Thursday, March 30, 2023

Skiing to Boreas Ponds

The 20,758 acre Boreas Ponds Tract consists of former logging company lands that New York purchased in 2016 and opened to the public. Located between the North Hudson and Newcomb, the area is located deep in the heart of the Adirondacks. As its name implies, the 320 acre Boreas Ponds are the centerpiece of the tract. The ponds sit in a remote setting with a beautiful and unique view into the High Peaks Wilderness. From the ponds, many of the Adirondacks highest peaks are visible. 

Since the state's acquisition of the land, improvements have been made to the dirt road and its possible to drive to the ponds. In winter, the roads are left unplowed, making the ponds even more remote feeling. Closed to motorized traffic in winter, the only access is by ski or snowshoe.

 After reading a few accounts of winter trips to the area, a trip to the Boreas Ponds was on my short list of winter destinations in the Adirondacks. A late winter storm dumped close to two feet of snow. Another couple inches followed a few days later. With abundant snow and a promising forecast, I set out March 20th, the first day of spring.

View from Boreas Ponds

The trip to the ponds travels over snow covered dirt roads. The skiing isn't particular technical. However, to reach the dam at the south end of the ponds requires a nearly 14 mile roundtrip on skis over ungroomed and relatively lightly traveled terrain. The distance and relative remoteness of the area keeps a lot of casual skiers away from the area.

The day called for mostly sunny skies and temps well into the upper 30sF by the afternoon. By the time I reached the trailhead, the temperature stood at comfortable 27F or so. The sky was pretty cloudy though, with the higher mountains toward the ponds appeared socked in. A few flurries fell as skied the first couple miles. A stiff wind added a chill to the air.

Unlike the much busier north side of the High Peaks Wilderness at the Adirondack Loj, this area sees much less traffic. The register near the trailhead indicated just one pair of skiers two days prior. I began skiing about 825AM on a Monday morning. Only one set of tracks set out from the trailhead. I started skiing in the existing tracks, but quickly abandoned them. The weekend snow drifted in the tracks, making for sluggish skiing. Skiing my own path required less effort.

Existing ski track

From the trailhead, the route travels mostly uphill on a gradual grade before reaching the high point of the trip about two miles from the start. Even though the skiing follows a dirt road, with snow cover, the scenery is quite pleasant as it travels through a nice hardwood forest. I crossed over a few bridges along the way. At the bridges I could truly appreciate how much snowpack covered the forest. The snow piled at least a foot above the side rails of the bridge- a solid three foot base. Eventually the trail changed direction enough that I started to use the existing ski tracks. They weren't drifted as this point and skied much easier.

Peaceful forest

After about three miles, I passed by a gate near a summer parking area. The trail didn't change too much in elevation after the height of land. With the strong winds, I stopped a couple times to adjust layers. Occasionally I saw a few peeks of sunshine, but never very long. With no leaf cover, I could see the occasional mountain through the trees.

After about five miles, the trail descends and eventually reaches LaBier Flow at 5.9 miles, a still water section of the Boreas River. At LaBier Flow, the road crosses the river and I got my first open views of some of the surrounding mountains. The morning was mostly cloudy. By the time I got the the flow, the clouds started to break up and rise above the mountains.

LaBier Flow

Boreas River

A couple hundred yards past LaBier Flow, a signed junction points the way to the ponds. The route in this section traveled through a predominantly coniferous forest, a change of scenery from the mostly hardwood forest the first 5+ miles. About a mile from the flow, I reached the dam on the south end of the Boreas Ponds.

Junction near LaBier Flow

Gate to see snow depth

From the dam, you get your first look at the High Peaks. Gothics and Pyramid Peak dominate the view from the south end of the ponds with Haystack peeking out above the trees. While this is a pretty good view, it becomes more expansive from the ponds. I skied onto the pond around the first point and the view widened to include an unobscured view of many of the highest peaks of the Adirondacks. Although the clouds were breaking up above me, a few of the the summits were partially obscured.

The view from the ponds

Cheney Cobble on the left, Allen Mountain on the right

Having skied about seven miles at this point, I stopped just past the first point of land on the pond to have some lunch. Once on the pond, I no longer had the shelter of the trees to protect me from the stiff wind. I found a spot mostly out of the wind. By now the sun started to make its way out as well. With the sunshine, I was able to enjoy my break without adding too many layers. As I took by time eating and enjoying my surroundings, more of the High Peaks came out from hiding in the clouds.

North River Mountains

Allen Mountain with Skylight and Marcy
obscured by clouds

By the time I wrapped up my break, I was in full sunshine. More blue skies surrounded the High Peaks. Although my view was pretty impressive from where I took my break, I skied further on the ponds to see if the view expanded. I skied to the north end of the islands that separate the first and second ponds. At that point, the closer terrain seemed to block some of the mountains. I turned around at that point.

