A winter trifecta
Owen, Copperas, and Winch ponds offer skiers and snowshoers an escape into wilderness just a short drive from Lake Placid.
By Phil Brown
It’s little wonder that Owen, Copperas, and Winch ponds are popular hiking destinations in summer: for little effort, you can walk through quiet woods to visit these pretty ponds, take in some nice scenery, and perhaps go for a swim—all just a few miles from downtown Lake Placid.
Well, it turns out the ponds (or two of them, anyway) are popular in winter, too. Mostly, the visitors are snowshoers, but the trail can be skied if there is enough snow (at least a foot) and if you can handle the few short downhills.
There are two trailheads along Route 86 for the ponds. If you’re skiing, you want to start from the southern one, which is closer to Lake Placid. The trail from the northern trailhead is too steep and rocky to recommend for skiing.
I skied to the ponds on a Monday in March four days after a big snowfall. Snowshoers had packed down the snow into a trough, with heavy powder on the sides. Given that the trail doesn’t see a lot of skiers, this was expected. A trough is not ideal for skiing, but it’s manageable if you use caution and employ a few tricks.
From the register, I followed the trail (marked by blue disks) up an easy grade for a short distance, then descended to the outlet of Owen Pond. I stopped to inspect animal tracks that crossed the frozen brook and concluded they were bobcat, but that was just an educated guess.
After another short ascent, through a stand of hemlocks, I descended to Owen Pond, about a half-mile from the register. I continued skiing a short distance until I came to a path leading to the shore. From an opening in the cedars, I could see a snow-covered slide on an unnamed peak next to Kilburn Mountain. I have climbed that bedrock scar many times and looked down upon Owen Pond; it was nice to change perspectives.
One advantage of doing the trip in winter is that you can ski onto the ponds (assuming the ice is safe) for more expansive views of the surrounding mountains. From the middle of Owen, I had a clear view to the east of Stewart Mountain, a 3,615-foot peak in the Sentinel Range. I also saw more wildlife tracks.
Back on the trail, I continued skiing parallel to the north shore for a few hundred yards. The trail then veered left, away from the pond, climbed a small hill, and descended to a stand of dead trees. As I paused to admire the scene, I heard and then spotted a woodpecker—probably a hairy woodpecker, judging from its size and the red spot on its head.
Next up was the biggest hill of the day, a 0.2-mile climb over a ridge separating Owen and Copperas ponds. It wasn’t the climb I was worried about; it was the descent on the return. It would entail a few tricky turns, made trickier by the narrow trough. Given the dense powder, I didn’t think I’d be able to snowplow or make turns along the trough to slow down. So I prepared the trail by sidestepping up the hill, making it wide enough for stem turns and half-snowplows.
At the top, I could see Whiteface Mountain through the bare trees. I now faced a short descent to Copperas Pond—less than a tenth of a mile. If conditions are right, you could shoot down the trail. I played it safe by turning off the trail, stopping, and then getting back on the trail for the last bit of downhill.
A minute later, I came to an opening in the trees that afforded a spectacular view across Copperas Pond of Whiteface Mountain, the scenic highlight of the trip. If you don’t intend to go to Winch Pond, you can cross Copperas here to visit the lean-to on the opposite shore. The round-trip from the highway to the lean-to is only three miles.
Those going to Winch Pond can continue on the trail, but if you’re on skis, I suggest traveling on the pond to its southeast corner and then getting back on the trail. This avoids an annoying little hill.
Just past the end of the pond, I arrived at an unmarked junction. From here, the blue trail continues to follow the Copperas shoreline to the lean-to. However, I turned right onto a trail marked by yellow disks that leads to Winch Pond about a half-mile away. Perhaps not surprisingly, this trail had not been broken in, for Winch is the smallest and least scenic of the three ponds.
In 0.35 miles, after a few easy ups and downs, I reached another junction. The way left led to the northern trailhead. I bore right to stay on the yellow trail and soon came to Winch. Skiing onto the ice, I found a good view of Stewart Mountain’s snowy summit. I saw bobcat tracks again and followed them to a hidden wetland populated by spectral trees, including a giant dead pine. Along the way I also came across a hole in the snow—perhaps made by a beaver.
Leaving Winch, I followed my tracks back to Copperas Pond. As mentioned, the blue trail parallels the shore, but it’s easier to ski across the pond to reach the lean-to. The structure is in good shape, ideal for a lunch stop. From the shore, you have a view of 3,881-foot Kilburn Mountain to the south. (Both Kilburn and Stewart are among the Adirondacks’ hundred highest peaks.)
Time to head home. Crossing the pond, I enjoyed one last look at Stewart before picking up the trail I had come in on. Soon I was back at the height of land between Copperas and Owen. Thanks to my trail grooming, I was able to stem my skis on the descent. Nevertheless, when I started picking up speed, I pulled off and stopped. I’m glad I did for a snowshoer was coming up the hill. I skied down to her and stopped again, then continued on my way.
When I reached Owen, I got off the trail to ski on the pond to enjoy the scenery again. After the pond, I faced two more descents on the trail. Both were easier than the first one, but I nevertheless kept one ski in the powder beside the trough to control my speed. (Another technique, which I did not employ, is to hold both ski poles together and drag them in the snow.)
I hope my emphasis on downhill perils won’t frighten away skiers. Not including detours, my round-trip was 4.5 miles. For the vast majority of the time, I was skiing terrain that was flat or nearly so. The descents are short enough that a cautious skier with intermediate skills should be able to manage them. I suppose a less-experienced skier could manage, too, by sidestepping most of the way down the small hills.
Of course, there are always snowshoes. Whatever your mode of travel, these ponds offer an easy getaway into the wild, in winter as well as summer.
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