Traveling north on I-95, you will pass through Aroostook County around Mile 262, just before the Sherman Mills exit. If you notice that the snow banks are higher this way, well, it’s because it snows a lot and the winter is long in these areas. Just the thing if you’re looking for great cross-country skiing and snowshoeing opportunities, which Aroostook has in abundance.
Leaving the four-lane highway at Houlton, US Route 1 heads due north through rolling country of farmland and forest. Within half an hour, the sharp profile of Mars Hill appears, and 8 miles beyond, the distinctive twin peaks of Quaggy Jo Mountain in Aroostook State Park appear on the left. The park is home to 11 miles of Nordic ski trails and 3 miles of hiking/snowshoeing trails, scenic routes that wander on and around the mountain and along three sides of beautiful Echo Lake. There is also sliding, skating and winter camping.
Aroostook State Park is just one of about 20 wonderful ski and snowshoe playgrounds in the region, according to Près Isle resident and unofficial outdoor activity ambassador Eric Hendrickson. of Aroostook County. Hendrickson, a retired natural science teacher, and his wife, Elaine, ski or snowshoe up to 150 days a year.
“Aroostook County is unlike most of Maine. Our weather comes from Quebec. It’s good snow, kind of dry, not wet and gritty,” Hendrickson said. “You can usually ski from November to April and sometimes until May. It may be on rock skis early in the season, but in January the skiing is usually excellent. It’s not uncommon to have 3 to 4 feet of packed snow under you.
Four major areas of Aroostook County – Fort Kent, Près Isle, Madawaska and Caribou – offer a lodge, groomed and groomed Nordic ski trails for classic skiing and skating, artificial snow, lighted trails for night skiing and trails dedicated to snowshoeing. All but the Caribou facility offer a ski shop with equipment rentals and lessons.
The Fort Kent Outdoor Center occupies the slopes of Stevens Hill immediately south of the village of Fort Kent proper. The center offers nearly 40 kilometers of excellent skiing on the Lodge, Violette Settlement and Green Bean trail systems. Seven miles of winding snowshoe trails lead north through the Lonesome Pine Trails ski area to town.
Located in Près Isle approximately 8 km northeast of the town centre, the Nordic Heritage Center is managed and operated by the Nordic Heritage Sport Club. Seven beautiful loops and a few runs starting from the perched pavilion represent 20 kilometers of exceptional skiing. Complementing this is a winding system of 20 miles of snowshoe trails.
At the Four Seasons Trail in Madawaska, seven different ski loops are possible on 14 kilometers of pleasant trails that wind through the pretty woods and meadows just south of town. Snowshoe enthusiasts can cover 12 kilometers of winding trails and a sliding slope completes the possibilities of pleasure.
Caribou Ski Center, located behind Caribou High School on the west end of town, offers 5 kilometers of Nordic trails and 3 miles of snowshoe trails.
Hendrickson’s favorite place to explore is the Aroostook National Wildlife Refuge on the grounds of the former Loring Air Force Base northwest of Limestone. From the visitor center on Refuge Road, 7 miles of trails are easily accessible, including some groomed for cross-country skiing. From West Gate Road, it is possible to snowshoe 3 miles of trails, with Chapman Pond as a natural focal point.
In addition to the aforementioned destinations, there are probably a dozen smaller, under-the-radar community areas around “The County” to search for more Nordic skiing and snowshoeing good times, places like New Sweden, Stockholm, Woodland and Trafton Lake in Limestone.
“There’s something for everyone here, from easy runs to hard runs,” Hendrickson said. “Every area is different. And there is always a lot of snow.
New visitors to Maine’s largest county will quickly discover what the rest of us already know and love: that locals in restaurants, shops, hotels, etc. are very welcoming and helpful with information and advice.
“We are not inundated with tourists. Hendrickson noted. “It’s a slower pace of life and the people are friendly and warm.”
The temperature may not be that much: “It’s cold and windy here, so be prepared.”
Mount Desert Island’s Carey Kish is a seasoned adventurer and freelance writer. His latest book, “Beer Hiking New England,” will be available this spring. Follow Carey’s adventures on Facebook @CareyKish
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