One of my goals for this winter is to get off groomed cross-country ski trails and to start skiing the free backcountry ski trails in the White Mountain National Forest. I started cross-country skiing last winter again after a 40 year hiatus and have a pretty good grasp of the basics. But I’ve found that skiing on unmanaged trails, with their natural ups and downs, has helped accelerate my skill development. It’s also a lot of fun and a lot more adventuresome.
My first foray into the backcountry side of cross-country skiing took place on the Oliverian-Downes Brook Ski Trail near Mt Potash and Mt Hedgehog. Located near the eastern end of the Kancamgus Highway, the trail links the Oliverian and Downes Brook Trail heads (these are hiking trails) and has an additional east and west loop that utilize old logging roads. Most of the trail is flat, with a gentle grade on the logging road segments. Parts of the ski trail follow the hiking trails before branching off on their own. There are few hills where climbing on skis is required but it’s relatively short and minor. My advice would be to ski the east and west loops clockwise in order to minimize the climbs and maximize the length of the downhill runs.
After hiking a nearby peak, I put on my cross-country boots and skis and headed down the Oliverian-Downes Brook trail into the forest. It’s been a few years since I hiked the Oliverian and Downes Brook Trails, which run from Mt Passaconaway north down to Rt 112, alongside beautiful streams. I caught glimpses of them from the ski trail and made a mental note to come back next summer and do a little fishing along their banks.
The trail was mostly flat as I headed east, skiing over the portion of the trail that is shared with hikers. I slid easily along, branching off down a narrow spruce lined path where the trails separated. The trail wasn’t broken out, but my skis slid effortlessly over the cold snow.
After one easy stream crossing, I came to the western junction of the east loop, but continued past it so I could ski the loop clockwise. This turned out to be the best way around the loop, which had one steep climb, followed by a long downhill run back down to the western junction. I practiced my snowplows skiing down it, forcing my heels wide to take off some of my speed. It’s very different doing this on an ungroomed trail vs a groomed trail where your skis are locked into pre-existing tracks.
Back at the main trail, I headed west again to link back up with the west loop. The west loop is much shorter than the east loop, but it also has a nice downhill run if you ski it clockwise. There’s one tricky part on the western loop when the trail intersects a logging road. While not blazed well, you should turn right and follow the road. It eventually passes a junction with the Mt Potash Trail before arriving back at the western parking lot.
Round Trip Distance 5.00 miles
Recommended Guidebooks and Maps:
- Appalachian Mountain Club White Mountain Guide, 31st ed.
- AMC White Mountain National Forest Map Set
- White Mountains Map: New Hampshire and Maine
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Very nice report of your new adventure. It seems that as more people venture into the wooded and rocky wilderness on cross country/backcountry skis, that they might want to add something that has been anathema to in-track skiers: a helmet. Even on trails that seem wide, the lack of tracks can be a challenge for almost anyone. By going just a little too fast, or around an unexpected downhill turn that had been hidden by trees, a crosscountry/backcountry skier can wind up in a world of hurt. While we can’t wear armor everywhere on our body, we can certainly protect the noggin ( and keep it warm). While some claim to be thick-headed, our skulls are far from indestructible. Just think of Natasha Richardson’s unfortunate small head bump on a bunny trail at Mont Tremblant that resulted in her death, after she seemed okay and laughed it off. And bunny trails don’t have hidden rocks and massive trees, typically. Yes, I wear a helmet while backcountry skiing. It just makes sense to me, though maybe not to others. Just my two cents.
Makes a lot of sense, Marie. You never know what’s lying just under the snow. I’d add putting a GPS in your pack, if it is a place you haven’t been to before and it isn’t mapped already.
Hadn’t even considered it, but it makes a world of sense. Thanks for the suggestion.
When I arrived in Vancouver, British Columbia (in the early 90s), I discovered the joys of hiking in the local hills. These coast mountains are very rugged. When winter arrived in the high country I found myself post holing in deep soft snow. When I asked what people did to keep fit in the winter I was told they go skiing. “Where?” I asked. The answer was, “The same place you hike.” That was the 90s, and most people skied in the winter, and snowshoeing was not as big as it is now. Frankly, winter travel has become my preferred time of the year. So I learned to ski. Well, at my age, I’ll never be a good skier, but I’m glad that that is the way I travel in the winter. Since I’d arrived from living on the prairies, and knew how to cross-country ski, I quickly discovered that I needed more robust equipment to manage the steeps. Learning to telemark was, for me, the obvious transition. Looking back, I think I would have been better to have acquired Alpine Touring (AT) equipment, and learned those techniques. As my knees age, that’s likely where I’ll end up anyhow. All of this is to say that to be able to really expand your scope of winter wilderness travel, you might consider investigating AT or telemark ski equipment.
eh. I’m happy with XC at the moment and reasonably moderate adventures. But I try new things constantly, so you never know.
I think that there are some backcountry skis that come close to alpine touring skis, but are possibly, just possibly a bit less expensive and a bit faster than AT skis, though possibly not as maneuverable.
It’s been 80° here in Texas all week. The skiing is pretty sloppy…
Well, it was negative 15 ( -15 F) in parts of Massachusetts, so come on up – it’s sure to cool you off.
I am just happy to see people trying new things or retrying them after so many years away from the activity. Today, it is so easy to just sit back and reminisce, versus acting on something that was rewarding years earlier. And it is smart to rebuild the comfort level and regain the competence.
2020 update: I do all kinds of skiing and would be downhill skiing right now, but all areas closed do to virus. There is no snow anywhere except where it is made at the closed ski areas and at high elevations. There was plenty of snow on 95% of these trails yesterday, Nice flat and safe trails. No need for a helmet, which I wear for downhill and skating, btw. You will never see me wearing a helmet XC skiing, which I have done for over 50 years.
I happen to think wearing a helmet on ungroomed backcountry XC trails is probably prudent, especially since I’m not the expert skier you are. Ski your own ski.