Skiers head to Tug Hill in search of snow and enjoy breathtaking views while touring around the rim of Whetstone Gorge.
By Phil Brown
This winter showed us, once again, that the snow in the Adirondacks is unreliable. A backcountry skier needs to have a backup plan. Mine is to go west. To Tug Hill.
Located a bit west of the Adirondack Park, Tug Hill is known for its huge snowfalls, thanks largely to storms blowing from the Great Lakes. In an average winter, Tug Hill receives more than two hundred inches of snow.
Unfortunately, Tug Hill lacks our mountains, so you won’t find the dramatic scenery you enjoy on a ski tour to Avalanche Lake, say, or the summit of Mount Marcy. But there is at least one ski trip that is a must-do if you’re in the region: the five-mile loop around the rim of Whetstone Gulf.
I thought of Whetstone Gulf as soon as my girlfriend Carol suggested in late January that we go to Tug Hill in search of decent snow. I had never been to Whetstone, but I had seen an alluring photo taken in winter by Carl Heilman II. Also, I knew that the gulf was written up in an old guidebook, 25 Ski Tours in the Adirondacks by Almy and Anne Coggeshall.
The Coggeshalls, though, described a different excursion: they skied through the chasm, following Whetstone Creek. “The ultimate in this trip is to be able to approach the falls at the upper end through a slit so narrow that you can touch both walls with your fingertips,” the Coggeshalls wrote.
Carol and I hoped to do that trip as well. Alas, we finished the rim trail too late in the day. The regulations at Whetstone Gulf State Park don’t allow you to use the trails after 3 p.m. Well, we have an excuse to return the next time we have a bad winter. If you think the rim loop is too challenging, you might do the Coggeshall trip instead.
The Tug Hill Plateau encompasses 1.3 million acres between Lake Ontario and the Adirondack Park, rising in elevation from 250 feet in the west to 2,100 feet in the east. It is sometimes referred to as the Lesser Wilderness, a little brother to the Adirondacks.
Tug Hill boasts a number of deep gorges, which are called gulfs in the local tongue. Whetstone is one of the most spectacular, with nearly vertical walls of dark shale rising 350 feet from the chasm floor. The entire gorge lies within the 2,100-acre state park.
To get to the rim of the gulf you have to climb about a half-mile. Carol and I sidestepped and herringboned with our skis. If you have climbing skins for your skis, you might want to use them. Another option is to wear snowshoes for the ascent and then switch to skis.
Most of the rim trail is fairly easy and, if you’re experienced, can be done in skinny skis and boots. But whichever direction you travel, the descent at the finish will be steep. For this, most skiers probably would prefer beefier skis and boots for better control. I used a lightweight telemark setup—Madshus Epochs with plastic Garmont Excursion boots—and this seemed about right for me. If you use skinny skis, you probably will need to pick your way down the trail at the finish or cut into the woods. Or use snowshoes on the descent.
The state park is located off West Road between Boonville and Lowville. When Carol and I arrived in the late morning, there were a few cars in the parking lot. In winter, the park’s warming hut is open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, but we didn’t use the facility.
For no reason in particular, we decided to ski the loop in a clockwise direction, starting on the South Rim Trail. As we headed toward the trail, we passed a few people on skinny gear who had been skiing the unplowed roads through the park’s campground.
At the outset, the South Rim Trail gains four hundred feet in elevation in about a half-mile. It was packed by snowshoers, but as Carol and I ascended, we noticed old ski tracks in the open forest of red pines. Evidently, skiers earn their turns here after a good snowfall.
Eventually, the trail flattened out, skirted the head of a ravine, and turned north toward the rim. We soon came to a sign warning us to watch out for falling rocks. Since there was nothing above us but trees, we thought falling branches posed a greater threat. Throughout the day, we encountered the same warning over and over again—probably more than a dozen times. The signs became something of a joke.
