I am a devoted fan of The Washington Post Travel section and often save the section for weeks until I have a chance to read it. Thus, it was only recently that I read the Nov. 11 article about Jackson, N. H. The article referred to Mount Washington as "the largest mountain in the East," but the writer is mistaken. Even a displaced Yankee such as myself must admit that that distinction falls to Mount Mitchell in western North Carolina. At 6,684 feet, Mount Mitchell is the highest mountain east of the Mississippi. At 6,288 feet, Mount Washington is the tallest mountain in the Northeast. (Published 2/24/91)

I knew it would happen some day.

I postponed my annual ski trip until too late in March last season, and when I showed up at the little New Hampshire village of Jackson, I discovered a surprise thaw had melted all but a few shaded patches of snow. Of course I was disappointed, but who was to blame? Nobody but me and my procrastinating ways.

What could I do? I stuck around, and it is a testimonial to Jackson that I found myself having almost as good a time as if two feet of fresh snow blanketed the ground to welcome my arrival. You scoff, but in Jackson the absence of snow really wasn't quite as bad as it may seem to ardent skiers. Let me explain.

Jackson is a forest-ringed village of steepled churches, comfortable old inns, a fine covered bridge, a large waterfall and a burbling brook that races through a rolling meadow and golf coursein the very heart of town. It's a romantic place, in other words, ideal for a relaxing winter getaway even if skiing never tempted you. Steep hills ascend from the meadow's edge to high rocky ridges, and lofty Mt. Washington, the largest mountain in the East, looms in the distance.

Capitalizing on this picture-postcard setting, the community of 650 permanent residents has transformed itself into one of the nation's finest cross-country skiing centers. Sixty interconnecting trails in all degrees of difficulty link the town and its inns, many of which provide hot chocolate and other warming drinks to passing skiers. You can ski from almost any inn into the village for lunch or glide into the woods on well-groomed paths that run for miles.

Instead of skiing, I walked the back-country roads that surround Jackson, enjoying the warm sun, the mountain scenery and, yes, the hearty exercise. Afterward, I returned to my lodgings, the very comfortable Inn at Thorn Hill, for drinks, dinner and a cozy New England evening next to a roaring fire. That I had spent most of the day in boots rather than skis didn't really seem to matter -- well, most of the time, it didn't.

Cross-country skiing by its nature tends to be somewhat solitary and subdued, and Jackson is an appropriately quiet resort with a gentle demeanor. I suspect it attracts many skiers, like myself, who are as interested in reveling in nature as they are in perfecting their skiing technique or conquering a steep ascent in record time. This is not to say that skiing isn't taken seriously in town.

As a skier myself, I sought out Thom A. Perkins, executive director of the Jackson Ski Touring Foundation. Perhaps as self-punishment for my late visit, I wanted to find out what I was missing by the absence of snow. In midwinter, Perkins's outdoor crew maintains about 100 miles of woodland trails, and about half this extensive mileage is groomed daily. The balance, although well-marked, is left in a natural state.

Thirty percent of the network, which wanders from open meadows into thick forests, is rated gentle enough for novices. Beginners with a bit of experience make up the biggest percentage of Jackson's skiers. Another 30 percent of the network, rated as more difficult, attracts intermediate skiers. And 40 percent, regarded as most difficult, is for experts. The experts get more miles because they can ski them faster.

"Jackson is a hell of a place to go skiing," said Perkins, who has managed the foundation for 15 years. The statement is characteristic of his enthusiasm for Jackson. It seems well justified, although it caused me another sharp ache of disappointment.

Perkins insisted I join him for a brisk walking tour of some of his especially prized trails. Normally, the skiing trails are off-limits to hikers, but Perkins used his authority to make an exception for us. Many trails cross private property, and the owners limit access to skiers only. Much of Perkins's off-season job is negotiating trail rights.

One of the newest trails is "The Wave," a wide, undulating path especially designed as part of an international-caliber race course. About a mile and a half in length, it is popular with intermediates who can swoop up and down its rises and dips without worrying about negotiating any sudden sharp turns. "The visuals are great," says Perkins. "You can see what's coming ahead." And every downhill has an uphill for stopping if you think you're going too fast. When the snow is good, the word in Jackson is, "Surf's up, go ski the Wave."

A year ago, the foundation spent $20,000 to improve an old, half-mile-long trail called "The Yodel," which runs quite close to the town center. It was widened, and sharp turns were eliminated. The changes made the trail easier and more fun for good beginners, who can pretend they are experts on its forgiving curves. The Yodel has been cleared of rocks and is so well-groomed it can be opened to skiers after a mere four-inch snowfall instead of a foot or more.

