The ski season is officially upon us in the Northeast. Lifts are spinning and resorts across New England are blowing snow, hoping to achieve maximum trail coverage for the long season ahead.
But not everyone is looking forward to the park and groomer laps often associated with early season.
For some, skiing is about escaping to the solitude of the backcountry, stretching their legs, and earning every turn they make. In the backcountry, even mediocre conditions can feel like some of the best turns of the season. Friends share beers and stories at the top of the skin track, sometimes enjoying views that the masses on the lifts won’t get. On the descent, lines are shared only by those who have the same appreciation for human-powered travel in the mountains.
Unfortunately, backcountry season often starts much later than that of the resorts. No one is making snow in your local glade, and the natural snowpack must be deep enough to cover all obstacles.
That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to throw the skis back in the closet for another month, waiting for the natural stuff to pile up in front of your house. Backcountry season tends to start earlier at higher elevations and at northern locations.
It is important to remember that during a typical snow year, backcountry terrain isn’t usually reliable until mid-January. So if you do decide to get out during the earlier months, use extreme caution and check your lines for not-so-obvious hazards that might be hiding under a thin layer of snow.
If you’re hoping to escape the resorts and truly get into the mountains, keep your eyes on the weather, boot up and go earn your turns at one of these backcountry hot spots.
Saddleback Mountain, Maine
Once the third-largest operating ski resort in Maine, Saddleback Mountain, located near Rangely, has sat dormant for more than four years. New England skiers have taken advantage of the higher elevations and wide-open ski trails, opting to skin up in search of fresh tracks instead of heading to the popular active resorts, like Sugarloaf. But if you want to take advantage of the not-so-forgotten resort, it might be best to do it soon, because a recent agreement with the Arctaris Impact Fund of Boston might result in a resurrection of the resort by the beginning of the 2020-21 season.
Little Jay Peak, Vermont
A lot of ski resorts have marketing ploys to attract skiers to their resort — some that are accurate, and some that are quite the stretch. But the “Jay Cloud” is no ploy. In New England, it’s difficult to find areas with an average annual snowfall that rivals and sometimes exceeds those at Colorado resorts, but Jay delivers. Thanks to the mountain’s location with respect to Lake Champlain, the resort receives an average of 350 inches per year. So when heading to Little Jay Peak, which is on the same ridge as the resort, finding good coverage early season (and sometimes even weeks after a storm) is a fairly safe bet.
Sherburne Ski Trail, New Hampshire
Cut in 1934, the Sherburne Ski Trail, or “Sherbie” as the locals call it, is an intermediate “backcountry” ski trail often used as a descent route from the base of Tuckerman Ravine on Mount Washington. The trail’s base at Pinkham Notch is located at an elevation of more than 2,000 feet and starts at more than 4,400 feet — so when it’s raining in the Mount Washington Valley, it is often snowing on the Sherbie.
Randolph Crescent Ridge Glade, New Hampshire
In 2017, New Hampshire-based Granite Backcountry Alliance and a number of volunteers cut a 75-acre glade in the Randolph Community Forest, located just north of Pinkham Notch in New Hampshire. While it is a smaller area, the five main lines in the upper zone descend about 600 vertical feet from an elevation of just below 3,000 feet. Below the upper zone is a low-angle, relaxed ski back to the car, although it is worth getting a few laps in on the upper section before calling it for the day.
South Baldface, New Hampshire
Recently cut by Granite Backcountry Alliance, the Slippery Brook Glade descends 2,500 feet from the bottom of the summit slabs on South Baldface to the Baldface Circle Trailhead. The summit can be accessed via the Slippery Brook Trail and offers more than 500 feet of vertical skiing on exposed, higher-elevation terrain before descending into the gladed zone. Like much of the terrain in the Northeast, your best bet for early season turns are up high, so be prepared for booting out at lower elevations.
Mount Mansfield, Vermont
At 4,363 feet above sea level, Mount Mansfield is the highest point in Vermont and home to the overwhelmingly popular Stowe Mountain Resort. But with 300-plus inches of snow and ease of accessibility (the town of Stowe is located just 35 miles from Burlington), the backcountry terrain itself is a draw for New England skiers. Similar to many of the backcountry ski trails throughout New England, the Teardrop Trail was cut by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1937. The trail descends more than 2,200 feet on the west side of Mansfield from The Nose to the Underhill State Park parking area.