When my wife and I arrive in Greenville, any lingering worries about not having enough snow for our four-day, lodge-to-lodge, cross-country skiing adventure into Maine’s rugged, 100-Mile-Wilderness evaporate.
We’ve been driving through a heavy blizzard that dropped two feet of new powder to get to this small town at the southwest corner of Moosehead Lake. The Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) maintains a downtown check-in office here for its wilderness lodges. Just getting to the front door requires walking along a narrow pathway hacked out of a ten-foot-high wall of snow.
Maine’s 100-Mile-Wilderness and the AMC
Maine’s 100-Mile-Wilderness is a sprawling expanse ranging east to west from Monson, southwest of Greenville, to Abol Bridge, just outside Baxter State Park, near Millinocket. The region, encompassing roughly 750,000 acres, is a jumble of rugged mountains, pristine lakes and ponds, and free-flowing rivers and streams. It’s perhaps best known as the last and most challenging stretch of the Appalachian Trail before the final push to Katahdin’s summit.
Through its Maine Woods Initiative, the AMC acquired and permanently conserved 70,000 acres, created more than 120 trail miles, and opened three sporting camps in the 100-Mile-Wilderness. The system makes lodge-to-lodge cross-country skiing easier for those preferring creature comforts. What makes the AMC’s lodges especially heartening is how they have kept the essential flavor and attributes of 19th-century traditional Maine sporting camps.
During our four-day trip, we visited two of them.
Setting off on a lodge-to-lodge, cross-country skiing adventure
After checking in downtown, we share a laugh about the weather with the helpful staff, and then, with trail maps and instructions in hand, drive some twelve miles out of town to the trailhead. We park and deposit our duffle bags at the Little Lyford Lodge kiosk for snowmobile shuttle to our first night’s destination. And then, we step into our skis. The storm has passed, and we set out under blue skies, looping our way down a long rolling slope while dodging grooming machines working feverishly to tame the new snow.
The skiing is challenging, the fresh powder heavy and choppy, but the Maine woods glisten as the sun reflects off trees laden with snow. This backcountry realm is a world apart, delivering refreshing mountain air and blissful solitude. Only the crush of trees and the sound of wind and birds mar the silence. Chickadees, jays, ravens and woodpeckers flit through the white treetops, and animal tracks mark the snow.
First night: Little Lyford Lodge
Little Lyford camp was built in 1874 to house lumbermen who worked around the West Branch of Maine’s Pleasant River. In the late afternoon, after covering some 10 miles, we ski down a hill to the lodge. You can almost imagine the scene 140 years earlier, but we find the camp has been updated in a delightful way, with many modern conveniences.
Smoke curls out of the chimneys of nine cozy log cabins, which are clustered around a large dining lodge. We slip out of our skis, grab our gear from the luggage depot and haul it on a sled to our cabin. Our rustic but cozy abode has a porch, wood stove, and gas lamps. The staff has the wood stove lit and the woodbox full – though it is 15 degrees Fahrenheit outside, the cabin is comfortable.
It will be on us now to keep the fire burning, but paper, dry kindling and matches are there for our use. The propane lamps are easy to light and the cabin décor is both charming and functional. After a day outdoors on the trail, I suddenly feel very lazy, but we decide we should explore before darkness sets in.
I feel like I have stumbled into an L.L. Bean commercial
The central bathhouse has composting toilets, showers, and a wood-heated sauna which we decide will be our first stop. Over home-cooked meals in the main lodge, we meet some guests from coastal Maine who have been coming here every winter for 25 years, presumably decked out in the same traditional gear – wool pants, gators, flannel checked jackets and wool caps.
I feel like I have stumbled into an L.L. Bean commercial, a certain New England ruggedness that is quite different from the Lycra and spandex ski apparel common in many other places. I like it; the fit is more complimentary. I also like the large dining room, an expansive space that allows us to enjoy the community and conversation or do our own thing.
Day two: Skiing to Gorman Chairback Lodge
After breakfast the next morning, we pack a box lunch for the trail, and set off once again. The Appalachian Mountain Club maintains a network of more than 90 miles of groomed ski trails serving their backcountry lodges, a stacked loop system that gives each skier the flexibility as far as length and difficulty. We decide on something moderate and fairly direct, spend the morning on a steady climb into the highlands, and then, after lunch, enjoy a steady run down to Long Pond Lake.
Gliding up to a wood stove-warmed lodge in the backcountry should be on every skier’s bucket list. Gorman Chairback Lodge and Cabins offers a spectacular shoreline location, enchantingly off the grid. As we stand admiring the beautiful winter scene, Chris, camp caretaker, leans out the window of the main lodge and greets us with a hearty “Welcome!” We store our skis in the log rack and join Chris for a local beer in front of the lodge’s big fireplace.
The AMC renovated the lakefront cabins, built in the 1920s and 50s, and then used them as templates for four new spacious cabins with private bathrooms and electricity
Gorman Chairback opened as an AMC lodge in 2011, and other than the towering pines surrounding the cabins, it would be hard to mistake it for a 19th-century logging camp now. It features a central, LEED-registered, solar-powered lodge for meals and lounging, twelve cabins (some of them a few feet away from the lake) and a bunkhouse.
The AMC renovated the lakefront cabins, built in the 1920s and 50s, and then used them as templates for four new spacious cabins with private bathrooms and electricity. We are booked into a deluxe cabin for our two-night stay here at Gorman Chairback. Though a modern airtight wood stove supplies both heat and ambience, these cabins also have electricity for lighting and backup heat. As at Lyford, the meals are excellent, and here you can buy beer and wine – which we do.
