Thursday, September 12, 2019

Backpacking the Cranberry Lake 50

The Cranberry Lake 50, as its name implies, is a 50 mile hiking loop that circles its namesake lake.  Cranberry Lake sits as one of the larger lakes in the Adirondacks.  Tucked away in the northwest corner of Adirondack Park, away from the bustle of the High Peaks, the Cranberry Lake area seems somewhat overlooked.  The area lacks the lofty summits found in other parts of the Adirondacks.  What it lacks in elevation, the area makes up for it with miles of quiet forests with countless ponds and a wilderness feel.

While the area still lacks the amount of visitors as some parts of the Adirondacks, the Cranberry Lake 50 seems to be drawing visitors.  While hiking ranks highly as an Adirondack pastime, backpacking doesn't draw as much attention.  Most of the hiking in the region tends to focus on climbing the Adirondack 46ers in the High Peaks.  Much of the backpacking is tied in to bagging peaks.  The Northville-Placid Trail draws some backpackers around the region, but takes up to two weeks to finish.   The Cranberry Lake 50 seems to fill the void of attainable backpacking routes that most hikers can tackle over a long weekend.  As such, backpackers have noticed the Cranberry Lake 50 and its popularity has grown.

I first heard of the Cranberry Lake 50 in an article in Backpacker Magazine.  At that time, the hike didn't mean too much to me.  The Adirondacks never lit up my radar too much.  Even though I grew up less than five hours from them, for some reason, I never made it to the Adirondacks.  Fast forward several years, I find myself living in the heart of the Adirondacks and only a half hour or so from Cranberry Lake.  The Cranberry Lake 50 climbed to the top of my list of trips since moving nearby.

The Cranberry Lake 50 (CL50) is not a self contained trail.  It links together a series of trails, most of which already existed, around the lake.  All of the trails have separate names and their own markings.  The Cranberry Lake 50 utilizes these trails.  In addition to the existing trail signage and markings, the CL50 route uses its own markings and signs along the route.  For the most part, the trails are marked with Department of Conservation (DEC) discs, which are normally red, yellow, or blue.  The entire route also uses blue discs with a "50" on them, indicating the CL50.

DEC and CL50 markings


With summer and hopefully the bugs winding down, I decided to hit the CL50 over Labor Day weekend, beginning Saturday morning.  Three days seems to be a popular option to complete the loop.  Since I typically am a fast hiker and with wet weather forecasted Sunday night, I hoped to complete the loop in two days.

Numerous trailheads, mostly near the towns of Wanakena and Cranberry Lake, provide access to the CL50.  I chose the Gilbert Tract trailhead at the northeast part of the loop as my start/finish point.  This trailhead lies just east of the town of Cranberry Lake and is the closest trailhead to my house.

Day 1
Gilbert Tract Trailhead to Glasby Pond Campsite

I arrived at the trailhead about 7AM on Saturday morning.  The parking lot was already close to capacity when I arrived.  After fine tuning my pack, I hit the trail at 705AM.  The CL50 begins on the East Connector Trail from this trailhead.  This trail was recently built in the past few years to close the gap near the town of Cranberry Lake and eliminate road walking on Route 3.  As a newer trail, I passed boards that were set aside to build sections of bog bridge.  New bog bridges were already in place at times.  From the start, the CL50 featured a common theme, sections of bogs.  Grass along the bogs were often high.  Early in the morning, the dew left these grasses quite wet, leaving my lower half wet as I passed through the grasses.

Signage at trailhead

Boggy terrain starts very quickly

New trail maintenance

There is a bog bridge in that vegetation 

Boggy creek

More overgrown trail with goldenrod, jewelweed, and a few asters

The CL50 continued along the Burntbridge Pond and Dog Pond Trails.  Every time the CL50 transitions to a new trail, the junctions are well marked with CL50 discs.  Along these trails, the route often travels within sight of Cranberry Lake.  At times the trail passes within a few feet of the lake and occasionally follows the shore.  After leaving the West Inlet Flow portion of the lake, the CL50 climbs away from the lake, leaving it behind for a while.

