By Bill Ingersoll
Having lived in the western foothills of the Adirondacks since I was born, snow has been a major part of my life. As a kid I’d spend hours steering my plastic sled down the hill behind the house or building forts in snowbanks. Both of my feet became frostbitten at age 11 when I got too carried away with a day’s worth of snowball fights and other games.
Nowadays, I view snow as something that transforms familiar landscapes into new territories, bestowing new personalities to the wild places I know well. There is no experience quite like walking through a conifer forest the day after a fresh snowfall, with all of the balsam firs and spruces looking like conical statues under their heavy burdens. Or viewing the surrounding mountains from a forested trail when all of the leaves are off the trees. Or walking across a frozen pond to explore shoreline coves.
These are things that winter makes possible.
Here are four of my favorite winter hikes, chosen from locations around the Adirondack Park. All are moderate trips that can be adapted in a number of ways to suit a variety of tastes.
Chase Lake 5.2 miles round trip
From the end of a town road in Bleecker, in the southern Adirondacks, a marked trail leads east on a journey to a little-visited lake in the Shaker Mountain Wild Forest. With its lean-to, easy trail and fine views of a small mountain known as the Pinnacle, Chase Lake would seem to have all the ingredients of a popular destination. But only about 100 people visit here in a year, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
The trail was once used by snowmobiles, but today the few people who go to Chase Lake do so under their own power. In my observation, most machine use comes from an illegal trail originating east of the lake. DEC has proposed redesignating the main trail for foot travel only and replacing the old lean-to with a new one on the more scenic eastern shoreline.
From the end of Pinnacle Road, follow the marked trail that leads off to the right. The trail was designed to circumvent private land, which partly explains its zigzagging course. It essentially parallels the boundary, leading north of east around a knoll, and then cutting southeast on a course that eventually takes you through a deep ravine. Beyond, you are briefly close enough to the private parcel that you can clearly see the difference between the cut-over forest on your right and the more mature stand on state land.
After walking for 1.1 miles, you intercept the original trail as it exits the private property. The marked trail bears sharp left to follow it, heading northeast again. You are now on what appears to be an old woods road, following beside a wide gully that is unusual in its straight course and unchanging dimensions. Indeed much of the remaining hike to the lake passes through level terrain.
At 1.8 miles the trail cuts right and dips to cross a low swampy area, and then resumes its east-northeast course to the lean-to near the south end of the lake. You reach this spot 2.6 miles from the trailhead. Unfortunately, the lean-to is not well sited to take in all the charms of Chase Lake.
If and when DEC extends the trail around the southern corner of the lake to the proposed new shelter on the east shore, visitors will have a better view. While the western shore is hemmed in with marshlands, the eastern shore has a number of rocky points, each one capped with a scenic tent site with a view of the Pinnacle and its reddish-colored cliffs. When the lake is solidly frozen, snowshoers can strike off across the frozen expanse to see for themselves.
A trip to Chase Lake can be combined with off-trail treks to Mud Lake to the north or possibly back to the trailhead along the spine of the Pinnacle—adventures that require backwoods navigation skills.
Grass Pond 3.2 or 4 miles round trip
This little pond located within the Ha-de-ron-dah Wilderness is difficult to appreciate in the summer. A marked hiking trail leads to the outlet at its southern end, but Grass Pond’s marshy shoreline holds summer visitors at arm’s length. Winter visitors have the advantage by being able to get beyond the shoreline to enjoy the pond’s farthest reaches.
There are two good ways to get there. The shortest and surest route begins at a prominent trailhead on NY 28 about 3 miles south of Thendara. The trail begins with a steep 100-foot climb to the top of a knoll, but then maintains a far more moderate course the rest of the way. At the first trail junction at 0.6 miles, turn right. This segment leads in 0.2 miles to a second junction at the foot of a hill, where you should bear left onto a red-marked trail. After bending around the southern end of the hill, this trail reaches a third junction 0.3 miles from the last (1.1 miles overall). Here, the yellow-marked trail to the right leads for the final 0.5 miles to Grass Pond.
Utica-area hikers could navigate these trails blindfolded.
The other way to get there is far less frequently traveled. It is a little longer, and the terrain is slightly more rugged—traits that may very well be selling points for some people. This route begins north of Lake Tekeni in the Okara Lakes residential area, where a corner of state land touches a bend in the road around Lake Tekeni. From this trailhead, follow the yellow-marked trail left, west. At 0.4 miles you reach the unnamed outlet of nearby Rock Pond, where you will likely need to scout upstream for a frozen beaver pond to cross on. The stream itself is fairly wide and resists winter’s efforts to freeze it for safe crossings. West of the creek, a small esker winds through the woods. The trail is pressed between private land and the bottom of a steep hillside for much of the way to a junction at 1.2 miles. Turn right on the red-marked trail, and then right again at 1.5 miles, reaching Grass Pond after a total hike of 2 miles.
Thanks to beaver dams, Grass Pond is currently larger than shown on topographic maps—so there is that much more of it to enjoy. It is embraced on three sides by low ridges, including one to the southwest that presents a remarkably steep face.
Hour Pond 7 miles round trip
There are many fine backcountry ponds and lakes in the Adirondacks, but Hour Pond in the northern Siamese Ponds Wilderness is one of the finest—and there is now a new way to get there.
