Hoffman Notch and Santanoni Loop
By Gary Randorf
When the Explorer asked me to write about two of my favorite ski trips, I didn’t have to rattle my brain long before I hit on the two gems below. Both should be great skiing in late winter, when there is (or should be) lots of snow. If you love the winter wilderness and enjoy backcountry skiing, you won’t be disappointed with either of these trips.
I’m not an expert skier by any means. So this intermediate ski is just about right for holding my attention and keeping me on my toes. The terrain is a bit rough at times, so I like to do this trip with a pretty good snow depth and, as Clarence Petty would say, after “the streams have soldered up pretty good.” Because there are a couple of crossings of Hoffman Notch Brook sans bridges.
Unless you make it a round-trip of up to 14 miles, which is very doable, or at least it was when I was still a young buck, you’ll need to spot a second car on Blue Ridge Road. After depositing your clunker there, drive your first Mercedes to Schroon Lake village, then find your way to the metropolis of Loch Muller (this can be a feat, so pay attention to signs and mileage).
Just before you reach the trailhead, you’ll pass a quaint sign on a big white pine that was tacked onto the tree long ago. It reads: “To All Lovers of Nature. Greetings. In this spot in the year 1845 this pine sapling of twelve years was transplanted by me at the age of twelve. For seventy years I have watched and protected it. In my advancing years it has given me rest and comfort. Woodsman, spare that tree, touch not a single bough. In youth it sheltered me, and I’ll protect it now. Paschal D. Warren. June 1, 1920. Age 87.”
After you park, follow your nose west and north a bit, or the ski tracks if you’re lucky enough to be preceded, and you’ll start finding trail markers. Head north for the long, fairly straight path to your clunker—the trail disks will guide you most, if not all, the way. If you have only one car and don’t want to ski end to end, you can turn around at Big Marsh for a 7.6-mile round trip.
Highlights: The forest, the brook, traversing Big Marsh, the long downhill glides, the absence of other people, the overall wilderness character. This trip is a pip! But allow yourself plenty of time. The last time I did this, the trail was getting a bit overgrown. And it can be a long seven miles if you’re breaking trail through untouched snow.
Northern trailhead: From Northway Exit 29, drive west on Blue Ridge Road for 5.9 miles. Park in small clearing off the south shoulder, immediately after crossing over the Branch River (it’s also across from the entrance to the Ragged Mountain Fish and Game Club).
Southern trailhead: From the village of Schroon Lake, drive west on Hoffman Road for 6.6 miles to Loch Muller Road on the right. Take Loch Muller Road to its end, about 2.8 miles.
Don’t even think about this trip unless you have a full day and lotsa gusto. You’ll break a good bit of a trail, and the miles on the ground are a good bit longer than on the map. I suggest you do it late enough in the season to have the option of skiing across Newcomb Lake to Great Camp Santanoni. And it’ll be a darn sight easier if the streams and wetlands around Newcomb Lake are frozen good and stiff.
All roads lead to Newcomb, and it’s easy to find the sign pointing you to Camp Santanoni on the west end of the hamlet, across from Mikey’s, a very friendly local bar. From the parking area, ski 2½ miles past the farm buildings to a trail intersection and a directional sign. The beaten-down path will go to the right, but you’ll want to turn left into the High Peaks Wilderness Area, toward Moose Pond. About three miles down this trail look carefully for a somewhat esoteric turnoff to the right, which used to be marked with DEC trail disks. If you start up the hill to Moose Pond you’ve gone too far. Keep in mind that a tour to Moose Pond and out again is a fine alternative if you don’t find the crossover.
If you are a good trailblazer and do find the trail intersection, you’ll have a choice as you approach Newcomb Lake: continue left until you can access the lake or go right, skirting the south shore, until you reach the main trail (at long last!). Don’t pass up the optional random scoot across Newcomb Lake, if the ice is good and solid, if you have plenty of time and if your tongue is not hanging out.
Highlights: The woods, the wilderness feel, the solitude (after branching off from the main trail), Newcomb Lake (look for otter where a spring or current often keeps an opening in the ice) and your sheer sense of accomplishment. A cold one at Mikey’s on your way out will cap off a perfect day.
In the hamlet of Newcomb, turn north off NY 28N about 0.3 mile west of the town hall. The turn is marked by a sign for the Santanoni Preserve. A narrow road leads across a bridge to the trailhead register.