Searching for Snow

by Elizabeth Folwell | February 2017, Recreation

Photograph by Nancie Battaglia

Old roads and new acquisitions for cross-country skiing

A friend is
such an avid cross-country skier that he clicks into his bindings and heads out when there is frost on the ground, just the lightest slick of ice on the grass. He swears it’s like gliding over silk, and of course it’s even more ephemeral than real snow. The season for frost skiing is, say, about an eyeblink, when you wake up and see that the yard sparkles in the early-morning sun.

As soon as a couple of inches fall, Whiteface Memorial Highway hosts a horde of folks itching to slog up and slide down. That snow arrives here early, at 2,350 feet and higher, makes perfect meteorological sense, and because there are few trees along the route, the flakes actually make it to the ground.

When you’re looking for a likely trail those are considerations—elevation and exposure—but add in weather patterns too. The southwestern Adirondacks (think Old Forge and Big Moose) gets considerably more snow than the southeastern Adirondacks, and there are often pockets of good cover around the central Adirondacks from Newcomb to Raquette Lake to Indian Lake and north of Paul Smiths. Local tips can cinch your destination, and if you’re considering a trek outside your typical neighborhood—perhaps because you can still see dandelions poking up through a thin blanket—call the local tourism office for the skinny on where to skinny ski.

The trails described here had good—but sporadic—snow cover last year, a very challenging time for any winter-sports fan. They’re in snow belts or have more open trails that catch the flakes where a deep-woods, single-track path would not. Note that some destinations may be shared with snowmobiles (not in wilderness areas), but these are less popular with sledders because they are not part of long-distance routes.

Regarding equipment, backcountry skis, preferably with metal edges, are recommended. Bring water, food, matches, extra clothes, duct tape, screwdriver and the other tools you carry for backcountry outings.

Cascade Lake, Pigeon Lake Wilderness Area

Trailhead: off Big Moose Road

Distance: six-mile loop

Difficulty: easy to moderate; elevation changes are minimal

Time: three to five hours; depends on blowdown

The 50,100-acre Pigeon Lake Wilderness has heavily forested rolling terrain and numerous streams, ponds and lakes. This is snow country, where more than 10 feet can pile up over a typical winter. The hiking trail that loops around Cascade Lake is great for cross-country skiing, especially in a small group, in case you need to break trail through calf-high snow. The lake is visible through the leafless trees, and there’s a nice beach and clearing at about the halfway point. An added bonus is a waterfall on the Cascade Lake inlet; in warm weather the trail is very wet, but with sustained cold and good snow it’s more pleasant on skis than as a walk.

Burn Road, William C. Whitney Wilderness Area

Trailhead: off Sabattis Circle Road

Distance: out-and-back route, eight miles or more possible

Difficulty: easy

Time: up to you

This old logging road resembles the route to Santanoni Great Camp; it’s broad, undulating and catches snow because the branches don’t hover overhead. Little Tupper Lake, in the heart of the 19,500-acre William C. Whitney Wilderness Area, is a constant companion on your way. The trail may be tracked out by Long and Tupper Lake skiers and it can also present virgin snow; bring companions to share the burden. This is not the most pristine wilderness route because it still looks like a road, but the long hills and sweeping turns are great for stretching out your kick and glide. If you don’t want to return on the same tracks, you can drop down to the lake for a few miles, but remember that snow on frozen waterways can hide an annoying layer of slush, sometimes as heavy as concrete. Bring a scraper.

The Burn Road, for backcountry skiers wanting a full day, connects to Lilypad and Hardigan Ponds.

Also in the Whitney Wilderness is the Stony Pond Road/South Shore trail, which has a tiny parking area off Circle Road. It traverses similar terrain, with little elevation change, in a wide old logging road on the opposite side of the lake.

Essex Chain, Essex Chain Lakes Complex

Trailhead: off Route 28 on Chain Lakes Road, Indian Lake

Distance: to Gooley Club farmhouse, about 2.5 miles; to Cedar River, about 5.5 miles

Difficulty: easy to moderate

Time: up to you; half-day to Gooley farmhouse and back

The 19,600-acre Essex Chain Lakes Complex awaits designation by the Department of Environmental Conservation. As a result, some of the old dirt roads are open to snowmobiles, but because there is no bridge at the Cedar River, this route doesn’t connect with other trails and is lightly used.

Chain Lakes Road passes the Indian Lake transfer station and town beach, and at the gate to state land there’s plenty of parking. You’ll see a sign for Bullhead Pond, but local skiers are embracing the old dirt road in to the Gooley Club for its views of the Indian River and long gentle hills.

Stop at the farmhouse set in a nice clearing for a beautiful view of the Hudson. From there you head into the woods with no river views but gradual big hills you can climb without herringboning. You can continue to the Cedar River, where you won’t see the famous rapids but a pristine wild stream. Prepared, experienced skiers can continue on to Pine Lake for a full day. These are all out-and-back trails.

Upper Hudson River Loop, Essex Chain Lakes Complex

Trailhead: off Goodnow Flow Road, off Route 28N, Newcomb

Distance: 4.2 miles

Difficulty: intermediate because of steep hills

Time: two to four hours

With some loop trails, the direction you take makes a big difference. For this route, head counterclockwise because of steep hills. Along the Goodnow River are short, hard pitches, and when you reach the Hudson, it’s a gorgeous companion and the trail is a little less challenging. There are views of Polaris and Vanderwhacker Mountains. One logging road in the loop is notorious for difficult hills that require strong herringbone technique.

Hayes Brook Truck trail, Debar Mountain Wild Forest

Trailhead: Mountain Pond Road, off Route 30, three miles north of Paul Smith’s College Visitor Interpretive Center

Distance: seven miles round trip

Difficulty: easy to moderate

Time: to Sheep Meadow lean-to, about two hours

The title “truck trail” gives a clue to the width and grade of this route, which makes a good half-day outing for advanced beginners. About half a mile after the gate there’s a bridge over the Osgood River and you pass through a pine plantation that was created by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. The trees are tall and orderly, and when draped with fresh snow the effect is magical. There are some hills initially, but once you’re on the trail to Sheep Meadow (watch for a sign) it becomes flatter. The lean-to there is inviting for a mid-trek stop. Note that this is also a snowmobile trail, but it is less popular with sledders. 

Want more ski destinations? Check out: 8 Places to Ski and Snowshoe at Night, Great Camp Skiing, and Choose Your Own Cross-Country Ski Adventure.

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