While I’m a fan of the outdoors — trekking or pedaling into the great unknown — I’m also a big fan of “adventure lite.” Not every outing has to be a white-knuckle thrill ride or lung-busting hike. It’s OK to chill just a bit. This is where cross-country ski areas shine. Add the magnificent real-life Crayola box of fall foliage, and you’ve got all the ingredients for an exceptional cool-weather excursion.
Many modern-day dedicated cross-country ski facilities have the infrastructure to provide plenty of activities, from sun up to sundown and beyond, year-round. A number have lodging options on site, and those that don’t, you’ll find accommodations nearby. For me and my crew, that’s important, because while I don’t mind the initial drive to and from these areas, I’m admittedly lazy when it comes to post-adventure travel. I prefer to kick back, enjoy an adult beverage, a good meal, and good company, without worrying about getting back behind the wheel.
Here are some of our favorites. For added “insider information” from a local expert, I called on Reese Brown, the executive director for the Cross Country Ski Areas Association, based in Vermont.
Pineland Farms, New Gloucester – pinelandfarms.org
Pineland Farms in southeastern Maine, just above Portland, boasts more than 5,000 acres of woodlands and fields that are open for year-round outdoor fun. Guests can immerse themselves in roughly 30 kilometers of professionally designed, well-maintained trails for mountain biking and gravel riding (and the occasional cyclocross race), walking and trail running. Pineland also offers orienteering, dry-land nordic ski training, tennis, bocci and disc golf.
In addition, the outdoor facilities are used for Pineland’s numerous education programs, such as nature observance, natural history and ecology studies, and a selection of L.L. Bean Outdoor Discovery programs (including fly casting, archery, map and compass, and beginner mountain biking). The VAST program promotes lifelong health and well-being for veterans with disabilities through physical activities and sports.
“One of my favorite things about Pineland Farms is the market located upstairs from the outdoors center,” said Brown. “The bakery and the meats and cheese in the deli are amazing.
“For activities, they have a disc golf course that’s ranked 55th internationally, miles of trails for biking, hiking and cross-country skiing, many with views of Mount Washington,” he said. “And if you visit in the fall, they have a great corn maze you don’t want to miss.”
A one-day trail pass costs $5 ($65 for a season-long pass), while children 10 and under ride for free. Fat bike rentals also are available.
Nordic Heritage Center, Presque Isle – nordicheritagecenter.org
Make no mistake: This place is a haul for more than 90 percent of the people living in New England. I mean, Presque Isle is “out there” (though not quite as “out there” as the Fort Kent Outdoor Center, at the northern terminus of Route 1).
“The Nordic Heritage Center is a bit off the beaten track, but when you get there, you’ll feel like you have arrived at home,” said Brown. “The cozy community aspect is so prevalent with locals willing to answer your every question.
“Located in the town of Presque Isle, they have world-class mountain biking, hiking and trail running,” he said. “I love to check out the weekly activities and get-togethers they have, as there are always new people to meet.”
The mountain bike network at the center includes more than 20 miles of handmade and machine-made singletrack that criss-crosses most of the property and some adjacent lands. Designed by Rich Edwards of IMBA’s Trail Solutions, the trail system varies from smooth and fluid to narrow and technical. A skills/terrain park is available for practicing dirt jumps.
The lodge is normally open to the public from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. and includes kitchen facilities, restrooms and showers (as of publication, however, the lodge remains closed due to COVID-19 concerns). Trail use fee is $8 per day, or free with a membership. Two full-service bike shops — Bike Board and Ski and Mojo Sports — are located nearby in Presque Isle.
Quarry Road Recreation Area, Waterville – quarryroad.org
Known primarily as the host community of Colby College, Waterville also is home to the Quarry Road Recreation Area. This hidden diamond offers a smorgasbord of footpaths, rolling nordic trails and technical singletrack, providing a mix of terrain for walkers, hikers, trail runners and mountain bikers.
The cycling trails are particularly well-designed, crafted by the local chapter of the New England Mountain Bike Association in conjunction with Waterville Parks & Recreation, Friends of Quarry Road, and other partners. A pump track provides a fun and challenging venue for improving mountain bike skills in a controlled environment. During the fall, the area typically has hosted cyclocross races by the Central Maine Cycling Club.
