The summit of Wildcat Mountain in Jackson, N.H., can be a busy place on a winter day, with throngs of alpine skiers unloading from the chairlift and gliding off to schuss the downhill runs back to the base above Pinkham Notch.
Backcountry skiers intent on tackling the Wildcat Valley Trail, however, will find it easy to leave the crowds, the lifts and the groomed runs behind.
Just to the right of the old gondola station, the trail drops off the backside of the mountain into a hushed wilderness of dense spruce and fir forest and the start of what many consider to be the premier backcountry downhill ski trail in New England.
Cleared in 1972 by volunteers, the steep, narrow, twisting and ungroomed trail offers cross-country and telemark skiers a challenging and scenic experience for much of its 18-kilometer route from the 4,062-foot peak of Wildcat through to Jackson Village.
“It’s not for the faint of heart,” said Thom Perkins, executive director of the Jackson Ski Touring Foundation, who has skied the trail more than 400 times, sometimes twice in a single day. “It’s designed for experienced skiers, but depending upon the day and snow conditions, good intermediate skiers can enjoy it, too.”
The upper portion of the trail follows the long ridge down to a spot known as Prospect Farm.
“With good snow it’s like a great ride at Disney,” Perkins said. “Lots of bounces, turns, swoops and dives. It’s amazing skiing.”
En route, skiers will encounter a magnificent 6-acre birch glade, “a really fun section,” that many repeat several times. The picnic table at Hall’s Ledge, where awe-inspiring views of Mount Washington and the Presidential Range may be had, is a mandatory lunch stop on a nice day.
Below are several bailout options, side trails leading down to points along Route 16. Ahead on the main trail, a one-mile section is closed per landowner request and must be walked on Carter Notch Road.
The lower trail covers moderate terrain before crossing Eagle Mountain Fields and finishing on the Yodel Trail to the village.
Metal-edged backcountry skis are optional for the trip but nice to have. Skiers have made the trek with all types of skis, but help is a long way off should something go wrong. Go with a group and carry extra gear in your pack. Plan on a solid half day or more to make the complete 3,245-foot descent, but don’t rush.
“The trail shouldn’t be gulped like a glass of water, but rather sipped like a fine wine,” Perkins said.
The Wildcat Valley Trail is open for cross-country skiers only. Alpine skiers, snowboarders and snowshoers are prohibited. One inconsiderate person can ruin the trail conditions and ski experience for hundreds that follow.
The trail is well defined and marked with blue diamonds, and while it is maintained by volunteers, blowdowns are to be expected.
Along its length, the trail passes through land owned by the White Mountain National Forest, private landowners and Jackson Village. This cooperative effort demands that users respect the trail and leave it better than they found it.
Fees are required to ski the Wildcat Valley Trail. Visit the Jackson Ski Touring Foundation center in Jackson, where the friendly staff can answer questions and provide you with a trail day pass ($12) and a Wildcat Mountain one-ride lift ticket ($7).
Perkins recommends leaving your car in Jackson and taking a taxi to Wildcat, as parking at the ski area can be limited on busy days. Doing so also means you’ll ski right to your car at the end of the trip. Thus, instead of having to retrieve your car from up the valley, you can head straight for the pub and a celebratory beverage. Two local cabs offer shuttle service: Fast Taxi, (603) 356-0000, and Turtle Taxi, (603) 356-7577.
At the base lodge, clip into your skis and shuffle over to the Wildcat Express quad chairlift, which will whisk you 2,112 feet up to the mountaintop in just six minutes. Draw in a deep breath, savor the view for a moment, then take the snowy plunge and enjoy.
With 154 kilometers of trails in and around Jackson, you can enjoy an entire weekend of cross-country skiing adventure. The picturesque village boasts many historic inns and B&Bs and numerous fine restaurants for your apres-ski pleasure.
For more information on skiing the Wildcat Valley Trail, including a map and trail description, contact the Jackson Ski Touring Foundation at www.jacksonxc.org or (603) 383-9355.
Carey Kish of Bowdoin is a freelance writer and avid hiker. Send comments and hike suggestions to: