CARRABASSETT VALLEY – Trish Murray loves her family’s camp near Rumford, as well as a robust outdoor lifestyle. But the first trip to the Maine Huts and Trails system for the New Hampshire doctor opened a new world of adventure.

And plush and remote as the fancy new huts are, the free 50-mile groomed ski trail had everything to do with that.

“We were told over the next year they are going to add more trails. Once you get to Stratton Brook Hut, there is just the trail in and out. We would have liked other trails. We’re going to return in April but the trails are what bring you to the huts,” said Murray, of Conway, N.H.

This year was the 5-year-old hut system’s busiest yet, with 4,280 overnight guests visiting from the end of December through March (up from 2,802 in 2011). And after a New York Times feature story touted the western Maine mountain experience, word of the multi-use, non-motorized Nordic trail system is bound to spread.

Sure the huts get all the press, these smart examples of green technology that all come with a bar, gluten-free menu and leather sofas. But the trail is the thing at the heart of this grand idea that promises a 180-mile path from the Mahoosuc Mountains to Moosehead Lake.

The draw of the wilderness footpath was not lost on Murray.

“It’s a neat system. We’re excited to watch it grow. To come back for the sake of seeing it grow. It sounds like they are going to expand it toward Rumford and Rangeley. That will be nice for that area, for the people in Rangeley with second homes,” Murray said while visiting last weekend with her partner.

While free groomed Nordic ski trails exist in other parts of Maine, nowhere does such a system come without a gate fee and extend into wild lands on the scale that the Maine Huts system does. Currently all 50 miles of ski trail between the four huts are groomed. And there are six trail heads providing quick access to three of the huts.

In the past five years much of the work has been on building the four huts that stretch from Sugarloaf to beyond Flagstaff Lake. But at all of these remote huts, the trail runs deep in the woods, quiet and remote, pushing north and becoming more imbedded in nature as it goes.

Around the two huts in Carrabassett Valley — Stratton Brook and Poplar Stream — the trail is more social, with locals walking their dogs and hiking up to the huts for lunch. But it doesn’t take much to turn up a hill toward one of the mountain huts and be back in the wilderness.

Many of the locals who hike, snowshoe and ski up to the huts for lunch already use the free trail system. But they also want to see the hut system succeed.

Maureen Goff of New Gloucester, who volunteers as an ambassador for the huts, believes it will.

“The biggest question we get asked is, ‘What else is there to ski?’ (Guests) take these trails all the way out, then they want other trails. But there is a new bike trail, a ‘tread in a tread,’ that has gone all the way up to the Flagstaff hut,” said Goff, as she stopped on the trail to Stratton Brook hut last weekend.

With construction of the next hut put off until 2016, the focus for the hut system will be on the trail for now, said MH&T director Charlie Woodworth.

The mountain bike “tread within a tread” trail that runs along the trail was a first step. Completed last summer between three of the huts with the help of the local chapter of the New England Mountain Bike Association, it soon will connect all four huts. And more trails will be built off the existing 50-mile corridor around each hut, Woodworth said.

By next winter, skiers and snowshoers will find new trails to explore, as will mountain bikers this summer.

Eventually, after many more side trails are built, another hut will be planned, reaching toward Bethel or Moosehead Lake. And the trail will continue.

“The grand vision has been connecting western Maine and offering something of national significance. Four huts is great but if it was a bigger system, it could really tie economic development opportunity to those (areas),” Woodworth said.

 

Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at:

dfleming@pressherald.com

Twitter: Flemingpph