Wilmington trail offers plenty of excitement for skiers who don’t like to earn their turns.
By Phil Brown
Any backcountry skier who has slogged seven and a half miles up Mount Marcy realizes that the old saying “What goes up must come down” has got it backwards. It should be “What comes down must go up.”
Yet that’s not always true.
Poor Man’s Downhill in Wilmington is the exception to the rule—more than three miles of descent with no uphill. It runs from the Whiteface Veterans Memorial Highway to Route 86, losing 1,225 feet in elevation.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation built the trail as a snowmobile route several years ago, but it doesn’t get a huge amount of use by sledders. When mountain bikers started using it in the non-winter months, they nicknamed it Poor Man’s Downhill, because it became popular with those who couldn’t afford to bike the trails at the nearby Whiteface Mountain Ski Area. Indeed, PMD has proved so popular with bikers that in summer the town of Wilmington periodically runs a shuttle from Leepoff Cycles, where the trail ends on Route 86, to the start on the Veterans Highway.
Of course, skiers like gravity too. And, like bikers, they might not want to shell out the big bucks for a Whiteface ticket. There is no shuttle for skiers, however, so Mike Lynch and I arranged our own when we skied the PMD in early March.
Keith McKeever had suggested we try the route.
Keith happens to be the spokesman for the Adirondack Park Agency, but he also is active in the Barkeater Trail Alliance (BETA), a group of volunteers that has been creating and maintaining mountain-bike trails in Wilmington, Lake Placid, and Saranac Lake. We met him at Leepoff Cycles (where trail users are allowed to park), put our skis in his pickup, and drove with him up the Veterans Memorial Highway.
Keith said PMD is a hair-raising ride on bikes with riders speeding down among rocks, but on skis it proved to be quite mellow. It is wide, smooth, and pretty gentle—suitable for intermediates and advanced beginners who know how to snowplow. The average grade is 7.5 percent. In comparison, the longest hill on the Jackrabbit Ski Trail drops 985 feet in 1.5 miles from McKenzie Pass, for an average grade of 12.4 percent.
PMD starts on the left side of the highway about a half-mile below the tollhouse, the start of a popular ski tour up Whiteface Mountain. If you have a big hankering for downhill, you could climb 5.3 miles from the tollhouse to the end of the road near the summit, ski back down, drive a half-mile to PMD, and then ski down to Wilmington. In all, you’d enjoy nearly 8.5 miles of downhill.
On this day, we would have to content ourselves with just 3.1 miles of descent. Looking at Poor Man’s Downhill from the road’s shoulder, I could hardly wait to begin: the trail dipped immediately to a wooden bridge and then curved left and out of sight. Evidently, only one snowmobiler had ridden the trail recently. Light powder on either side of the machine’s track beckoned us.
Finally we set off, with Keith leading the way. After schussing over the bridge we enjoyed a mellow cruise to Marble Mountain Road, a dead-end that leads to the Atmospheric Sciences Research Center. Over this stretch, the trail dropped 225 feet over 0.6 miles. We picked up the trail again on the other side of the road (it’s a bit to the right).
“Hey, no more snowmobile tracks,” Keith said. “It’s fresh powder.”
The next half-mile was even mellower than the first, dropping just 165 feet. After bending to the right, the trail led us to a former service road for a ski area that once operated on Marble Mountain. The service road is now part of a hiking trail up Whiteface. We skied a short distance along the unplowed road to a generator that once powered the T-bar.
At the generator, we turned left. Then, what a blast! I cruised for nearly three-quarters of a mile without stopping. The grade was gentle enough that I pushed myself with my poles once in a while to maintain momentum, but mostly I just enjoyed the ride. After dropping 350 feet in elevation, I finally slid to a halt and waited for Keith and Mike.
Skiing along a relatively flat section, we soon came to the steepest part of the trail. Mike, who writes for the Explorer, went ahead to take photos of Keith and me. I then tailgated Keith as we shot down through a stand of evergreens, topping out at twenty miles an hour (based on my GPS watch). This might be too fast for a beginner, but bear in mind that we were going as fast as we could. Also, the trail is wide enough that we easily could have made turns to reduce our speed.
The last part of Poor Man’s Downhill is very gentle, with just enough slope to sustain our momentum as we were kicking and gliding back to Leepoff’s.
In all, it took us forty-five minutes to descend, but that’s only because we stopped often to shoot photos and take notes. Later in the week I returned with my girlfriend Carol, and we skied down the trail in thirty-five minutes. Again, we had stopped occasionally. I imagine you could do the run in much less time if in a hurry. Keith said locals will ascend the trail after work and bomb down.
After our run, Carol said Poor Man’s Downhill would appeal to an experienced novice who wants to practice on sustained descents. “It has enough flat spaces in between to let you regroup, but it’s fast enough that you feel challenged,” she said. “Some winding sections, some straight sections—you’re sorry when it’s over.”
One caveat is that Wilmington does not get as much snow as Lake Placid, so the bottom half of the trail is likely to be scratchy in a low-snow year. Keith said parts of the trail need a foot of consolidated snow to be skiable.
DIRECTIONS: Leepoff Cycles is on the north side of NY 86 soon after you enter the hamlet of Wilmington from Lake Placid. It’s in the same location as the Up A Creek Restaurant. To reach the start of Poor Man’s Downhill from Leepoff, drive east on NY 86 for 0.6 miles to the four corners. Turn left onto the Veterans Memorial Highway and go 2.8 miles to a pull-off on the left. For the Cobble Ledges Trail, continue 0.4 miles (bearing right onto County 72) to a pull-off on the right. Look for a trailhead sign.
A new trail to a local secret
On the day we skied Poor Man’s Downhill, Keith McKeever led us up a nearby trail to a fantastic view on Cobble Lookout. Since the two trailheads are just 0.4 miles apart, you can easily ski both trails in a day.
Cobble Lookout had long been a local secret. A year ago, the state Department of Environmental Conservation built a 1.25-mile trail (marked with blue disks) to the lookout, a huge ledge with a vista that stretches from Vermont to the High Peaks.
The trail is very skiable except for a few tricky turns. At first it follows an old woods road, but it soon narrows to a footpath. Just 250 yards from the road, the trail passes a cliff on the left. When covered with ice, the cliff is known as the Chiller Pillar, a popular ice-climbing route.
The trail ascends gradually for two-thirds of a mile, gaining 170 feet in elevation. It then descends even more gradually, losing 110 feet before emerging onto the ledge covered with grit and rocks, both big and small. Keith’s wife, Jennifer, nicknamed the ledge the Beach.
Obviously, locals spend a lot of time at the Beach. They built a huge fire pit of rocks and hauled up a trash can. Given the view, it’s easy to understand its popularity. To the east we could see Vermont’s Green Mountains, with the hamlet of Wilmington in the foreground. Among the Adirondack peaks we picked out were Jay, Hurricane, Giant, the Sentinel Range, Whiteface and Esther. The latter two were especially prominent, rising high above us to the southwest.
Most of the trail passes through open hardwoods. Keith said the Barkeater Trail Alliance hopes DEC will authorize a spur trail to connect the Cobble Lookout Trail with Poor Man’s Downhill. It would then be possible to ski all the way from the lookout to downtown Wilmington—roughly four miles of downhill.