Day three: snowshoeing in a blizzard
The wind blow in gusts, snow swirling across the ice like a thick fog, tumbling over the frozen lake’s rippled surface. We march through the driving blizzard towards the eastern shore of Long Pond Lake, one snowshoe in front of the other. If we had wondered about the spruce branches sticking out of the snowpack to mark the trail on our outbound journey, we now knew they were necessary, as any earlier tracks had long since disappeared in the fresh powder.
It’s the third day of our lodge-to-lodge, cross-country skiing adventure through the Maine woods. And, with two nights at Gorman Chairback Lodge, we decide to store the skis, opting instead for a day’s outing on snowshoes. We head down the lake in brilliant sunshine, but after lunch the wind picks up and dark, ominous clouds move in. We head home, breaking trail into the fading afternoon light, until our destination’s soft outline materializes in the driving snow.
Not that we are worried, it is hard to get lost on a lake. I let my mind drift like the snow, and imagine myself some kind of arctic explorer. Still, we are happy when we see the unique, eight-sided cabin that serves as the Gorman Chairback Lodge’s heritage centerpiece on the lake’s edge, and we know comfort, and the warmth of the lodge’s sauna, will soon be at hand.
William Dean, a one-armed Civil War vet, came to the shores of Long Pond Lake in 1867 and began work on a hunting and fishing camp. Dean cut trees in four-foot lengths, which was the maximum he could handle given his disability, and he built this Octagon cabin.
Day Four – Homeward Bound
The sun is back out as we take our leave on the final day, say our goodbyes to the fellow guests, and start off early. It is a beautiful ski, high above the north shore of the lake, and then a steady climb back to the trailhead near Greenville. Our drive home is easy and clear, and we are rested, thoroughly charmed, and utterly rejuvenated by our four-day lodge-to-lodge cross-country ski adventure in the Maine woods.
COVID-19 Update: What You Need to Know
- Maine requires quarantine for most visitors. The policy is subject to change. Check here for the latest requirements.
- AMC guests guests must sign the Maine State Certificate of Compliance upon arrival.
- At lodges, dinners, breakfasts, and trail lunches are available for pick up by guests at the main lodge and are packaged in to-go containers inside insulated boxes for transport back to your cabin. Trail lunches are available at breakfast.
- Common areas are open to guests when the lodge is staffed. Reduced capacity, social distancing and mask requirements in place. No sipping or snacking while in common areas.
- Saunas are closed.
- No linen service at Little Lyford Pond and Gorman Chairback. Guests must bring sleeping bags; a pillow with fresh case is provided.
- Gorman Chairback and Little Lyford Lodges are closed Sunday afternoon through Tuesday midday; exceptions for holidays and vacation weeks.
What’s appealing to the over-50 luxury traveler?
- The trails are suitable for skiers of varying abilities. The stacked-loop system between the lodges gives each skier the flexibility as far as length and difficulty. You certainly do not have to be an expert skier. The trails are well-groomed with lots of signage. It would be hard to get lost.
- Place your luggage in the proper kiosk in the morning, and it will be waiting for you when you arrive at the next lodge. All you have to carry with you is a light daypack with lunch, snacks, and other essentials.
- Spandex and Lycra ski apparel is not in vogue in this neck of the woods. For many, the wool gators and flannel jackets are much more flattering.
- You will likely see more birds than people during your trek, which in these times might be a good thing.
- The mission of the Appalachian Mountain Club is to foster the protection, enjoyment, and understanding of the outdoors.
- This lodge-to-lodge, cross-country skiing adventure is a wilderness experience; there is no easy access to health facilities and no cell service. AMC does not regularly patrol the trails.
- Though beginner skiers can enjoy this trip, a moderate level of physical fitness is recommended.
- Dress appropriately for changing winter weather conditions – think layers! Winter temperatures in this region can range from below zero to the mid-30s F.
- Accommodations: Little Lyford has nine individual private cabins sleeping one to six people, with a combination of doubles and bunk beds. Gorman Chairback Lodge & Cabins has four, deluxe cabins (one ADA accessible) with private bathrooms and a combination of queen-size bed, bunk beds, and a futon, as well as eight standard, private shoreline cabins sleeping one to five people on a combination of queen-size, full, and bunk beds. At each lodge, a separate, shared, co-ed bunkhouse can accommodate 10 to 12 guests.
- You can extend your winter trek by adding Medawisla Lodge & Cabins to your itinerary. Medawisla (the Abenaki word for loon) is the newest AMC destination on the Maine wilderness lodges network offering a spectacular off-the-grid location on Second Roach Pond.
- Prices range from $106 per person per night for bunkhouse accommodation (not available during COVID) up to $201 for a deluxe cabin, and include breakfast, dinner, and a trail lunch. (Prices are $89 to $169 for AMC members). The skiing is free.
- AMC Reservations can arrange for your gear shuttle, passenger shuttle, and stays at any of its lodges on the lodge-to-lodge ski route. Call 207-358-5187 for information, availability, rates, and trip planning assistance.
- For a longer trip or a different experience, consider adding West Branch Pond Camps, a traditional Maine sporting camp under third-generation ownership, to your itinerary.
Disclosure: James Ross enjoyed a media rate. The AMC did not preview this article, and all opinions expressed in this post are his own.
All photo credits: Jamie Ross
IF YOU GO
- After skiing in the Maine woods, pamper yourself at the coastal Inn by the Sea.
- Interested in museums, read about Maine’s Best Quirky Museums and Offbeat Sites
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