Brian PostHayes Copp is part of an 8-mile ski circuit on the edge of New Hampshire’s Great Gulf Wilderness.
Swish, swish. Swish, swish. Our skis whisked across the glossy white surface of a field at Dolly Copp campground in New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest. On this chilly, early spring morning, the campground was otherwise silent and empty. I followed two old friends, Brian and Val, eastward across the snow. In the distance lay Imp Face, the craggy, 3,165-foot sentinel of the Carter Range, which hovered high on the opposite side of the valley.
We had met at the winter parking lot off Pinkham B Road for what was likely to be our last time out cross-country skiing for the season. Snow had turned to mud in most of the lower elevations of New England, but here on the edge of the Great Gulf Wilderness, in the shadow of the Northern Presidentials, Hayes Copp Ski Trail was likely to be white and fun even on the season’s periphery.
Hayes Copp is one of four trails in this popular 8-mile ski circuit, and its name is generally used for the whole system. Two big loops, one at higher elevation than the other, lie across the flank of Mount Madison, paralleling the wide, boulder-choked Peabody River as it tumbles down from Pinkham Notch.
The lowest elevation trail, Great Gulf Link, rolls gently for one mile along the bank of the river and is a good starting place for beginners. From there, Great Gulf Trail leads gradually uphill into the woods for another mile and a half, giving access to the intermediate Leavitt’s Link and then the higher-elevation, more advanced Hayes Copp Trail, which eventually merge as they lead back to Dolly Copp Campground.
These trails can be combined in a variety of ways to take best advantage of the snow conditions, weather, and the amount of time skiers have to explore this slope of one of the most dramatic landscapes in the Northeast. On this sunny morning, we decided to head upstream along the river so we could check out the dramatic ice formations and then loop back on the wide, undulating Leavitt’s Link, where we knew we’d get views of Carter Notch to the east.
As Val, Brian, and I neared the end of the campground field, the path curved south and we slid into woods on Great Gulf Link. Plastic blue diamond trail markers led us into a mixed forest that was striped with sunlight. Unlike the snow on the field, which had melted under previous midday suns and refrozen at night, the snow in the woods was sheltered from direct rays and retained a loose, sugary texture that whispered quietly against the bases of our skis. In places, scattered orange needles spread across the snow, reminders of recent winds.
Backcountry skiing—off groomed tracks and away from ski centers—has a lot to recommend it. Almost always it is a quiet refuge from crowds, and there is no ticket to buy or operating hours to schedule around. Perhaps the best thing about backcountry skiing is the sense of discovery. Each venture out is an exploration of landscapes that are changing with the season, the snowpack documenting the recent weather as it piles up, condenses, melts, refreezes, changes to corn, gets cut through with streams, and becomes buried again under a soft new snowfall.
Because the Hayes Copp trails cover a variety of elevations and landscapes, this ski is a particularly rich place to witness those seasonal changes. On our 5-mile-or-so loop, we crossed an open field along the Peabody River that had a solid, condensed snowpack and another open field on Leavitt’s Link, higher on the flank of Mount Madison, where the colder temperatures had kept the snow fluffy. Along the edge of the river, we skied across narrow flutes of clear ice—tributary streams frozen on their way downhill.
Later we zigzagged through a hemlock stand where the thick evergreen canopy had characteristically caught most of a recent snowfall and held it aloft, leaving a scanty snowpack between the mighty trunks. We picked our way around a rocky patch where a stream had recently rushed and then disappeared, leaving a dry trough across the trail. On the final leg of our loop, we glided downhill on the wide, old woods road of Hayes Copp Ski Trail, following tracks of coyotes, hares, and red squirrels. Each turn in the trail brought a different environment and different experience under our skis.
As our early-spring excursion made clear, backcountry skiing is about heading off the groomed and beaten path into a slightly wilder place. It doesn’t have to mean trekking deep into the woods, climbing steep slopes, or strapping on heavy gear. Many low-elevation summer hiking trails, rail trails, and unplowed dirt roads make fine backcountry skiing paths in winter. There’s a winter world waiting to be discovered by anyone with a pair of cross-country skis, a Thermos of warm beverage, and an adventurous spirit.
If you haven’t ventured beyond the ski centers yet, try this sampler of easier trails for a taste of ungroomed winter.