Closeup of Skylight (L) and Marcy (R)

Haystack, Basin, Saddleback, Gothics, and Pyramid
left to right

While the Adirondacks have no shortage of great vistas, the view from Boreas Ponds stand out. The area provides a unique and far sweeping prospective that looks at many of the High Peaks that are deep in the wilderness and not normally seen without obstruction. Perhaps the most striking peaks from the ponds are Gothics and its subpeak, Pyramid Peak. There snowy, slide covered faces form a rugged profile. The symmetrical, snowy cone of Haystack- the third highest peak in the Adirondacks, appears framed above the lake. Basin and Saddleback just barely poke out between Haystack and Gothics. Allen Mountain dominates the landscape in the foreground. The snowy summit of the Adirondack's forth highest summit Haystack rises over Allen's shoulder. New York's highest peak, Mount Marcy rises just beyond Skylight.
Closeup of Gothics and Pyramid

Skylight, Marcy, and Haystack left to right

The North River Mountains, with Rist Mountain and Cheney Cobble make up the view to the west. In the distance, the snowy summit- I think Iroquois Peak, rises over the shoulder of Mount Redfield. East of Gothics- Sawteeth, Colden, and Blake can be seen. Boreas Mountain rises above the trees east of the ponds. 

Iroquois (barely visible), Redfield,
Allen, Skylight, and Marcy left to right

Wide view from Iroquois to Gothics and Pyramid

Iroquois poking out in the distance

I returned back to the dam after enjoying the vista from the islands. The temperature rose from the full sunshine causing the snow to stick to my skis. A lean to stands not far from the dam. I decided to ski to lean to to put add some wax to prevent further snow from sticking. The day was supposed to reach the upper 30sF. The sticky snow would only get worse without wax.

Following my tracks toward the dam

Boreas River below the dam

I took another short breather at the shelter to wax my skis for the nearly seven mile ski back to the trailhead. I was happy I made the short side trip to the shelter. This lean to was built in the last couple years since the land in the area opened to the public. This has to be one of the nicest shelters in the Adirondacks. The long winters and damp forests leave many of the shelters in the Adirondacks looking pretty rundown. The lean to stands in a clearing with pretty good views.

Still lots of snow on the lean to

View inside the new shelter

Old cabin along the trail, notice the snow
depth at front door and windows

The coat of wax improved the skiing greatly. On the return, I could ski my tracks back to the trailhead. With the wax and  nicely broken track, the skiing went much quicker. I enjoyed the sunshine and having my back to the wind as I skied back to the trailhead.

Bridge over LaBier Flow

Enjoying the hardwood forests

Even though the best views were behind me, I still enjoyed skiing back on the road. I still had a few views of the surrounding mountains through the trees. The warming temperatures and bright sunshine actually made it feel more like the start of spring. I always enjoy passing through a hardwood forests in snowy conditions, and this trip had no shortage of snowy, hardwood forests

Wolf Pond Mountain peeking out 
through the trees

Fresh pileated woodpecker marks 

The final couple miles went by quickly. Although the skiing wasn't super fast as the sun softened the snow, the final two miles traveled mostly downhill. I reached the trailhead around 215PM. 

Mountains visible to the south

Large glacial erratic along the road

The view as I approached the trailhead

I really enjoyed this trip. The clouds parted at just the right time to give me the mountain vista I was hoping for. The beautiful, sunny weather during the second half of the trip felt good after the snowy past month. Chances are this was my last time cross country skiing in the backcountry for the season and I was happy to have such a great trip to end my nordic season.

Skylight, Marcy, and Haystack

The trip from the trailhead to the dam at the base of the ponds travels 6.8 miles one way. I skied further onto the ponds and made a short side trip to the lean-to. By the time all was said and done, I skied about 15 miles. Despite the distance, the skiing never gets technical traveling on the snow covered dirt road. Even a relative beginner could handle the terrain if you have the endurance to ski 14-15 miles. I don't know how often the area sees traffic after a storm and the area may not always be broken out immediately after a storm. The navigation is pretty straightforward. Signs mark junctions requiring a turn to stay on course.

Although my last trip to Avalanche Pass and Lake Colden traveled deep into the High Peaks Wilderness, this trip feels more remote. The Avalanche Pass trip sees a lot of traffic compared to the Boreas Ponds. I never seemed too far from other travelers enroute to Avalanche Pass. The lack of traffic heading to Boreas Ponds gives the trip a wild feel despite traveling over a dirt road. Help may be harder to reach if you ran into trouble at the ponds versus Lake Colden or Avalanche Pass.

One more shot from the ponds

I highly recommend making the trip to Boreas Ponds in winter. The unique views of the High Peaks with a snowy landscape are worth the effort. If the ice is safe, skiing on the ponds really helps you capture the best look at the surrounding mountains. 