Nice walking through ferns

I think this is Brandy Brook

Looking into Cranberry Lake from Brandy Brook Flow

Cranberry Lake beyond a creek

Looking into Cranberry Lake from the East Inlet Flow

The trail follows the East Inlet Flow

Up until this point, about seven miles into the hike, I already passed a handful of marked campsites.  Most of the campsites sit close to Cranberry Lake, often just above the water.

Large mushroom

Garage sized boulder

As the CL50 continues, it passes several ponds.  Most of these ponds are smaller with a somewhat boggy character and have a wilderness feel.  Curtis Pond, Irish Pond, Dog Pond, and another unnamed pond all lie within three miles of each other.  Curtis and Dog Pond have nice campsites along the shoreline.  Along Curtis Pond, I noticed a few leaves had already started to change color near the water.  This seemed to be common along many of the ponds along the CL50. 

Hiking through a hardwood forest

Interesting trailside boulder

Curtis Pond

Another look at Curtis Pond

Irish Pond

Dog Pond

Beyond the ponds, a section of bog is passed near the end of the Dog Pond Trail.  While the trail was wet, the mud wasn't too much of a problem.  I stepped off the trail to photograph the bog above a beaver dam, taking care not to misstep in any muck.  Unfortunately, what seemed like a stable log, sunk when I stepped on it.  I quickly sank above my sock in thick mud with one foot.  My Gore Tex shoe seemed to keep my foot mostly dry.  My lower leg and sock were caked in mud however.

Bog where I sank in mud

 I occasionally passed a blueberry bush or raspberry bush with lingering berries.  Most of the fruit seemed to have been past prime by now.  One treat I discovered excited me.  Growing up in Pennsylvania, there was an abundance of sweet birch.  Living in Colorado the past five years, I didn't get this treat.  Numerous sweet birch lined the trail.  I was happy to grab a branch and chew it when I passed one throughout the loop.  For those that never had sweet birch, it tastes like wintergreen.

Large, neon orange fungi

The CL 50 follows the Otter Brook Trail just beyond my muddy mishap.  The Otter Brook Trail slowly climbs to a ridge, which it seemed to follow several miles before dropping back to Cranberry Lake at the Chair Rock Flow.   Beyond Chair Rock Flow, the CL50 follows the South Bay Trail.  This section skirts private property.  The trail passes through interesting terrain with a more mountainous feel.  The route descends along numerous cliffs and rougher tread.

Bridge over Chair Rock Creek

Chair Rock Flow

Cliffs along trail

By the time I reached Chair Rock Creek, I already covered about 15 miles as I entered the early afternoon.  I didn't have anything to eat since 630AM and a high calorie frappe on the drive to the trailhead.  I began to notice my hunger setting in.  I decided to continue beyond Chair Rock Creek for nearly two miles and found a great spot for lunch.  The trail crossed a rushing creek with a nice slabby, rock shore.  I enjoyed a break, eating lunch and cooling in the creek as well as wiping off some mud.  When I first arrived, I talked to another pair of hikers that were also enjoying the nice spot.  Up until this point, most of the creeks were slower moving.  This creek rushed and made an excellent place to get off my feet for a little bit.

Just below my spot for lunch

Creek where I ate lunch

After my lunch, I soon made my way to Olmstead Pond.  Olmstead Pond is one of the larger bodies of water along the route.  The clouds were just right when I reached Olmstead Pond as they reflected off of the water.  Like most of the other ponds along the CL50, campsites sat on the shores of the pond as well as a lean to.

Bog near Olmstead Pond

Clouds reflecting in Olmstead Pond

The trail walked along Olmstead Pond

Another view across Olmstead Pond

I passed one more boggy pond after Olmstead Pond before joining the Six-Mile Creek Trail.  The Six-Mile Creek Trail follows a low ridge above creeks on either side of the ridge.  The creeks are generally not accessible from the trail.  After a couple miles the trail drops off the ridge, reaching Cowhorn Pond.  Cowhorn Pond offers a lean to for camping.

Beaver Dam 

Pond above the beaver dam

Log bridge

Garage sized boulder below the log bridge

I didn't visit the lean to, which sits off the trail on a short side trail.  I could hear quite a few people in the vicinity.  The trail passes just above Cowhorn Pond, never quite dropping to its shore.

