Comforts of home in a wild setting
By Robin Ambrosino
The first person I spoke to at Garnet Hill Lodge’s ski shop said, “Oh, no. You’re not going to tell everyone about our little spot, are you?”
She was joking, for the most part, but this place does have the feel of a well-kept secret. Big crowds are rare even on winter weekends with bluebird skies and plenty of snow. But given its 55 kilometers of groomed trails, 2,000 feet of elevation, full-service ski shop and staff that offers lessons in Nordic and telemark techniques, it seems a shame not to share.
For recent downhill converts like myself, Garnet Hill comes as a pleasant surprise. The $13 day buys access to a great variety of skiing terrain, with tracks set on both sides of most trails and groomed ski-skating lanes in the middle.
My favorite intermediate cruiser was Trapper Trail, which started out wide and flat, then progressed to a series of hills that were just steep enough to make the wind rush by. On the beginner slopes, I cruised along wide, level grades that passed views of Mount Marcy, a working sugarhouse, and a kid-pleasing group of pigs and llamas that live at the farm on the North Acres loop. There were also steep, narrow, twisty trails like Skullbuster Hill and Joe Pete’s Run, marked with black diamonds for skiers who enjoy hairpin turns and little room for error. But I was too chicken to check those out myself.
The day I was there, a middle-aged couple was taking a lesson in front of the ski shop while a group of backcountry skiers finished a guided trek from Gore Mountain, located 10 miles away. “Once in a while advanced skiers blow by you like you’re standing still,” joked ski instructor Julia Stanistreet. “But overall I’d say most people who come here are beginners or intermediates.”
Regardless of ability, all the skiers I met seemed friendly and low-key. When I stepped into the shop at lunchtime, I found the whole crew winding down for a midday respite. Skiers were stretching, peeling off layers and digging into coolers full of healthy stuff from home. Drinks, candy, homemade soup and chili were available for sale, but there was no large-scale concession stand. Conversation was easy and quiet, background music was low, and when most skiers went back out to ski, a couple of stragglers stretched out on lunch-table benches for an afternoon snooze.
“It’s a different crowd,” said Queensbury resident Ann Hague, contrasting Garnet Hill to a downhill lodge where her son’s helmet was stolen. “That just wouldn’t happen here. Everyone’s so friendly. And no matter how often we come, we never get bored. We know which trails have views, and the rest we use for exercise.”
Hague’s husband, Brad, used to ski competitively, and the couple has made tracks throughout New York, Vermont and Canada, trying out different cross-country trail systems. That they’ve been season-pass holders for seven years at Garnet Hill says a lot about their feelings for the place. “For skating, you’d have a hard time finding better terrain,” Brad said.
Just make sure you don’t underestimate the terrain you cover. If you decide to ski out to the easternmost edge of Garnet Hill territory, keep in mind that it’s a four-mile uphill trek back to the ski shop. If you forget that little fact, as I did my first time here, there’s the real chance of dropping from exhaustion when you reach the shop’s door. It’s a great workout if you’re up for it; otherwise it’s a great way to wear yourself out. Luckily, for those of us who could be in better shape, there’s a less grueling option. Sign up for one of the shuttle buses that runs every 45 minutes on weeekends, and when you get to the bottom of the hill on your skis, a friendly driver will pick you up and bring you back to the lodge. Then you can turn around and do it again . . . or take a nap on one of the benches.
If you can tear yourself away from the skiing for a while, other parts of Garnet Hill’s 600 acres are worth exploring, too. True to its namesake, Garnet Hill was first developed as a garnet mine in 1905, and a small village sprung up here during its heyday in the early 1900s. The mine closed in the 1920s, but many of the surrounding buildings were converted into vacation homes that today are part of a network of 23 outbuildings available for rent on a weekly or winter weekend basis.
During my weekend here, I stayed at Garnet Hill’s Log House in a comfortable room whose birch-framed balcony overlooked Thirteenth Lake and the surrounding mountains. Before and after meals, I relaxed in the Adirondack lounge, reading with other guests in front of the huge fieldstone fireplace. Meals were very good from beginning to end—but especially the end, when I tasted a flaky, delicious, mixed-berry pie made by the inn’s baker and pastry chef, Mary Jane Freebern. One guest book entry read, “Mary Jane is #1!” and I agree. You can take a pie home if you place your order by 11 a.m. the day before.
While crowds at Garnet Hill are rare during most of the year, it does get busy during winter holiday weekends. If you’re looking for solitude, this is a perfect time to explore the Siamese Ponds Wilderness, located just off Garnet Hill grounds. But be prepared for a big difference between Garnet Hill’s groomed trails and the backwoods conditions. The 9.6-mile wilderness route between Thirteenth Lake Road in the north and Route 8 in the south can be crunchy before the sun softens the snow. According to Garnet Hill ski shop manager Dick Carlson, the passage can range from novice to advanced-intermediate depending on the conditions. “Novices are OK after a snowfall,” he said, “but otherwise it’s pretty solid intermediate terrain. The best time to go is between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. After about 3, things start icing up again.”
Under any conditions, even intermediate skiers should be aware of a steep hill on the end of the trail near Route 8. In Classic Adirondack Ski Tours, Tony Goodwin mentions that many skiers opt to start at the south end of the trail and climb the 0.3-mile, 240-foot grade rather than attempt the descent after having already skied 10 miles. It’s worth noting, however, that the trail from the north is mainly downhill, while the other way around is mostly uphill. Either way, unless you’re staying at Garnet Hill overnight, leaving a car on both ends is a must.
From North: Northway to Exit 26. Follow Route 9 south to Route 28; then go west to Thirteenth Lake Road. Go left on Thirteenth Lake Road and follow the signs to the Garnet Hill Ski Shop.
From South: Northway to Exit 23. Follow Route 9 north to Route 28. See above. To Siamese Ponds Wilderness Area: Bear right off Thirteenth Lake Road onto Old Farm Road. At the parking area, follow tracks to DEC trailhead and register. (Using groomed trails requires a Garnet Hill ski pass.)