It doesn’t matter how skilled a cross-country skier you are—the inherent rewards are there for the taking. Whether you huff and puff on the more gentle spots along the trail, or skillfully traverse through the birches, the exhilaration is the same. Simply being outdoors in New Hampshire’s White Mountains on a trail leading to one of the Appalachian Mountain Club’s (AMC) huts creates its own high. You’ll start among maples and birch forests and climb to higher altitudes where the spruce and fir reign, all the while keeping an eye out for moose and deer. A sighting completes the experience.
AMC keeps several mountain huts open in the winter for people who enjoy skiing or snowshoeing through the wilderness. The easiest way to the Zealand Falls Hut, recommended for intermediate backcountry skiers, is a gentle but long 6-mile (nearly 10km) route. Stay on the unplowed road for the first 31⁄2 miles (5.6km), then glide onto the Zealand Trail, an old logging railroad grade, for the rest of the trip. The hut is in a wonderful setting, near waterfalls, with a spectacular view of the eastern edge of the Pemigewasset Wilderness. The even longer, more challenging route to the hut is on the Spruce Goose trail, which resembles a gentle roller coaster with its dips, before meeting up with the Zealand Trail and the hut beyond.
Near the hut, adrenaline junkies have the chance to go backcountry skiing in the birch glades, where less-skilled skiers dare not go. (Because of changing snow conditions, the folks at AMC suggest you take snowshoes along for ski tours near and beyond the hut.) You’ll need to bring skins along if you want to take the steep trail that ascends nearby Mt. Hale, where the views of the surrounding wilderness are brilliant. You can also experience difficult skiing in a remote area down the back side of Mt. Hale.
The Lonesome Lake trail to the Lonesome Lake Hut is a popular but shorter 1.6 mile-long (2.6km) trail that intermediate and advanced skiers may enjoy. More adventuresome skiers can go to the hut via the Cascade Brook trail, a 3-mile-long (4.8km) route that’s more difficult, but has less traffic. The hut, nestled against the flank of Cannon Mountain, has a wonderful view of the Franconia Range across a glacial tarn.
In the winter, the huts are self-service, so plan on bringing your own cold-weather sleeping bag and food. The huts do have a kitchen with a stove, oven, and utensils, but, you’ll have to hand-pump your water from an outside well. Hut reservations can be made on AMC’s website (see below) and it’s wise to make them up to 4 months in advance for the best availability on weekend nights, especially Saturdays. Mid-week is quieter and you might even get a hut to yourself. If planning in advance isn’t your strong suit, keep checking the website for last-minute availability.
AMC offers a few ski trips to the three huts each winter, although most of the skiers visiting the huts are touring independently. Keep in mind that it’s backcountry skiing, so the conditions may vary greatly, from powder to icy terrain. Appropriate winter gear is necessary; visit the AMC website for a recommend list of gear. In addition the winter ski trips, AMC offers a wide variety of trips and activities year-round in the mountains, rivers, and trails of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions. —LF
Appalachian Mountain Club ( 603/466-2727; www.outdoors.org).
When to Go: Feb–Mar.
Manchester, New Hampshire.