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Wilderness Trail Loop

MODERATE 15 mile ski (900 foot elevation gain)

A loop tour from the AMC Zealand Falls Hut through Zealand Notch down to the East Branch of the Pemigewasset River.

How To Get There: 
1.5 hours from Hanover. Cross the river to Norwich and take I-91 North to Wells River. Take Route 302 East to Woodsville, and proceed on Route 302/10 North to Littleton. Then take I-93 South to Bethlehem go through Bethlehem and on to Twin Mountain. At the junction of Route 3 and Route 302 in Twin Mountain, drive east 2.3 miles to a sign for the Zealand Campground on the right. Parking is in a plowed lot on the north side of the road. The route begins on the unplowed Zealand Road (FR 16), which has a large metal gate across it.

Zealand Notch is one of the more spectacular land formations in the White Mountains. It was once a V-shaped stream-eroded valley, but the ice sheets that covered New England gouged their way down to the ocean and left Zealand Notch with the U-shape characteristic of glacial valleys that it now has. The notch becomes more and more impressive as you enter it. The steep rock walls of Whitewall Mountain jut overhead to the north, the blocky refuse of the glacier lies strewn about the valley floor, and the tree-covered slopes of Zealand Mountain rise to the south. A typical ski tour through the notch will usually involve stopping every few minutes just to marvel at the views.

One of the classic ski tours of the White Mountains is the trip through the notch to Thoreau Falls and down to the Pemigewasset River. This is a long tour, but the terrain is gentle enough that strong skiers will enjoy the extended stretches of kick-and-glide skiing. If your party will be breaking trail just after a big storm, it may be overly ambitious to try to cover the whole route in a day. In any case, you will need an early start to complete the whole tour in daylight.

From the Zealand Falls Hut, the Ethan Pond Trail follows the old railroad bed of J.E. Henry’s Zealand Valley Railroad into the notch. The trail contours at 2,500 feet along the sparsely vegetated sides of Whitewall Mountain, the name of which presumably derives from the chalky color of the cliffs on its flank. Old scars from the huge fires that swept through here at the turn of the century are still visible on the rocks. The trail offers clear views of Mount Hale and the Hancock-Carrigain ridge and glimpses of the expanse of wilderness that lies just beyond the southern end of the notch.

Skiing across the steep slopes of Whitewall Mountain can be disconcerting if the snow is icy or crusty. The trail narrows to about three feet in width in places and drops off rather steeply, keeping you on your edges on some exposed sections.

From the southern end of the notch, the best way to ski the loop is to descend to Shoal Pond Trail to the Wilderness Trail and return on the Thoreau Falls Trail. Most of the vertical drop on the latter trail is lost in the first half-mile south of Thoreau Falls and is too steep and narrow for enjoyable skiing. The Shoal Pond Trail drops gradually over its 4.3 mile length, making for a relatively effortless cruise. Trail signs clearly mark the way all along the route.

Shoal Pond is an isolated mountain pond at about 2,500 feet. High ponds are some of the most special places in the mountains. After skiing through the woods, the sensation of coming out onto a long, white, empty clearing with expansive views of Mount Carrigain and Hancock is breathtaking. Coming across a place like this gives one a feeling of having sampled a full palette of wilderness treats.

Traveling down the Shoal Pond Trail is one of the best ways to experience skiing the old railroad beds. The Zealand Valley Railroad came down through Zealand Notch all the way to Shoal Pond, with a spur to Ethan Pond. From the early 1900s until the 1920s, the East Branch and Lincoln Railroad was making two round-trips a day between Lincoln and Camp 21, which was located on Shoal Pond Brook about a mile north of Stillwater Junction. The tracks continued a half mile north of the camp to Labrador Brook.

The ski tour continues through Stillwater Junction, once a major switching point and river crossing for the logging trains. Bearing east on the Wilderness Trial, it is 2.6 miles to the junction of the Thoreau Falls Trail. The Thoreau Falls Trail is flat for most of its length, traveling down some of the abandoned rail beds on the east side of the North Fork of the Pemigewasset River. Two major logging camps were once located on this route, although most of the tracks were on the opposite side of the river from where the trail is now. The only trace of the activity that once thrived here can be seen in the scattered remains of bridge abutments along the river. The falls itself is an icy, snow covered cascade that drops off precipitously, providing a sweeping view of Mount Bond, Mount Guyot, and the Zealand Ridge.

The classic quality of this ski tour lies in the variety of terrain covered. Mountain ponds, abandoned railroads, babbling brooks, wide rivers, and waterfalls create an amazing array of scenery for one tour. The skiing, thanks to the logging tycoons, is excellent. And unlike other routes that start and end at a highway trailhead, skiing in the Pemi is a true wilderness experience. Long, uninterrupted views of mountain peaks which stretch on for miles are not part of many New England ski tours. This trip to the heart of the Pemi is a chance to see the White Mountains at their wildest.

Last Updated: 10/21/12