If you have kayaks or canoes, bring them along.
“Quarry Roads Recreation Area is a full-year activities center, one of the few that includes almost five miles of flatwater paddling” along Messalonskee Stream, said Brown. “I love that you can easily get your kayak to the boat ramp, wasting no time between car and water.
“When not paddling, the running, hiking and biking opportunities will definitely keep you busy until winter, when the 10 kilometers of groomed cross-country trails, supported by three kilometers of snowmaking, will keep you active,” he said.
And, like most college towns, Waterville offers a variety of lodging options, including a Hampton Inn, a Holiday Inn Express, and the pet-friendly Best Western Grand Hotel and Fireside Inn & Suites.
Stump Sprouts, West Hawley – stumpsprouts.com
Some cross-country areas shine offseason not necessarily because of the on-site amenities, but because of their location. Stump Sprouts, situated on West Hill Road, a short drive from Berkshire East/Thunder Mountain Bike Park in Charlemont, is one of those spots. Despite the gravity thrills at Thunder Mountain, the real attraction here is the miles and miles of spectacular gravel riding. Many of these trails are showcased during Franklin Land Trust’s annual Deerfield Dirt Road Randonee (better know simply as the D2R2), a granddaddy of North American gravel events.
“This area has the best cycling I’ve ever seen, whether you want road riding, gravel, mountain biking or downhill,” said innkeeper Lloyd Crawford. “We have it all.”
Crawford, who bought the 400-acre property in 1977 with his wife Suzanne, serves on the D2R2 board. If you ask politely (and his schedule allows), he’ll take you out for a spin to show you his “secret stash” in this beautiful slice of the commonwealth. The region features stunning farmland and a rolling history lesson of Colonial-era graveyards, stone walls and kilns.
Crawford renovated an old barn on his property, which hosts a number of retreats year-round. Yoga groups are particularly popular. Delicious meals are served family-style, with Suzanne and Lloyd manning the kitchen.
“It’s a regular 5 to 9 job,” said Lloyd Crawford with a smile. “Five in the morning to 9 at night.”
If you go, make sure you’re comfortable reading maps, and even working with a compass, since your GPS is unlikely to differentiate between paved roads, well-maintained gravel routes, and overgrown paths. Local knowledge is key. But if you bring a sense of adventure, you can have the time of your life.
Great Glen Trails, Pinkham Notch — greatglentrails.com
Journalists shouldn’t be biased. But I’ve got a soft spot in my adventurous soul for this remarkable trail system in the shadow of the Northeast’s highest peak, Mount Washington. I’ve ridden my bikes here during all four seasons, and have participated in paddling trips, hosted by Great Glen Trails, with my girls on nearby waterways. I’ve never once been bored.
“Great Glen Trails has so much to offer,” said Brown. “Year round, there are activities from paddling, hiking and biking in the summer to cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and fat biking in the winter.
“My favorite element is the new Glen House hotel recently constructed right next to the ski trail,” he said. “After a killer breakfast in their dining room, step outside and onto the trail, no vehicle needed. And you can zip back in for a quick rest or more food as needed.”
Brown is absolutely correct. The Glen House takes the Great Glen Trails to an entirely different level, with outstanding breakfast, lunch and dinner menus, a spectacular bar and sprawling deck (both which overlook Mount Washington and other Presidential Range peaks), and sumptuous accommodations.
The well-marked carriage roads let you explore the forest, meadows and scenic rivers while enjoying breathtaking mountain views. Great Glen offers a full fleet of e-bikes, adult and children’s bikes, fat bikes and comfort bikes. All bike rentals include a bike pass and helmet. If you have your own bike, bring a helmet (required) and purchase a pass.
On the paddling front, guided kayaking options range from leisurely river trip on the Androscoggin River below Gorham to a pulse-pounding whitewater experience on the Androscoggin Watershed in Errol. Private and semi-private kayaking clinics also are available.
