Skiing the Blue Mountain circuit
By Phil Brown
What goes up must come down, but as we discovered on a delightful ski tour around Blue Mountain this winter, what comes down doesn’t have to go up.
And that’s good news for all you skiers who prefer gliding to herringboning. Of course, if you prefer slogging uphill, you are free to do the Blue Mountain Roundabout in reverse.
The eight-mile trip starts on Route 28N/30, just up the road from the Adirondack Museum, and ends on Route 28/30 east of the hamlet of Blue Mountain Lake. Because the end is more than 400 feet lower than the start, skiers will encounter more downs than ups along the way.
If you do the end-to-end trip, you’ll need two cars to shuttle between trailheads (which are only four miles apart). If you have only one car, you can ski from Route 28/30 to Tirrell Pond and back (it’s 3.5 miles to the south end of the pond). Either way, you’ll imbibe some wonderful scenery.
I did the round-the-mountain tour after a big snowfall with four backcountry enthusiasts: Sue Bibeau, our official photographer; her husband, Jeff Oehler; Mike Lynch, the outdoors writer for the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, and JoAnn Perry.
None of us had done this before, so we didn’t know what to expect. We were especially curious about a mile-long downhill to Tirrell Pond, with a drop of 400 feet. Tony Goodwin’s guidebook, Ski and Snowshoe Trails in the Adirondacks, says the descent “requires a bit more than intermediate skill.” I had visions of rocketing down a narrow trail, dodging branches and blowdown.
The starting point is the same trailhead for people hiking (or snowshoeing) to the 3,759-foot summit of Blue Mountain. Those folks follow a trail marked by red disks. Skiers should take the trail to the left, marked by yellow disks.
We followed a faint set of ski tracks into the hardwood forest. The branches and trunks of the trees were coated with snow, creating a maze of white. After a while, we noticed ski tracks in the open woods above us. Evidently, the locals come here to make turns. After 45 minutes or so, we crossed an access road that leads to a communications tower near the top of Blue Mountain. A 1992 guidebook, Adirondack Cross-Country Skiing, recommends the road as an exciting (on the way down) ski for experts. One way to do it would be to climb the mountain’s hiking trail and ski down the access road.
But don’t run for your telemark gear just yet. The access road, the trail we came in on and the woods all around these parts are privately held, owned for years by the paper company Finch, Pruyn & Co. Last year, however, the Adirondack Nature Conservancy bought all of Finch’s Adirondack lands. It’s possible that the conservancy, in turn, will sell the Blue
Mountain tract to the state or at least sell easements that would allow the public to ski or snowshoe off the designated trails.
Connie Prickett, a spokesperson for the conservancy, said the nonprofit group doesn’t know yet what will happen to this tract. “We’re still trying to sort all these things out,” she said.
Until the situation changes, it’s still illegal to use the access road or ski the glades. As law-abiding citizens, we resisted temptation and stuck to the trail. Through the trees, we could see the summit of Blue on our right. Shortly, we climbed through a dazzling grove of white birch to the saddle between Blue and Buck mountains. We had ascended 160 feet over two miles and now stood at 2,360 feet. Ahead lay our reward, the long downhill to Tirrell Pond, at 1,918 feet. Overall, we had six miles and 570 feet of descent to go to reach our second car.
On this day, the descent was not difficult. The deep powder prevented us from building up speed. In fact, when I was in front, I was poling and striding down the hill, trying to stay ahead of my companions, who enjoyed more glide by following in my tracks. In different conditions, the trail could be quite swift, but it is plenty wide enough to make turns or stops to control your speed.
At the bottom of the hill, we reached the Northville-Placid Trail, turned right and soon came to the lean-to at the north end of Tirrell Pond. As we ate lunch in the lean-to, JoAnn revealed that she had stayed here while hiking the 120-mile NP in the fall of 2002. “It brings back a lot of pleasant memories,” she said. “It also brings back memories of a kicking blister.”
A strong wind was stirring up swirls of snow on the pond, so when we resumed our trek, we decided to stay on the trail, in the shelter of the woods. This mile-long stretch parallels the shoreline, passing balsam firs and hemlocks. The sun came out as we neared the foot of the lake, and so we skied onto the ice for views of Tirrell Mountain, looming over the northeast shore, and 3,580-foot Dun Brook Mountain farther away to the east.
Jeff, an avid telemarker, eyed wistfully an open slope on Tirrell Mountain. “That looks like it’d be fun to ski,” he said. “Of course, it’d take about 30 seconds.”
But Jeff will have to wait for that thrill. Tirrell and Dun Brook mountains (the latter is one of the Adirondacks’ Hundred Highest) also had been owned by Finch, Pruyn and so remain off limits to the public.
At the end of the lake, we passed a side trail that leads to another lean-to and climbed briefly to a small height of land, then enjoyed a 200-foot-descent to the western edge of the O’Neil Flow, a large treeless swamp that in winter resembles a white desert, with leatherleaf shrubs poking through the snow. I imagine it would be fun to explore the flow on skis, but most of this magical place, too, belonged to Finch and remains for now off limits to the public.
After skirting the flow, we made one more small climb and enjoyed one more descent, reaching the car five hours after we began. It was a full day, but it might have been fuller had we been able to ski Blue Mountain from the summit or make turns in the glades or explore the O’Neil Flow. Perhaps that day will come.
SHUTTLE DIRECTIONS: From the T intersection in the hamlet of Blue Mountain Lake, drive east on NY 28/30 for 2.6 miles to a parking area on the left for the Northville-Placid Trail. Leave a car here. To reach the starting point, drive back to the T-intersection, turn right and drive 1.4 miles to a parking area on the right. Take the trail to the left, marked by yellow disks. The trail marked by red disks leads to the summit of Blue Mountain.
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