Escaping din of Old Forge

Even though Old Forge is snowmobile country, skiers can find tranquility on many trails in the neighboring wilderness. Photo by Nancie Battaglia

How do you know you’re in Old Forge?

A. In the 10 minutes you spend at the trailhead lacing up your boots and stepping into your cross-country skis, a dozen snowmobiles pass by.

B. All the conversations you overhear at Walt’s Diner after skiing have to do with snowmobiles.

C. As you wolf down your spaghetti at the diner, you peruse the front page of the weekly newspaper: All five stories are about snowmobiling.

D. You open the paper and read a letter from a man complaining that he had to leap a snowbank to avoid two snowmobiles barreling down the sidewalk.

If you experience all of the above and hear a drone everywhere you go and see a couple of white-tailed deer waiting for hand-outs at the McDonald’s service window, the chances are good that you’re in Old Forge, the Snowmobile Capital of the East.

In January, I skied to the top of Moose River Mountain in the Ha-De-Ron-Dah Wilderness and around Cascade Lake in the Pigeon Lake Wilderness. Since it was the middle of the week, I didn’t see another soul, but it was obvious that the trails had been skied the previous weekend.

I also tried to ski to the top of Black Bear Mountain near Inlet, but I found myself breaking trail in two feet of snow and ran out of time. I turned back after a few miles to avoid being benighted. Afterward, I wondered why this route, which is marked as a ski trail, doesn’t attract more users. The reason might be that, unlike the other two trails, it isn’t covered in Tony Goodwin’s guidebook Classic Adirondack Ski Tours (recently revised and reissued as Ski and Snowshoe Trails in the Adirondacks).

Thanks to lake-effect storms, the Old Forge region receives about 280 inches of snow in an average year – more than twice as much as Lake Placid. It’d be a shame if backcountry skiers didn’t take advantage of nature’s bounty. If you go after a heavy snowfall, bring friends to share the trail breaking or wait till the weekend when the trails see more use. And have fun!

Moose River Mt.

In Classic Adirondack Ski Tours, Goodwin describes a 17.4-mile round-trip through the heart of the Ha-De-Ron-Dah Wilderness to Big Otter Lake, following a former truck trail marked as a ski route. Given the length of that trip, he suggests that many skiers may want to turn back on the shoulder of Moose River Mountain – a 6-mile round-trip.

Now there’s another option. Two years ago, the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) reopened a 0.6-mile spur trail to Moose River Mountain’s summit. A trip to the top and back is only 5.6 miles.

You don’t have to be an extreme skier to conquer this 2,018-foot summit. The descent is so gentle that a novice could handle it. In fact, I had to pole downhill in the deep snow to keep my momentum.

The adventure begins on a dead-end road in Thendara, just west of Old Forge. You start up a wide snowmobile trail for a hundred yards and then turn left on the ski trail. In 0.3 mile, you reach a trail register and the Forest Preserve boundary.

I noticed that the last skiers had signed in on Sunday, four days earlier. Their tracks were now covered by a half-foot of snow. My skis glided silently through the powder as I descended a small hill that greets skiers just beyond the register. After a level section and another short descent, I arrived at a wetland hemmed in by glacial mounds and ridges. I lingered to gaze at the white meadow, the snow-laden evergreens, the round hills peeping up in the background. Wilderness need not be dramatic to be beautiful.

Pushing on, I soon crossed Indian Brook, another picture of serenity, and started a long, gentle ascent.

At 1.5 miles, the trail reaches a junction with the East Pond Trail. Theoretically, you could ski the truck trail to Big Otter Lake, where the trails meet again, and return to this point by the East Pond Trail. However, that would make for a long day, especially since you’d likely be breaking trail on this little-used secondary route.

At 2.2 miles, the truck trail reaches the junction with the spur to the summit of Moose River Mountain. If this is your destination, turn left and follow the red markers. Unfortunately, the skiers whose tracks I had been following had other plans, so I had to plod through two feet of snow to reach the top.

The ascent was so gradual that I kept wondering when the real climb would begin. Eventually, I came to a clearing where a fire tower once stood. As a DEC sign on a red spruce informs visitors, the tower was removed in 1977 in keeping with Wilderness regulations against man-made structures.

I’m all for Wilderness, but part of me wished for that tower. I had come all this way and expected a view as my just reward. In Ski and Snowshoe Trails, Goodwin says Moose River Mountain offers “some views through the trees,” but all I could see through the trees were more trees. Well, that’s OK. It gave me a chance to test the maxim that the journey is as important as the destination.

