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


  1. Thank you for posting so many details and pictures. If we get snow, this is exactly the trip I want to do on my skis. Can you tell me what ski setup you used (Nordic? BackCountry? NNN-BC?) I have a few different options in my quiver, but was leaning towards the Rossignol BC65/Alpina Alaska setup.

    1. Thanks for visiting my website. I skied this trip with a waxless Madshus Glittertind with a BC-NNN Alpina that is less stiff than the Alaska and no skins. My only issue was the trail is pretty narrow and the Glittertinds run relatively long. It was a little tight on a herring bone and a stretch where I had to sidestep. I’m pretty comfortable with that set up. I saw some similar set ups as well as some 3 pin and AT set ups.