Champlain Area Trails, SUNY Plattsburgh work together to create 15-mile trail network
By Tim Rowland
Tucked away in the bowl of a mountainous amphitheater at the end of a long, gated drive in the town of Essex is the Twin Valleys Outdoor Education Center, a scenic little camp of bunkhouses and cabins owned and operated by College Auxiliary Services on behalf of SUNY Plattsburgh.
Founded in 1945 as an outdoor classroom and learning center, the auxiliary is now developing a new vision for the property, which includes more public access. To that end, Champlain Area Trails (CATS) has been cutting new trails and brushing out old ones to develop a 15-mile network that includes four mountain overlooks with panoramic views of the High Peaks and Lake Champlain Valley.
Last week I joined auxiliary property manager Taylor Staight and CATS trail steward Tony Thoman as we strapped on snowshoes (somewhat aspirationally, really) for a hike to Horseshoe Ledge, an overlook on the ridge of Ferguson Mountain.
As Twin Valleys looks for a recipe for sustainability, Staight said she hopes to build a public fan base for the property, which the community had always considered as an off-limits private retreat.
The gate is now open on weekends or by appointment, and even if it’s locked it’s OK to park at the gate and hike the half mile to the lodge — not that big a deal as these are relatively short hikes if tackled individually.
Thoman said CATS often hears from hikers looking for something longer than the typical CATS trail, and by combining routes, Twin Valleys will fit the bill. Since the mountains are in something of a semicircle around the camp, it’s possible to hike them in one, full-day adventure.
With most of the trailwork done, Thoman said he’s now putting the finishing touches on signage, including replacement of some vintage signs that are now out of date.
Horseshoe Ledge is a pleasant, 2.75-mile round trip with an elevation gain of 460 feet. At the lodge parking lot, a sign points to the trailhead as you skirt the western side of a lake to the north to where the red, Twin Valleys Loop trail enters the woods. Almost immediately, two roads diverge in the yellow woods, but unlike the wishy-washy Robert Frost we had no trouble making up our minds, and without hesitation we took the right fork and began an easy-to-moderate climb to the high ground above the camp.
Like many of the trails in this system, this follows an old woods road suitable for backcountry skiing. It’s mostly a straight shot, which is appealing to someone like me who doesn’t mind high speed but has mastered backcountry downhill only as it applies to vectors unencumbered by anything resembling a turn.
Don’t worry, I do not ski in the presence of others. I fully understand the sight of a bundled up geezer rocketing down a mountain with no obvious ability to gee or haw would be a frightful specter, particularly to children.
At three-quarters of a mile the trail leveled off as it meandered around the back of a small knob before breaking right off the red trail leading to a small saddle where a hard left begins the spur to Horseshoe Ledge, an outcropping on the 1,030-foot Ferguson Mountain.
The spur is a little steeper but not terribly so as it wounds through some pretty hemlock and rocky shelves to the overlook, where Raven and Inez mountains dominate the foreground, with the Giant and Dix wildernesses to the southwest.
Below is a view of the Twin Valleys camp. “Eventually we’d like to open it up to overnight campers,” said Staight, a native of Horseheads who caught the hiking bug during Covid and spent the next two years hiking the High Peaks.
The hospitality industry took her to Austin, Texas, but the heat was stifling and “I missed my elevations,” she said. Working with the auxiliary board to mold a sustainable plan for the camp has been a dream job, and she’s excited about the prospects.
The lodge, and a commercial kitchen and space for 50 diners, was built in 1955, with a dozen shoreline cabins added over the next several years. Bunkhouses and two classroom buildings round out the development, where education has always been at the fore. It’s also home to an impressive telescope used in the summer by a New York City astronomy club appreciative of the dark skies.
We returned to the red trail and retraced our steps to the lodge. For a longer excursion, hikers could continue on the red trail where they left it to cimb Horseshoe Ledge and make a loop. (Returning by way of the left fork that presented itself just out of the parking lot.)
Multiple options sprout off of this Twin Valleys Loop trail, concluding the options to climb Payne Mountain and Hornbeam Hill.
And the whole network can also be accessed from CATS’ West Valley trailhead from Hurley Road, which offers a whole new set of options.
To get to Twin Valleys, start from the hamlet of Wadhams, where you will want to stock up on sustenance from the heavenly Dogwood Bread Company, and take the Lewis-Wadhams Road to a right on Alden Road. In a quarter mile turn left onto Twin Valley Road and drive to the gate or, if it’s open, the lodge. Or you can just stay at the Dogwood bakery and eat cookies.