Where to Go Backcountry Skiing This Winter
Explore the great outdoors, in the snow.
For New Englanders who have grown up skiing, the novelty of gliding down the area’s most popular slopes can feel a bit worn out—and with COVID, some may even feel too crowded. So if you’re looking for a new kind of adventure (and don’t mind taking a hike to get there), backcountry skiing might be your next winter weekend hobby.
Whether it’s an off-the-beaten-path slope in the middle of the woods or an unpatrolled route next to a popular ski run, backcountry skiing is done anywhere outside the well-maintained slopes of ski resorts—a.k.a. the “backcountry.” Routes often start at a mountain trailhead and include hiking (or “skinning,” if you’re using skis to do it) to the summit before skiing down pristine, untouched tree runs.
But amateurs be warned; it’s a hobby best reserved for more prepared and experienced skiers. Before going on your first backcountry tour, make sure you’re up for the challenge. Get up to date on avalanche warnings and how to stay safe, make sure you have the right gear, plan your route wisely, and go with other experienced skiers. If you’re at a loss for where to start, try some of these spots—all within day-tripping distance from Boston.
Mount Watatic (Ashby, MA)
In the 1980s, the alpine ski area known as Mount Watatic permanently closed—likely due to the competition from the nearby Wachusett Mountain. There’s no longer a lift to the top; but if you’re up for a challenge, you can still hike up the old, slightly overgrown trails before descending the remains of the steep, black diamond runs.
The backcountry tour will take you through the historic resort, passing the burnt remains of a ski lodge, pieces of old ski lifts and light towers peeking out through the trees. While you’re likely to start out on the already-established trails, locals tend to veer off the beaten path to create their own secret runs.
Distance from Boston: 1.5 hours
Parking: Small parking area off of Bennet Rd. in Ashby
Thunderbolt Ski Trail at Mount Greylock (Adams, MA)
Take the steep, two-hour trek up Massachusetts’ highest peak for a thrilling 2,000-foot run back down. Secure your climbing skins (strips of material that keep you from backsliding, and a backcountry skier’s most useful piece of gear) and follow the skin path from the Thiel Rd. trailhead along the Thunderbolt trail to the summit. Stop for panoramic lookouts along the way before beginning your run.
The route is nicknamed the “Thunderbolt” for the rapid descent it offers, sometimes at grades up to 35 degrees. First cleared by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s—the group is known for creating many of the area’s backcountry skiing routes—the world-class ski trail has been used for championship races for decades.
Distance from Boston: 2.5 hours
Parking: Along Thiel Rd. in Adams a few yards before the trailhead, which is blocked off to cars
Alexandria and Duke’s Ski Trails at Mount Cardigan (Alexandria, NH)
Mount Cardigan is another optimal spot for backcountry activities, making it extremely popular for New Englanders. Whether you’re a skier or a snowboarder, the mountain’s two designated backcountry trails are a perfect transition from groomed resort runs to untamed wilderness. Alexandria is shorter and steeper than Duke’s, which provides a longer descent with calmer terrain.
For a five-mile loop, start at Cardigan Lodge at the base of the mountain and skin up either Alexandria or Duke’s. Once at the top, cross over the ridge and ski down the other. But make sure to prepare well before you go, because Cardigan Mountain State Park isn’t staffed during the off-season and the lodge operated by the Appalachian Mountain Club is closed.
Distance from Boston: 2 hours
Parking: Parking lot at Cardigan Mountain State Park on Cardigan Mountain Rd. in Orange
Hypnosis Glade (Madison, NH)
Hypnosis Glade gets its name from the property it sits on—the White Mountain (Hypnosis) Reflection Center. But the owners are generous enough to allow visitors to park at the center and enjoy its three miles of trails. The Granite Backcountry Ski Alliance—an organization whose goal is to advance the sport through the creation and maintenance of ski glades—partnered with the owners and converted the hiking trails to ski glades in 2019.
A great starting spot for those new to backcountry skiing, the four glade lines are calm and moderately steep, bordering on cross-country-level, and the uphill skin track provides great views of the surrounding area. The trails start right from the parking lot, so you won’t have to travel far with your gear before starting the tour.
Distance from Boston: 2 hours
Parking: Parking lot at 428 Conway Rd. off Rt. 113 in Madison
Maple Villa Glades at Bartlett Mountain (Intervale, NH)
Located at the Ware Preserve just north of North Conway, the Maple Villa Glades’ intermediate to expert lines are a bit more challenging than others. It’s easy—and likely necessary—to spend a full day trying out all nine of the glade lines, each starting from the near 2,200-foot elevation.
The long skin track, or the Maple Villa Trail, starts at the parking lot and splits into three paths. Once you get to the topmost East Zone, the ski trails are meant to be lapped, so you’ll likely find the most skiers there. The lower West Zone is more solitary, and the Pine Hill Zone offers steep grades and deep powder.
Distance from Boston: 2.5 hours
Parking: Parking lot at 70 East Branch R. in Intervale
Crescent Ridge Glade, Randolph, NH
Follow the Carlton Notch Trail uphill to reach your choice of five glade lines, or ski corridors, that you can spend hours lapping. Each line on the Crescent Ridge Glade ends in a wooded area, stopping at the trail leading back to the parking lot. But instead of heading down to the car, you can go back up for another lap.
It takes about an hour and a half to skin to the very top of the glade, and another half an hour to go back up between each lap. The slopes are generally gradual, before dropping at a 35-degree grade for the end of the run. According to the Granite Backcountry Alliance, which maintains the glade, it’s designed to appeal to both backcountry beginners and seasoned veterans.
Distance from Boston: 2 hour and 45 minutes
Parking: Small parking area at the end of Randolph Hill Rd. in Randolph
Greeley Ponds (Lincoln, NH)
Reserved for those willing to spend the entire day in the snow, a backcountry tour at Greeley Ponds is up to seven miles round trip. Make sure you’re prepared with skins, as you’ll be trekking on a moderate uphill slope for about 1.6 miles before arriving at the Upper Greeley Pond. But the upside of the journey? You’ll get to enjoy some beautiful views.
If it’s cold enough, ski across the pond—or take the safer route and follow the trail around it—to continue to Lower Greeley Pond. You can loop back here, if you prefer a shorter tour. Or you can turn left and skin uphill for three more miles to the 1,000-foot peak, before descending back the way you came, following the Greeley Ponds Trail back to the parking lot.
Distance from Boston: 2 hours and 15 minutes
Parking: Small parking area at the Greeley Pond Trailhead, off the Kancamagus Hwy in Lincoln (4.7 miles east of the Lincoln Woods Visitor Center)