It seems impossible that Bear Notch Ski Touring Center has been operating for 25 years. I remember back in 1995 when they first started. The Garland brothers, Doug and John, plowed out a parking lot in the field next to Route 302, put out a donation box and groomed some trails. Local skiers tried them and found them surprisingly good and lots of fun.
In 1996, the network officially became known as Bear Notch Ski Touring Center. The Garlands added more trails and connected to Experimental Forest roads, National Forest trails and Attitash Village Trails. Today, they have 65 kilometers of “spectacular riverside views, pristine waterfalls, picturesque flat meadows and challenging hills.” Having skied there for many years, I can attest to that claim. I’ve always had fun and enjoyable skiing at Bear Notch.
Part of the pleasure of skiing at Bear Notch is the ambiance. It’s a laid-back, comfortable place to ski with friends, family and furry ones. After the Garlands started the trail network, they refurbished the Mountain Home Cabins farmhouse and barn to make a touring center office and “warming station.”
In the office, visitors are greeted by friendly, knowledgeable staff who sell tickets and dispense trail information, conditions and advice. Ticket prices are moderate. Juniors, age 16-and-under, are free with a paying adult. Seniors pay only $15 a day. The adult price is $20 a day — not bad for a full day of skiing adventure. Season passes are an even better deal at only $165.
In the warming hut, you’ll find skiers of all ages taking a break and refreshing themselves with food and drink. The aroma of homemade soup and complimentary bread makes the hut as cozy as grandma’s kitchen. You can also purchase hot chocolate, tea, coffee, snacks, candy and bottled beverages, but it’s the soup and bread that make it special.
The other thing Bear Notch has going for it is the skiing. As the Garlands say on their home page, “We pride ourselves with the quality of our skiing.” The brothers work tirelessly to manage the trails and groom them carefully. They put in many hours of manpower to make their trails the best they can be.
Bear Notch Ski Touring Center has an advantage over other touring centers — they seem to get and keep more snow. Their location right outside of Bartlett Village appears to be in a “snow zone.” When other centers have lost their snow or haven’t received much, local skiers know Bear Notch is the place to go. Even late into the season, you’ll find snow there.
For dog owners, there’s also the advantage of having a place where they can ski with their dogs. "Well-behaved dogs and owners are allowed on our entire network,” the website proclaims. Happy skiers and dogs enjoy the trails. I’ve yet to encounter a badly behaved one of either group. Everyone is friendly.
What else does Bear Notch Ski Touring Center offer? They offer snowshoeing and snowshoe rentals for exploring their extensive network. They rent ski equipment and pulks (low-slung small sled) for those that need them. Lesson packages are available that include a one-hour lesson, equipment and trail pass. For those that have their own equipment, there are 90-minute private, group, family lessons and even instructional tours. If you don’t know how to ski or want to improve your skiing, they can help you.
At least once a year, I drive to Bartlett to ski the Bear Notch trails. Since I moved to Conway, it’s a much longer trip, so I don’t do it as often. It’s not because I don’t enjoy skiing there, it’s the travel time for me. But, last Wednesday, with “bluebird” skies, I decided it was time to make the trip. I was curious about how they had weathered the snow and rain meltdown cycle that all local Nordic centers were dealing with these days. With a loss of the base, followed by warm temps, then nighttime freezing, many areas are struggling to make “skiable” conditions.
Figuring the Garlands might have a solution, I headed to Bartlett. The office attendant told me the brothers had been working hard to groom that frozen surface and told me what was groomed already, and in process. I looked out the farmhouse window and saw John with the big groomer completing the lower fields.
As I skated up Trail No. 2, I found conditions a little crunchy, but manageable. I met Muriel Mitchell and her daughter, Cozy, coming down the trail, being pulled by a “Spuds Mackenzie” type of dog. It was a bull terrier — not the most attractive breed, but super friendly.
Leaving them, I continued up Trail No. 2. I paused by the waterfall and “Mountain Home Summer House” to take pictures, then climbed the trail all the way to its junction with shared snowmobile trails in the Bartlett’s Experimental Forest. I passed two ladies with their friendly four dogs on my way to the water tank.
Turning onto Trail No. 5, I headed south following recently groomed trails and avoiding trails with sheen. I turned on No. 6 and 6A to explore their curves and turns. Eventually, I came to the road crossing at Route 302 and crossed to try trails on the other side.
The trails across the road were where it all began — the parking lot, the donation box and the new trails, way back in 1995. Skiing across the lowlands, climbing up No. 21 to the railroad crossing, it was all familiar to me. At the steep downhill to the tracks, I sidestepped down because of icy conditions, but once on No. 30, I was in heaven. Skating that stretch along the river is always a pleasure. The scenery can’t be beaten and the glide was great. At the first road crossing, I turned around to skate back.
Back at the railroad track, I double-poled in ski tracks until I crossed the bridge. I sampled the river loops of No. 16 and 17, with their views of the river and Hart’s Ledge. Crossing the railroad tracks again, I picked up No. 12, which led me to the Lower Fields. There, I meet some friends and shared stories.
Lunch was on my mind. Leaving them, I headed to the Route 302 crossing. Taking off my skis, I cautiously crossed the highway and parking lot to get to the warming hut. I was hungry and tired! Hot soup and fresh bread revived me as I shared experiences with other skiers.
Bear Notch Ski Touring has a lot to offer. The flat trails across the road are perfect for relaxed touring and sightseeing along the river. More challenging uphill/downhill trails wind through the woods above the Center’s office for those who like a good workout. In good snow conditions, there are long-distance ski options from Bear Notch to Attitash. It all depends on what you’re looking for in your ski experience. Bear Notch has something for all types of skiers. Check it out and become a “Bear Notch believer,” too!
Great Glen Trails Bill Koch League Kids’ Ski Program — Sundays, 1:30- 3:30 p.m.
Great Glen Trails Nordic, Snowshoe and Fatbike Meisters Race Series — Tuesdays, through March 10, skiers 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m., snowshoers at 1 p.m. and fatbikes after 3:30 p.m.
Jackson Ski Touring Sliders and Gliders Social Ski —Fridays through March 27, 1-3 p.m.
Jackson Ski Touring Toddlers and Tots Program: Tuesdays, 9:30-11:30 a.m.
Jackson XC Nordic Speed Camp: Tuesdays, Feb. 4 and 11. March 3, 3:30-4:30 p.m., grades 2 and up, timed course.
MWVST 31st annual Inn-to-Inn Chocolate Fest — Feb. 23, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.
Great Glen Trails Bill Koch League Festival, Feb. 29-March 1, 8 a.m.-6 p.m.
Bretton Woods Mount Washington Cup 10K freestyle race on March 7, and Bretton Woods Nordic Marathon 42K classic race on March 8.
Great Glen Trails Ski, Shoe and Fatbike to the Clouds 10K, March 8.
Jackson Ski Touring’s Long Trail Loppet Freestyle Race on the Hall, Ellis and Kellogg Trails, March 14.
Great Glen Trails Winter Charity Day, March 14, 8 a.m.-3 p.m., make a $25 donation per person to your favorite charity and ski and tube free. Buffet lunch included.
Sally McMurdo is currently a cross-country ski instructor at Jackson Ski Touring Foundation. For almost four decades, she has explored New England’s groomed and ungroomed trails on all kinds of skis.