Snowshow heaven

A snowshoer stops to admire the still beauty of winter. Photos by Bill Ingersoll.

Guidebook author shares 5 favorite trips

By Bill Ingersoll

Snowshoes are an integral part of the winter landscape in the Adirondacks, almost certainly dating back to when the first humans began to explore these snowy mountains on foot. Rogers’ Rangers fought several battles on them near Lake George during the French and Indian War, and one of our largest lakes and longest rivers is named for them (“Raquette” being the French word for snowshoe). However, for many generations snowshoeing was not considered a pastime enjoyable for its own sake; snowshoes were merely utilitarian devices that people used while doing other things, such as hunting and trapping.

A traditional Adirondack lodging on Lilypad Pond.

Granted, snowshoeing is still a utilitarian sport when compared to the graceful glides one can achieve with Nordic skis. But, snowshoes have recently exceeded skis in popularity because they are not bound by the same limitations in terrain and snow conditions. You can go virtually anywhere with them—even places that may be almost impassable in summer—without the need to acquire any skills other than that of walking. The “use” for snowshoes is to get their wearers into the most out-of-the-way corners of the backcountry—places where the trails, if there are any, probably will not be packed down by other hikers and where the grades may be anything but gentle.

Following are five of my favorite snowshoe trips picked from my new book, Snowshoe Routes: Adirondacks & Catskills. The terrain ranges from the fringes of the High Peaks to the lake-studded wilderness areas of the western and central Adirondacks. These are places with challenging topography, secluded destinations and chances for extensive side exploration. Winter is the time when the backcountry is its most elemental. Snowshoes are the best tools to get you there.

Short Swing Trail

Map by Nancy Bernstein.

The Short Swing Trail is the primary northern entrance to the Pharaoh Lake Wilderness, in the eastern Adirondacks. As a snowshoe route, it is a beauty. Officially, it is 5.5 miles long and ends near Oxshoe Pond, but it connects with other trails and passes so many potential bushwhacks that it is hard to confine your explorations to just the trail itself. It passes six ponds, three lean-tos and five small mountains with good views. This route is so adaptable that novice snowshoers will get a kick out of it as much as the experts. Enjoy it to the fullest by spending the night at one of the lean-tos. This route will beckon you more than once.

The trail begins by skirting around the foot of Ragged Mountain and climbing a gentle grade to a notch filled with tall white pines. A long descent leads to the Tubmill Marsh lean-to at 2.3 miles, and then a climb to lonely little Honey Pond at 2.9 miles. Lilypad Pond, sits under a beautiful canopy of red pine. It, too, has a lean-to, reached by turning left onto a red-marked trail at 3.4 miles.

The Short Swing Trail, marked in blue, forks right at the junction to climb to another saddle. It then descends along a rocky spine towards Horseshoe and Crab, with views of Pharaoh Mountain developing through the trees. There are a few steep descents in this section, including some rock ledges that may leave you wondering where to place your snowshoes as you step down. Both of the ponds have excellent potential for tent camping.

The trail follows the southern shore of Crab, although it is much more scenic to walk straight across the ice. From Crab’s outlet, the trail descends again to Oxshoe, which also has a lean-to situated in a grove of red pine. Oxshoe has my vote for being the prettiest of all the small ponds in the area—its rock-and-pine shores are like a scene straight out of Montana. The Short Swing Trail ends at 5.5 miles near Glidden Marsh, on the Long Swing Trail south of Crane Pond.

Mount Adams

Snowshoers descend the Mount Adams trail.

The public acquisition of the Tahawus property and the attention this has brought to Mount Adams has resulted in a surge of renewed interest in the fate of its fire tower and the stunning panorama of the High Peaks it provides. While most of the 3,540-foot mountain will be added to the High Peaks Wilderness, the summit itself will not, allowing for the retention and repair of the tower.

The hike to the summit requires a 1,750-foot ascent in 2.3 miles. Nearly all of that climbing is accomplished in the last 1.6 miles, and the grade only seems to get steeper as you go up. Mount Adams is not a place for novices.

From the Upper Works, the trail leads in 0.1 miles to a swinging bridge over the Hudson River—which is merely a mountain stream at this point—and in 0.5 miles comes to a wooden causeway over a corner of Lake Jimmy. At 0.7 miles, in an area opened up by blowdown, you reach a brown sign pointing uphill to the left. This is the trail to the mountain.

Map by Nancy Bernstein

You climb for several more minutes out of the blowdown area (caused by Hurricane Floyd in 1999) and cross a graded logging road. This road is a boundary between the disturbed woods below and the undisturbed woods that continue the rest of the way to the summit. The cedars, balsams and birches soon engulf you in their shady cover.

The slope begins moderately steep, slowly becoming just plain steep. In a few places you will likely need your hands to help pull yourself up. In true Adirondack fashion, there are no switchbacks. Only at the summit does the climbing finally ease, about 2¼ hours from the start. The tower is located in a small clearing surrounded by dense woods. You need to climb only to the first few landings to see above the trees. There are massive mountains in nearly every direction, and the three-peaked profile of Algonquin, Colden and Marcy that is so prominent from so many other Adirondack summits here seems to be thrust up into the sky.

Cat Mountain Pond

The cliffs of Cat Mountain as seen from Cat Mountain Pond.

