Friday, February 12, 2021

Cross Country Skiing the Essex Chain Lakes Complex

The Essex Chain Lakes opened to the public in 2014, making it one of the newer acquisitions to public lands in the Adirondacks. Located just south of the Town of Newcomb, the Essex Chain Lakes Complex sits near the center of the Adirondacks. Although the Complex still flies under the radar, much of its activity in the area revolves around the 18 bodies of water within its nearly 20,000 acres. 

I recently read an article about the Essex Chain Lake Complex. A map indicated a designated cross country ski trail near the northern end of the complex. Miles of snowbound roads also caught my attention for winter use. I found a reasonable loop of ten miles that seemed to have potential for additional cross country skiing. A few people confirmed the cross country ski possibilities. I headed to the area Sunday, February 7th.

My main objective was to ski the 10-mile lollipop loop around Fifth and Sixth Lakes. Winter access for the area begins just south of the dam on the Goodnow Flow, a few miles south of Newcomb. A marked lot provides parking, just before the start of the entrance to the Complex.

I began skiing around 1005AM. A couple hundred yards along the edge of the road brought me to the signed entrance to the Essex Chain Lakes Complex. In the summer, the dirt road provides vehicle access, however, in winter the roads remain covered in snow. The area was former logging company land and several old logging roads traverse the area. 

Entering the Essex Chain Lakes Complex

Nice broken ski tracks at the start

Despite fresh snow the past couple days, the first road I skied was already broken with ski tracks and what appeared to be horse traffic. At just over a mile, I turned off the main road. The horse traffic continued straight toward a popular destination on the Hudson River. I turned right, through a gate, toward the center of the Complex. Fortunately, the previous ski tracks also continued this way, making for easy skiing. Even though the route is obvious on an old logging road, the DEC marked the trails with the occasional blue disc. Although generally in the forest, an occasional clearing allowed for views of the smaller, low mountains that surround the area.  

Easy skiing

Views from a clearing

Sixth Lake Mountain

I planned on skiing the loop around Sixth and Fifth Lakes in a counterclockwise direction. To ski counterclockwise, you need to leave the main road and turn right, just over two miles from the starting point. This junction isn't signed or marked in any way, but is the first turn encountered after the gate. Once again, the previous ski tracks continued this direction, letting my quick pace continue.

As I skied on the path toward Sixth Lake, the route passes by a meadow with views to the east toward Vanderwhacker Mountain and other surrounding mountains. Sixth Lake Mountain looms immediately ahead, before the route turns and follows its lower contours. Although the morning started with a little sun, snow began falling, and continued to fall the rest of the day.

Vanderwhacker Mountain in the distance

My easy skiing soon came to an end. About a mile after the last junction, the ski tracks ended abruptly and had turned around. The next two miles were rough at times as I broke snow. Occasionally an old ski track could be followed, but the snow remained deep in the tracks. Where tracks didn't exist, the snow was nearly knee-deep, even with skis.

The route follows close to Sixth Lake. The road never drops to its shore, but the lake remains within sight through the trees much of its length. The terrain rolls but never becomes steep. With the deep snow, the small hills were a little more challenging to ascend, and slow on the descents. 

Sixth Lake through the trees

Unbroken trail 

After passing the end of Sixth Lake, Fifth Lake comes into view. The trail approaches closer to Fifth Lake and its easier to reach its banks. The low mountains of the area can be seen when looking across Fifth Lake. The falling snow decreased visibility however.

Fifth Lake

Low mountains beyond Fifth Lake

Another look over Fifth Lake

Eventually, the trail reaches a junction around the five mile point. Turning left closes the loop. Blue discs mark the path once again. After passing a few campsites, the route travels over a culvert between Fourth and Fifth Lakes with more views of the surrounding low peaks.

Fourth Lake

Travel became much easier on this new road. The surface appeared to be packed by a snowmobile, with just a couple inches of new snow on the top. I don't think any of the area is open to snowmobiles, but I appreciated the easier conditions. The packed snow was short lived however. At the next junction, the snowmobile must have headed toward the Cedar River. Beyond the junction, old ski tracks were still partially visible buried in the snow. The old ski track provided a little more support than the section between Fifth and Sixth Lakes and I could ski a decent pace.  

One of the few signs in the area

An old ski track is barely visible

The next two miles went by relatively quickly before I closed the loop and rejoined my earlier tracks. Although generally in the forest, the scenery is quite peaceful traveling through mostly open hardwoods. A few views through the trees were greatly reduced by the steady snowfall.

