The Backcountry Skier’s Guide to Mount Moosilauke

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Anyone who has ever been to the summit of New Hampshire’s Mount Moosilauke in the summer knows that the mountain can be as busy as it is beautiful. With a plethora of trails for users of all experience levels and a lodge at the base owned by the Dartmouth Outing Club, along with being one of New Hampshire’s 4,000-footers and part of the Appalachian Trail, Mount Moosilauke sees a lot of traffic, especially during prime hiking season. Fortunately, a great way to beat the crowds is to ascend its Carriage Road in the winter—a trip made even better if you can do it on skis—because as good as it is to hike in the summer, skiing it makes it that much more fun.

Getting There

A ski up and down the Carriage Road begins and ends on Breezy Point Road, located off Route 118 in Warren, New Hampshire. The Carriage Road starts pretty much where Breezy Point Road ends, and how far it’s plowed varies from year to year. In any case, there has always been a prominent place for parking, and the times I have had to go a little farther down have been rewarded with extra skiing on the way out.

The Carriage Road

Regardless of how far down the road you park, the trail is officially 5.1 miles long, ascends roughly 3,000 feet, and almost always takes longer to complete than I remember. On its climb to the summit, the Carriage Road passes other popular trails as it wanders through the forest, such as the Hurricane Trail at 1.6 miles and Snapper Trail at three miles.

After passing the Snapper Trail, the Carriage Road sees its character change, as it becomes steeper and more exposed to the elements. The trail continues this way for a little over a mile and brings you to the split for Moosilauke’s shorter and less-traveled South Summit.

The South Summit trail split is an excellent place to bundle up for the above-treeline push. If it’s getting late in the day, the conditions above treeline are unappealing, or skiing is just more important than summiting, this is also a logical turnaround point. The snow at the South Summit sign is often packed down, thus making the transition from uphill to downhill easy, it’s somewhat sheltered from the elements, and the best skiing is typically found below this point. If summiting is on your mind, however, it’s a little under a mile from here, almost all of it above treeline.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Why You Should Go

If the idea of skiing one of the Northeast’s iconic peaks isn’t enough to tempt you, maybe thinking about a little over five miles of uninterrupted skiing might. That’s right: The Carriage Road on Mount Moosilauke is 5.1 miles long and, if conditions allow (which, granted, might be a big “if”), you can go from the summit to your car in the Breezy Point Road parking lot without ever taking off your skis.

It’s also worth noting that the trail climbs roughly 3,000 feet over those 5.1 miles (10.2 miles round trip), and I have seen a few ski partners, including one very angry girlfriend (now wife, no thanks to that trip), over the years bail before the summit, having not realized—or been misled—about the effort and time involved in skiing this peak.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

It’s Mellow

Although the Carriage Road wasn’t built with skiers in mind, you might think otherwise. Because it was originally constructed to lead horses and carriages to the mountain’s summit, the grade is never exceedingly steep. While this might disappoint some of the rowdier skiers in your group, it presents a fantastic opportunity for linking turns and taking in the mountain’s incredible views, and provides a pleasant alternative to some of the Northeast’s more extreme lines. Furthermore, the Carriage Road is reasonably wide in most places, giving less-experienced or less-comfortable backcountry skiers plenty of room for making turns.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Know Before You Go  

Just because Mount Moosilauke is a relatively southern peak compared to other popular New Hampshire backcountry spots, don’t be fooled into thinking it’s an easy trip. At a little over 4,800 feet tall, Mount Moosilauke is the state’s tenth-tallest mountain—and, unlike many of those ahead of it on the list, it stands alone and is unprotected from the weather.

When you take into account that the last mile up the Carriage Road is almost entirely above treeline, anyone ascending should be ready to experience full winter conditions. On more than one occasion, I have left 50-degree weather in the parking lot and booted through a mile or more of mud before reaching the snow, only to find myself scrambling to pull on my puffer jacket, balaclava, and mittens as I climbed above treeline.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

The Summit Snowfields

Read any blog or search for photos of skiing on Mount Moosilauke, and eventually, someone will mention the summit snowfields. I, too, have been lured by the idea of opening it up on the mountain’s exposed flanks. Sadly, in spite of skiing it numerous times—in different months, and in various conditions—I have never actually seen this mysterious sight.

On the best days, I have encountered enough snow to allow for defensive skiing before getting to the good stuff below treeline. On the worst days, the upper mountain has been swept of almost all its snow, instead consisting mostly of rock and ice and necessitating the use of MICROspikes or crampons to summit.

 

Skiing from Mount Moosilauke’s summit should be on any New England backcountry skier’s bucket list. It represents the chance to reach a prominent and popular peak without the hassle of the crowds. Even better, thanks to skis, the descent back to the car has never been faster!