Falls Hut today, the forest has regenerated with birches and other second-growth trees, and the area is now home to the largest lynx population in New Hampshire.
Henry’s attention was next brought to the vast lumbering opportunities that lay just south of Zealand Notch in the Pemigewasset Valley. In the mid-1890s, Henry began focusing his efforts on logging this virgin wilderness. Once again, the railroad was the preferred means of transporting people and lumber. Henry oversaw the construction of rail lines from what is now the Kancamagus Highway (NH 112) up along the East Branch of the Pemigewasset River.
Logging trains would normally make two round trips a day between the town of Lincoln and the logging camps. In the summer, a fare of 75 cents was charged to bring tourists in to see the vast logging operations. A 1926 book noted, “On gala days…a hundred or more excursionists made the trip up into ‘Henry’s Woods,’ to wonder at the new mountains and valleys, exclaim over the winding road, marvel at the various camps, and raid the cook’s quarters for hot doughnuts.”
Backcountry Ski Touring with AMC
AMC has been offering instruction, lodging, and good good to backountry skiers in the North Country since the 1920s. That tradition continues today. Checkout outdoors/org/winterguide for the latest on ski workshops and lodging packages. Here’s a brief roundup of where skiers can stay, learn, and ski.
For more details about skiing the Pemigewasset Wilderness, and dozens of other classic ski tours from the Adirondacks to the Maine Woods, see David Goodman’s Best Backcountry Skiing in the Northeast (AMC Books).