Waterville Valley Adventure Center, Waterville Valley – waterville.com
“The name says it all,” said Brown. “The Waterville Valley Adventure Center has it all, but the coolest thing is the trails start right in the Town Center, near shops and restaurants.
“After a ski or a mountain bike ride, a crackling fire welcomes you back with warm soup nearby,” he said. “There’s also a ton of lodging right on site, perfect for couples or complete families.”
The center is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., which is a big plus if your bike needs any last-minute repairs. Rentals are available in two-hour, half-day, and full-day increments (you can even get a tandem). The trail system at Waterville Valley and neighboring National Forest has routes all along the fat-tire spectrum, for all abilities, from meandering dirt fire roads to gnarly singletrack, plus lift access to biking trails on Snow’s Mountain.
The Snow Mountain chairlift, however, isn’t just for mountain bikers. You can enjoy a relaxing, scenic round-trip ride, or access hiking trails and swimming holes through the National Forest, and a 18-hole disc golf course. Chairlift prices are posted online. Day passes to the Adventure Center run $35, which includes unlimited disc golf rental, unlimited lift access on Snow’s Mountain, a two-hour bike rental, and 50 percent discount on bike upgrades.
The menu at the Adventure Center also includes the OneWheel Experience, which is a sort of motorized skateboard with a single, all-terrain wheel (think snowboarding on dirt trails). In Waterville’s Town Square, the resort’s Vertical Zone is fully equipped with an outdoor climbing tower and a bungee trampoline (however, the Vertical Zone isn’t included in the Adventure Center’s Freedom Pass).
The resort also offers water-based options — kayaks, canoes, stand-up paddleboards and paddle boats — on Corcoran’s Pond, a historic golf course (which first opened in 1898), and one of the top 50 tennis resorts in America, the Waterville Valley Tennis Center. Lodging options range from condos to the Silver Fox Inn, the Black Bear Lodge and the Golden Eagle Lodge Resort.
Craftsbury Outdoor Center, Craftsbury – craftsbury.com
Situated on the edge of Vermont’s glorious Northeast Kingdom, the Craftsbury Outdoor Center is the quintessential adventure headquarters, with sculling, mountain biking, running and roller-skiing opportunities, plus an indoor fitness center and lodging that ranges from lakeside cottages and hillside cabins to traditional dorm-style rooms with shared bathrooms. Room fees include three wholesome all-you-can-eat meals, served buffet style on a rolling schedule to accommodate guests’ activities and camp schedules.
“The Craftsbury Outdoor Center is a true gem,” said Brown. “Located in northern Vermont, with the tremendous Craftsbury General Store nearby, the on-site food and lodging are amazing. With on-site gardens and farm-to-table mindset, you won’t be disappointed.
“Recently, they opened a paved roller-ski track to give those missing winter an opportunity to ski in the summer and fall,” he said. “The biking and running trails offer something for everyone, from gentle terrain to serious hills, and they also have a fitness center for members. I love this place.”
Mountain bikers have roughly 50 trails to test their skills and fitness, with an excellent mix of beginner, intermediate and expert terrain (a real bonus for visiting families, or groups with riders of disparate abilities). During the pandemic, Craftsbury will not be renting bikes or running its bike shop, so plan accordingly.
Trapp Family Lodge, Stowe – trappfamily.com
Talk about the “play hard, rest easy” ideal. The Trapp Family Lodge has all the creature comforts of a first-class resort, while providing all the thigh-burning challenges you’d expect in Vermont’s endorphin capital. With a tagline of “A little of Austria, a lot of Vermont,” the 2,500-acre resort delivers with a terrific mix of activities, from mountain biking and road cycling to bird watching and von Trapp family history tours.
“At the Trapp Family Lodge, in addition to the Austrian flair, you have every amenity you could possibly ask for,” said Brown. “I love to start my ride or ski from the Bierhall, mostly because when you are done, you are back at the Bierhall for happy hour.
“A ride or ski to the Slayton Pasture Cabin, known to locals as ‘the cabin,’ is always special and although it is only open in the winter, you can always pump some fresh water to fill you bottles,” he said. “Don’t forget the other dining opportunities while there, specifically the Kaffeehaus, where Bavarian baker Maurizio Odermatt will tempt you with fresh pastries and Austrian coffee.”
