3 Classic Backcountry Ski Routes in the Northeast

backcountry ski
Ryan SmithZealand Falls Hut makes a great backcountry ski destination whether it’s to stay the night or just grab a cup of hot cocoa.

Snow has fallen up on the slopes and down in the valleys that make New England and upstate New York such a spectacular ski region. You can break trail for a few miles or a few days, depending on your ability level. If you’re looking for a starting point, David Goodman’s Best Backcountry Skiing in the Northeast (AMC Books) is the bible for the region. He provides colorful detail for 50 backcountry ski routes, including these three of his favorite day trips, ranging from moderate to most difficult. Editor’s note: The tours included in Goodman’s book are intended for skiers already proficient on cross-country skis (“moderate” and “more difficult”) or who have telemark experience (“most difficult”) and should not be attempted by novices.

Zealand Falls, Jefferson, N.H.
Zealand Falls Hut is one of three AMC huts, along with Lonesome Lake and Carter Notch, that remain open in winter, and of the group, it’s surrounded by the best variety of skiing. Whether you’re heading in and out on a day trip or you’ve reserved a bunk for the night, stop in for a hot cup of cocoa before you strap your skis back on again. Zealand Road isn’t plowed in winter, so from the parking area on Route 302, skiers can choose Spruce Goose Ski Trail or the parallel Zealand Road. Both routes provide a gradual grade and a nearly straight shot toward the hut, eventually merging into Zealand Trail for the final stretch.

Whichever trail you choose, this tour climbs gently but steadily, rising about 1,000 feet over the first 6.7 miles. Only the last quarter mile provides a big challenge; for this you’ll want to step out of your skis and walk up the steep rise to Zealand Falls. Perched 200 feet above the Ethan Pond Trail–Twinway junction, on the edge of the 45,000-acre Pemigewasset Wilderness, the hut provides access to an array of additional adventures, many of which Goodman outlines in his book.
DISTANCE: 13.8 miles round trip via Spruce Goose Ski Trail; 12 miles round trip via Zealand Road and Zealand Trail
INFO: Zealand Falls Hut, White Mountain Guide, 30th ed. (AMC Books)

Avalanche Pass and Lake Colden, Newcomb, N.Y.
The trek over Avalanche Pass to Lake Colden might lack the high-elevation views of nearby Mount Marcy (New York’s highest peak at 5,344 feet), but it makes up for that with its natural beauty. One of the finest ski tours in the Adirondacks’, this trip departs from the ADK High Peaks Information Center, where you can inquire about trail conditions, and follows the Van Hoevenberg Trail. At the trail junction at Marcy Dam, about halfway out to Lake Colden, pause to take in the view. Wright Peak (4,587 feet) looms overhead, as does Avalanche Pass, 2.2 miles ahead on the trail.

Dramatic scars on Wright Peak, the result of recent landslides and avalanches, highlight the sometimes dangerous reality of this rugged backcountry setting. The trail climbs over Avalanche Pass at 3,000 feet, in between Algonquin Peak (5,115 feet) and Mount Colden (4,715 feet). Then it empties onto frozen Avalanche Lake, where you’ll be surrounded by dramatic cliff faces, draped with ice and wind-swept snow. Goodman describes the setting as “a magnificent natural art gallery that cannot help but leave you in awe.” The beauty continues just ahead, where the trail reemerges at your destination: Lake Colden, with Mount Colden and Algonquin Peak dominating the scenery.

Your biggest technical challenge awaits on the long return descent from Avalanche Pass. “Consider [it] your bachelor’s degree in Eastern trail skiing,” Goodman writes of the big, curving downhills interspersed with flat stretches where you can relax. All in all, Goodman says, Avalanche Pass and Lake Colden make for “one of the most spectacular ski tours in the eastern United States.”
DISTANCE: 10.6 miles round trip
INFO: Adirondack Park, ADK High Peaks Information Center

Bolton–Trapp Trail, Stowe, Vt.
The 300-mile Catamount Trail, much like the famed Long Trail, bisects Vermont from north to south, the primary difference being the Catamount was designed with skiing in mind. The route winds deep into the backcountry and crosses groomed trail networks—which means there’s something for everyone along the route.

For experienced skiers, however, one of the trail’s most popular challenges—and one of Vermont’s most popular backcountry ski tours—is the 9.4-mile stretch from the Bolton Valley Ski Area to the ski center at Trapp Family Lodge. Once the trail departs Bolton’s network, it climbs from 2,000 feet up to the highest point on the entire Catamount Trail, 3,310 feet on the shoulder of Bolton Mountain. Because most of the climbing comes in the early miles, the northbound direction, starting from the Bolton ski area, is highly recommended. With your climbing out of the way, enjoy the wide-open views of the Green Mountains before you begin the switchback-laden descent toward Nebraska Valley Road (a good place to spot a second car for an abbreviated tour).

If you’re continuing on, you’ll have to take off your skis and walk up Nebraska Valley Road to your left to Old County Road, about 100 yards away, where you’ll turn right to reconnect with the blue-blazed Catamount Trail. From there, you have another 3 miles to go, with the last 1.5 miles along the groomed trails of the Trapp Family Lodge ski center.

Because access to this route is through the Bolton Valley Nordic Center, skiers must purchase a pass at the cross-country center. (No fee is required at Trapp Family Lodge if you’re exiting via Catamount Trail.) Ask about trail conditions before you begin. This route is dangerous in icy conditions, and neither Bolton nor Trapp Family Lodge staff patrol this remote route. On selected Saturdays in January and February, a shuttle bus operates between Bolton and Nebraska Valley Road, for skiers who want to avoid spotting a car.
DISTANCE: 9.4 miles one way to Trapp Family Lodge; 6.5 miles one way to Nebraska Valley Road
INFO: Catamount Trail, Catamount Trail Express shuttle, Bolton Valley Nordic Center, Trapp Family Lodge


Whether you’re a beginner or a pro, AMC’s winter destinations provide a range of skiing opportunities.

  1. Maine (Gorman Chairback Lodge and Cabins, Little Lyford Lodge and Cabins, and Medawisla Lodge and Cabins): Establish a base camp at one of these lodges or arrange to ski between them during your stay. Whether you’re heading out across a frozen pond or into the woods, most of the trails are moderate in difficulty.
  2. White Mountain Lodges (Joe Dodge Lodge in Pinkham Notch, N.H., and Highland Center in Crawford Notch, N.H.): Experts may want to climb into iconic Tuckerman Ravine (be sure to check conditions online or at the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center first), while novices can head to a groomed ski center at Great Glen or Bretton Woods.
  3. White Mountain Huts (Carter Notch Hut in the White Mountain National Forest and Lonesome Lake Hut in Franconia Notch State Park, N.H.): The routes into these two huts are shorter, though more challenging, than the ski to Zealand Falls.
  4. Lakes Region (Cardigan Lodge in Alexandria, N.H.): Classic, challenging backcountry routes climb and descend Cardigan and neighboring Firescrew.

Looking to stay local? Search your local AMC chapter’s winter events for close-to-home ski trips.


About the Author…

Marc Chalufour

AMC Outdoors inspires people to engage in outdoor conservation and recreation through meaningful stories.

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