Soon we reached the rim and had our first vertiginous view of the snowy gorge. A sign informed us that a spur trail led to an observation tower. Although there were no tracks, we followed the spur trail a short distance. We didn’t see the tower and decided to turn back when the trail started to descend steeply. We didn’t want to lose our hard-won elevation.
Returning to the main trail, we found ourselves skiing along the very edge of the gorge, looking straight down at Whetstone Creek or at the vertical walls on the opposite side of the gulf. We also enjoyed nice views of the snowy plain to the east.
As we continued along the rim, the trail seemed less traveled. It was mostly flat, with an occasional short climb or dip. Carol and I delighted in little descents through a few inches of powder.
Although we passed several splendid lookouts, the vistas were somewhat obstructed by trees and branches. I kept wondering where Carl Heilman took his photo. About two miles from the trailhead, we came to the place. An opening in the trees revealed a spectacular view of the steep walls of the narrowing gorge, half covered with snow. The precipice beneath us was nearly vertical.
While Carol and I took photos, a bunch of snowshoers from the Adirondack Mountain Club showed up—the first people we had seen on the trail. They were doing the loop in the opposite direction. They warned us that we would run into snowmobilers on a short stretch of trail on the other side of the gorge.
Tug Hill is snowmobile country. The region has a large network of wide trails and unplowed dirt roads that allows the snow machines to travel long distances at high speeds. We had been hearing the muffled drone of snowmobiles throughout our trip and wondered where they were and where they were going.
A half-mile from the lookout we had our answer: we crossed the creek on a bridge on Corrigan Hill Road, a dirt thoroughfare that in winter becomes snowmobile trail CH4. As soon as we crossed the creek, we left the road, re-entered the woods, and shortly came upon a large gathering of snowmobilers—I’m guessing fifty or so—who had illegally driven from the road to the rim. Snow in the pine forest and along the rim had been packed down by the machines, and for a short distance our trail was virtually obliterated.
We were thankful to leave the snowmobiles behind. Continuing along the rim, we enjoyed great views of the gorge. If anything, they were more open than the views from the south side. A while later, we encountered two snowshoers coming our way who warned us about a tricky stream crossing ahead. After a short descent, we reached the stream. I kept my skis on and shuffled sideways across a precarious snow bridge, whereas sensible Carol chose to remove her skis and step across the water.
Soon we started the long descent to the parking lot. Not knowing the trail, I didn’t want to bomb it. Besides, it had been packed by snowshoers and was quite fast. I went down partway and waited for Carol. And waited …
Carol was taking a long time. I started back up the trail until I could see her. When she reached me she said her ski pole broke when it snagged a branch. It was unfixable, so I gave her one of mine.
Funny, I don’t use my ski poles all that much, but I felt insecure with only one. I skied down the trail in small bits, pulling over wherever I could. As I neared the bottom of the hill, I headed off piste, letting the powder in the woods slow me up, and then angled back to the trail. After crossing a footbridge, I was back at the parking lot.
I have skied the rim trail only once, and in only one direction, but my feeling is that the south trail would be an easier and safer descent than the north trail. My impression is that the south trail offers more opportunities to ski back and forth through the woods, which are quite open. Given my limited experience, take my advice with a chunk of road salt.
At any rate, the downhills can be managed with caution. If it gets scary, you can always snowplow, sidestep or head into the woods.
“It’s a great ski route because there is variety in the terrain and the views are continuous,” Carol messaged me a few days after our trip. “I liked the woodsy sections just as much as the more spectacular gulf lookouts. The hills were challenging, so I’m glad I wore my big skis.”
Whether you use skinny skis or fat skis, or even opt for snowshoes, Whetstone Gulf is sure to leave a deep impression.
If coming from the south, take NY 12 to Boonville. From downtown, follow NY 12D north to NY 26. Continue straight on NY 26 for 7.9 miles. Turn left onto West Road. The park entrance will soon appear on the left. If coming from the north, take NY 26 south from Lowville for 6.4 miles. The turn for West Road will be on the right.