BETHEL, Maine — Nestled in a scenic mountain valley near the banks of the Androscoggin River, Bethel has long been a popular hangout for alpine skiers and snowboarders. Less well known, but as impressive, are the area’s dog-sledding, snowmobiling, and ice-fishing opportunities. However, the town’s true hidden attraction is its abundant variety of cross-country skiing and snowshoeing terrain. Whether you are a beginner or a seasoned veteran, enjoy camaraderie or revel in solitude, there are trails calling your name.
Bethel has been appropriately dubbed “Maine’s most beautiful mountain village’’ and this is never truer than in the heart of winter.
In a haven for Nordic ski enthusiasts, all three of the region’s ski touring centers offer groomed trails, rentals, and a great variety of routes appropriate for skiers of all levels.
Located in the heart of the village, the Bethel Inn’s Nordic Ski Center (www.caribourecreation.com) offers more than 30 kilometers of cross-country trails, meandering over gently rolling terrain, across fields, and through picturesque forests. Providing scenic views of the surrounding mountains, the relatively level routes leading south from the inn are perfect for beginners. Those seeking more challenging terrain should head for the trees. Here you will find the winding course of the Corkscrew, a 5-kilometer-long roller-coaster-like ride through serene northern forests. The center also maintains 8 kilometers of snowshoe trails perfect for exploration.
For a rustic and laid-back adventure, head along the east bank of the Androscoggin River to Carter’s Cross Country Ski Center (www.cartersxcski.com). This friendly facility features over 55 kilometers of groomed trails and provides options for all levels of skiers and snowshoers. Beginners should venture along the Sand Pastures Loop, which includes many side spurs to the edge of the icy river and stunning views of the mountainous countryside. More experienced skiers can follow the Wiley Farm Trail up a steep mountainside and eventually continue along the Overlook Trail to enjoy an impressive vista of New Hampshire’s Presidential Range.
A third cross-country alternative is the Sunday River Outdoor Center (www.sundayriver.com). Located near the base of the alpine slopes, it maintains 40 kilometers of groomed trails, including beginner, more difficult, and many options in between. One of the most popular routes is to the scenic Artists’ Covered Bridge. This much-photographed structure is a great place to view the icy waters of Sunday River. Visitors have access to many miles of snowshoe paths, and can sign up for guided dogsledding tours.
The Nordic ski touring centers are simply a starting point. Surrounded by conservation land in most directions, including the White Mountain National Forest and Grafton Notch State Park, Bethel has a seemingly limitless array of trails appropriate for snowshoe adventurers.
One option conveniently located on Route 2 just north of town (across from the transfer station) is Mount Will. This 1,700-foot mountain can be explored on a 3.2-mile loop trail. Steep in a few locations, with ample snow it makes for a pleasant half-day trek. Along the way, enjoy picturesque views of the Androscoggin River Valley and the region’s surrounding summits.
For more difficult routes, continue north past the Mount Will trailhead to Route 26. Follow this scenic road into Grafton Notch. At the height of land, a large parking area sits at an intersection with the Appalachian Trail. From here, experienced snowshoers can climb steeply to the west and ascend the Mahoosuc Range’s highest peak, Old Speck Mountain. The 7.6-mile round-trip hike reaches an elevation of 4,170 feet. To the east, a 2.4-mile loop leads to Table Rock and its breathtaking panorama.
Route 26 through Grafton Notch State Park is also a great place for a scenic drive. Along the way, there is a short path that leads to Screw Auger Falls. Beautiful throughout the year, these falls sparkle in the winter with interesting ice formations - but watch your step!
Speaking of watching your step, for many visitors the lure to hit the slopes is irresistible, and for good reason. Within 15 minutes of downtown Bethel, alpine ski enthusiasts have access to two resorts: Sunday River and Mount Abram.
Conversely, Bethel also offers an opportunity to slow down. Take a relaxing walk through a classic New England village. The assorted shops and galleries proudly display the latest creations from local potters, jewelers, painters, and other artists and craftspeople.
Where to stay and eat
Any discussion of places to stay has to begin with the town’s historic namesake inn. For nearly a century, the Bethel Inn (www.bethelinn.com) has been providing first-class accommodations at its 200-acre resort. In addition to rooms ideal for family vacations, romantic getaways, and everything in between, the inn draws guests with its Nordic Ski Center, full-service spa, outdoor heated pool, and fitness center. Those who have not had their fill of winter wonder can sign up for moon-lit stargazing from aboard a horse-drawn sleigh. Enjoy fine dining in the evening or kick back to live music in the resort’s Millbrook Tavern and Grille; both of the inn’s restaurants feature menus with assortments of scrumptious appetizers, entrees, and desserts.
Another great place for either an intimate overnight experience or a family outing is the Sudbury Inn (www.thesudburyinn.com). Showcasing delectable meals in its candlelit dining area and hearty fare with a welcoming atmosphere in its “Suds Pub,’’ the inn also features 18 rooms to fit any traveler’s needs. Comfy and inviting, the Sudbury Inn is where to rejuvenate from a busy day outdoors or simply kick back and relax with a book by the fire.
It is beyond understatement to say that Bethel’s historic inns serve as starting places for the gourmand. In the heart of the village is a wide range of restaurant options, including sushi bars, sandwich shops, and other casual eateries. A great choice for the winter enthusiast looking for carbs to support the next day’s adventure is 22 Broad Street (www.22broadstreet.com). Located on the Town Common, it serves exquisite Italian cuisine and offers a great selection of wines. Enjoy your meal from the bar or from one of its cozy dining areas. And make room for the homemade ravioli of the day.
Good food, lively entertainment, and family-fun activities throughout the weekend.Jeffrey Romano, author of “100 Classic Hikes in New England’’ (2011) and “Best Loop Hikes: New Hampshire’s White Mountains to the Maine Coast’’ (2006) can be reached at www .jeffreyromano.com.