Saturday, March 21, 2020

Cross Country Skiing the Winding Falls Loop

After our big snowstorm on the last days of February, the weather quickly changed.  A week of warm temperatures and rain substantially knocked back the snowpack.  By the next weekend, Saturday March,7th,  more seasonable weather returned.  Even though I knew conditions would be questionable, I wanted to get in at least one more backcountry cross country ski outing.

In late November, I hiked the Winding Falls Loop.  Most of the route is marked as DEC cross country ski trails.  Much of the route travels through the Round Lake Wilderness with the remaining sections within the Horseshoe Lake Wild Forest just south of Tupper Lake.  The Wilderness is a fairly new addition to the Adirondack public lands having been added in 2005.  The trailhead still remains unmarked.  It can be found on Route 421 at the south end of Tupper Lake, just off Route 30.  A yellow gate marks the start of the trails with just a small unsigned pull-off.  It's the first yellow gate on the left side of the road along Route 421.  If you reach Bog River Falls, a worthy destination itself, you have gone too far.

The relatively short route covers about 6.6 miles.  Even in less than desirable conditions, I wouldn't be committed to a death march.  Along the way the route travels mostly on logging roads, canoe portages, and sections of social trails.  Most of the route follows either the Bog River or Round Lake Stream, at times along the banks.

I set out March 7th.  From the gate, the conditions were icy and fast.  The old tracks from weeks prior made no difference since the hard snow supported my weight with no issues.  As a loop, this trip can be done in either direction.  I have chosen to travel clockwise both times.  About .1 miles from the trailhead you reach a junction with a bridge over the Bog River.  This is where the loop can be taken in either direction.  DEC Cross Country Ski discs mark the route in either direction.

Skiing the first leg of the loop 
Garage sized boulder along the trail

Notice the spindly trees.  This area was logged not long
before the state took over the land.

A tunnel of scrubby conifers

The first portion of the trail travels away from the Bog River with a couple of modest hills.  In the hard conditions, the hills made for some sketchy descents with difficult turning and stopping.  After negotiating the last hill, the trail drops back to the water.  The river split earlier and the route now travels along Round Lake Stream.  The trail reaches a junction and the trail markers end.  Immediately to the right you will see a rough bridge over the stream.  This direction continues the loop.  Heading left leads to Round Lake on a mix of faint trails and bushwhacking.

Round Lake Stream
Smaller creeks are starting to thaw

Nice path through scraggly conifers

Looking upstream at Round Lake Stream from bridge

Downstream from bridge

The next couple miles follow logging roads that have grown over to a wide trail are no longer marked with discs.  The route is fairly obvious however as long as you stick to the main road.  Upon crossing the bridge over the Round Lake Stream, follow the road branch that turns right downstream.  This is usually obvious, but blowdowns made this less obvious during my ski outing.  I'm not sure if this trail has a name, but I have seen it on maps called the Winding Falls Primitive Corridor.

This portion of the loop featured the best conditions of my outing.  The sun softened the snow allowing a nice glide without ice.  The route climbs very gently until it reaches the height of land on a ridge between the Bog River and Round Lake Stream.  An equally gradual descent drops toward the Bog River.  The route narrows on the north side of this ridge but remains fairly obvious throughout.  Numerous blowdowns fell across this section since my last time here in November.

The best snow on the loop during my outing

Numerous blowdowns blocked progress

Another blowdown across the trail

Tunnel of spruce

After 2.5 miles on this stretch, the route reaches a rough bridge crossing the Bog River.  At this point, the roar of Winding Falls can be heard.  Looking downstream from the bridge, the falls is just out of sight.  Crossing the bridge, you reach a junction with multiple ski trails merging together.  To continue the loop, take a right downstream along the river.  The ski trail that continues straight ahead leads about 2.5 miles to Route 421 for a shorter but hillier out and back approach to the falls.

Crude bridge crossing the Bog River above Winding Falls

Upstream from bridge

Winding Falls is just around the bend
For the more adventurous,  another small waterfall tumbles upstream from this point.  Following the river upstream for a 1/4 mile or so leads to Split Rock Falls.  The falls drops only a couple feet but does so with quite a torrent.  Getting there isn't all that easy.  A very difficult to see herd path leads upstream with flagging at times.  Even with the path, I resorted to bushwhacking along the riverbank.  On my trip in late November, I broke through snow and submerged my leg up to my knee in the icy water.  If time allows, the falls is a nice little detour that you will almost guarantee to have to yourself.  I don't recommend the side trip if you are uncomfortable bushwhacking off trail.

