Monday, March 4, 2024

Hopkins Mountain

3,166' Hopkins Mountains stands discreetly in the Giant Mountain Wilderness less than three miles from its taller neighbor, Giant Mountain. Across the valley, the Great Range features a long range of 4,000' peaks one after another. With its loftier neighbors, many of which are on the Adirondack 46 climbing list, it's easy to see how Hopkins Mountain may not be as well known.

Even with its modest elevation and unassuming profile, Hopkins sees some attention among Adirondack hikers. Over the years, I have seen Hopkins mentioned several times. The summit of Hopkins is said to have one of the best views of the High Peaks. The photos I have seen over the years definitely looked impressive. I wanted visit Hopkins and see the view myself.

View from Hopkins

Several trail access Hopkins. The most popular seems to be the Mossy Cascade Trail, just south of Keene Valley. According to the guidebook, this trail travels past a decent sized waterfall and passes a couple of view points. I originally planned to hike this trail, but the parking area was full of snow. Just a pull off along Route 73, the parking area wasn't plowed. I was worried about getting stuck in my van and decided to park at the paved Rooster Comb Trailhead, closer to Keene Valley. I decided to use the Ranney Trail. 

The guidebook and online trip reports don't say too much about the Ranney Trail compared to the Mossy Cascade Trail. Both trails climb over 2,000' to the summit of Hopkins. The Ranney Trail runs about a 1/2 mile shorter, reaching the summit in 2.7 miles and a roundtrip of 5.4 Miles. The Ranney Trail seemed to be quite a bit less traveled than Mossy Cascade.

From the Rooster Comb Trailhead, the Ranney Trail sits a couple hundred feet south on Route 73. The trail isn't marked at the road. A sign for Ranney Way marks the beginning, followed by crossing a solid vehicle bridge over the East Branch of the Ausable River. I continued on the dirt road. The road runs through private property, so stick to the road.

Bridge at the beginning of Ranney Road

With recent warm temperatures, the road was a mix of dirt and ice at the start. Despite a low in the teens the previous night, It was already around 50F when I began the hike just after 9AM. I was a little worried the conditions would be messy. Eventually the road became more snow covered and icy. The road passed a gated driveway and a sign marking the way to Hopkins and Giant.

Traveling the snow covered road

Sign marking the trail

A few more minutes on the road, the trail finally began. The start of the trail was mostly bare, with just a ribbon of ice in the middle. Generally I could step around the ice. The trail followed closely to a nice mountain creek, Hopkins Brook. Several small cascades dropped along the trail. Although there was a fair amount of open water, most of the falls were still icy. I thought the brook was quite pretty.

Not much snow at the start of the trail

Frozen cascade

The trail soon turned into a solid snow cover. The trail itself was fairly icy and I put on my microspikes for the rest of the climb. Generally the traction was decent. A steeper sections were icier and required a little extra caution. The trail passed through a mix of forests and was quite pretty and peaceful.

Not far from the start, the trail was snowy to the summit

Icy section of trail

Hiking through open hardwoods

About 2 miles from the trailhead, the Ranney Trail joins the Mossy Cascade Trail for the final mile or so to the summit. After a modest start, I hit a few more steeper sections. The trail narrowed as it passed through patches of coniferous forest. The trail reached a saddle before the final push to Hopkins.

Junction with Mossy Cascade Trail

More coniferous trees higher on the trail

Choya ready to move on

The last .2 miles to the summit of Hopkins climbs quite steeply. I've read that the trail is quite rooty. Under the cover of snow, the steep section wasn't too bad with all of the obstacles covered. Quickly I reached the clearing at the start of the summit's open rock. Out of the shadows of the forests, the summit held very little snow.

Junction just below the summit

Leaving the forest for the open summit

No snow on the summit ledge

Once on the open rock, the views open up and they won't let you down if it's a clear day. The summit provides a great prospective up the valley toward the Ausable Lakes. Mt Colvin and Sawteeth create an interesting focal point that centers the view. Colvin appears quite pointy from Hopkins, while the serrated ridge of Sawteeth really stands out. Dial, Nippletop, and a dramatic profile of Dix stands to the left of Colvin. The lower Great Range, dominated by Gothics, stands to the right of Sawteeth. Marcy and Haystack peek out beyond the Great Range.

First view near the summit

Lower Great Range with Gothics near the middle
and Marcy nearly hidden

Colvin and Sawteeth framing the view

Dix, Nippletop, and Colvin dominating the horizon

Away from the central view, several other High Peaks stand out. Giant towers over Hopkins, just 2 1/2 miles away.  The slide and profile of Big Slide stand out. Algonquin's snowy summit stands out as well. Whiteface can be seen through the trees if you wander to the edges of the clearing. 


Closeup of Colvin and Sawteeth

Algonquin is snowy peak in distance with Big 
Slide on the right

Choya was more interested in what I was 
doing more than the view

The morning was quite warm. I didn't wear a hat, gloves, or jacket during the climb. A pretty strong wind blasted the summit. I needed my hat and jacket to cut the wind. I enjoyed the view for a while, took some photos, and shared some water with Choya on the summit. I would have liked to stay longer, but after twenty minutes or so, I was ready to get out of the strong gusts.

Heading back into the woods

Back at the junction with the Mossy Cascade Trail

The descent went by pretty quickly. I had to watch myself on the steeper sections. The firm surface was getting wetter and more slippery as  the temperature climbed. I stopped to check out some of the cascades along the brook as I descended. With no snow, Hopkins Brook would be a scenic little creek.

back in the hardwoods on the descent

Another frozen cascade

As I approached the road, I reached the snow line. Some stretches of trail were completely snow free. Others appeared clear, but had small patches of ice. I took off and put on my microspikes a few times in the last 1/2 mile. Once back on the dirt road, the ice gave way to mostly mud for the last 1/4 mile. Back at my vehicle, I was surprised that the thermometer read 60F. It felt more like late April than February 27th. Despite the warm temperatures, the snow on the trail was pretty firm throughout the hike. It didn't really get slushy until I was pretty low on the trail. At that point it was only a couple inches deep and not really an issue.

A brief section exposed to the sun with no snow

I find it interesting only the waterfall is frozen but
not the rest of the brook

The road was muddy by the end after it warmed near 60F

Hopkins Mountain certainly didn't disappoint. The summit's large open area provides a vast viewing platform to take in the Great Range and many of the High Peaks. I wouldn't hesitate to call it one of the best views from a lower mountain in the High Peaks area. Even though reaching the summit requires more than 2,000 feet of climbing, the modest distance makes it attainable for less ambitious hikers not ready for some of the more rugged Adirondack peaks.

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Friday, February 23, 2024

Skiing to Tirrell Pond

Nestled between Blue and Tirrell Mountains, Tirrell Pond sits isolated in the Blue Mountain Wild Forest. When I hiked the Northville Placid Trail (NPT) in 2020, the pond stood out as one of my favorite spots along the entire 138-mile trail. I knew I wanted to revisit the pond at some point and hoped to make the trip in winter on skis. As my time living in the Adirondacks winds down the next couple months, I figured I’d better make the trip on skis soon, while the skiable snow still exists. 

Fresh ski tracks along the NPT

Not much snow fell in February. A few days near 50F didn’t do the snowpack any favors to the already shallow base. Finally, 5” of new snow fell last week to freshen the conditions. With another warm stretch this week, and no real snow forecasted, I hit the trail while the conditions were still decent on February 20th. Just two weeks earlier, I climbed nearby Blue Mountain, which overlooks Tirrell Pond. Looking down on the frozen pond further piqued my interest on making the trip. Even with the new snow, I wasn’t sure the conditions would be great since several rains this winter have left a pretty sparse snowpack for the second half of February. 

Tirrell Pond and Mountain from Blue Mountain

Two trails access Tirrell Pond, one from the Blue Mountain Trailhead and the other via the NPT. I wanted to use the NPT from the south. This trailhead sits just east of Blue Mountain Lake near Durant Lake on Routes 28 and 30.This was also the direction I hiked to Tirrell Pond on my NPT hike.

Trailhead sign

I began skiing a little after 9AM. I wasn’t sure how trafficked the trail gets in the winter, but snowshoe tracks and at least one set of skis packed the trail at the start. With the temperature only in the teens, the packed snowshoe track skied quite fast.

The first short stretch looked sketchy
with minimal snow

Snowshoe tracks from the previous days

After about 3/4 of a mile the snowshoe tracks stopped at a meadow and turned around. The ski tracks went maybe another 1/4 mile before ending. There was some visible remnant of an old trench, but I was breaking snow the rest of the way. The surface powder was only 4-5 inches deep on top of a pretty hard base.

An old trench from previous skiers
 buried under the recent snow

The trail generally travels through the forest. Since hardwood trees dominate the forest, I caught the occasional view of Blue Mountain through the trees. The trail also travels pretty close to O'Neil Flow. I diverted a few feet from the trail to catch a decent view over O'Neil Flow.

The view across O'Neil Flow

Although the snow coverage allowed for decent skiing, at times the relatively shallow base and warmer temperatures over the past few weeks, left some tricky spots. The trail crosses several tiny creeks. In a more typical winter, these would probably be frozen and covered in deep snow. Little snow over the creeks made for some tricky crossings. You could usually hear running water under the ice. Occasionally I had to find a spot just off trail to cross the creeks at a point of easier passage.

Breaking trail

Open water in a small creek

The trail rolls through the forest with modest elevation changes that never gets too steep. The only real technical sections were the transitions near the creeks. Thin cover and poor snow coverage over the rocks in the creeks required a little caution to cross. At one point I fell down a bank of a steeply cut creek. The snow on the edge gave out while I was finding a spot to cross, causing me to lose my footing. Luckily the water was frozen and I didn't get wet.

