Once the temperatures plummet, it’s tempting to simply hibernate indoors until spring. But why not give your senses an unforgettable treat by immersing yourself in the enchantment of a freshly snow-covered winter wonderland? Think of it: frosted pines glistening in the sunlight, the magical hush broken only by the gurgle of a partially frozen stream. Cross-country skiing is a great way to make this dream a reality, and it’s especially accessible along some of the U.S.’s abandoned railroad corridors that have been transformed into multiuse paths, known as rail trails.
When coated with snow, a rail trail becomes a paradise for cross-country skiers, fat-tire cyclists, snowshoers and hikers alike. The level or gentle grade allows people of all ages and abilities to traverse the terrain safely and be enveloped by nature. You’ll never see winter the same way again.
If you’ve been wondering about where to cross-country ski next (or for the first time), try one of these six rail trails.
Narrow Gauge Pathway (Carrabassett River Trail), Maine
Paralleling the boulder-laden Carrabassett River for some 5 miles, the Narrow Gauge Pathway is a rail trail free of snowmobiles, unlike many others in Maine, making it a gem for cross-country skiing. The path, which follows the corridor of the former Kingfield and Dead River Railroad, is groomed for classic skiing on one side, leaving a separate area for skate skiing. Huddled between the expansive Bigelow Preserve and Sugarloaf Mountain, the route courses gently uphill as it heads west from Carrabassett to Bigelow, a former railroad settlement.
Clearings offer stellar views of snowcapped mountains that soar 3,000 to 4,000 feet high, such as Avery Peak and The Horns. Don’t let the frosty temperatures deter you from stopping along the way to snack at any of the numerous picnic tables that beckon skiers to rest awhile.
Ashuwillticook Rail Trail, Massachusetts
This mostly level path in the Berkshires cuts through the ancestral lands of the Mohican Nation in the Hoosic River Valley. (Its name derives from a Native American word for “the pleasant river between the hills.”)
Cross-country skiers will delight in Ashuwillticook Rail Trail’s scenic treasures, from views of snow-coated Mount Greylock, the state’s highest peak, to the mallard ducks and Canada geese swimming in the portions of the Cheshire Reservoir that haven’t frozen.
If you choose to tackle the full route, you’ll be skiing about 14 miles between Lanesborough and Adams along the former corridor of the Pittsfield and North Adams Railroad. Along the way, cement whistle posts, distinguished by a white “W,” are a reminder of the past.
Winnipesaukee River Trail, New Hampshire
As you glide the 3 miles from Franklin to Northfield, with glorious views of the churning Winnipesaukee River most of the way, you’ll be following part of a route once used by the Boston and Maine Railroad, and one that honors the area’s past.
In Franklin, a former mill town, the trailhead Trestle View Park is aptly named – the trail travels under an impressive former railroad trestle. Nearby, you’ll find a 15-foot-tall, black steel flywheel that was sourced from an old textile mill’s steam engine.
One of the most unique sights on the Winnipesaukee River Trail is the 19th century Sulphite Bridge, named for the ore once transported by trains to the nearby paper factory. It’s known locally as “the upside-down bridge” because trains would run along the top deck rather than through its center.
Island Line Rail Trail, Vermont
Set along a former railway corridor that once connected New England with Lake Ontario, the Island Line Rail Trail runs 13 miles from bustling Burlington to South Hero Island.
In the summer, a ferry transits a 200-foot gap in the route to provide access to South Hero, but in the winter, the crown jewel of this route is the 3-mile-long Colchester Causeway. Cross-country skiers will likely face blustery conditions while journeying along the narrow, marble block passage that’s lined with American elms. But the experience of cruising above ice-festooned Lake Champlain and gazing at Vermont’s snow-draped Green Mountains on one side and New York’s Adirondacks on the other makes it all worthwhile.
Anglers gravitate to frozen sections of the lake near the shore where they hope to catch Northern pike or lake trout. Hang around for the jaw-dropping sunset if the weather’s fine.
Hop River State Park Trail, Connecticut
Even if you don’t ski the entire 20 miles of this rail trail, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to explore some of the half-dozen attractive New England towns along the way, from Manchester to Willimantic.
The Hop River State Park Trail follows the route of the former Hartford, Providence and Fishkill Railroad. The labor required to build the corridor is especially evident as you travel through slim rock cuts formed by blasting the hillside to accommodate the tracks.
Take a moment to admire the frozen cascades created by water seeping across the rock slabs and look for the heart-shaped tracks of deer in the snow. On your way, you’ll navigate through several picturesque green spaces, including densely forested Valley Falls Park and Bolton Notch State Park, with its snow-draped outcrops.
Ashokan Rail Trail, New York
Opened in 2019, the Ashokan Rail Trail is one of New York’s newest. Formed along the bed of the abandoned Ulster and Delaware Railroad in the mid-Hudson Valley, this 11-some-mile path between Boiceville and West Hurley features abundant and diverse scenery.
As you ski along the north shore of the Ashokan Reservoir, a major source of New York City’s drinking water, you’ll wander through corridors of trees. Crossing the 60-foot-tall Glenford Dike affords views of the snowcovered Catskill peaks across the vast reservoir.
Signs offer insights into the history and activities of this area, including the Esopus people who lived here for more than 10,000 years. At times, one of the only things piercing the silence in this snowy dreamland may be the high-pitched call of a white-breasted nuthatch.
Share your favorite places to go cross-country skiing in the comments below.