One of Jackson's longest and most difficult routes is the 12-mile-long Wildcat Valley Trail. It begins at the summit of Wildcat Mountain in Pinkham Notch, a large, downhill skiing complex north of Jackson that offers a gorgeous view of Mt. Washington. You ride a lift to the top of Wildcat to an elevation of 4,100 feet and then begin the difficult descent back to Jackson village.

From the summit, the trail drops 3,300 feet, which results in an odd skiing statistic. Downhill ski resorts boast of their vertical drop -- the distance from the top of the highest lift to the bottom of the slope. Generally, you can expect longer trails where the vertical is greatest. As it turns out, the steep drop from Wildcat to the village places the Jackson Ski Touring Foundation -- solely a cross-country complex of trails -- among a select group of downhill ski resorts with the largest verticals in the nation.

A much tamer experience is the Ellis River Trail, which begins at the Dana Place Inn about five miles north of town. A shuttle carries skiers to the inn, and then you can ski back to town through mostly level woodlands adjacent to the Ellis River. The main highway through Jackson parallels this route, but it is far enough away not to intrude too noisily. The foundation built a $57,500 covered bridge this summer specifically to provide skiers with easier access to town from the trail.

On a steep slope behind a restaurant in the village center called Yesterday's, I spotted the sign for the Jackson Village Trail, a mile-long route that climbs to the Inn at Thorn Hill, where I was staying. I figured the glide into town on skis would be a breeze if there was snow, but returning to the inn could be a challenge. Knowing the rules, I stuck to the road on the hike back to the inn, a bit of a climb itself.

I picked the Inn at Thorn Hill after innkeepers Peter and Linda LaRose told me over the phone that their guests often borrow cookie sheets for impromptu tobogganing on the adjacent hillsides. I suppose they meant young guests, but I would have been willing to try if there had been any snow. The thaw also denied me an evening sleigh ride and ice skating on the village pond, two other popular winter activities in Jackson.

Though the overwhelming majority of Jackson's visitors are cross-country skiers, downhill skiing is available at three nearby resorts -- Attitash, Ski Cranmore and Wildcat, all big mountains within a 20-minute drive of the village. The village tolerates downhillers within its limits but not without a trace of snobbery. As one local innkeeper told me, "Those downhill people usually go to motels."

For generations, the White Mountains surrounding Jackson have drawn visitors who come for the scenery and the outdoor recreation. In the early 1900s, sprawling hotels opened in and near Jackson to cater to wealthy summer vacationers. In the mid-1920s, more adventurous visitors began showing up in winter with wooden skis, ice skates and toboggans. They inaugurated a boom in winter sports in the region that continues today.

Through stringent land use laws, Jackson has managed to preserve its village identify almost untouched. It remains a civilized refuge within the 750,000-acre White Mountain National Forest, which almost encircles it. The local folk have only to look south a few miles to the village of North Conway to see the ugly perils of overdevelopment they have thus far avoided. Itself a ski town, North Conway has attracted factory outlet shops, which line a cluttered commercial strip.

In 1972, the Jackson Ski Touring Foundation was formed as a nonprofit organization to develop cross-country skiing, a relatively low-impact activity drawing winter patrons for the village's inns. In cross-country skiing, there are no mechanical lifts, and the trails cut less obvious paths through the woods. The foundation headquarters, where daily trail passes are sold, is a small, cabin-like structure in the town center.

In a good season, Jackson draws as many as 60,000 skiers from December into April. On a holiday weekend, up to 2,800 skiers may show up, and the town becomes uncharacteristically bustling. But the crowds thin out for much of the day as skiers head into the woods. I, of course, could only imagine the scene as it was described to me. For awhile one blustery afternoon, I sat alongside Jackson Falls, which carved an icy path just above the Town Hall, and I saw no other soul.

The village of Jackson is immediately appealing. To reach it, you pull off the highway leading from North Conway north to Pinkham Notch and pass through a trim, covered bridge painted red. It is a gateway leading from the present into the past.

A few shops, a restaurant or two, the ski foundation's office and the town's administrative buildings occupy a wide clearing in the woods, traced by the Ellis River. Some of Jackson's two dozen inns sit alongside the river; others, like the Inn at Thorn Hill, are scattered in the wooded hills above the village. Most were built decades ago.