Split Rock Falls

Continuing on the main loop from the bridge, after less than a tenth of a mile, the ski trail turns left.  A path heading straight leads a couple hundred feet to the top of Winding Falls.  Although not terribly tall, the river narrows into a gorge at the falls.  This allows an impressive volume of water to rush over the falls.  As its name implies, the river makes several twists as it winds its way through the short gorge.  Due to its winding nature, taking in the entire falls proves next to difficult, particularly in winter when snow and ice make difficult footing.  Nice ice patterns cling to the rocks near the falls from freezing mist.

The falls from above

Looking across the falls 

Looking at the ravine below the falls

Top of the falls
The lowest drop of the falls after the gorge
during my November trip

To rejoin the loop, backtrack to the ski trail.  The trail drops rather steeply from the bluff at the top of the falls to the river below.  In the icy conditions, this descent proved treacherous.  The river widens below the falls.  In untracked snow, finding the trail may be a little tricky below the falls due to a blowdown, but the route hugs the river.  Looking upstream, the falls remains out of sight with the expecption of the final small drop below the gorge.

Looking back at the bottom drop of Winding Falls

The trail follows the river bank

Calm section of the Bog River

The trail generally stays close to the river.  The sun warmed up by the time I reached this leg of the loop.  The shaded sections still held hard ice while the open areas turned the snow to mashed potatoes.  This added another challenge to the less than stellar conditions.  Sections of the trail close to the river that received more sun started to show bare ground as the snow receded. The trail through here was originally an old informal ski trail.  In addition to the DEC trail markings.  Old markers from the past occasionally mark the route. Unlike the first several legs of the loop, the trail through this stretch remains narrow like a hiking trail.  This stretch may be a little tricky for less experience skiers even in good conditions due to the narrow trail and a few quick transitions.

Remnants of when this was a local's trail before the DEC marked it

One of the worst spots for skiing along the loop

Skiing along the river

Rapids on the Bog River

The trail occasionally veered away from the river to negotiate small drainage.  These drainages feature, short, but steep transitions.  In the shelter of the forest, these steep sections remained quite icy and tricky to manage, especially if the sun poked through the trees turning the ice to mashed potatoes in a moments notice.  As the river approaches rapids, a few portage trails overlap the ski trails.  Pay attention as the portage trails sometimes split from the ski trail.

Sketchy conditions close to the river

Eventually the trail pulls away from the river and travels along wider logging roads that are no longer used.  The forest in this section had less dense trees since it was probably logged not long before the state took over the land.  This allowed better snow condition with less shady areas.  The skiing was quite nice on the more uniform snow. A few bare spots started to peek through the logging roads in less shady stretches.

A look back at my tracks

Patches of bare ground

The trail finally drops back to the river.  The fairly wide Bog River remains open much of the winter.  A large bridge from the logging days spans the river here allowing for a safe crossing.  This is the same bridge that you pass in the first tenth of a mile.  Crossing the bridges leads you back to the start of the loop.  A left turn leads a a few hundred yards back to the trailhead.

Goodman Bridge over Bog River near beginning/end of loop

Looking downstream on the Bog River from the bidge

While I had some challenging conditions due to the weather, I enjoyed this loop.  With better snow, it would ski quite nicely.  Snowshoes would have been a better choice on the day I skied the loop.  I fell more on this outing than I have fallen total over the last several years on skis due to the questionable conditions.  I enjoyed the frequent stretches of trail along the water.  Winding Falls always makes for a nice destination.  The full loop doesn't seem to see much traffic.  I will definitely ski this area again next winter when the snow is more consistent.

Falls from inside the gorge on my November hike

Because this area was a fairly recent state transition,  its difficult to find trail information on this area.  Most maps, including the National Geographic map of this area, don't show the trails.  As of this post, a few online resources offer incomplete data on the trails, including Hiking Project.  The most complete description I found, with a map and alternative side trips, can be found in "50 Hikes in the Adirondack Mountains" by Bill Ingersoll.

A look down the falls in November

When snow doesn't cover the ground, the loop makes a nice hike.  The route passes numerous wet sections which would probably equate to a buggy hike in summer.  I hiked it in November with a frozen ground and conditions were perfect.

Heavy ice during a trip earlier in the winter

The falls in the colder part of winter 
More ice in early winter

Winding Falls is known locally as Pa's Falls.  Although not visible in the winter, three plaques near the top of the falls honor various fathers.  If a search of Winding Falls fails to find details on the area, look up Pa's Falls.

Plaques at falls

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Sunday, March 8, 2020

Cross Country Skiing to Raquette Falls

Despite a modest snow forecasted in the end of February, strong winds brought lake effect snow deep into the Adirondacks.  By Saturday, February 29th, well over a foot fell at my house in Tupper Lake.  I wanted to take advantage of the new snow and headed to the small settlement of Coreys between Tupper Lake and Saranac Lake the next morning.  I have visited this area before to climb the peaks of the Seward Range last summer.  This time I headed to the lowlands along the Raquette River.  I have read that a trip to Raquette Falls on cross country skis stands as one of the classic ski tours in the Adirondacks.