On the way back, I followed my tracks, but the snow was still too deep to allow me to coast without striding or poling. Even so, it took me only 15 minutes to reach the truck trail—as opposed to 45 minutes of going uphill. If more skiers discover and break in the trail to Moose River Mountain, people will have a swell cruise on the way back.

Cascade Lake

The 5.6-mile loop around Cascade Lake is one of several trails in the Pigeon Lake Wilderness suitable for skiing, but this is the one most likely to be broken in the first weekend after a snowstorm. On my trip, I followed a track that had been set down several days earlier.

You start from a large parking lot off Big Moose Road north of the community of Eagle Bay. The trail climbs briefly and then descends to a trail register with a large map of the Wilderness Area. Turn left onto an old woods road. You’ll soon see a wetland created by the Cascade Lake outlet.

At 0.8 mile, the trail reaches a junction. Either way will take you around the lake, but the more scenic route is to the left. Go this way if you don’t intend to circle the lake. In a few minutes, you’ll cross a bridge over the outlet, its black water winding around mounds of white snow – a charming winter scene.

A little beyond the outlet the trail reaches another junction. The way left leads to Queer Lake and several other waters. On this day, it looked like the trail had not been skied all winter. I turned right and soon saw Cascade Lake and a low ridge beyond. The trail then led me to a small point guarded by a stand of large white pines. Someone had propped up an ancient car door against one of the trees—a remnant, perhaps, of the girls camp that once existed here.

Shortly after I left the pines, the silence was broken by a loud, raspy croak. I looked up to see a pair of ravens flying overhead. They crossed the lake and vanished. I figured that they had come from some small cliffs to the north visible through the bare trees.

At the east end of the lake, the trail passes through a small meadow and then crosses the major inlet on a bridge. I arrived at the bridge as the moon was rising in a deep-blue sky, with clouds scudding over the horizon.

With evening approaching, I had to hurry. Leaving the inlet and its wetland, I climbed a small hill and came to ski tracks heading left off the main trail. They led to the cascade that gives the lake its name. In winter, the waterfall looks like a 30-foot icicle. It takes only a minute to check it out.

The return on the south side of the lake is not as interesting as the ski in. You hardly ever catch a glimpse of the lake since the trail stays far from the shore. Also, you might have difficulty crossing streams on this side if the snow cover is thin. This wasn’t much of a problem on my trip, but it could be in early winter or during a thaw. On the plus side, this stretch has more ups and downs (but nothing a novice couldn’t handle).

Black Bear Mt.

Map by Nancy Bernstein

This trip proved to be a real bear, but it needn’t be. There are several trails that climb Black Bear Mountain, and DEC has marked two of them as ski trails. You can ski both in a 6-mile loop around the 2,448-foot summit, starting and ending at trailheads on Route 28. Since the trailheads are roughly a half-mile apart, you’ll need to walk back to your car, ski along the roadside snowmobile route or arrange a shuttle.

The loop is considered a fairly easy ski, but it does not go over the summit. The trail from the loop to the top is short but steep, so you may want to snowshoe up or put skins on your skis. But don’t pass up the summit: Black Bear offers great views of the Fulton Chain of Lakes, and on a clear day, you can see all the way to the High Peaks.

Rather than do the loop, I planned to ski to the summit from the main trailhead on Route 28 and return the same way, a 6-mile round-trip. Because I had skied to Moose River Mountain earlier in the day, however, I didn’t hit the trail until 2:45 p.m.

Evidently, no other people had been on the trail in a while: I saw plenty of deer tracks, but no signs of skiers or snowshoers. There was about two feet of heavy powder on the ground, and with each step, I sank up to my shin. I had hoped to reach the summit well before nightfall, but as I plodded along, I realized I wouldn’t make it. I decided I would turn back at 4:30, just around dusk.

If not for the heavy snow, it would have been an easy ski: The trail was wide and the ascent very gradual. Although a sign at the trailhead warns that progress could be impeded by blowdown and beaver activity, I didn’t find either to be much of a problem. There were several stream crossings that could be tricky without a solid snow cover.

I figure I went about 2 miles in just under two hours, a snail’s pace. The return trip, following my tracks, took about an hour. Pushing through the silent woods, I kept thinking this would be a great trip if the trail were broken in. Well, I’ve done my part. The rest is up to you.

Trailhead Directions

map by Nancy Bernstein

Moose River Mountain: From NY 28 in Thendara, just west of railroad bridge, turn north onto a road that leads 0.4 mile to parking area.

Cascade Lake: From NY 28 in Eagle Bay, turn north onto Big Moose Road and drive 1.3 miles to a parking lot on the right.

Black Bear Mountain: From the junction of South Shore Road and NY 28 in Inlet, drive west on NY 28 for 1 mile to a pulloff road on the right. The trail begins just east of this road.

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