At the base of Mount Washington, Great Glen Trails Outdoor Center is a mecca for outdoor adventures lasting a few hours or an entire day.
The center serves up 45 kilometers of cross-country skiing trails that rise and fall gently enough to provide a challenge but do not intimidate. The trails are built on a solid base, which allows for two things many touring centers don’t have — the ability to ski on very little snow because of the smooth surface underneath and the ability to drive trucks on the trails to move snow around.
Great Glen was one of the first cross-country areas to have snowmaking. Although the center blows snow only on 2 to 3 kilometers, it can be loaded into trucks, driven to where it’s needed and spread around. Every night almost every trail is groomed. Usually a double track is set for classic skiers, still leaving plenty of room for skate skiing as well. “With our snowmaking and nightly grooming, our conditions are very predictable,” says general manager Howie Wemyss.
Howie’s wife Sue, a 1984 Olympic cross-country skier, heads up the ski school, which offers group and private lessons. Even a group lesson offers a fairly personal learning experience, as there is a maximum student/teacher ratio of 4 to 1. Lessons may be purchased alone if you have your own equipment or as a package including rentals and a full-day trail pass.
Snowshoeing is allowed on all cross-country trails. In addition, there are dedicated snowshoe and backcountry trails separate from the main trail network. Every Saturday, a member of the Great Glen staff leads a free guided snowshoe tour suitable for all abilities. On selected evenings, there’s an evening snowshoe tour led by a naturalist from the Appalachian Mountain Club. In keeping with the low-key, low-impact approach to the outdoors, Great Glen has an old-fashion tubing hill. Walk, ski or snowshoe to the hill, grab a tube and slide down the broad, open, groomed expanse, then walk back up with your tube and do it all over again.
Winter fat biking is another popular activity at the area. Fat biking is allowed on the trail system, subject to snow and safety considerations. You can bring your own (subject to certain requirements) or rent a bike from the shop’s pool of bikes. Helmets are required.
Another unique feature of Great Glen is the Snow-Coach tour. You can ride in a comfortable 12-passenger van equipped with a four-track drivetrain (like you would see on a Sno-Cat) up the Mount Washington Auto Road to the tree line. The tour is about 90 minutes long and includes time to disembark and take in the spectacular views at an elevation of 4,200 feet. If that’s not adventurous enough for you, you can ski or snowshoe down from anywhere along the tour.
The vibe at Great Glen is low key and friendly. During the week the clientele is likely to be mostly older. Many locals have season passes and are out on the trails several times a week. On weekends there’s a good mix of families, kids and adults.
On a recent trip there, my companion and I found everyone from the staff to the other skiers and snowshoers to be very welcoming and friendly. Locals offer helpful hints, the staff is very knowledgeable and everyone greets you as you pass on the trails or stop at the Great Angel Warming Cabin for a rest or a snack. Just 3.2 km from the base, this heated cabin offers some lovely views as well as a chance to warm up or have a picnic.
The original base lodge was built in 1994-95 across the road from the current location. It was destroyed by fire in 2001. In 2002-03 the old Glen House, across the road, was renovated to serve as the new base facility. A tunnel was built under Route 16 to provide direct ski-in, ski-out access from the lodge to the trail network and tubing hill. The 20,000-square-foot building, with views of the northern Presidentials, houses administration offices, a retail shop, rental shop, changing rooms, showers and a spacious cafeteria. The cafeteria, on the main floor, serves a variety of tasty, homemade breakfast items, plus sandwiches, soups, salads, snacks and beverages at very reasonable prices. Also on this floor is the retail shop with a good assortment of cross-country goods and accessories. On the lower level, the rental shop has cross-country skis, boots and poles as well as snowshoes and fat tire bikes. All of the rental inventory — skis, snowshoes and bikes — are sold at a discount at the end of the season so the center can start the following season with new equipment to give guests the best possible experience. For skiers’ convenience, there’s also a free tuning and wax room.
“Our niche is families,” Howie Wemyss says. “For the kids we have Trails Tracker and Scavenger Hunt and the Bill Koch League.”
To participate in Trails Tracker, all you have to do is grab a trail map, which has a punch card on the back. Then ski the green trails and locate all the furry animals along the way. Punch your card as you find each one and earn an Official Trails Tracker button. The Bill Koch League is a regional youth cross-country program and is offered by the Great Glen Kids Ski Club, which meets every Sunday afternoon for first- through eighthgraders. It includes skill development, games on skis, relay races, ski care clinics, trail skiing and more. But its main concentration is having fun.
All ages can compete in the Nordic Meisters series. This is a timed race using a handicap or adjustment system, somewhat like that used in sailing races. It levels the playing field for all ages. Eight individual races are held Tuesdays. Your top six times count. Racers can run the course any time between 9 a.m. and 3:45 p.m. You can choose a long course (5.3 km) or a short one (2.7 km) in classic or skate style — or ski them both. Prizes are awarded at the end of the series.
“Our skiers love this race series,” Howie Wemyss says. “They can come any time during the day and can compete against anyone, knowing it will be leveled out in the end.”
The month of March brings a couple of very interesting special events at the area. On March 4, Ski, Shoe and Fat bike to the Clouds will test competitors’ skill and endurance as they ski, snowshoe or ride a fat bike for 10 km on the trails of Great Glen and the snow-covered Mount Washington Auto Road. Billed as “North America’s toughest 10K,” participants begin on the nordic trail system for the first 4 km, then ascend the Auto Road, climbing 2,200 vertical feet with an average grade of 12 percent over the last 6K km. This event is not for the faint of heart or the inexperienced.
On March 10, help promote the spirit of giving at the second annual Great Glen Charity. For a donation of $25 to a favorite charity, adults can enjoy a day of free skiing, snowshoeing, tubing and a buffet lunch Kids 5-12 pay just $15 and under 5 is free with a paying adult. Bump it up to $50 ($30 for kids) and you also get a ride to tree line on the Auto Road on the Mount Washington SnowCoach.
While you currently need to travel down the road a bit for overnight accommodations, Great Glen has about 30 lodging partners who purchase coupons for their guests for free skiing and discounts for the SnowCoach and lessons. According to Wemyss, this program is very helpful in contributing to the area’s skier numbers, which total about 14,000 skier visits per season.
Change is under way, however, for next season. A new hotel is under construction, scheduled to open this summer. In addition to 68 guest rooms and wonderful alpine mountain views, the hotel will have a restaurant, bar, meeting room, pool, gym and an outside bar. With year-round activities at Great Glen, this facility should be busy summer and winter.
Speaking of summer, there’s plenty to do there in the warm months also. Biking and trail running along scenic, well-marked trails winding through forest and fields offer lovely mountain and river vistas. Guided kayak trips provide leisurely paddling and plenty of opportunities to view moose, eagles, bears and many other denizens of the mountains. For the more adventurous, Great Glen offers full-day whitewater instruction on the Androscoggin River. Certified whitewater guides are available for custom group trips.
“Service is our calling card,” Howie Wemyss says. “We hire skiers because we want them to be able to communicate well with our guests. And we treat our staff well so they’ll be happy and in turn treat our guests well.”
For further information and prices, visit the website www.greatglentrails.com.