The Raquette River makes up the western boundary of the High Peaks Wilderness.  While the river serves as the main mode of travel in this area, a trail travels upriver near Stoney Creek in Coreys to Raquette Falls.  While marked as a horse trail; hikers, and in my case skiers, also use the trail.  In past winters the road plowing stopped short of the trailhead.  I was pleased to see the road and the trailhead both plowed open.  Despite a temperature of -4F earlier in the morning, it had climbed to the teens by the time I started skiing with beautiful blue skies.


I wasn't sure what to expect of the trail conditions.  I anticipated the trail would be still unbroken, making for a tough slog.  A set of snowshoe tracks left a shallow trench of packed snow.  Even out of the trench, the well consolidated snow kept me afloat with minimal sinking.

The trail follows an old logging road and is usually fairly wide

Snowshoe trench from previous day

The first half of the trail travels on gentle terrain with easy elevation changes.  Although the trail follows the river, the route travels high enough that the river remains out of sight for the most part.  After just over two miles, the trail splits at a signed junction.  The trail to Raquette Falls sees the majority of the traffic and the other trail was unbroken. 

Traveling under a low tree canopy


From the junction, the route maintains its gentle course for the first mile or so.  The trail drops closer to the river at this point with hillier terrain.  The first good views of the river are found at this point.  The rest of the trail sees more aggressive hills as the route climbs and descends back and forth to the river a few times.  The day I set out, the snow conditions were perfect for cross country skiing and the hills skied nicely.  The terrain should be manageable by most intermediate skiers, but in icier conditions, the hills may cause problems.

A small creek that didn't quite freeze all the way

Deer tracks

Heading into thick stand of hardwoods

Skiing through a tunnel of balsam

The forest after a foot or so of snow

The hardwoods held the snow in this stretch

The frozen river

Another dense stand of hardwoods

And back into coniferous trees

After four miles, the trail comes to another junction.  Visible from this junction to the left is a DEC Outpost.  In the winter the structure remains closed, but houses a ranger during the snowless season.  A sign marks the route to the falls on the trail to the right just past the junction.  Heading straight bypasses the falls and leads to lean-tos and I believe serves as the portage of the falls for river travelers.

Looking at the tree canopy in coniferous trees

A narrow stretch of trail

Frozen creek

DEC Outpost

Junction to the falls

The trail features its most ambitious hill after the junction as it descends to the river.  The hill runs fairly long with a couple sharp turns.  For skiers not confident in their descending and turning abilities, it may be better to remove your skis until you get by the turns.  Even with perfect snow conditions I approached the descent cautiously making sure to keep my speed in check.  Once at the bottom of the hill, the now open water of the river came into sight.

Closer to the falls, the river opens

Tree canopy of hardwoods

The last stretch before the falls travels a narrow section of trail above a small gorge with the river in sight.  The sound of the falls and rapids are constant. There is one short but punchy hill that must be negotiated before dropping to the falls.  Oddly the set of snowshoe tracks stopped a few hundred feet before the actual falls.  

Raquette Falls

Ice formation on part of the falls

While Raquette Falls isn't terribly high, it remains a worthwhile destination.  What the falls lacks in height, it makes up with volume.  A large volume of water pushes over the drop, making quite the frothy pool below the falls.  The winter allows for nice ice formations around the falls as well.  While technically there is an upper and lower falls, the lower falls seems to be the main attraction.  The trail didn't seem skiable beyond the lower falls.  I took off my skis to get a closer look at the falls and take some photos.  The falls made a nice spot for a snack and drink before returning.

Another look at the falls
Rapids above the falls

According to the trailhead sign, the trail to the falls runs about 4.3 miles.  The return trip retraces the route back.  On my return, I had a nice ski track to follow from my way in and another skier that made it to the falls.  The ski back passed by quickly.  I stopped briefly to visit a lean-to for a quick break.  By the time I reached the trailhead, I past a couple more groups of skiers and someone traveling on snowshoes.

Ancient piece of logging equipment 

Raquette River Lean-to #5

Where the open water ends on the river

Tracks in the hardwoods

Frozen bog

The roundtrip ski to the falls and back covers 8.6 miles according to the trailhead sign.  I probably added another few tenths of a mile of skiing.  With my breaks to visit the lean-to, the outpost, travel beyond the Lower Falls, and time at the falls, I still managed to complete the trip in just over three and a half hours.  I will add that the conditions were prime, allowing for fast travel.  

This was my ninth cross country ski outing for the season, and by far the best. The great conditions certainly helped. The trail offers just enough terrain changes to keep it interesting while traveling through a pleasant forest.  Of course the falls are a nice highlight.  Several lean-tos along the route also make nice places to rest.  I would recommend a trip to Raquette Falls as a cross country ski destination.  

Raquette Falls

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