Great Glen Trails in New Hampshire, above, is always one of the first cross-country ski areas to open, thanks to high altitude and snowmaking. Weston Ski Tracks just outside of Boston, below, also makes its own snow. when the weather has not supplied any.
In their own quiet way, cross-country skiers are every bit as fanatic as their downhill skiing kinfolk. At this time of year, the X-C crowd (and I'm one of them) has the gear ready, and everyone is waiting for snow. In a great year, we get to burn off some Thanksgiving calories with a brisk session on skinny skis on Black Friday. In a bad year, we're still waiting for Santa to bring us enough snow to slide on. In a really bad year, New Year's Day is celebrated with a hangover instead of a ski excursion.
When the snow is deep, the entire Northeast is a wonderful cross-country ski resort. If you've got your own touring gear (racing and skate gear require groomed trails), any field, meadow, golf course or woodland trail is your personal playground. All it takes is snow and a willingness to get out and do it
But very early in the season, before the snow gets deep, the maintained trail systems of the dozens of cross-country ski centers scattered about the Northeast are your best bet. Some are no more than a country inn with a few pairs of skis for guests to borrow. Most of these won't open until the snow is deep. But others are large operations either connected with or run like alpine ski resorts. Before Thanksgiving, most cross-country ski areas are holding their collective breath, waiting for snow. But some of the big guys will make some snow, usually on a loop of flat, smooth ground, and groom it for both tracks and skating. It may only be a 1 km loop, but it's a place to ski.
Add in those areas fortunately located where natural snow comes early, you usually have a handful of opportunities to get out on your cross-country skis before Christmas. Fortunately, you don't need a lot of snow to get started.
Cross-country skiing is like any other sport; you get rusty during the off season. No matter how much cross-training you do, the only real way to get in good shape for good skiing is to ski. Early season opportunities, however limited, are a great excuse to get out and begin polishing your technique and building up your stamina so you're in position to take advantage of the deep snow when it comes.
One word of advice, though: Always call or check websites for current conditions before you head out the door to go skiing. At this time of year, conditions vary greatly and can change even hour-to-hour.
So, who's on first?
Weather being weather, a random snowstorm somewhere can always change things, but year in and year out, some cross-country ski areas get operating earlier than others. One of the surest bets in early-season cross-country is Trapp Family Lodge (802-253-8511; www.trappfamily.com ) in Stowe, Vt. They've got an extensive snowmaking system and a need to cover the open field that is the gateway to their 100-km trail system, so they blow snow early. This is where I usually start my season.
Elsewhere in Vermont, Grafton Ponds (802-843-2400; www.graftonponds.com) in Grafton has snowmaking on 5 km of its 30-km groomed trail system. They fire up the snowmaking as soon as the weather turns cold after Dec. 1. You can also be certain that Mountain Top Inn and Resort (1-800-445-2100; www.mountaintopinn.com) in Chittenden will use the snowmaking on 2.5km of their 80-km trail system to offer at least some skiing by Christmas week.
In New Hampshire, the surest bet is Great Glen Trails (603-466-2333; www.GreatGlenTrails.com), which has a 1-km snowmaking loop and a high-altitude location that brings early snow. Nearby Jackson Ski Touring (1-800-927-6697; www.jacksonxc.org doesn't have snowmaking, but they do have some very high terrain that frequently gets early snow; they'll shuttle skiers up to the snow if necessary. The other good bet for early skiing in New Hampshire is the Balsams Wilderness (1-800-255-0600;www.thebalsams.com) in Dixville Notch, N.H., which is far north and high, too.
In Maine, head for the "The County." The Maine Winter Sports Center's (www.mainewsc.org) two huge Nordic facilities, the 10th Mountain Ski Center in Fort Kent and the Nordic Heritage Ski Center in Presque Isle, both usually open early on natural snow. The other great possibility for early season skiing is at the Sugarloaf Outdoor Center (207-237-6830,www.sugarloaf.com/OutdoorCenter/index.html in Carrabasset Valley, Maine.
Believe it or not, one of the earliest cross country ski opportunities in New England is located right near the junction of the Mass. Pike and Route 128, just minutes west of downtown Boston. The Weston Ski Track (781-891-6575; www.ski-paddle.com) has snowmaking on a 2-km golf-course loop of its 15-km groomed trail system. This loop is lighted for night skiing.
In New York, my bet for the first cross-country skiing is Lapland Lake Nordic Vacation Center (518-863-4974; www.laplandlake.com) in the southern Adirondacks, where lake-effect snow often comes with the first cold winds out of Canada.
For the folks who live in Connecticut and wait to ski there, the Winding Trails Cross Country Center (860-677-8458;www.windingtrails.org) in Farmington, has 20 km of groomed trails that they usually open in mid-December.
If you are really fanatic about your early-season cross-country skiing, be prepared to cross the border into Quebec (www.bonjourquebec.com/us-en/ski-raquette0.html), where cross-country skiing is a way of life. The epicenters for early-season skiing are the highlands of the Laurentians and the Outaouais Regions north and west of Montreal and the Charlevoix Region east of Quebec City. A little later, the Eastern Townships, which border Vermont, offer wonderful XC getaways.