Long before downhill skis and snowboards were favorite tools for winter recreation, their forebears – snowshoes and Nordic skis – were used for transportation. These early implements have shed most of their practical utility because of cars and snowmobiles, but have been adopted by those hoping to explore the outdoors. One of the best places to experience these sports, whether you’re a first-timer or a veteran enthusiast, is New Gloucester’s Pineland Farms.
Pineland, a 5,000-acre working farm that’s also home to a business campus and loads of recreational opportunities, has evolved greatly from its original purpose. Established in 1908 as the “Maine School for the Feeble Minded,” the facility served as a campus for those with mental illness. The school, cobbled together from six local farms, continued to function as a working farm while home to the institution. At its peak the school was considered a national model and housed 1,500 patients.
The facility closed in the mid-1990s, and fell into disrepair. The Libra Foundation, one of the largest charitable organizations in Maine (and a supporter of Nordic ski development from Presque Isle to Rumford), purchased the property in 2000 and took to renovating. Now a mix of businesses and organizations occupies the 19-building campus, and a 25-kilometer trail system for cross country skiing and snowshoeing is one of the best trail networks in Maine.
Designed by a former Olympian, John Morton, the trail system offers a satisfying variety of lengths and difficulties. The 1.4-kilometer Arsenault Pond Loop and 5-kilometer Oak Hill Loop are the easiest, offering gentle slopes and less dramatic corners than the other loops. The other trails offer more of a challenge, with steeper grades, and a twisting mix of uphill and downhill traversing. The steepest, the Gloucester Hill Run, even has an orange safety net at the bottom of a pitch to catch errant skiers.
Along with the nice mix of difficulties, the variety in scenery is striking. The trails offer a mix of dense, wooded skiing, and wide-open, bright fields. Throughout, you’re as likely to spot animal tracks (or the animals themselves) as another skier.
As a fairly novice Nordic skier, I was struck by the smart choices in design (described to me by the more experienced). Pineland’s trail system is made up of “stacked” loops, which makes it easy to add or subtract loops for a harder or easier run. The Nordic trails are one-directional, which keeps skiers safe and eases congestion. At every intersection (and in other spots along the trails), signage makes it clear where you are, what’s around you, and which direction you should be headed. Off trail, the yurt, Outdoor Center and warming hut are welcome additions on longer expeditions.
The trails at Pineland are immaculately groomed, as well as any Alpine area in the state. Groomed trails feature both a single-set track for classic skiing and a skate lane for skate skiing.
Along with the Nordic ski trail network, there are almost 20 kilometers of snowshoe trails at Pineland Farms. Most of the trails wind alongside or nearby the ski trails, covering the terrain north and east of the Outdoor Center. The 8-kilometer Fox Run trail, however, runs south and west of the other trails and offers a bit more privacy. It also skirts alongside the edge of the Pineland Farms buildings on Route 231, providing some interesting visual variety.
Weather permitting, Pineland Farms’ trails are open every day from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Adult ski and snowshoe passes are available at the Outdoor Center for $13 and $6 a day, respectively, with reduced rates for afternoon tickets. Equipment rentals are available at the Outdoor Center, and private, semi-private, and group lessons are available by appointment.
If you (or family members) aren’t interested in skiing or snowshoeing, Pineland offers a few other recreational opportunities. A giant sledding hill, groomed with Pineland’s trail grooming equipment, is open from dawn to dusk. Access to the hill is free, and visitors can either bring their own sleds or rent one from the Outdoor Center. Pineland’s pond is also open for ice skating daily, and is free to the public.
If you do choose to visit Pineland to ski or snowshoe, do not miss the Market at Pineland Farms. One of the state’s great little locally sourced markets, the shop has mouthwatering produce, meats, cheeses and baked goods, as well as ready-to-eat food in the deli. After working up an appetite on Pineland’s trails, nothing beats their fresh sandwiches and a hot cup of Carrabassett coffee.
Josh Christie is a freelance writer and lifetime outdoors enthusiast. He shares column space in Outdoors with his father, John Christie. Josh can be contacted at: