Learning the ins and outs of Saranac Lake’s publicly owned ski hill
By Tom French
Over a dozen cross-country ski centers dot the Adirondack Park. With groomed corduroy and track set, most utilize rolling hills for their trail networks, but at least one involves an official mountain with groomed trails reaching toward the top.
Dewey Mountain Recreation Center in Saranac Lake is a municipal enterprise owned by the Town of Harrietstown with 13 kilometers of trails. Originally called Ring Hill, ski activities (including a jump) were initially organized in the 1920s by the Saranac Lake Ski Club. An alpine rope tow was even built for the 1941-42 season. The current iteration opened in 1980-81.
With monies from a grant, the town invested in a log-cabin lodge and volunteers prepared the trails. Glenn Odone, a prominent surveyor (he engineered and surveyed a number of venues for the 1980 Winter Olympics), laid out three narrow striding trails on a map that he labeled Huey, Louie and Dewey. The Dewey Mountain Friends partnered with the Saranac Lake Rotary Club to buy grooming equipment, and strings of incandescent lights were strung between trees so town’s people could ski until 10 p.m.– part of the justification for the project.
Brian McDonnell was one of the organizers. “Every time the wind blew you got nervous about having to go fix the lighting.”
Maintaining the lights is still a challenge, though the town and Dewey Mountain Friends recently upgraded the system.
Between new homes in Dewey Mountain Village, and longstanding homes on Lake Street and the backside of the mountain along Lake Flower, dozens of people have slopeside access to the trails, including my friends Doug and Susan Miller, who were gracious enough to provide me with a tour on a bluebird day in mid-February last winter.
Both Doug and Susan have lived in the Adirondacks since the 1980s. As we head out their trail to Dewey, Doug points to the second-growth forest of paper birch – suggesting the area was cleared in its past. An old farmhouse down the road along with rusting equipment hints at the history. Doug’s been told there used to be a petting zoo somewhere nearby, too.
After 100 yards up a gentle incline, we reach the trail network near the bottom of Iron Bill – named after Saranac Lake native and Olympic Gold Medalist (10 km Nordic Combined, Vancouver, 2010) Bill Demong. Susan leads us to the left, down to the Dewey Mountain Lodge.
The current lodge replaced two older buildings in 2014. Rental skis, boots, and snowshoes are available along with outdoor benches and picnic tables – even a covered area with a propane patio heater. Doug introduces me to Jason Smith. He owns Adirondack Lakes and Trails Outfitters which manages the facilities. Jason shows me the grooming equipment – a Ski Doo Skandic Wide Track, roller, and 4-foot-wide Tidd Tech. I volunteer as a groomer at Higley Flow State Park, so Jason and I compare operational notes for a few minutes.
Jason also explains the various activities available at Dewey. In winter, they provide after-school ski classes from age 3 (the Lil’ Shufflers) to high school. Summer programing, some free, includes mountain biking; outdoor skills (primitive shelters, map and compass, basic first aid), and the Dewey Mountain Adventure Club. In addition to the ski trails, the mountain features over five miles of dedicated, single-track mountain biking trails with board-game names like Risk, Twister, and Chutes & Ladder. Disc golf, which was recently upgraded from 9 to 18 holes, is also a popular activity before and after the ski season.
In order to accommodate skate skiing, most of the ski trails are groomed with corduroy to a width of twelve to fifteen feet. This requires at least 3 passes along each trail. Setting the track for classic skiers is usually done on the last run, but because many of the trails have significant pitches (the vertical drop of Dewey exceeds that of Mt. Pisgah, Saranac Lake’s downhill ski center, by 111 feet), the track setter needs to be lowered and lifted multiple times.
“It’s Dewey Mountain, not Dewey Flats,” Doug says as we head toward the lower half of the trail network where the more family-friendly, green trails are located.
Next, Doug leads me up toward Cookie Monster (named after Saranac Lake native and Olympian biathlete Anneliese Cook) and the intermediate trails. He points out how the mountain bike trails are also used by snowshoers.
Doug wants to take me down the big hill, so he leads me up Wolff, an ungroomed trail. Susan sticks to the corduroy and meets us at the top. Known as “Killer Hill” by the locals, the official name is Timinator after four-time Olympic biathlete Tim Burke, another local youth who earned his chops at Dewey. It’s a significant hill.
“You’ll pick up speed,” Doug warns. “And there’s a turn to the right, but you can just ride it out.”
Fortunately, the trail is wide and well-groomed and I dispatch it with ease.
We reclimb the western side along Iron Bill a final time in order to reach the “Top of the Mountain.” The ungroomed trail departs at the highest point of the groomed complex.
Skiing to the top requires a significant quantity of snow due to several rocky sections and a perennial wet patch. Although 2021 brought over two feet of powder in January and early February, a recent ice storm deposited a good inch of crust on top of the powder. Any departure from the trail could result in being cut off at the knees and thrown forward. Susan decides against it.
“Better take him counter-clockwise,” she says to Doug. “It’s less technical.”
It’s also the recommended direction of the trail according to the map. After a short, first pitch, the trail dips slightly before cruising along a relatively level contour for 300 yards. When the trail turns to the left, the real work begins as we herringbone up a series of steep pitches, almost 200 vertical feet over the 600 yards to the top.
The last 300 yards parallel the West Side Snowshoe Trail. Doug points out the World Snowshoe Championship markers on some trees. In 2017, Dewey was the venue for the event, a challenging undertaking due to a warm spell. Organizers made some last-minute course changes and literally shoveled snow. Dewey is also a venue for the Empire State Games. This winter they will host Nordic Freestyle on Friday night under the lights and ski orienteering on Saturday. Efforts are underway to bring back the World Snowshoe Championship in 2024.
More recent skiing stories
Photo by Tom French
It’s my first time climbing a mountain on skis, and despite years of experience hiking in the high peaks, I’ve never been so out of breath. My heart is pounding, but it’s a breeze for Doug, who skis up Dewey Mountain several times a year for exercise.
Near the top, a maze of trails makes it difficult for me to discern which one we will take on skis, but I follow Doug and we reach the top with views over Lower Saranac Lake to the west and Lake Flower to the east with Marcy, McKenzie, and the Seward Range in the distance.
The East Side Snowshoe Trail takes a direct route down whereas the ski trail switchbacks four or five times depending on your route. In some places, Doug and I are the first to break trail since the freezing rain. I know how to fall and do several times, but Doug maneuvers like a pro.
The mountain has been ours alone, but we pass several snowshoers on our way down, including one woman who lives in a slopeside home on the eastern side of the mountain.
We finish the day by heading down Iron Bill – three switchbacks and a sharp left onto Doug’s private track, his own little backyard ski resort nestled on the mountain outside Saranac Lake.
Dewey Mountain is located about 1 mile west of downtown Saranac Lake along Route 3. More information regarding hours, programing, and special events can be found at deweymountain.com.