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Friday, March 24, 2023

Skiing to Avalanche Pass and Lake Colden

The backcountry ski trip to Avalanche Pass may be the most iconic nordic skiing destination in the Adirondacks. Nestled between Avalanche Mountain and Mount Colden, Avalanche Lake sits below the pass. With nearly sheer cliffs rising from the lake, the area is among the most scenic and unique views in the Adirondacks. A trip on skis to the Avalanche Pass and Lake was on my short list of adventures I wanted to tackle in the area.

Lake Colden view

Although I have hiked through this area, I never made the trip on skis. Most sources list the ski trip as suitable for a strong intermediate to advanced skier, which I do consider myself. There are a number of factors that kept me from making the trip sooner. I tried to cherry pick a day with the most ideal conditions- a mix of clear skies, good snow, and preferably not an extremely cold day. The scenery around the lake is what makes this area so attractive and I wanted good visibility. Steeper terrain on fairly narrow trails make up the route and I wanted snow conditions that made for forgiving climbs and descents. I planned on skiing across both Avalanche Lake and Lake Colden so I wanted a moderate temperatures to enjoy the day since the area tends to funnel wind through the pass.

After a lackluster winter for snow sports, a series of snow events started hitting the area in late February. A couple feet of snow fell in a couple weeks. After a weekend storm dropped another nice fresh coating of snow, I decided my good weather window opened up on March 6th. The snow conditions were looking promising, a sunny day was forecasted, and temps were supposed to be a near 30F.

I headed out on Monday March 6th. I chose to start at the South Meadow Trailhead as opposed to the Adirondack Loj. Starting from South Meadow adds about 1.5 miles to the start and finish of the trip, but saves $15 on parking at the Loj. I started skiing about 8AM.

The trip from South Meadow starts along an unplowed dirt road for the first mile before joining the Marcy Dam Truck Trail. The Truck Trail is an old forest road that is no longer open to any vehicular traffic. Skiing along the Truck Trail is fairly easy given its wider width and gradual terrain changes. In the snow, it's a rather pleasant section of forest. I made my way to Marcy Dam fairly quickly in the good snow conditions.

South Meadow Road

Marcy Dam Truck Trail

I've been to Marcy Dam multiple times and have posted photos of the area in previous posts. The dam no longer holds water and has more of a meadow above it. The view from the dam site, however, provides a scenic view of Avalanche Pass area with Mount Colden, Avalanche Mountain, as well as Wright Peak. The area is a popular destination in its own right. The trail from the Adirondack Loj also joins the route at the dam.

Wright Peak from Marcy Dam

Looking toward Avalanche Pass from Marcy Dam

After taking a few photos, I made my way toward Avalanche Pass. At this point, the trail follows a narrow singletrack hiking trail. After the weekend hiker/skier traffic, the trail was nicely packed. The trail doesn't change to much in elevation as it makes its way about a mile toward Avalanche Camp. The skiing was excellent over the packed trail. 

Skiing on the narrow hiking trail

Bridge along the trail

A trail split after Avalanche Camp begins the start of the serious climbing. There are two separate trails to Avalanche Pass. One is a hiking/snowshoe trail. The other is specifically a ski trail. Make sure you follow signs for the ski trail if you are on skis and the hiking trail if on snowshoes. At the trail junction for Avalanche Pass and Lake Arnold, the ski trail is actually a couple hundred feet down the Lake Arnold Trail. Just follow the ski trail signs, navigation is pretty straightforward.

Good signage marks the way

The start of the ski trail

The ski trail takes a less direct route toward Avalanche Pass by avoiding the steepest sections of the hiking trail. In the steeper sections of the ski trail I needed to herring bone, but generally my skis gripped the trail pretty well. One short section required me to sidestep. Sidestepping was a little challenging. Although the ski trail is a little wider than the hiking trail, my tips and tails stumbled through the deeper snow on the edge of the trail. The ski trail crosses the hiking trail a couple times as it winds toward the pass.

On the ski trail

Despite its designation as a ski trail,
it's pretty narrow

I have heard the section between Avalanche Camp and the pass sometimes referred to as the "Misery Mile" for its steeper climbing. Despite the moniker, I didn't find the climbing too bad. I never felt like I needed skins to make the ascent. There were a few steeper spots, but they were short lived. Near the height of the land, the ski trail ends and rejoins the hiking trail.

Back on the hiking trail

Once on the hiking trail, the trail rolls with a few short punchy climbs and descents. Numerous large outcroppings line the trail with large flows of ice on the walls. Finally the trail drops on a quick descent onto the ice covered Avalanche Lake and the stunning views of Mount Colden's cliffs. I reached the lake relatively early in the morning and the sun didn't quite reach the lake. I didn't linger on the shady lake. I figured that I would enjoy the lake when I passed back through on my return and the sun reached the lake.

