Shoulder season is good time (though windy) for Sentinel Range outing
By Tom French
One of the biggest challenges to climbing Pitchoff (or Cascade) is the parking — at least until November. The trailheads are across from each other on Route 73 about a mile east of the entrance to the Van Hoevenberg Olympic Sports Complex. The state is working on several solutions, including a new Cascade Mountain Trail with plenty of parking and built to modern standards starting from the sports center.
In the meantime, I recommend climbing either in the off-season. Just remember to bring a hat.
With a partly cloudy forecast in the 40s for Potsdam, I arrived at Doug’s in Saranac Lake in shorts. His first response was: “bold move.” Both Doug and Tim Lennon were decked out in gators, hats, gloves, and traction devices. I just remember climbing Gothics in shorts and a t-shirt in February and still sweating. November is decidedly different than late winter.
We deposited a car at the eastern (and lower) trailhead of this 4.3-mile through hike and returned to the, yes, empty Cascade Trailhead parking area across from the western Pitchoff approach.
Pitchoff is a 3,497-foot peak in the Sentinel Range Wilderness, an area that was a Military Tract for Revolutionary War Veterans. Alas, it was so remote that no one took the government up on the offer. A military road between Keene and North Elba was established to the north of Pitchoff in the 1790s (now part of the Jackrabbit Ski Trail). What is now Route 73 was built in the mid-1800s. Fires denuded Pitchoff of trees in 1903 – hence the exposed outcrops and white birch.
Although stagecoaches probably traversed the pass, there were no official stops. The boulder with the engraving didn’t fall off the mountain until 1938. After Essex County Highway Assistant Donald D. Rogers (and his crew) pushed it aside, Rogers arranged for the image to be sandblasted onto the rock.
The 2020 Unit Management Plan (UMP) for the Sentinel Range (north of Route 73. Lands to the south, including Cascade and Porter are part of the High Peaks Wilderness) acknowledges safety concerns. The eastern parking is “located on a curve that limits visibility for approaching traffic (that) is also traveling down a steep hill.” The issues at the Cascade trailhead are well known.
Many if not most people climbing “Pitchoff” are actually just climbing the 1.5 miles to Balanced Rocks – an overlook with significant views and a couple boulders, glacial erratics more dropped than balanced. The UMP recognizes significant issues with the trail to the rocks. With grades sometimes exceeding 40% and erosional gullies made worse by hikers avoiding mud, a number of herd paths have developed in the steeper sections. We found the trail sketchy at times with markers occasionally hard to find.
The UMP discusses five alternative solutions from hardening the existing trail (a “significant undertaking” that would “require substantial resources (with) extensive sections of rock staircase and possibly several sections of log ladder”) to closing the trail completely. That said, the UMP’s preferred solution is to create a new, dedicated Pitchoff trailhead and parking area somewhere between the existing trailheads (“to the east of Lower Cascade Lake”). Given the already stretched resources of the DEC, the date of any implementation has not been determined.
The current trail from the west starts steeply, climbing almost 200 feet in the first quarter mile where it borders property belonging to the North Country School, a private boarding and day school. We could see the blue tubing between the maples in their sugar bush. After turning right, the trail follows the contour for a half mile before veering left and climbing steeply again. The wind was blowing sharply, and I knew I would need to put on my Gore-Tex pants eventually.
After swinging below and around Balanced Rock, the trail reaches the junction. We geared up for the wind, and Tim loaned me a hat.
The views from Balanced Rock sweep from Cascade west past Marcy. The bobsled track at Van Hoevenberg is a dominant feature. For us, “partly” clouds cruised swiftly above with precipitation shafts in the distance. The wind blew my hat off, and when Doug put his glove down to take a picture, it blew away. We were able to fetch both.
We retraced our steps to the junction and continued along the ridge to Pitchoff Mountain proper – 500 feet higher and a half mile further. The peak has limited views, but we weren’t close to half way done for the day. The Pitchoff Mountain Trail bounces up and down along the ridge for another 1.5 miles before beginning a steep, one-mile, 1,200-foot descent. Views pop to the south giving an interesting perspective on the true nature of the geography that you might not notice as you think you’re heading east on Route 73. That “Steep Hill” into Keene is really northerly, so Giant and Keene Valley are to the south, and 9N, visible in the distance, cuts east, not North. At times, we could also see our destination — sightings of our miniature car at the lower parking lot.
As we bobbed along the ridgeline, the wind continued to roil the clouds as it snowed on Cascade. When the trail finally turns for the descent, it’s straight down. I would not want to hike up. The snow squall from Cascade began dumping on us – an accumulating snow that covered rocks, leaves, and the crannies of our collars. Good thing I’d packed a coat. We reached the car after five hours.