The trek from Wanakena to Cat Mountain Pond and its neighbors is one of the most rewarding of Adirondack snowshoe hikes. The only requirement is that you have to be willing to step off the marked trail from time to time to see what lies hidden in the snowy woods—curiosity pays dividends here. Cat Mountain Pond lies at the foot of the 500-foot cliffs of its namesake mountain, making it one of the most distinctive bodies of water in the Five Ponds Wilderness.

Most people who snowshoe in this area head just to Cat Mountain; few take the time to go on to Cowhorn and Bassout ponds. Together with Glasby Pond, which you must pass on the hike to any of the other places, there is enough to see in this neighborhood—four ponds and the mountain—that it makes a lot of sense to plan an entire weekend here, taking your time to explore.

The trail begins by following the bed of an abandoned logging railroad, passing through haunting spruce swamps that alternate with patches of blowdown. A brisk 45-minute walk suffices for the trek to Dead Creek Flow. The trail loops around the end of the flow—an arm of Cranberry Lake—but in winter it is possible to cut a corner here by crossing directly to the Janacks Landing lean-to. This shaves 0.6 miles off the distances noted below.

Map by Nancy Bernstein

From the flow, the trail climbs gradually to an intersection at 3.9 miles, where you bear left onto a yellow-marked trail. You continue to ascend for another 0.3 miles to Glasby Pond, skirt its south shore and then resume climbing to the intersection with the Cat Mountain trail at 4.6 miles. The trail sees little winter use beyond this point. It takes a zigzagging course through the blowdown down towards Cat Mountain Pond, which you first see at 5.6 miles. There is a designated campsite near the outlet at the east end, but the attractive woods near the west end are open enough to permit you to establish your own low-impact tent site. If you choose to stay the night, you will have the whole pond for your front yard and the ravens on Cat Mountain for neighbors. You may even spot a bobcat prowling about the area.

Bassout Pond is a short side trip away, reached by an easy bushwhack. Cowhorn Pond sits in seclusion on the far side of a tall esker and boasts its own lean-to. And, of course, there is the trail to the summit of Cat Mountain—a short ascent with a rewarding view.

Cotton Lake

Every element that I seek in a good wilderness snowshoe trip is found here in abundance: solitude, natural beauty and interesting terrain. The entire route is located in deep woods—even the trailhead seems remote and secluded. This has inspired me to seek stronger protection for this place (currently part of the Black River Wild Forest) by reclassifying it as Wilderness, where no motorized recreation is allowed.

What makes the two-hour snowshoe to Cotton Lake difficult is not its 3.5-mile length or the rolling terrain, but simply the fact that the place is reached only by navigating a series of unmarked old woods roads. Further complicating matters is the fact that none of these roads appears on topographic maps. However, since there are only a few turns to watch for, these directions should suffice for most people.

Map by Nancy Bernstein.

The route begins clearly enough at the bend on Withers Road. For the first 15 minutes of walking it leads nearly due south but then makes a prominent bend to the east. The trail now winds just north of east, reaching a fork at 1 mile. Go right for Cotton Lake (straight leads to the site of a stone dam on Twin Lakes Stream).

For the remaining 2.5 miles to the pond, the route winds between a series of open and partially wooded wetlands (“vlies” in southern Adirondack parlance). You then swing southeast and begin a long descent into the valley of the North Branch of Little Black Creek. Find a good ice bridge across the North Branch, and follow the route around the north side of another vly visible to your right.

The path then forks left from the old road. This turn may be marked by an old paint blaze or other informal marking, but for the remaining 0.3 miles the path no longer follows an old road and so is less obvious. After climbing to a saddle, Cotton Lake is just beyond, with its sculpture garden of weathered snags along its southern and eastern shorelines. The gently sloping topography and the open forest make it possible to establish a winter camp just about anywhere around the pond. The sense of seclusion is hard to beat. Bushwhackers will also be tempted to continue on to Middle Branch Marsh and North Branch Lake, both of which are much easier to explore in the frozen embrace of winter.

Siamese Ponds

Map by Nancy Bernstein.

The trail from Eleventh Mountain is the main artery into the Siamese Ponds Wilderness, and the primary route to the ponds themselves. Since much of the route follows close along the East Branch of the Sacandaga River, the 6.6-mile walk is quite scenic. The stretch along the river is a classic ski route, but the part that crosses the shoulder of Eleventh Mountain—with its patches of bare ice and the 400-foot descent into the river valley—puts snowshoers at an advantage over the skiers.

Crossing the suspension bridge over the East Branch of the Sacandaga.

Marked with blue disks, the trail leads away from the highway as it circles around the steep southwestern face of the mountain. Then the long descent begins, leading to a footbridge over Diamond Brook at 1.5 miles. By now, you have begun to glimpse the East Branch through the trees to your left. The trail will draw very close to the river at several points. As the river freezes and thaws during the winter, it can heave giant blocks of ice onto its banks. The river rarely freezes solid enough that winter travelers can cross it.

At 3.7 miles, bear left at a fork. This trail, staying close to the river, leads in 0.5 miles to a lean-to and a large suspension bridge. After crossing the bridge, you will be heading away from the river and following the Siamese Ponds’ outlet stream. There is an icy crossing of that stream and then a 300-foot climb to the east shore of the lower pond, about 2.5 miles from the bridge.

The only way to see the upper pond is to cross the lower one. White birches march down to the shoreline, and the serrated ridge of County Line Mountain looms to the west.

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