Passing a glacial erratic
After roughly three miles, I reached a small clearing. With deeper snow in the area, I could barely see the bridge over the Tirrell Pond Outlet. The NPT turned left. I left the NPT and headed over the bridge to the O'Neil Flow Lean-to. I stopped at the lean-to to put my jacket on. I could feel the wind blowing over the pond. I wanted to add a layer of protection before getting blasted by the wind on the pond. 

The outlet of Tirrell Pond

O'Neil Flow Lean-to

From the lean-to, I made my way through the dense trees along the shoreline and onto the pond. I planned on skiing to the Tirrell Pond Lean-to on the north end of the pond by skiing across the frozen pond. As expected, skiing across the pond exposed me to the full force of the wind and I was glad I put on my jacket. The pond was solidly frozen with just a thin coating of snow, allowing for smoother skiing than the trail. A few patches of the ice were completely wind-scoured and free of any snow.

Emerging onto the pond

Skiing on the pond

Low mountains north of the pond,
the lighter spots on the snow are bare ice

Skiing the mile across the pond took me out of the cover of the forest and allowed me to take in the view of the surrounding mountains. Tirrell Mountain rises immediately from the eastern shoreline from the pond with a prominent band of cliffs, providing the most interesting view. Blue Mountain towers 1,800 feet over the northwest side of the pond. Numerous smaller mountains, especially on the northern side, dot the landscape. 

Tirrell Mountain

Blue Mountain on the left, Buck Mountain on the right

Blue Mountain

I reached the northern end of the pond and headed to the Tirrell Pond Lean-to. After about two hours of skiing, I was ready for a short break to have a snack and hydrate. I was also happy to be out of the wind on the pond. While the snow didn't seem that deep in the woods, a solid two feet of snow covered the top of the lean-to and the snow on the ground was flush with the floor. This was significantly more snow than area around O'Neil Flow Lean-to, just a mile to the south.

Tirrell Pond Lean-to

After my break at the lean-to, I returned to the pond. I skied back to the south end. Heading south, the wind was at my back and not nearly as rough. As I approached the outlet, I left the pond on the west shore. I almost immediately intercepted the NPT, which at this point, traveled only a few feet from the pond. Back in the shelter of the woods and out of the wind, I took off my jacket.

Heading back onto the pond with my tracks visible

Skiing south over the pond

A look back at my route

One last look at Tirrell Mountain before I left the pond

I retraced my tracks on NPT as I headed back to the trailhead. With the snow now broken, the skiing went more smoothly. The day had noticeably warmed up since the temperatures in the teens when I started the day. I noticed the previously dry creek crossings became a little wetter as the temps climbed into the 30s. A few times I got a little moisture on my skis. The snow became a little sticky. Fortunately, the sticky snow usually broke free from my skis after a few glides and I never had to put on any glide wax.

Retracing my route on my old tracks

A narrow bridge over an open creek

Threading the needle across a bare spot

Easy travel in my old tracks

The last couple miles seemed to go by quickly. I stepped off the trail a couple times to get a closer look at some of the trailside scenery. I took a closer look at 30-40' ice flow on a cliff band that I missed on the ski in. I also skied off the trail to get a look at the views over O'Neil Flow at a couple spots.

Crossing a creek with thin cover

Ice flow on a cliffside just off the trail

View across an arm of O'Neil Flow

I was a little worried that the skiing would be a little difficult where the snowshoe tracks packed the trail. The deep snowshoe trench didn't allow much room for turning. The snow softened quite a bit since the morning as the temperature crept above freezing and the last stretch skied nicely with no issues. I reached the trailhead a little after 1PM.

According to my NPT guide, from the trailhead to Tirrell Pond Lean-to runs about 4.2 miles (I've seen some sources list distance slightly higher). That puts the roundtrip distance around 8.4 miles. Most intermediate skiers should have no problem tackling the NPT to the lean-tos with decent snow cover. Even though the NPT travels through a backcountry area, the trail is well marked and navigation is pretty straightforward, even in the snow. The elevation bounces generally bounces around between 1,800' and 2,000' and never gets too steep. If you choose to cross Tirrell Pond, make sure the ice conditions are safe.

As expected, I enjoyed this trip. I really enjoyed the scenery around Tirrell Pond when I thru hiked the NPT. The area looked even more impressive under a blanket of snow. While I would not have minded a little better snow cover, the skiing was pretty good overall apart from a few iffy creek crossings. Given the lack of tracks beyond the first mile after a holiday weekend with new snow, I don't think the area sees much traffic. There's a good chance you'll have the trail to this beautiful place to yourself. If you're not a skier, Tirrell Pond makes a beautiful summer destination as well. I never swam in the pond, but have read it's a nice place to take a backcountry dip in the summer.

Every season I usually have a list of new places I want to ski. The trip into Tirrell Pond was on the top of the list for this season. I'm very happy I finally made this ski trip, especially since it's my last winter living in the Adirondacks. The days following my outing, the temps warmed up into the 40s with a less than promising forecast for winter sports for the foreseeable future. It may have been my last opportunity to ski this season in the backcountry before the snow conditions deteriorate, possibly for the rest of the season. 

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