By Alan Wechsler
The central Adirondacks is full of intriguing intermediate ski tours, many of which deposit you at one end of a beautiful, frozen lake, with the promise of a thrilling but not death-defying descent.
One of the best tours in this region takes you from Thirteenth Lake to Puffer Pond, an 11-mile round-trip in the Siamese Ponds Wilderness that offers almost everything you could desire in a half-day adventure. You get an easy start, a bit of a workout on the ascent and, at the destination, your choice of two lean-tos where you can relax out of the snow and take out lunch and a thermos.
I’ve skied to Puffer Pond twice, and both trips were wonderful. The first was during a dead-of-winter weekend, with temperatures well below freezing. The snow was powdery but fast and plentiful. We saw a few other skiers early on, but as we left the main trail and approached Puffer, it seemed as though we had the wilderness to ourselves.
Our second trip took place during a thaw last January. There was only about four inches of snow around Thirteenth Lake. Still, the trail had just enough covering to allow us to ski, provided we were careful to avoid the rocks poking through. It doesn’t take much to make this trail skiable, if you’re not too finicky about scratching your boards.
The route to Puffer Pond leaves from a small cul-de-sac on the east side of Thirteenth Lake. Don’t confuse it with the popular parking lot at the northern end of the lake, where the trail heads to Peaked Mountain. Drive south past that turnoff, make a right at a fork (the road to the left leads to the Garnet Hill Lodge and Cross County Ski Center), and park at the dead end.
The trail actually begins on a section of Garnet Hill’s trail system. Ski this for a short distance until you reach an obvious backcountry trail, as wide as a dirt road. This trail might as well be groomed, for all the use it gets, but it’s an enjoyable up-and-down. As you ski, take note of the peak on your left—the wonderfully named Balm of Gilead Mountain.
After 1.6 miles, make a right off the old road onto a more trail-like route. You head downhill to cross the inlet to Thirteenth Lake and then ascend along the Hour Pond Brook. At 2.9 miles, you reach a fork, with the way right leading to Hour Pond. If you can cross the brook safely, you may want to take a 1.2-mile detour to the pond. I’ve never gone this way, but Tony Goodwin describes it in Ski and Snowshoe Trails in the Adirondacks as “a charming destination in itself.”
To keep going to Puffer, cross a wooden bridge and begin the chug uphill. From the final crest, reached at 3.6 miles, you can enjoy a rolling downhill run to your destination, with views of nearby mountains on the way. Shuck your pack in the first lean-to and, assuming the ice is safe, take a stroll on the snow-covered pond. At 32 acres, Puffer could easily be called a lake. It’s surrounded by soaring hills, creating a splendid sense of isolation and remoteness. You may find it hard to leave.
According to the Adirondack Mountain Club’s Guide to Adirondack Trails: Central Region, this area was not always as remote as it is now. A stagecoach trail once went right through here in the 19th century, taking city folk on a jittery voyage to Indian Lake. Fortunately, four-wheel traffic is far away these days.
Conceivably, your route needn’t end at the pond. Puffer can also be reached by two trails starting near Kings Flow to the north. Although I have not tried either of these routes, Goodwin mentions the Puffer Pond Brook Trail as the better alternative. If you have a second car parked at Kings Flow, you could turn the trip into a ski-through. Otherwise, simply turn your skis around and enjoy the long glide back to Thirteenth Lake.
There’s one more thing to see on the way out. Just before reaching the parking lot, there’s a trail heading to the left. Take it. It’s a short, fun descent to Elizabeth’s point on Thirteenth Lake. It’s a great spot to rest for a few minutes and enjoy the sweeping views of winter before heading back to civilization.
DIRECTIONS: From NY 28 just north of the hamlet of North River, turn onto Thirteenth Lake Road and drive 4.7 miles to its end. (Bear left at the first junction, reached at 3.4 miles, and right at the next two junctions.)
To reach Kings Flow parking lot: Turn east onto Big Brook Road from NY 30, a little south of the village of Indian Lake; go 5.7 miles to the junction of Hutchins and Moulton roads; turn right and go 2.7 miles to a public lot at the Chimney Mountain Lodge. The lodge charges a small parking fee.