Nearly 25 years after three friends laid the groundwork for it by skiing the length of Vermont, the 300-mile Catamount Trail — a backcountry ski trail extending from Massachusetts to Canada — is complete.
Volunteers cleared and marked the final 4 1/2-mile leg running through the Green Mountain National Forest in southern Vermont in October.
"It's quite an accomplishment," said Jim Fredericks, executive director of the Catamount Trail Association. It took "a lot of very hard work by a lot of people to make it happen."
The trail, which starts on the Massachusetts border in Readsboro, runs through the Green Mountains traversing a variety of terrain, from the groomed trails of cross- country ski centers to remote mountain passes. The trail ends at the Canadian border, in North Troy, Vt., near Highwater, Quebec.
Marked by blue signs with catamount (cougar) paw prints, the trail bills itself as the longest backcountry ski trail in North America. But it's divided into 31 sections, 6 to 13 miles long, so you can choose a short leg, ski all day, or plan a weeklong excursion stopping at lodges along the way.
"We've had people from Europe come to ski the trail," said trail manager Lenore Budd.
Many of the trail segments pass by or near inns where you can stay the night and touring centers where you can rent equipment, warm up or grab some soup and hot chocolate. One section runs from the Bolton Valley Resort to the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe. There are also gentle sloping trails through fields and forest land and inn-to-inn skiing in some spots. Snowshoers are welcome as well.
Access to the trail is free and open to the public, but in areas where it piggybacks on trails at touring centers, skiers are expected to pay the trail fees or buy whatever pass might be required, said Budd.
In early winter, snowfall along the trail is unpredictable but tends to be better at higher elevations. "Generally the most reliable time of year for snow is February," Budd added. "We ski into April often."
The route has changed over the years from the path Steve Bushey, Paul Jarris and Ben Rose embarked on in 1984 as part of Bushey's University of Vermont geography project.
A fourth friend, Andrew Painter, helped with transportation and logistics.
"We skied for three weeks and we ended up in Canada," said Rose, 47, now director of the Green Mountain Club.
Along the way locals familiar with the backcountry helped, some joining the group for a ski.
"It quickly became the effort of a lot of people," Rose said.
The Catamount Trail Association was formed the same year to develop and maintain the trail and now has 1,800 members.
For a $35 yearly membership in the nonprofit Catamount Trail Association, you get half-priced tickets to 23 cross country ski centers and eight downhill resorts, as well as other discounts at retailers and lodging in Vermont.
The association also offers guidebooks, maps and a Web site, and is sponsoring about 60 events in 2008, most of them free, including telemark clinics, snowshoeing and a winter nature tour. Each year the group organizes a weeklong ski that covers one-fourth of the trail; that tour, in February, is already fully booked, Budd said. In 2009, the group is planning a monthlong ski of the entire trail.
But Fredericks acknowledges there's a lot of work to do before the entire trail is secure.
Getting easements for the roughly 150 miles of trail that cross private land and moving the trail off snowmobile routes for the safety of skiers are two big challenges.
"It's the private property we have the most problems with," Fredericks said, explaining that if a section of privately held land is sold and the trail association has no easement, they might have to reroute the trail.
Although 80 miles of the trial runs through the Green Mountain National Forest, the latest section was held up until an updated management plan for the forest was adopted this year.
After seeing an ad in Backpacker magazine in the early '80s, John Stearns of Bridgewater joined as a charter member. Now 73, and a member of the board, he helped scout and clear the last leg in Winhall.
Stearns also is among the estimated 60 people who have skied the entire trail.
"It's been quite an effort and quite a challenge," he said of the trail's completion.