Rangeley Lakes Heritage Trust Lands | Rangeley, Maine In a land of expansive woods, big mountains, and large lakes, several small gems of preserved land in the Rangeley Lakes Region offer gentle trails for a more intimate exploration of woods and shorelines. Within walking distance of Rangeley Village, Hatchery Brook Preserve’s two loop trails sweep over 50 acres alongside City Cove in a 1.2-mile circuit. A little farther west, Hunter Cove Wildlife Sanctuary’s 1.6-mile loop crosses wetlands before reaching benches along the edge of this narrow inlet. Bonney Point Trail’s 1.3-mile lollipop loop leads through thick forest to the edge of Smith Cove, which opens south to the wide reach of Rangeley Lake. Mugs of hot chocolate and the warm shops of Rangeley Village are never far from any of these lovely little treks into the big woods. Info: Rangeley Lakes Heritage Trust, 207-864-7311
Eastern Trail | Saco, Old Orchard Beach, and Scarborough, Maine The Eastern Trail is a 65-mile non-motorized greenway that connects South Portland and Kittery, but it is also a portion of the East Coast Greenway, which will stretch all the way to Key West, Fla. Some sections of the trail follow public roads, but 21 miles are off-road. Strap on your skis and check out Maine’s largest salt marsh by heading out along the 8.4-mile stretch between Scarborough and Saco. At this section’s northern end, the trail crosses onto the Scarborough Marsh, a broad expanse of grasses and water, open skies, and mud flats. Five tidal rivers meet the ocean here and support a broad diversity of wildlife, including many endangered and threatened birds. Info: Eastern Trail Alliance, 207-284-926
Bear Brook State Park | Allenstown, N.H. New Hampshire’s largest developed state park boasts 10,000 acres of woods, hills, marshes, ponds, and streams just a stone’s throw from the state capital. This much land can accommodate separate trail networks for various user groups, and backcountry skiers make out well, with an interesting 5-mile loop past Smith Pond and wetlands where wildlife sightings are common. From the cross-country skier parking lot off Podunk Road, follow Pitch Pine, Broken Boulder, Bobcat, and Salt Lick trails over rolling terrain through mixed woods. A lean-to at Smith Pond provides shelter for a lunch break, and Little Bear Trail offers a more challenging alternative to Salt Lick for the last leg. Info: Bear Brook State Park, 603-485-2034
Catamount Trail | Vermont A winter counterpart to Vermont’s famed Long Trail, the more recently established Catamount Trail parallels the north-south hiking trail but generally keeps to lower elevations. Extending 300 miles from Canada to Massachusetts, the Catamount Trail has sections to please every kind of backcountry skier. For a friendly, not-too-rugged stretch of the long-distance cross-country ski trail, try Section 26 from Garfield Road to Eden Mountain Road. Blue trail markers with a catamount footprint lead skiers across classic rural Vermont terrain—fields and woods with gorgeous, wide-open northern Green Mountain vistas. This 7-plus-mile stretch follows the edge of the lovely, remote Green River Reservoir and later takes advantage of the wide corridor of a former snowmobile trail, now used only for people-powered recreation. Another option is Wiessner Woods in Stowe, part of Section 23, where the Catamount Trail follows one edge of a circuit of gently rolling trails through beautiful forests, with a bench lookout over the highest ridge of the Green Mountains. Info: Catamount Trail Association, 802-864-5794
Robert Frost Interpretive Trail | Ripton, Vt. Near Middlebury College’s Breadloaf Campus, where Robert Frost taught for decades, a 1-mile loop through alder swamp, woods, and fields honors the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet with a simple display of his poems along the trail. The highest point of the trail (only 30 feet above the trailhead) is a junction connecting to the more challenging, ungroomed ski trails in the Water Tower Trail system. Although short, the loop pleases in so many ways: with intimate woods and streams, with open fields that afford views of the big peaks in the Breadloaf Wilderness, and with the clever wisdom of an old New Englander who appreciated this hardscrabble landscape. Info: Green Mountain National Forest, 802-388-4362
Ashuwillticook Rail Trail | Lanesboro, Cheshire, and Adams, Mass. Railroad engineers must have fought to drive this gorgeous route through the Berkshire Mountains before this section of track was converted to a non-motorized recreational path. For 11.2 scenic miles, Ashuwillticook Rail Trail edges along lakes, wetlands, and the Hoosic River and passes beneath Massachusetts’ highest peak, Mount Greylock. The wide path allows for congenial side-by-side travel, and novice skiers will appreciate that there is very little elevation change along the entire route. Multiple trailside parking areas make it easy to customize the length of a ski trip. End points are conveniently at the Berkshire Visitor Center in Adams and the Berkshire Mall in Lanesboro. Info: MassParks, 413-442-8928
Grafton Lakes State Park | Grafton, N.Y. A short distance northeast of Albany, the Grafton Lakes spread across the rolling, forested Rensselaer Plateau, providing a lovely backdrop to 12 miles of ski and snowshoe trails within this state park. (Snowmobiles use separate trails.) Try the 2-mile Shaver Pond Loop, heading south through the woods before circling around the western side of the pond and returning to the winter parking area on Hicks Beltway. From there, Long Pond points a chilly finger to the northeast. If there is at least a foot of snow to cover the rocky trail, head out on the 3-mile loop along its forested shores. From another plowed winter parking lot at Mill Pond, a 1.8-mile loop along Spruce Bog and Mill Pond trails gives a taste of little hills as well as access to the longer, more challenging 4.5-mile loop to the fire tower. Grafton Lakes State Park’s gated entrance opens at 8 a.m. and closes at dusk (4:30ish in January). There is no entrance fee in winter. Info: Grafton Lakes State Park, 518-279-1155