Just beyond Cowhorn Pond, the CL50 reaches a junction.  The clearly marked CL50 follows the Cowhorn Junction Trail to Cat Mountain and Glasby Ponds.  Just beyond the junction, the trail crosses a creek.  At this creek I took a short break to have a snack and look at my map.  I was just a few minutes from a campsite at Cat Mountain Pond, with another campsite at Glasby Pond, not too much further.

While sitting by the creek, several people without backpacking equipment passed the creek.  It seems most of them were already set up at Cat Mountain Pond.  I was told that the campsites around Cat Mountain Pond were already crammed full with tents.  I already had my mind set on reaching Glasby Pond for the night.

Cat Mountain Pond

After my break, I quickly reached the junction for Cat Mountain.  While the actual CL50 doesn't climb Cat Mountain, it sounded like a worthwhile side trip.  The summit is reached by a short spur, only .7 miles off the main route.  The climb is fairly gradual until it climbs quite steeply near the summit.

A rare rough section of trail

The summit of Cat Mountain stands at a modest 2,257-feet.  Despite the low elevation, the south side of the summit features an open, rocky ledge with wide open views.  Several ponds and lower mountains are visible looking out over the Five Ponds Wilderness. Despite numerous people camping just below at Cat Mountain Pond, I had the summit to myself.  I did pass two separate groups during my descent however.  The 1.4 mile round trip diversion is well worth the time.

Cat Mountain with Cat Mountain Pond visible below

Looking across Cat Mountain

View across Cat Mountain

Once on the main trail, I quickly reached Glasby pond and the campsite at the end of the pond.  Luckily only one other hiker set up at the campsite, since there wasn't very much room for additional tents. The Glasby Pond campsite sits in a nice location,  The pond is relatively small.  Cat Mountain rises just beyond the pond.

Glasby Pond

I enjoyed my dinner sitting on the shore of the pond.  Just to be safe, I put on my long pants and a heavier shirt to deter mosquitoes.  Although they weren't too bad throughout the day, they certainly didn't go unnoticed either.  Although it didn't cry, a lone loon made its home on the pond and occasionally flapped its wings in the distance.

Cat Mountain reflecting in the pond


With my side trip to Cat Mountain, I approached 30 miles of hiking for the day.  The hiking never gets too difficult, and the elevation changes are modest. Nonetheless that's a lot of hiking and  I slept like a log.  While falling asleep, an owl nearby hooted periodically.  I also heard the unpleasant sound of mice scampering around the campsite.  The woman camping by me heard a visitor during the night that she guessed was a raccoon.

Day 2
Glasby Pond Campsite to Gilbert Tract Trailhead

Having been asleep since before 9PM, I woke up early and was out of my tent not long after the sky started to brighten. Waking up at an early hour has its advantages.  The view over the pond in the morning twilight offered a beautiful scene.  Mist rose from the pond with pink skies in the background before the sunrise. While eating breakfast, I finally heard the loon on the pond wail.  I began hiking about 715AM.

Predawn glow and mist on Glasby Pond

Mist rising from the pond

Nice reflection off Glasby Pond

Closeup of the mist

Almost immediately after leaving camp, I joined the High Falls Loop, which the the CL50 follows for the next 11 miles.  After traveling through a mix of forest and passing the occasional bog, I reached the turn off to High Falls.

The loop was well marked

Bridge over small creek

Rooty section of trail

The boggy ponds are plentiful

High Falls is reached by a .4 mile spur trail.  Numerous campsites and two lean tos sit near the end of the spur.  Before you reach it, you can hear the rush of water over High Falls.  High Falls drop over a narrow section of rock on the Oswegatchie River at a high water volume.  Even late summer, they were worth the diversion with plenty of flow over the falls.

High Falls

Lean to at High Falls


After taking some time to enjoy the falls, I headed back to the main trail.  The route hiked through a section of the Oswegatchie called The Plains.  This area features boggy terrain with many twists and turns of the river, often blocked by beaver dams.  Although spongy, the footing wasn't too bad.  The biggest problem was the high vegetation.  In the morning, this vegetation was covered in dew.  Passing through the high grasses left me quite wet below the waist.

