Ski centers across the park offer trails for all skill levels
By David Thomas-Train
Flatlander, Skullbuster, Bear Path and Heron Marsh are trail names simple to decode; tougher to unscramble are Phaneuf and Timinator. Our cross-country ski centers might dub their byways for terrain or wildlife habitat, or to salute hometown Olympians who early on took to the boards with them.
Their layouts are as condensed as 6 kilometers overall or as sprawling as 55 kilometers, with trails ranging from up-down, woodsy scoots to graded competition boulevards. XC trails may or may not be rated for skiing ability, but there are plenty of choices at all skill levels.
We have nine cross country centers inside the Blue Line—five up north in the Tri-lakes, with four more central, south, and west. None fall in the more “snow-shadowed” east. All rent equipment and offer instruction, and provide for snowshoers, and all but one rely on natural snowfall.
- Where: 39 Garnet Hill Road, North River
- Features: 55 K, Inn, Cottages
- Contact: 518-251-2151
Let’s get back to aptly named Skullbuster on an early morning last March. The trail was beautifully groomed and corduroyed, still frozen solid, a glazed carpet lacking all purchase, on the shaded northwest of a ridge; it’s replete with a side drop-off into a pond on the left! We snowplowed with all our might, pole-dragging too, and just made it down the pitch onto mellow ground, and out into the sun. We were fully awake.
My spouse Betsey and I had come to Garnet Hill Lodge above North River in ideal maple sugaring weather of frosty nights and above-freezing days. The name comes from the numerous garnet mines nearby, all but one, shuttered relics. Sandy maroon trailside tailings were surfacing hither and yon through the snow melt.
The 1936 inn, aka the Log House, is perched at 2,000 feet on a ridge, gazing down at Thirteenth Lake, with the ski lodge a bit below. The trail network radiates downward along old woods roads and newer byways. Their furthest reach is a couple of miles, mixing field and forest, taking in two shuttle pick-up points and a sugar house that serves up maple treats and hot drinks on weekends. The drop to these lower destinations is about 700 feet. We didn’t make it that far afield, but wound in and out of the warming sun in typical fast-slow spring conditions. It was almost shirtsleeve weather.
Equipment rental choices are plentiful, including mountain bikes in warmer months. Inn guests have use of canoes and kayaks on the lake. There are year-round events like high school cross-country races and The Garnet Hill Grit, a biking fest. Skiers explore the lake when the ice is safe, and there’s a slew of ski-friendly backcountry trails in the neighborhood.
Cascade Ski Center
- Where: 4833 Cascade Road, Lake Placid
- Features: 15K; 6 Bunk Rooms
- Contact: 518-523-1111
“Over the hill, under the moon” proclaims Cascade. Two or three times a winter up in North Elba, small bonfires light up the nighttime woods; these are a focal point of the ever-popular Full Moon Ski Parties that Cascade Cross Country Ski Center’s been throwing for almost 40 years. Locals and far-flung visitors flock to these fiestas for their camaraderie of music and food, skiing in and out of the shadows to circle around warming flames way out in the forest. Albany’s Out of Control Ski Club frequently busses up for these get-togethers.
Cascade’s trails are narrow (the groomer’s a mere six feet wide), full of twists and turns, big and little drops, with some gorgeous straightaways, too; their longer stretches have a backcountry feel as the evergreen forest closes in, and then they bend unexpectedly into a wide junction with several other tracks. Flanagan’s Run is a steep dipsy-doodle, while Upper Brookside lines its level way through a lovely tamarack swamp along Jubin Brook.
The stream’s namesake, Lake Placid native Art Jubin, founded Cascade in 1979. He built the lodge, which gradually expanded with the ski shop, bunk rooms, and a bigger bar/restaurant, under the gaze of a bull moose above the huge fireplace. This family business is in its last season, as the Jubins are in the process of selling Cascade to Adirondack Mountain Club.
Cascade sits almost five miles east of Lake Placid, along Route 73, the main drag into town from the south. The property is fully connected to the local neighborhood on a number of levels. The 50-kilometer Jackrabbit Trail runs right through Cascade’s network on its way west from Keene, through Lake Placid and Saranac Lake, to Paul Smiths; passing skiers may pop in to fuel up or to snag the right wax. The Mount Van Hoevenberg complex lies just out back at a four-way trail junction. Making these links is possible with joint ski passes.
- Where: 139 Lapland Lake Road, Northville
- Features: 38 K, Cottages
- Contact: 518-863-4974
There’s a snow pocket way down south at the end of the road in Benson, above Northville and the Great Sacandaga. Skiers flock there to glide and swoop on trails with names like Sisu, Honka Tie, Karhu Polku… That’s Finnish for Determination, Big Pine Way, Bear Path, which wind you along a big stream, by huge trees, and to a lake. The ski center is called Lapland Lake.
It was founded in 1978 by Olavi Hirvonen, a 1960 Olympian in cross-country, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Montreal and raised in Finland. He laid out the trails and named them. Lapland is the largest, least populated, and northernmost region of Finland, rife with skiing.
Hirvonen’s network is ingeniously designed in two parcels, one on either side of Lapland Lake Road; 250 acres seems like a lot to work with, but it quickly becomes very tight when laying out an adventurous, lengthy, and diverse one-way trail footprint. From the air it looks like a gaggle of woodland snakes cozying up.
The four east-side loops are flattish and a tad more widely spaced as they mosey their ways toward the lake. Its name is Woods, not Lapland, nearly a mile long and almost completely circled by Forest Preserve; when the ice is solid, several ski routes are groomed out on the frozen sheet.
The core of the whole place consists of the 12 Finnish-named rental cottages, a skating pond, tubing hills, some practice flats, all around the lodge, with its ski shop and snack bar. Out the door, the ski center hosts high school races and “Reindeer Rallies,” a variety of younger kids’ ski games.
Current owners Kathy and Paul Zahray are proud of Lapland Lake’s family atmosphere, welcoming novice skiers, as well as a loyal returning cadre. Ten to 15 instructors, many of them from the early days here, hone skiers’ talents; in the warmer months, guests paddle or swim on the lake and hike on the nearby Northville-Placid Trail. The Zahrays, snow-hungry skiers from further south, have been here since 2014, first learning the ropes with Hirvonen and his wife Ann’s help. Now they’re upgrading things from trail drainage to adding electric vehicle chargers.
Six additional options:
Dewey Mountain Recreational Center
- Where: 238 George LaPan Memorial Highway, Saranac Lake
- Features: 12K groomed, un-groomed upper mountain
- Contact: 518-891-2697
- Where: 300 McCauley Mtn Road, Old Forge
- Features: Loops up to 7.5K
- Contact: 315-369-3225
Mount Van Hoevenberg
- Where: 31 Van Hoevenberg Way, Lake Placid
- Features: 54 K, partial snowmaking
- Contact: 518-523-2811
North Creek Ski Bowl–Gore Mountain
- Where: Nordic Center Ski Bowl Rd, North Creek
- Features: 11 trails, complete snowmaking
Paul Smiths College Visitor Interpretive Center
- Where: 8023 Route 30, Paul Smiths
- Features: 40 K
- Contact: 518-327-6241
Whiteface Inn Nordic Center
- Where: 373 Whiteface Inn Lane, Lake Placid
- Features: 15 K
- Contact: 518-523-2551
Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the Nov/Dec 2021 issue of Adirondack Explorer magazine. (Click here to subscribe.) This version is an abridged format.