The trail doesn't actually travel
on the slide

Icy flow

More ice flow in the pass

I skied across the lake rather quickly. It was fairly chilly on the lake in the shadows of Mount Colden with a stiff breeze through the pass. Winter passage of the lake is much quicker than traveling over the jumbled terrain and walkways under the rocky walls in summer.

Wood walkway along the trail beneath cliffs

I continued past the outlet of the lake and soon made my way to the ski trail toward Lake Colden. Now in the sunshine, I skied across the lake to get the views from the center of the frozen body of water. From the center of the lake, the view takes in the snowy summits of the MacIntyre Range, including the Adirondack's 2nd highest peak, 5,114' Algonquin Peak. The rocky slopes of Mount Colden dominate the other side of the lake. To the north, you look back at Avalanche Pass. Calamity Mountain stands to the south of the lake. I enjoyed the view from the lake and took some photos before finally making my way back toward Avalanche Pass.

View of Calamity Mountain as you
ski onto Lake Colden

Snowy MacIntyre Range from Lake Colden

Algonquin Peak 

If the weather and time cooperate, I highly recommend continuing to Lake Colden. The wide open view from the middle of the lake in winter is quite impressive on a clear day. The up close views of the snow covered MacIntyre Range and Mount Colden are stunning. You also get a nice view toward Avalanche pass. I have been to Lake Colden in the summer and the view from the dam at the south end is pretty nice, but from the middle of the lake in winter, it's significantly prettier.

View from north end of lake of Algonquin

Mount Colden

Looking back at Avalanche Pass from Lake Colden

After a short time skiing, I reached Avalanche Lake, now in the sun. I took my time skiing across the lake to appreciate the scenery. The steep cliffs of Colden dominate the view. You get a good close up view of Colden's Trap Dyke, a steep cleft leading up toward the summit that can be tackled by experienced climbers for a class 4 scramble up the mountain. You also get an interesting look at the catwalks along the cliffs of Avalanche Mountain. These catwalks are locally known as "Hitch-up Matildas." 

Avalanche Lake

Approaching the Trap Dyke

Trap Dyke on Colden

Icy cliffs above Avalanche Lake

Once back across the lake I saw my first group of skiers. I began the climb back to the height of the land in the pass at just over 3,000' while passing another four skiers. I soon reached the ski trail.

Close up of "Hitch-up Matildas"

Last view across Avalanche Lake

Although I consider myself an advance skier, I wasn't sure what to expect on the descent on the ski trail. The trail is relatively narrow along its steeper stretches. I have pretty good control, but was a little nervous if I crossed paths with somebody coming the opposite direction. I made it down with little incident. I was surprised at how quickly I made it down the ski trail and back to the main hiking trail. My only falls came when I stopped on the edge of the trail in the deeper snow and my poles sank in nearly to the handles causing me to lose my balance when I wasn't even moving. I made it back to Marcy Dam much quicker than I expected.

Climbing back to the pass

Icy cliffs near the pass

Thick flow of ice

Back at Marcy Dam, numerous groups of skiers and hikers congregated. In the morning I saw just one other person. The final stretch of my trip from Marcy Dam led me back down the Truck Trail and finally the South Meadow Road. I saw a handful of people on skis and snowshoes on this stretch as well. I reached my car shortly after 1PM.

Back at Marcy Dam

Pleasant skiing on the Truck Trail

Skiing from South Meadow to Lake Colden covers about 15 miles round trip with at least 1,500' of elevation gain. It's possible to cut off about three miles roundtrip by starting at the Adirondack Loj. The conditions were nearly perfect the day I skied this route. In ideal conditions, I would rate this trip as suitable for an experience skier with very strong intermediate abilities using a decent backcountry- nordic setup. In icier conditions or deeper snow, the route would be more suitable to advanced skiers. 

MacIntyre Range from Lake Colden

With about 1,500' of elevation gain and loss, there are some extended climbs and descents. While the terrain gets steep at times, the real challenge comes with narrow stretches of trail. Numerous blind curves and drops make it difficult to see on coming traffic, which could become problematic if you are not confident in your turns and stopping ability.

Avalanche Pass

The ski trip to Avalanche Pass and Lake Colden lived up to its reputation. The landscape of Avalanche Pass are unique and the winter landscape only enhances the experience. Lake Colden is surrounded by snow peaks and is quite stunning. With clear skies and excellent snow conditions, I could not have asked for a better day to make this trip. If you are a strong skier, I definitely recommend a trip to this area. If you are not confident on skis, you can still make the trip on snowshoes. I just suggest waiting for a good forecast to truly enjoy the scenery of the area.

Cliffs above Avalanche Lake

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Calamity Mountain from Avalanche Lake