A long abandon piece of equipment from the logging days

Early fall color on maple leaves

Boggy section of the Plains

Grass encroaching the trail

Hiking overgrown section of the Plains

The route through here follows old logging lands.  The trail follows the remains of old logging roads.  Although the roads are grown over, they are wider than a normal trail at many places.  At times the route travels along the shores of the river.  The Oswegatchie flows slowly and runs a dark color over its blackwater course.

The trail following the Oswegatchie

The Oswegatchie

Even though the trail followed old logging tote roads, the path was problematic at times.  Beavers enjoy the river and small streams.  Three separate beaver dams caused flooding along this section.  With care, I could almost get through unscathed.  On more than one occasion, I took a misstep.  My feet were slowly losing the battle to the flooding and no longer completely dry.  Sometimes the best course was directly over the beaver dams where they were nicely packed.  Other times I pussy-footed, hoping the log I stepped on didn't sink too deeply.  With the excessive standing water, the mosquitoes were more persistent.  Earlier in the spring, people reported this area as unpassable with deeper water.

The first beaver damaged section

Nice pond above beaver dam

Rough trail in beaver damaged section

Another beaver pond

Rough hiking in the muck

Yes, that's the trail

Eventually I made my way past the final flooded section.  The trail generally ran wide as it traversed the old tote roads.  I passed one more worthwhile landmark in this section before Wanakena.  High Rock rises over the banks of the Oswegatchie over an otherwise flat section of the river.  The rock offers a nice vantage over the river's twisting course and vast marsh surrounding it.

Mossy forest

One of the few types of flowers that lingered

Overgrown vegetation along the trail

High Rock overlooking the Oswegatchie

Another four miles on the High Falls Loop brought me to the settlement of Wanakena.  A two mile stretch of road walking takes the CL50 out of the Five Ponds Wilderness.  Because of the lack of crossings of the Oswegatchie River, the road walk is necessary to link the CL50 from the Wilderness to the next stretch of the Cranberry Lake Wild Forest.

Bright orange fungi

Nice looking mushroom

Hiking along old tote road

While the road walk seems adequately marked, I missed a turn and added an extra mile.  Shortly after leaving the forest, the CL50 crosses the Oswegatchie on a neat pedestrian, suspension bridge.  Unfortunately I missed this turn.  The trail marker is on a pole indicating the turn.  However the pole is covered by a bush and the marker is obstructed.  After walking at least a half-mile beyond the turn, I didn't notice any markers or any bridges as indicated the map.  I backtracked and noticed my error.

Bridge over Oswegatchie

Wanakena offers a few amenities but otherwise is a pretty bare bones settlement.  Majority of the population is seasonal.  After my error, the road walk went more smoothly before reaching the SUNY Ranger School.  After passing the campus, the trail walking resumes on the Peavine Swamp Trail.

Oswegatchie River near Ranger School

Fortunately, the Peavine Swamp Trail didn't travel through any swamps.  The trail did seem quite buggy however.  The CL50 travels about 5 miles on the Peavine Swamp Trail passing by several, offshoot loop trails along the way.  A lean to and campsite sit along the first loop after the Ranger School.

Bridge on along Peavine Swamp Trail

Easy hiking on the Peavine Swamp Trail

The CL50 originally exited the forest for Route 3 at the north end of the Peavine Swamp Trail.  A new trail has been built that leads closer to the town of Cranberry Lake eliminating several miles of road walking.  On the CL50 brochure and map, this trail goes by the West Connector Trail.  Although I didn't see this name on the trail, the route is well marked and easy to follow.

Spot of my last break

The West Connector drops in elevation as it nears Cranberry Lake.  It passes through an area that appears to have been logged in recent years and is full of brush.  Eventually the trail leaves the brush and utilizes a local trail that has much better maintenance.  Finally the trail exits the woods for good and hits road.  After crossing the Oswegatchie on a pedestrian bridge, the CL50 soon hits Route 3.  The last 1.75 miles back to my starting point travel through the town of Cranberry Lake.