The state has recently marked a new foot trail to the pond from the west shore of Thirteenth Lake, and built a new lean-to in the woods near Hour. This provides an excellent snowshoe route with good scenery at both ends.
The new route begins at the north end of Thirteenth Lake and follows the beginning of the trail to Peaked Mountain. Start by passing through the mini-campground that lies between the trailhead and the lake. The trail bears right to follow the lake’s west shore, marked with sparse red markers. Although it stays close to the lake, this section of the trail features several ledges and numerous little ups and downs. Many winter hikers and skiers bypass this part of the trail and walk across the ice instead. Thirteenth Lake’s headwinds can make this an arctic experience, and the ice around the mouth of Peaked Mountain Brook is often weak, so use caution and dress warmly if you take this option.
By trail, it is a mile to Peaked Mountain Brook, where you’ll find a new junction and a new log bridge spanning a deep little gorge. Bear left across the bridge, following the new red-marked trail further along the shoreline. The forest is taller and statelier here, apparently having been beyond the reach of the forest fires that ravaged the woods farther north in the early 1900s. You come to another junction at 1.3 miles. The side trail to the left leads to a water access point where those who are crossing the ice should enter the woods. This spot may only be marked by a single red marker on a birch tree.
The trail now turns southwest away from the lake, passing a rock bluff and following a small stream into the hills. The valley widens out, and the trail passes through a hardwood forest damaged in a March 2008 ice storm, which brought down many branches. This area will likely become thick with brush now that more sunlight is reaching the ground.
Having climbed 450 feet above Thirteenth Lake, the trail passes through a saddle and begins to descend. You briefly glimpse Puffer and Bullhead mountains in the distance. The trail leads past several large boulders to a junction at 2.6 miles. The yellow trail leading left and right is the original trail to Hour Pond. Turn right, coming to a scenic beaver flow at 2.7 miles. The beaver dam is solidly built and makes an excellent bridge across the wetland.
At the far end of the dam, the trail bears left and follows the edge of the wetland before curving inland—first west, and then northward—toward Hour Pond. It comes to an end at 3.5 miles on the east shore of Hour Pond, at a former campsite with an outstanding view of Bullhead Mountain to the west. An unmarked side trail leads right (north) for 500 feet to the lean-to. This one is set back over 200 feet from the shore, and while it would otherwise make a good winter campsite there is no nearby source of water when the pond is frozen.
Like Chase Lake and Grass Pond, this pond is well worth exploring if the ice is frozen solid. Mountains surround the pond on three sides, imparting a strong sense of isolation. If you are exploring Hour Pond during a thaw, check out the interesting ledges on the outlet.
Owls Head Mountain 6.4 miles round trip
Owls Head Mountain, elevation 2,811 feet, offers views of Raquette Lake and Forked Lake to the southwest, the wild Fishing Brook Range to the east and, farther away, the High Peaks to the northeast. From the restored fire tower you have a 360° view.
Two trails begin at the Endion Road trailhead, both marked for Owls Head Mountain. The trail on the right is a snowmobile trail that seems to be no longer maintained or used as such. The hiking trail is on the left side. It climbs steeply to a height of land, and at 0.5 miles the old snowmobile trail connects on the right. The hiking trail and the snowmobile trail interweave in a westerly course across knolls crowned with hemlocks.
At 1 mile, there is a three-way intersection. The way right is a snowmobile trail around Lake Eaton. You can walk to a bay on the lake in just 0.4 miles, making this a good side trip if you have the time.
To reach Owls Head, follow the red markers left from the three-way intersection. In just a short distance, the other snowmobile trail hooks sharply left toward Long Lake. Ignore it, staying instead on the foot trail, which will be much narrower and more rugged from this point forward.
The red trail continues fairly level for another 0.5 miles and then begins to climb, gently at first. At 2.3 miles, the trail swings sharply south and becomes quite steep as it follows a brook that drains the draw between two of Owls Head’s knobs. Many of the telephone poles that once bore the lines leading to the fire tower still stand. The steep climbing ends, for now, at the saddle between the knobs.
The trail descends at 3 miles to the site of the fire observer’s cabin, today just a small clearing. The true summit is visible through the trees ahead. The ascent up this southern knob is a steep route with occasional views as you go. This leads directly to the open rock below the tower, 3.2 miles from Endion Road and after a 1,170-foot rise in elevation.
The Owls Head ledges offer a good view, with Blue Mountain being the most prominent landmark, but the view from the tower is even better. This is a unique location, right on the boundary line of the mountainous highlands to the east and the lake country to the west. In that direction Moose Pond is the key landmark, but across the private lands of Whitney Park you can see most of the state’s William C. Whitney Wilderness Area, including Rock Pond and a slim portion of Little Tupper Lake. The many small mountains there and beyond, in the Five Ponds Wilderness, all blend into anonymity.
In the opposite direction, the Santanoni Range (identifiable by the long, thin line of the Ermine Brook Slide) is the most prominent of the High Peaks. Mount Sabattis rises in the foreground. To the south you can see Little Blue Mountain with Blue Ridge beyond. Owls Head Pond, Forked Lake, and Raquette Lake are all partially visible to the southwest. n
Bill Ingersoll of Barneveld is the publisher of the Discover the Adirondacks series of guidebooks, and the author of Snowshoe Routes: Adirondacks and Catskills.