New England’s winding networks of old-fashioned hike-to ski trails make for some unique backcountry skiing experiences. Here’s where to find them.
Skiers in New England have it good. When it comes to terrain, just one word applies: varied. There are groomers, glades, steep chutes, alpine bowls. In other words, the works. With the exception of the glacier ski runs you find in the Alps, chances are if there’s ski terrain somewhere “out there,” you can also find it “right here.” But New England is also home to one terrain feature that’s almost exclusively unique to this tiny corner of the ski world: the CCC ski trail.
“CCC” stands for Civilian Conservation Corps, a program born of the Great Depression more than 70 years ago. Birthed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his New Deal legislation, it aimed to put the country’s unemployed men back to work. Elsewhere in the country, that work took the form of bridge and road building, irrigation and flood control, timber management, and other tasks. But here in New England, that labor was put to use in quite a different way… building backcountry downhill ski trails on the region’s mountains.
Though the CCC disbanded in 1942, the ski trails they built have lived on, becoming favorite destinations for backcountry skiers. Consider it a snowsports version of “build it, and they will come.” “They,” I decided, should include “me,” and so I set out to ski some of the greatest hits of the CCC ski trails in Vermont and New Hampshire. This is what I found.
Vermont’s tallest peak is home to two CCC ski trails: the Bruce trail on the east side, and the Teardrop trail on the west side. The Teardrop sounded particularly appealing—reportedly, the trail was so named because early skiers descended so fast that tear drops streamed from the corners of their eyes.
A trio of my backcountry skiing buddies and I parked at the winter road closure in Underhill State Park, beneath the slopes of Mount Mansfield. We skinned up the aptly named CCC Road, bypassing the Sunset Ridge trailhead and continuing toward the Maple Ridge Trail. Then we intersected it—the Teardrop. A steep, snow-covered trail, laced with ski tracks, descended out of the woods above us.
Opting to do a loop, we continued south to Maple Ridge and ascended to the summit of the Forehead. From there, we dropped north into the saddle between the Forehead and the Nose, and found six inches or more of fresh powder sitting over a firm melt-freeze crust.
We continued north until we intersected the upper reaches of the Teardrop, while clouds hugged Sunset Ridge across the basin. At first, the Teardrop was so narrow we debated whether or not it was indeed the trail. But convinced we had the right one, we stashed our skins in our packs and pointed our tips downhill. Just as the Teardrop rolled off the saddle and the pitch steepened, the trail widened and we knew we were on track. Lake Champlain was far below us, and even more distant to the west, we could see the ski runs of Whiteface in the Adirondacks. All that was left to do was enjoy more than 2,000 vertical feet of descent.
The skiing was just as I hoped it would be: phenomenal. The only teardrops we experienced were tears of joy (alright… the tears were metaphorical; no one actually cried), and the descent ended much too soon for our liking. Back at the CCC Road, we dropped down onto the lower Teardrop while late afternoon sunlight filtered through the trees. By the time we were knocking back a pint at The Alchemist in Waterbury, we were already reliving (and retelling) our descent of the Teardrop.
The next morning, we left Vermont behind and headed east to Cannon Mountain, home of the Taft trail. Cut in 1933 on the north face of the mountain, today the uppermost reaches of the trail are within the boundaries of the ski area. Instead of purchasing a lift ticket, we skinned up the west side of the mountain via the Tucker Brook trail, another ski trail that dates to the same era as the Taft. We halted our ascent at the summit of Mittersill, just shy of the Cannon ski area boundary, and then began our descent of the lower Taft, which had seen so much backcountry skier traffic prior to our arrival as to have been bumped out into a long mogul run. (This winter, Cannon expanded into the abandoned Mittersill ski area, which encompasses the lower Taft. The 86-acre area has all natural snow, almost no grooming, and for now, a shuttle bus on weekends to return you to the Cannon base area.)
Leaving Cannon behind, we ventured next to Doublehead, just outside of North Conway. Built one year after the Taft trail, the Doublehead ski trail features a double fall line and a Forest Service-managed cabin at the top. We followed the Old Path up to the saddle between South and North Doublehead, then turned north to reach the summit and the ski trail. Snow conditions weren’t ideal (no fault of the mountain… just my unfortunate timing), but Doublehead lived up to expectations. It had a steep and sustained pitch, and that double fall line kept me focused on the way down.
For a grand finale, I bid my ski partners adieu (alas, work called them home, while my “work” called me to one final peak) and charted a course for Mount Cardigan. The mountain is home to a series of famed CCC ski trails, including the Duke’s ski trail on Firescrew, a subsidiary summit, and the Alexandria trail on Cardigan proper. Always up for a loop, I ascended the Duke’s to the summit of Firescrew, traversed the rounded ridgetop to Cardigan, and then pointed my tips downhill on the Alexandria. Even though it hadn’t snowed in days, the trail held great snow.
At the base of the Alexandria, as I looked back up at Cardigan, I understood why backcountry skiers treasure these CCC ski trails. They are uniquely New England, but just as much so, they’re darn good fun to ski.
Peter Bronski (www.peterbronski.com) is an award-winning writer and frequent contributor to Vermont Sports. A passionate backcountry skier (as well as ice climber), he is a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association and the author of Powder Ghost Towns: Epic Backcountry Runs in Colorado’s Lost Ski Resorts.