No tracks visible

Back on my tracks, the skiing was pretty fast. Not long after rejoining my tracks, my trail was stamped out by snowshoes. I soon passed the snowshoeing duo. Fortunately, their tracks were pretty level and the fast skiing continued back to the trailhead.

View from a clearing

The lollipop loop covers a distance of just over 10 miles. I was surprised to cover the distance in 3.5 hours, even with a snack break. Despite slogging through a couple miles of deep, unbroken snow, the previous tracks allowed for a good pace. With plenty of daylight left, I decided to ski the Upper Hudson Ski Loop.

The Upper Hudson Ski Loop starts just a 1/4 mile up the road from where I parked. Unlike my first 10 miles that follow old logging roads, The Upper Hudson Ski Loop is marked for cross country skiing. Although not groomed, it provides clearances for skiers. The loop travels 4.2 miles with portions following the Goodnow and Hudson Rivers.

The trailhead for the loop seemed busy with a pair just wrapping up their outing and another just starting. The entire loop was broken out, which meant fast skiing.

Start of the Upper Hudson Loop

I passed the group ahead of me at the trail register. The loop begins in a nice hardwood forest on an old logging road. The trail splits after a half-mile or so as it enters the loop. Signs indicate to ski the loop counterclockwise. The trail descends somewhat steeply toward the Goodnow River.  Once it descends, the trail is more trail-like as it leaves the old road. The trail passes through a mix of hardwoods with scenic stretches of dense conifers. Even though the trail doesn't follow immediately along the banks of the Goodnow River, a few places it's close enough to make a quick detour and enjoy the view of the mostly frozen river.

Snow covered bog

Skiing through a dense section of conifers

Marker used on designated ski trails

Open conifers

Goodnow River

Looking downstream on the Goodnow River

The Goodnow River ends at the Hudson River and the loop turns north along the Hudson. Generally the Hudson stays just out of sight. A few spots the trail approaches the river however, allowing for a closer look at the river. Where visible, the Hudson had less open water than the Goodnow.

Nice flat section of trail

Into some open hardwoods

Mostly frozen Hudson River

The narrow section of trail along the rivers rolls quite a bit over small elevation changes. Although not difficult, in icy conditions, this stretch would be tricky on the tight trail. As the trail turns away from the Hudson at a junction, it rejoins the old road a mile or so from the start of the loop.. The DEC trail markers make sure you make the proper turn at this junction. The trail gains a ridge along the road. Fortunately the gradual grade allows for easy skiing as long as its not icy. An equally gradual decent drops back to the last half-mile or so that you skied at the start, closing the loop.

I skied the 4.2 mile loop in about an hour and a half. This included slight detours to both rivers. The broken trail allowed for a good pace. The trail travels in the forest for its entire course. The forests offer pleasant scenery. A few breaks in the trees allows for views of Vanderwhacker Mountain and other peaks in the area. The snow limited my visibility however. The rivers also look interesting in their frozen states.

The only real difficulty I had on either loop was the short off-trail diversions to Fifth Lake and the two rivers. Dense underbrush under deep snow caught my skis, tripping me at least twice. Otherwise the terrain around Fifth and Sixth Lake is negotiable by any level skier as long as you have the endurance. The Upper Hudson Loop features mostly easy terrain. The trees are relatively tight to the trail at places and a couple of small hills would make the trail better for at least intermediate skiers. The drop toward the Goodnow River runs fairly narrow and steep. Choppy snow on this hill could cause problems for inexperienced skiers. Under icy conditions, I wouldn't attempt the loop without a lot of experience and metal edged skis. 

I finished my day with 14+ miles of skiing over 5 hours. I'm glad that I took the opportunity to explore this lightly used section of the Adirondacks. The terrain offered a nice skiing experience and I appreciated the relative lack of people compared to other parts of the Adirondacks. I would revisit the area in another season and again to cross country. There are miles of other snow covered roads to explore in the Essex Chain Lakes Complex.

Click the link below to see a map of the Essex Chain Lakes Complex. The Upper Hudson Ski Loop is marked in red at the top of the map. My other loop begins on Chain Lakes Rd North, just below the Upper Hudson Ski Loop and follows the lollipop marked in blue that goes around Fifth and Sixth Lakes.

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