February 23rd, 2021
Back to the Backcountry
Backcountry skiing has surged in popularity over the last few years. The pandemic likely had something to do with firing up this trend, as well as general crowding and the increasing expense of alpine skiing resorts. Whatever drives people into the backcountry, more skiers are sampling the thrill of skiing raw, ungroomed terrain.
When most think of backcountry skiing, they think of New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, especially Tuckerman Ravine. This is undoubtedly the epicenter of ski touring in New England. There are many other storied ski tours and descents throughout the White Mountains, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only place for solid backcountry skiing. Maine holds its own when it comes to earning your turns.
Skiing Along the Coast
Sargent Mountain, the second-highest peak within Acadia National Park, behind the immensely popular Cadillac Mountain, will reward you with a nice solid ski tour, as well as views of the surrounding Atlantic. There are a couple of routes to the top, ranging from about a three-mile more direct route to a longer, but gentler, six-mile tour. You can begin this tour from the Parkman Mountain parking lot, just north of Upper Hadlock Pond.
Watch the snow conditions, as there are no recorded snow reports for backcountry skiing. There’s no snowmaking in the backcountry, so right after a storm is when you’re likely to find the best snow. And it can be even harder on a mountain like Sargent perched right along the coast. From the top of the mountain, you’ll find several snowfields (when there has been sufficient snowfall) dropping off the northeast side of the mountain. Make your way down to the carriage trails through the snowfields and the trees.
Check with local outfitters such as Acadia Mountain Guides to learn more about the possibility of guided trips up and around Sargent Mountain. They’re not on the regular menu, but they might be able to make some arrangements. Acadia Mountain Guides also provide avalanche-training courses. Avalanches may not be something you think of in New England, but if you’re going to be out in the backcountry during winter, it’s best to be prepared. Also, check with Cadillac Mountain Sports for good local intel and any gear you might need.
The Great Mountain
And of course, the mighty Katahdin looms as a distant and formidable backcountry skiing destination. For newbies, this might not be your first choice for a backcountry tour as getting that deep into Baxter during winter is already a marathon. And you will likely be carrying your own sled filled with food, water, and camping gear. Though, if adventure and earning your turns appeals to you, put Katahdin on your list as a worthy goal.
You can get to most of the skiable chutes on Katahdin from the Roaring Brook and Chimney Pond campgrounds. Plan on spending at least the night before and the night after at one of those spots. From Roaring Brook, you can get to the formidable Cathedral Trail. Be ready for this exceptionally steep ascent and descent. From Chimney Pond, you could try the Saddle Trail. This one is less steep than the daunting Cathedral Trail, but takes you on a longer excursion.
Ski the Sidecountry
Sidecountry is the new backcountry. That’s a relatively new term for ski area backcountry skiing, where the access is a bit easier and less remote. For several years now, Sugarloaf has offered skiing on Burnt Mountain and Brackett Basin. These areas include more than 650 acres of raw, ungroomed terrain, and an excellent introduction to backcountry skiing. You’ll still have to take all the necessary precautions, but the trip will require less logistical effort. You will still be treated to fresh snow (on a perfect day), big backcountry bumps, glades, steeps, and streambeds.
You could also get there by booking a cat trip with Burnt Mountain Cat Skiing. These cats take you out 1.5 miles to the top of Burnt Mountain. Then you’ll have about 100 acres of terrain to explore. It’s not true backcountry skiing, but will certainly give you a taste. Be mindful of the ski area boundaries and don’t start any excursion out to Burnt Mountain or Brackett Basin alone or late in the day. Both Sugarloaf and Sunday River also have uphill skiing policies, so you can earn your turns even when the lifts are running. Contact the mountains for the latest routes and rates.
Backcountry skiing encompasses everything about hiking, everything about skiing, and everything about being out in the woods and mountains in the winter. You need to be prepared in terms of skiing ability, physical conditioning, and having the right gear.
There are many “Essential Gear” lists out there, but the list compiled by HikeSafe certainly covers the basics: map, compass, warm clothing, extra food and water, flashlight or headlamp, matches, or other fire starter, whistle, weatherproof layers, and a pocket knife.
For other resources, check with Mahoosuc Mountain Sports, Maine Sport, or Cadillac Mountain Sports for more details on gear. And do yourself a favor and check out David Goodman’s definitive guide Best Backcountry Skiing in the Northeast.
Lafe Low is a veteran writer, editor, and webcast moderator. He has spent more than 30 years in technology and business journalism. He is also the founding editor of Explore New England magazine and former editor of Outdoor Adventure. He is the author of Best Tent Camping: New England, Best Hikes on the Appalachian Trail: New England, and 60 Hikes within 60 Miles of Boston, 2nd ed.