Bear Den is a winning hike
By Tim Rowland
If it’s possible for something 2,650 feet high to get lost, that’s what happens to Bear Den Mountain, a splendid peak that must live out its existence in the shadow of the mighty ridge connecting the High Peaks of Whiteface and Esther.
Bear Den is the Tony Lazzeri of mountains, the .300, 100 RBI second baseman for the ’27 Yankees who toiled in relative obscurity behind the likes of Ruth and Gehrig.
And until recently, the Bear Den trail was treated as something of a castaway, with poor markings and herd-path cul-de-sacs that made it difficult to follow, particularly in autumn with leaves blanketing the tread.
Most of those situations have been rectified, partly due to trail work and partly due to an increasing number of hikers that have made the once-faint route more apparent.
Fall and winter are the two best times to hike Bear Den, thanks to the leaves in fall and, in winter, the front-row seat it affords from which to watch skiers descending Whiteface.
Most of the recreation-seekers visiting the Whiteface Ski Center in Wilmington, of course, have pursuits on their minds that don’t include hiking, which is perhaps why Bear Den has gone under-appreciated.
After turning into the ski center and crossing the bridge over the West Branch of the Ausable River, the trailhead is accessed by bearing right and following the Bear Den signs. If you’re driving an electric car this is your lucky day, since the kiosk is right next to a long row of chargers in the lot.
OK, this might not be the best way to climb Bear Den. If you’re coming from Lake Placid, continue past the ski center and after the Hungry Trout resort Rt. 86 crosses the river. Immediately on the left is a small parking lot accessing what are known as the Flume Trails.
From both the Whiteface lot and the Flume Trails lot, the Bear Den summit stands about 2 miles distant. The advantage to the Whiteface route is that it’s a bit shorter and straightforward – hike for a little over half mile to a junction where you turn left along a stream and begin the ascent. The Whiteface trail presents a 1,300-foot climb, Flume Trails about 200 feet more.
The Flume Trails route is prettier, but oh brother. It’s part of a nest of mountain biking trails that make perfect sense to app-consulting twentysomethings, but the multiplicity of routes can be as confusing to us old goats as trying to sell Habs tickets on StubHub. Call up this DEC map to see what I mean.
Perhaps the best route is to select none of the above. Instead, from the Flume Trails lot, follow the beautiful River Trail that hugs the chattering Ausable for more than half a mile before climbing up to the aforementioned Whiteface parking lot which you will cross to find the Bear Den kiosk.
Whichever of the three options you choose, the serious climbing will begin at Bear Den’s junction with the trough trail. It climbs alongside the beautiful brook to a sharp left where it steeply ascends an esker. It can be easy to miss, and a lot of people have, based on the herd path that continues straight.
Still, the trail is far better marked with new blue and black medallions than it was in the past. These badges bear the words “More Difficult.” More difficult than what I don’t know, but the last mile and a quarter is steep. There are switchbacks, but these tend to be more switch than back, changing direction without any appreciable decrease in grade.
Through the hardwood forest, you can catch glimpses of the next ridge over, which leads to Flume Knob, itself a nice destination if you want more or less the same views without the ski trails.
A big bare slab of rock protruding from the forest duff helpfully announces that you’ve pretty much got this climb licked. From here, the trail jogs one last time back to the right before arriving at a col, with the through trail continuing on and a sign pointing left to the Bear Den summit.
There is no other view in the park like this one, which will be good or bad depending on your opinion of man-made attractions. Whiteface looms like an imperious monarch, majestic, yet at the same time scoffing at your own meager conquest of Bear Den which at the time seemed like pretty hard work.
Of course ski trails, lifts, trams and other sundry winter-sport infrastructure spread out below, and across the narrow valley are the Sentinels, almost close enough to touch. In the distance to the south you will be looking down the barrel of Indian Pass, along with Algonquin and friends.
If you braved the Flume Trails, there really are a number of lovely options for a return route, including dropping down the River Trail or the Bluff Trail, which offers attractive views of the beaver pond below.
And if you came up from the Whiteface lot, it’s the same route back – but your car will be charged when you get there.