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By Scott Douglas
If you live in New England, you already know that Mt. Washington Valley in New Hampshire is a skier’s paradise. There’s a reason why USA Today named North Conway “No. 1 Ski Town in North America” just last fall.
But what if you don’t ski?
No problem. The list of non-skiing activities is endless. For proof, just check out the U.S.A. Olympic team, where New Hampshire athletes who grew up in the Granite State are competing in cross-country skiing (Patrick Caldwell), biathlon (Sean Doherty), hockey (Broc Little), and freestyle skiing (Eric Loughran).
So whether you’re a skier or not, or you’re 8, 18, or 68, you can fill up your entire winter calendar with exciting and fun ways to play outside in the Valley before spring arrives.
But hurry: Feb. 25 is the Mt. Washington Valley Ski Touring and Snowshoe Foundation’s annual chocolate festival, and after a long day outdoors, you will have earned those calories.
It all starts with the 250 Alpine skiing trails. Add to that proximity, affordability, and variety, and you can see why the Valley is the most popular downhill skiing area in New England.
There are seven ski resorts within a short drive of North Conway Village (one is in Maine), each with a unique calling card. Want elevation? Try Attitash or Wildcat Mountain, with up-close views of Mount Washington and the Presidential Range. Expansiveness? With 62 trails, Bretton Woods is the largest resort in New Hampshire. Tradition? Try Cranmore Mountain or Black Mountain, both ski hubs for more than 80 years. Family accessibility? Of course, all of the mountains offer lessons and rentals for those who need either, or both. Three-quarters of King Pine’s trails are best suited for novice and intermediate skiers, making it the perfect place for the beginner family. (And if you want the latest on ski conditions and events or to maybe win ski tickets, sign up for the Valley’s newsletter and contests.)
If there is one bucket list item that should be on every New England skier’s list, it’s the sort of backcountry skiing experience that Granite Backcountry Alliance specializes in. The ultimate one might be a spring trip to Mount Washington’s Tuckerman Ravine, after the lifts at other mountains close for the season. There’s no fancy, cozy chairlift to get you up Tuckerman. Hoof it up, and enjoy the unmatched thrill of spring skiing or snowboarding into a steep bowl with a few thousand other hearty souls. Just remember: This is avalanche country, so be mindful of the conditions, heed the warning signs, and if you see skiers shaking loose a ton of snow on their run, find a different path down.
Downhill done differently
Tubing is a great way for non-skiers to experience the same thrill of speeding down a mountain. Parents can attach a tube to their tykes’ tube for safe family fun. Snow tubing is available at four of the Valley’s ski resorts—Cranmore, Great Glen Trails, King Pine and Bretton Woods.
Cross country skiing
You could be excused for thinking that cross country skiing was invented especially for the Mt. Washington Valley. There are six centers within half an hour of North Conway Village, with whatever combination of terrain, seclusion, and convenience you want. The Jackson Ski Touring Foundation’s 90-plus miles of trails makes it the largest in the eastern United States. Great Glen Trails, literally across the street from Mount Washington, is another popular spot, and the MWV Ski Touring Foundation and Bretton Woods Nordic Center both offer varied terrain for all levels of skiers.
The Appalachian Mountain Club maintains two lodges in the area for all outdoor adventure seekers, and two of the prettiest experiences have to be skiing through the forest at Purity Spring Cross Country and Snowshoe Reserve and through Hoyt Audubon Sanctuary. If you want your dog to get some exercise, too, head for Bear Notch Ski Touring, and don’t skip the Warming Hut afterward.
On two wheels or two feet
Want to try an under-appreciated winter activity? Try snowshoeing or fat bike riding.
Don’t worry, the name fat biking refers not to the riders, but to the bikes—wide frames and oversized tires and rims allow stable but speedy passage over snow.
Fat biking is a welcome recent addition to the Valley’s winter activities. Stan & Dan Sports and the Great Glen Trails rental shop can outfit you and point you in the right direction, depending on how tame or wild a ride you want.
Try the designated mountain bike trails in Whitaker Woods in North Conway or the town-owned Pudding Pond area of North Conway or the Marshall Conservation Area. Abutting the White Mountain National Forest between Conway and North Conway, Marshall’s 400-acre playground opened for public recreation in 2015. Locals are still just getting to know the area.
As for snowshoeing, all of the Valley’s cross country ski resorts have dedicated trails. Rentals are available at each. The White Mountain trails that are so popular for summer hiking also draw dedicated trekkers in winter. Depending on the ground cover, you’ll want to bring underfoot traction devices, such as Stabilicers or MICROspikes, to supplement snowshoes.
Snowmobiling and more
The Valley features more than 100 miles of snowmobile trails, with access to more than 900 miles that connect to Maine, the North Country, all the way to Canada, and beyond. Rentals, maps, and instructions are available from vendors in the region.
And while we’re on the subject of motorized transport: No survey of the Valley’s winter outdoor activities would be complete without mention of the SnowCoach, a track-driven vehicle (no wheels!) that carries sightseers above Mount Washington’s tree line. For the return trip, you can ride back down or, just to prove gravity is still in effect, or snowshoe down.
If you’d rather tour the area 19th-century style, how about a horse or sleigh ride from the Farm by the River B&B in North Conway?
Ice is nice
Some people avoid winter. Others embrace it—literally. You can take one-, two- or three-day ice-climbing classes from the pros at the International Mountain Climbing School or the Eastern Mountain Sports location in North Conway, or Northeast Mountaineering in Bartlett.
For a more relaxed communion with ice, try ice fishing on Chocura Lake or Crystal Lake. Don’t worry! You won’t be freezing in a rickety shed with wind whipping through because you’re going to let the Fish Nerds set you up with gear and guidance. Not only will certified fish nerd Clay Groves (you have to check out his podcast) get you started with bait and tackle, his crew will take you on a snowmobile out to the right spot, and set you up in a heated shelter with cocoa or coffee, and a hot snack. Oh, a heated toilet, too. All you need? A New Hampshire fishing license, and you can come home with a freshly caught dinner.
One last thing. It’s never too early to mark next year’s calendar. After checking out the ice sculpture competition on Jan. 25, 2019, at Black Mountain in Jackson, grab a drink at Stonehurst Manor’s Ice Bar in North Conway or the Wentworth Inn in Jackson. It won’t be a problem keeping your cocktail chilled.
For more information and great things to do, visit www.VisitNH.gov.