Slash from recent logging

Overgrown trail in recent logging area

Large boulders near Cranberry Lake

I reached the my car at the end of the loop at 410PM.  Including side trips and my extra walking in Wanakena I hiked approximately 53 miles.  From start to finish, I completed the loop in 33 hours, including my nights sleep.  That was the fastest 50 miles I have ever backpacked.  I'm glad I finished in two days.  A steady rain began later that night, dropping nearly an inch and a half through the next day.

Hiking through Cranberry Lake

Reaching the end of the hike

Final Thoughts

Despite my quick travel time, I didn't feel like I rushed.  The CL50 travels over relatively tame terrain with little elevation changes.  I took extra side trips to Cat Mountain, High Falls, and High Rock to see some of the highlights not directly on the trail.  The CL50 offered a relaxing backpacking experience.  I enjoyed the frequent ponds, long stretches of hardwood forests, and sections of old growth coniferous trees.  I could enjoy hiking the loop again, especially during foliage season.

Dog Pond

While three days seems the most popular time frame to hike the CL50.  A leisurely four or five day trip isn't out of the question for those that want a relaxing outing.  The numerous pondside campsites easily accommodate a longer trip.  Several other hiking trails also venture off of the CL50 route that would allow for an even longer outing to explore the area.  And for the truly ambitious, the relatively easy terrain makes the CL50 popular for trail runners looking to complete the trail in a day.  Several runners were attempting this the day I started my trip.

Olmstead Pond

Although not nearly as physically demanding as most backpacking trips I have hiked, I will give a few points warnings about the CL50.  Probably the biggest warning is about biting insects.  The terrain is low and often boggy.  Even early September, I noticed the mosquitoes.  Mid summer, be prepared with repellent and a head net.  Deer flies join the mosquitoes in summer and most hikers report unbearable conditions if not taking proper precautions during bug season.  Black flies start the bug season before the mosquitoes.  Along with the boggy terrain, the trail is often wet.  Early season may be impassable due to high water from beavers and snow melt slowly drying.

Glasby Pond in the morning

The CL50 is a pleasant forest hike with numerous ponds.  If you come to the Adirondacks looking for a mountain adventure, the CL50 may disappoint.  If you are looking for a pleasant backpacking trip in the forest and to experience a wilderness setting, the CL50 will meet your needs.

High Falls

Since much of the loop travels through hardwood forests, an autumn hike would be ideal.  Bugs will be mostly gone.  Solitude will be more likely as most fair weather hikers have ended their seasons.  The foliage will be sure to impress.  Because of the lower elevations, there may be a slightly longer window to backpack compared to the High Peaks.

Impressive fungi

For more information on the Cranberry Lake 50 visit these links.
cranberrylake50.org
Cranberry Lake 50 Map and Brochure
Cranberry Lake 50 Facebook Group

Trailhead kiosk map 

If you enjoyed this post, check out and "LIKE" Tomcat's Outdoor Adventures on Facebook where I post photos more frequently and visit past adventures.

***I want to dedicate this post to Michael Ranck, who recently passed away.  He was my 8th Grade Earth Science teacher and one of my most influential teachers.  In the classroom he taught me things that I am obsessed with today, especially weather and the use of topo maps.  To this day, I keep a daily weather log, something that started in his class.  And, I endlessly comb over topo maps prior to trips and I even will look at topo maps for pleasure- something I never knew of before his class.  Outside of the classroom, his epic runs are what first caught my attention, particularly in 8th grade when his idea of fun for his 40th birthday was running 40 miles.  This inspired me to start cycling and eventually running.  After I graduated, I would see him at local running races that I participated in.  He was a fellow AT thru hiker.  After he retired, he went on to hike the entire the AT in 2010.  I was able share a small part of that trip assisting with his logistics in Maine (where I lived at the time) and climbed Katahdin with him on a not so lovely rainy day.  He continued participating in long distance trail races and other runs until his illness recently no longer allowed him to compete.  His incredible endurance into his late 60s made my adventures seem piddly.   He was also a supporter of this blog and always showed interest in my stories and photos of my trips.***













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