Thorn Hill, my choice, is a three-story frame Victorian structure, designed by famed architect Stanford White and completed in 1895. To me, it appeared more portly than stately, perhaps because its roof is rounded and resembles a rather well-fed stomach. When I arrived, a snow squall was whipping flakes into the window panes, but it vanished all too quickly, leaving the ground bare.

Nicely decorated in Victorian dress, the 10-room inn is one of a half-dozen in Jackson that includes breakfast and dinner in the daily rate. In my mind, this makes it a proper New England inn. Each afternoon a fire was lit in the small pub, where guests gather for drinks before dinner -- which is later served beside yet another blazing fire. One night the menu was roast loin of pork with mustard sauce, and on another it was lamb chops stuffed with feta cheese.

As I said, I consider my snowless visit to Jackson to have been very pleasant. But those ski trails were tempting, and the longer I stayed the more I regretted not being able to try them. Next time, I'll check the weather reports more closely.


GETTING THERE: The nearest jet airport to Jackson, N.H., is in Portland, Maine. Jackson is about a 90-minute drive northwest from Portland.

Continental, Delta, United and USAir provide frequent daily flights between Washington's three airports and Portland. USAir currently is quoting a weekday rate of $278 round trip and a weekend rate of $325. Tickets must be purchased at least 14 days in advance and are nonrefundable.

WHEN TO GO: The Jackson Ski Touring Foundation can open some of its best-groomed trails after a snowfall of only a few inches. Last year, the start-up date was Nov. 27. Good skiing is almost a certainty by mid-December. The season can last into April if snowfall has been heavy and cold temperatures hold. But keep a close eye on weather conditions if you plan to go cross-country skiing after mid-March.

WHERE TO STAY: The rate for a room for two with breakfast in Jackson begins at about $55 during the winter season. The Jackson Resort Association lists 24 inns in or near the town center, at least six of which include breakfast and dinner in the lodging rates. The inns range in style from small bed-and-breakfast establishments, such as the very cozy Ellis River House, to the Wentworth Resort Hotel, a 65-room refurbished lodge with a more formal atmosphere and the amenities of a large hotel. Nordic Village Vacation Resort offers condominium apartments just south of Jackson.

I stayed at the Inn at Thorn Hill, about a quarter of a mile uphill from the Jackson town center. The woodland location is quiet and scenic, and the inn itself is beautifully decorated in Victorian antiques. The Main Inn has 10 rooms, and the Carriage House next door has seven rooms. Also, there are three small rental cottages on the property. Daily rates, which include breakfast and dinner, range from $70 to $96 per person based on double occupancy. The inn discourages children under 12, and smoking is permitted only in the pub in the Main Inn. For information: Inn at Thorn Hill, Thorn Hill Road, Box A, Jackson Village, N.H. 03846, 603-383-4242.

Among the other possibilities:

Eagle Mountain House, a large old resort hotel that has been nicely restored. The ambiance is elegant but relaxed.

Whitneys' Inn, a comfortable country inn at the base of Black Mountain Ski Area, a good downhill slope for beginners and intermediates. The inn caters to families and offers special programs for the youngsters.

Nestlebrook Farm, a sumptuously decorated, seven-room bed-and- breakfast inn. Sleigh rides and outdoor ice skating are offered on the inn's 65 acres of grounds.

Christmas Farm Inn, a classic country inn with lodgings in the main building, the old barn, a remodeled stable and a variety of cabins and other one-time farm structures scattered on a wooded hillside.

The Jackson Resort Association provides a toll-free information and reservation service for these inns and its other member inns at 800-866-3334.

TRAIL FEES: The trails maintained by the Jackson Ski Touring Foundation are patrolled regularly, and all skiers must have a ticket. Tickets can be purchased at the foundation office in the town center.

Adult tickets are $9 a day on Saturday and Sunday and $6 a day on weekdays. Special rates are offered for multiple days. A five-day ticket that includes the weekend is $33. After 2 p.m., the daily rate drops $1. The charge for children aged 6 to 12 is $2 daily. For information: Jackson Ski Touring Foundation, Box 216, Jackson, N.H. 03846, 603-383-9355.

Weather information and trail maps also are available at the foundation office. The Jack Frost Nordic Shop, sharing the building, offers ski rentals, lessons and a selection of ski clothing and equipment.

INFORMATION: Jackson Resort Association, P.O. Box 304, Jackson, N.H. 03846, 800-866-3334 and 603-383-9356.