The accommodations at the pet-friendly lodge are superb, if not inexpensive, but you’ll appreciate the resort’s dedication to luxury after romping around the 62 miles of hiking and biking trails. Seasonal and daily passes are available (with discounts for seniors and children 17 and younger). There are also yoga classes, tennis courts (and coaching), and kids’ activities. Check the resort’s website for a thorough, up-to-date calendar of events and activities. Oktoberfest (Sept. 19-20 this year) is a special treat, even with appropriate social distancing precautions.
Looking for more adventure? The gondola at Stowe, which transports folks to the top of Mount Mansfield (Vermont’s highest peak), is located just up the road. Check out the zipline and climbing walls. And the village of Stowe offers a dizzying array of dining options.
Woodstock Nordic and Activity Center, Woodstock – woodstockinn.com
Part of the exceptional Woodstock Inn complex in central Vermont, the Woodstock Touring Center pairs local outings with world-class accommodations.
“I love the new Activity Center located just behind the inn, kind of like your personal concierge,” said Brown. “There you can pick up your complimentary cruiser bike to roll around town, or rent a mountain bike and get a shuttle to either Suicide Six or Mount Tom for some great singletrack riding.
“The staff has great local knowledge and can help you find the perfect trail, swimming hole or scenic outlook to make your ride spectacular,” he said. “In the winter, you’ll be able to rent skis snowshoes and fat bikes as well as at the nordic center.”
Woodstock’s newest walking path — the three-mile Ottauquechee River Trail — begins at East End Park and showcases unmatched views of the Ottauquechee River as it meanders by fields and woodlands. Across the river, take in views of the town, Billings Farm and Mount Tom.
Prefer a little fat-tire fun? Sample the miles of trails at Mount Peg, the Knox Meadow Skills Park or Suicide 6. At Mount Peg, enduro-style trails combine with challenging climbs that lead to amazing vistas. The Knox Meadow Skills Park boasts features for all abilities. At Suicide 6, climbs ranging from easy to expert reward riders with a number of flowing loops. If you’re not sure where to start, the center offers guided rides. All the trails are free to use, so riders are asked to respect other users and adhere to all posted policies.
Daily rentals are available ($79 for a regular mountain bike, or electric version, including helmet), with discounts for seniors and children 17 and younger.
Fort Kent Outdoor Center, Fort Kent, Maine – 10thmtskiclub.org
The only thing that puts this gem along the Canadian border on the “honorable mention” list is its location. More than 360 miles as the crow flies from Boston, Fort Kent has seen hard times. But the Outdoor Center, with its 10th Mountain Lodge, is a bright light. Established in 1999, the center now features numerous mountain bike trails and a 3-km roller ski loop.
Canterbury Farm Inn and Nordic Center
Becket, Mass. – canterbury-farms.com
Like Stump Spouts, Canterbury offers outstanding gravel routes for cycling fans. How good? It has hosted the epic Fall Foliage Gravel Grinder (known as the F2G2), another event that has fallen victim to the pandemic. But the bed and breakfast is still the perfect “mission central” for some wonderful gravel riding loops, including nearby October State Forest. The XC trails that snake through the property make for a great day hike.
Kingdom Trails Association, East Burke, Vt. – kingdomtrails.org
This mountain bike mecca actually was first established as a cross-country ski project tying together several local inns. But the Kingdom Trails, for mountain bikers, represents the gold standard for New England fat-tire riding, a knobby paradise of more than 100 miles of non-motorized routes. And with the influx of mountain bikers, local dining and lodging options have improved as well.
Wild Wings Ski Touring Center, Peru, Vt. – wildwingsski.com
This fabulous center hosts a small yoga studio located in the woods of southern Vermont, in the quaint hamlet of Peru, 12 miles north of Manchester, off Route 11. The studio is peaceful and quiet, a very relaxing space. The center offers a slow, vinyasa flow-style of yoga, matching breath and movement.
For more, visit the Cross Country Ski Areas Association website, xcski.org.