A refurbished Mr. Van Trail offers an alternative to the popular Avalanche Pass ski tour.
By Phil Brown
IF YOU’RE A backcountry skier, it’s hard to resist a trail with “ski” in its name. And so upon learning that the Mr. Van Ski Trail had been spruced up, I asked my friend Brian Mann to join me last winter on a trip from Adirondak Loj to the state-owned cross-country-ski center at Mount Van Hoevenberg.
The six-mile through trip, we later decided, is not the best way to experience Mr. Van, because the long-awaited downhill from Hi-Notch is all on the wide, groomed superhighways of the ski center rather than on a backwoods trail.
I returned to Mr. Van a few weeks later and did a solo round-trip from the Loj to Hi-Notch. It’s 9.4 miles this way—roughly the same length as the popular trip to Avalanche Lake and back. The scenery may not be as spectacular as at Avalanche Lake, but you’re more likely to find solitude. Also, it’s a bit easier, though both trips are considered intermediate in difficulty.
The Mr. Van Ski Trail—named for Henry Van Hoevenberg, who built the original Adirondack Lodge (as it was then spelled) at Heart Lake in 1879—was constructed by the state in the 1970s, according to Tony Goodwin, executive director of the Adirondack Ski Touring Council. At that time, people could ski for free at the Mount Van Hoevenberg cross-country center. Nowadays, the center charges a $20 fee. If you do a through trip from the Loj, the fee is waived. If you start at the ski center, you have to pay it.
Mr. Van fell into disuse over time. More than a decade ago, the bridge over Marcy Brook washed out. Then beavers flooded the trail between the brook and the Marcy Dam Truck Trail. The last straw was when a bridge over South Meadow Brook washed out.
In recent years, volunteers from the Adirondack Ski Touring Council and Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) rehabilitated the trail. They clipped brush, removed blowdown, put up trail markers, and rerouted the section near the busy beavers.
However, the bridges are still out, so this is a trip best done in midwinter when the brooks are frozen solid. As an alternative, you can start at South Meadow Road. By skiing up the unplowed road and the Marcy Dam Truck Trail to a junction with Mr. Van you can avoid the Marcy Brook crossing. You will still have to cross South Meadow Brook, but this smaller stream is more likely to have safe ice.
Incidentally, the state Department of Environmental Conservation does not plan to replace the Marcy Brook bridge, given that there is an alternative route. The department says it would be willing to work with a volunteer group to replace the South Meadow Brook bridge.
Brian and I did the trip in late January. From the Loj’s High Peaks Information Center, we skied about two hundred yards on the Van Hoevenberg Trail (which leads to Mount Marcy) to the Mr. Van Trail. Turning left, we passed through a pine forest and then enjoyed a descent to Marcy Brook. We could see patches of open water but got around them by bushwhacking to the right through alders and finding good ice. During the crossing, we had impressive views of Avalanche Pass and a few of the High Peaks—one advantage of starting at the Loj.
After clambering up a steep bank on the other side, we skied through an evergreen forest and around a few beaver meadows. Since a thaw had reduced snow depth, this part of the trail was scratchy. Indeed, we encountered exposed rocks and roots often on our trip. Afterward, Goodwin told me that Mr. Van needs at least a foot of consolidated snow to be skied without having to dodge such obstacles. “A foot of fluff isn’t going to do it,” he said.
At 1.4 miles, we crossed the truck trail. (For those doing the variation, this junction is 0.4 miles from South Meadow Road.) Continuing our journey, we could see the north side of Phelps Mountain through the bare hardwoods. At 2.0 miles, we reached the Klondike Notch Trail and turned right. The routes coincided for a hundred yards. We then turned left to stay on Mr. Van.
Over the next 1.5 miles, we skied a number of small ups and downs—with glimpses of Mount Van Hoevenberg’s summit through the trees—before a longer downhill brought us to a lean-to next to South Meadow Brook. “This is kind of classic Adirondack skiing,” Brian said. “Open hardwoods with nice views. A little bit of contour, a few dips, so you’re not just trudging along.”
The ice on the brook looked solid, but just to be safe I let Brian cross first. On the other side, we passed through a narrow corridor of evergreens and then began a climb of nearly three-quarters of a mile, with an elevation gain of about three hundred feet. The gradient is not very steep, and there are some flat stretches on the way up. With good snow, an intermediate skier should have no problem on the descent. On this day, however, Brian and I were glad to be doing an end-to-end trip: numerous rocks stuck out of the snow.
About halfway up the hill, we paused to ponder a long, serpentine impression in the snow: an otter slide. We were surprised that an otter would be so far up the slope. Maybe, like us, the playful creature was looking for turns.
At 4.7 miles, we reached Hi-Notch and the Van Hoevenberg cross-country trails. We turned left and followed the signs for the Ladies Mile 5K. It’s a little over a mile to the ski-center’s entrance—most of it downhill. The run was fast and exhilarating, with a hairpin turn near the start, but we both thought it would be more fun to descend from Hi-Notch on the Mr. Van.
A few weeks later, after we got more snow, I went back to test our hypothesis. With the additional cover, the whole trail was a treat. The highlight, of course, was the long descent from Hi-Notch. I pointed my skis straight down the trail, knowing the flatter parts would slow my momentum (indeed, I found myself poling in one section). I had a blast, but it was over all too quickly. In no time I was back at the lean-to and retracing my tracks to the Loj.
We should be grateful to the Adirondack Ski Touring Council and ADK for reopening the Mr. Van Trail. It will never rival the Avalanche Lake tour in popularity, but that’s one of its charms.