After the first snowstorm of the season, our editor visits one of his favorite sections of the Jackrabbit.
By Phil Brown
On a few occasions I have skied the Jackrabbit Trail the full twenty-four miles from Saranac Lake to Keene, but like most people I usually ski only a section of the trail on a given day.
I suppose my favorite section is the 3.4 miles from the top of McKenzie Pass to McKenzie Pond Road outside Saranac Lake, mainly because it entails an exhilarating descent of a mile and a half. On a good powder day, I sometimes do the round trip on an extended lunch break.
But last winter, owing to a scarcity of snow, I found myself more often skiing the opposite (east) side of the pass. The trail on that side seems to hold snow better, perhaps because it starts at a higher elevation and begins climbing right away.
This past November, I was out of town when the first snowstorm of the season hit. By the time I returned a week later, much of the snow had melted. I was itching to ski somewhere, so I turned to this reliable stretch of the Jackrabbit.
I met Brian Mann on a Sunday morning at the trailhead on Whiteface Inn Road in Lake Placid. Unlike me, Brian had stayed in the Adirondacks over the Thanksgiving holiday. This would be his fourth day of skiing since the snowstorm. Not bad, considering that he skied only seven times during the stinko winter of 2015-16.
“I never even got to Marcy Dam,” Brian said of last winter. “How sad is that?”
I’d love to say we had an amazing time schussing through a foot of champagne powder on the Jackrabbit, but it wasn’t like that. The snow had frozen and consolidated into an unbreakable crust. Worse, bare-booting hikers had pounded the trail, creating a trough of icy divots.
Brian wondered why the state Department of Environmental Conservation doesn’t put up signs advising hikers to wear snowshoes and stick to the side of the trail. As we ascended the first hill, he grew more agitated. “This is one of the premier ski trails in New York State, and that is worthy of respect,” he said. “I’d hate to be somebody who drove from Connecticut to ski here and found this.”
The Barkeater Trails Alliance (BETA), which maintains the Jackrabbit, puts up its own signs each winter, but it had yet to do so on the day of our ski. Despite our complaints, we were happy to be in the woods and on skis. “A crummy ski day is better than no ski day,” Brian mused.
When conditions are good, this stretch of the Jackrabbit is not to be missed. Many people probably would prefer it to the west side of the pass, where the long, steep descent can be intimidating. The hills on the east side are shorter and more manageable but still plenty of fun.
Another advantage of skiing the pass from the Lake Placid side is that on the return you can glide virtually back to your car. In contrast, after descending the big hill on the other side of the pass, you still have two miles of flat skiing—apart from a few dips—to reach the trailhead.
On a weekend day in winter, there often are cars parked at the Jackrabbit trailhead on Whiteface Inn Road. Not so on this day, but we could tell from tracks that people had been skiing here after the storm. Incidentally, the start is marked only by a small “Jackrabbit Trail” sign that’s easy to miss.
The trail follows an old woods road. Brian and I skied a short distance to a register, where a half-mile climb begins. Since the hill is only moderately steep, we were able to climb it easily with our wax-less skis. Nevertheless, we were worried about the return trip as a number of rocks were poking through the snow. This is to be expected early in the season, but we’d have to be extra careful on the descent. Brian was already regretting that he was on skinny cross-country skis. I was outfitted with a lightweight telemark setup that would give me greater control on the downhills.
The Jackrabbit crosses a strip of private land to reach the register, enters the Forest Preserve, and then crosses more private land before re-entering the Preserve about three-quarters of a mile from the trailhead. BETA has agreements with the private landholders that allow the public to use the Jackrabbit, but there is no long-term easement in place. A few years back, one landowner built several woods roads on the slope to the right of the Jackrabbit, evidently with the aim of selling lots.
As Brian and I passed these roads, we wondered about the future of the property and of the Jackrabbit. Later, I contacted Josh Wilson, BETA’s executive director, who told me the parcel was sold last year. The new owner, he added, has no plans to develop the land or close public access to the Jackrabbit. “I’m not worried about it at all,” Wilson said.
Skiers passing these newly cut woods roads might be tempted to ski them, but that would be trespassing. You should stick to the marked trail.
Shortly after reaching the top of the hill and passing the last of these roads, the Jackrabbit enters the McKenzie Mountain Wilderness. Over the next mile, it ascends gradually to a four-way junction with a foot trail that goes to McKenzie Mountain. This is an especially lovely stretch to ski when the snow is clinging to evergreen branches. Also, sitting at more than 2,500 feet in elevation, this part of the trail usually has good cover.
En route to the junction, we passed the Placid Lean-to on the right. If you’re looking for a short outing, this is a good turn-around spot. It’s located 1.2 miles from the trailhead. At the junction, reached at 1.7 miles, we went straight and began a steep but short ascent to McKenzie Pass, the saddle (elevation 2,650 feet) between Haystack Mountain and McKenzie Mountain. The pass in winter always strikes me as the epitome of serenity—far from roads, hemmed in by mountains, surrounded by a bounty of snow.
Brian and I had come nearly two miles and ascended roughly 650 feet. Parties who set up a car shuttle can continue straight through the pass, descending to McKenzie Pond and then skiing the flats to McKenzie Pond Road. This is a great trip if you can handle the long descent.
As for Brian and me, we took a few photos in the pass and then turned around, somewhat apprehensive about the downhills on the way back. The initial descent back to the junction wasn’t too difficult, though I stopped once to check my speed. The big test came with the half-mile descent to the register. Normally, I’ll bomb this stretch, but given the hard crust, the icy boot prints, and the occasional rock, I snowplowed much of the way and stopped three or four times. I was relieved to get back to the car without falling.
While we took off our skis, I asked Brian what he thought of our outing.
“I’m glad we did it,” he said. “If it weren’t for the deplorables in their boots, it would have been a lot more fun.”
For an early-season ski, I’ll take it too. But I’m looking forward to returning midwinter.