A late season treat
By Phil Brown
If you’re looking for a challenging backcountry ski, you might want to go to Owl Head Lookout in the Giant Mountain Wilderness. It’s an ideal trip for late winter, because the trail needs 1½ to 2 feet of snow to be skiable. By this time of year, too, you’ve presumably had plenty of opportunities to sharpen your ski skills.
Starting from Route 9N, the trail climbs 1,100 feet in 2½ miles to a signpost junction. To get to the lookout, turn left and ascend another tenth of a mile. You’ll have to take off your skis to reach the open ledges, where you’ll be treated to spectacular views of Giant, Rocky Peak Ridge, Lake Champlain and Vermont’s Green Mountains.
Tony Goodwin rates this an “intermediate-expert” trail in Classic Adirondack Ski Tours. I consider myself an intermediate skier, but after my experience on Owl Heal, I’m thinking of downgrading my ranking to klutz. I fell several times on the return trip and once banged my hip against a tree in a vain attempt at a graceful stop.
I mention my Nordic pratfalls to emphasize that the steep sections of this route can be quite difficult. On the day I made the trip, I had trouble snowplowing down the narrow trail, because the snow on the sides was heavy and compact. Under powder conditions, I might have had fewer spills. Some skiers abandon the trail altogether and ski through the open hardwoods. That’s a strategy to consider if you’re having trouble controlling your speed on the packed trail. Another possibility is to ski in as far as you wish and snowshoe the rest of the way.
The trail begins on an unplowed road, but soon enters the woods and makes a gradual ascent. After crossing a brook, it passes through a stand of hemlocks. The trail enters the state Forest Preserve about a half-mile from the start and crosses Slide Brook on a bridge at 1.1 mile. The trail continues to ascend, passing a small cliff on the left, and starts to steepen. This is where you’ll find an open forest of beeches and other deciduous trees.
Despite my accidents, I actually enjoyed most of the return. My favorite part came toward the end, where I coasted along with just enough speed to make the descent exciting but not terrifying. There were plenty of turns, but I managed to make them all without bruising a tree.
From Elizabethtown, drive 4.5 miles west on Route 9N to a trailhead sign on the left. Or from Route 73 south of Keene, drive 5.5 miles east on 9N. There is a parking lot, but it may not be plowed.