By Alan Wechsler
The Hanging Spear Falls loop is probably the best backcountry ski tour in the Adirondacks that no one knows about.
It’s surprising that it’s not on more cross-country skiing lists, because it integrates some of the best of the southern High Peaks: lots of views of mountains, a ski across the dramatic Flowed Lands, and an exciting ski out along the Calamity Brook Trail.
Of course, it’s not for everyone. To get to Flowed Lands—always counterclockwise on this loop—you’ll face several miles of steep hill, requiring climbing skins or snowshoes. And if you don’t have two cars, you’ll have to walk an additional mile along the road back to your car, because it ends at a different trailhead from where it begins.
I first got the idea from my friend Jim Close, who joined me on our first trip here more than a decade ago. I went back solo a few years later and late last March I returned with friend Tim Peartree, a retired engineer who keeps in top shape by skiing, playing hockey, and cycling. Thanks to back-to-back late-season snowstorms, the backcountry was deep in snow (although with the strong, early-spring sun, it was going fast).
Tim and I arrived well after 9 a.m., a laid-back start for a winter trip, owing to the benefits of daylight-saving time. It was a bluebird day, with temperatures a few degrees above freezing—about as perfect a ski day as we could hope for. The trail begins on a rusty metal suspension bridge, decades old, which was recently rebuilt after a flood. We carried our skis across, clipped in and headed east. I was using leather boots and heavy-duty cross-country skis with metal edges, while Tim had lightweight plastic boots and a light telemark-ski setup, which allowed him to make more confident turns.
The first mile was unspectacular, on crusty snow made more difficult by the many footprints of hikers heading to nearby Mount Adams. No matter what trail you ski in the Adirondacks backcountry, there’s a good chance some thoughtless clod will have walked through without snowshoes. In many areas, snowshoes are required when there’s more than eight inches of snow on the ground. But even when not an official rule, it’s a huge courtesy to hikers and skiers alike. Few things make a winter trail more annoying, even dangerous, than deep post-holes.
Fortunately, the foot traffic was headed to Adams, so the skiing improved considerably after we passed the turnoff for the summit. The snow was crunchy and hard but began to soften in the sun. We passed a wide-open area, with views west to Panther and Santanoni, the latter peak’s long slides visible as slashes of white. Soon after, we turned a corner, and Allen Mountain, most remote of all High Peaks, filled the horizon.
This section—familiar to anyone who has hiked Allen—is one of my favorite sections of the route, owing to its spectacular views. The wide-open terrain was created after a huge storm nearly 20 years ago that knocked over so many trees that the area was closed to hikers for a year to allow loggers to harvest the mess.
But something happened since I was last here. Small evergreens had grown up, and the open spaces were filled with inch-wide trees 15 feet high. The views were nowhere near as expansive, and in some areas the brush was so thick it almost felt like bushwhacking. The forest reclaims its own.
Until recently, this area was privately owned, and the hiking route was circuitous by design, to keep hikers away from private hunting camps. Today, the state owns the property, the camps are being dismantled, and there’s talk of rerouting the trail to Allen. This would make one of the most challenging High Peaks a lot shorter, and this section of the Hanging Spear loop will likely see a lot less traffic.
It takes about 90 minutes to two hours to ski five miles from the trailhead to the next trail junction. We crossed a suspension bridge over the Opalescent River, as well as several tricky stream cuts. Finally, I reached a wooden brown-and-yellow arrow, pointing to the Allen herd path, onto which someone had written “Allen” by hand. I turned around and saw the junction we were looking for, with a sign pointing to Lake Colden. It took me a moment to realize that was our route.
It’s a good thing I had turned around when I did as the sign wasn’t visible in the direction we were coming from. Another sign, as gray as an abandoned barn and chiseled with the word “MARCY,” also pointed the way.
I thought we’d be breaking trail at this point, but a lone snowshoer had been here before us. The snow was so heavy that they had barely broken through the crust.
The next mile was fairly easy, but that ended quickly. When the trail left a streambed and climbed sharply uphill, I suggested we take a break. “Time to put on skins,” I said.
You don’t need to have climbing skins to do this route, but it’s the best option. Skins stick onto the bottom of a ski to allow one to climb up steep slopes without slipping. If you don’t have them, just throw a pair of snowshoes on your pack and change into them at this point for the two-mile uphill slog (downside: carrying skis is never fun).
From here, the route ascends 600 or 700 feet to Flowed Lands. At some point, the Opalescent drops into a deep canyon. Somewhere in that vast cavity is Hanging Spear Falls, a 75-foot cascade. With all my trips here, I’ve never seen it—it’s not visible from the trail, although it probably wouldn’t take too much effort to get to the edge and find it (watch your footing!). It must be quite a sight to see it frozen.
A far better view is the one you hit when you reach Flowed Lands, surely one of the best in the High Peaks. Off in the distance are the frosty summits of Iroquois and Algonquin, two of the peaks that make up the MacIntyre Range. Flowed Lands was named by loggers, because the swamp was flooded each spring by a dam, which was then breached to allow the winter’s harvest of logs to float downstream to saw mills. We skied past the remains of the dam, and onto the white, flat plateau. We had traveled more than eight miles so far, and it was all downhill from here.
If you’ve got time, it’s worth a side trip to ski over to Lake Colden, about a mile to the north. Finding the right path is a bit tricky, with several trails that twist through a tight forest. But once you’re there you get even more vistas of the MacIntyres, as well as a top-to-bottom view of Mount Colden. When we arrived at the Interior Outpost, a cabin on the shore of the lake, a state ranger was basking on a foam pad in the sun, a map in his lap. He pointed to a slide on Colden, where several ski tracks were visible down the steep flanks. “Looks like they had great powder,” he said.
We chatted for a few minutes and then headed south. Our path back to the car was the 4.5-mile Calamity Brook Trail, one of the few ways to access the High Peaks from the south. It’s a popular route, but luckily we didn’t run into too many hikers as we schussed—a bit out-of-control at times—downhill.
The trail has a slight incline at the start, as it goes past a clearing with a stone memorial to David Henderson, an early manager of the mine that would eventually become Tahawus. Henderson accidentally shot himself while on a hike, now the site of the memorial, in 1845 (the “Calamity” of Calamity Brook).
Hopefully we wouldn’t suffer any calamities of our own. After a mile or so of gradual downhill, the angle of the trail steepens, with the occasional blind curve upping the commitment factor. On our trip, the upgrade in difficulty corresponded to a decline in snow conditions, as soft corn snow changed into a crusty and much faster surface. At times, I dragged my ski poles behind me in an effort to control my speed. It all culminated in the route’s downhill crux—a 90-degree turn at the bottom of a long hill. I aimed for some powder to check my speed, then carefully slipped side-to-side until I reached a spot where I could point my skis downhill without fear of crashing into something. Tim, on his heavier skis, made the route look much more elegant.
From here, it’s an easy and gentle downhill to the Upper Works parking lot. One thing made us stop—a newly minted trail sign, where some genius had spelled Wallface with one “l.” There’s a typo that’s going to live in infamy for a long time.
We finished our ski eight hours after we started—just in time to catch a ride back to our car from two fellows in a pickup truck.
As if the day hadn’t already been perfect enough?