March 2016 - Cross-Country Skiing & Snowshoeing
Little Tupper Lake’s South Shore Trail
By Bill Ingersoll
Given that no one knows what snow conditions to expect from week to week during this unusual winter, with its numerous reversals in freezes and thaws, here is a recommendation for a late-season hike that is enjoyable in a variety of situations: if it snows, it’s an excellent ski trail; if there’s no snow, it’s a fine walk anyway; and if spring comes early, you’ll find that this old road is largely free of mud.
The state acquired the land surrounding Little Tupper Lake from Whitney Industries in 1998, after a proposal to subdivide the property into 40 lots surfaced. This parcel also included Rock Pond, and it connected with the state land surrounding Lake Lila; in 2000 the entire area became the William C. Whitney Wilderness.
Land travelers have always needed a healthy dose of optimism when exploring the Little Tupper Lake trail system, because the area was so heavily logged prior to the state’s acquisition. At the time the property opened to the public much of the forest consisted of slender saplings, and the road network was so pristine that cars could have driven them with ease (trailhead barriers notwithstanding).
So here’s the challenge. Is the Little Tupper Lake tract a place where the signs of prior human activities are so painfully evident that our wilderness sensibilities prevent us from seeing past the roads and clearings?
Or are the restorative effects of nature a sufficient reason to enjoy our time here, as we observe over time the land’s progression back to its original wilderness state?
Remember that many of the park’s most scenic wilderness areas such as Giant Mountain, Dix Mountain, Ha-de-ron-dah were once just as badly impacted by human activities, if not worse. Those of us who have been exploring Little Tupper Lake since it was opened to the public can already point to several signs of improvement.
Sabattis Road, which leads to Little Tupper Lake, begins on NY 30 about 7.1 miles north of downtown Long Lake. The trailhead is located on the left side of Sabattis Road 2.5 miles from the highway, with room for about two or three vehicles to park.
There is no escaping the fact that this trail was a very good road only eighteen years ago. However, nature has been hard at work to soften some of its harder edges since then. It begins by leading southwest from the trailhead gate, too far back from the shore for even a teasing glimpse of Little Tupper Lake at first. After flirting briefly with a private land boundary on the right, the road veers south and gradually drops to a scenic beaver flow at one mile. Because the dam sits atop the road, the crossing offers a little bit of adventure. The pond above the dam is surprisingly expansive, and downstream you can glimpse the tip of one of Little Tupper’s bays.
At 1.5 miles you reach the first of several prominent intersections. In this case the South Shore Trail bears right in a small clearing, as indicated by a trail sign. For much of the next mile the old road traverses a hillside, with through-the-tree views of the lake down to your left. Although nature has made inroads in reclaiming the surface, this road was so well built that it will endure for decades. The deep drainage ditch suggests that its builders intended it to be a permanent facility, and not some ephemeral skid trail. But the forest here was not as heavily logged as in other parts of the tract, and one might even say that the walking here is enjoyable.
There is another key turn in a clearing at 2.6 miles, where another trail sign points the way left. Here the trail turns away from Little Tupper, venturing closer to the northwest corner of Stony Pond. Before the sale to the state, this road was indeed called Stony Pond Road, but its namesake pond was not included in the purchase and there is no public access to it.
Keep right at the next junction at 3.2 miles, located in a soggy area where another beaver dam threatens to flood the old road; the coniferous forest above the dam will probably become a scene of desolation as the trees succumb to the drowning of their roots.
The road threads its way around a sprawling wetland complex to the north, turning westward back toward the lake. Then at 4.2 miles you reach another intersection where your first impulse might be to keep left on the more obvious road. The marked trail, however, bears right. The last 500 feet of the South Shore Trail are sure to be anticlimactic, since it ends well short of the shoreline. Maintenance has never been a priority here. The road dips into a low-lying area and effectively ends at the side of a beaver flow.
Fortunately the dam is broad and sturdy, and it is easy to walk across it to the far side. A short bushwhack of about 250 feet is all that is needed to complete the hike and reach the shore of Little Tupper Lake, near the tip of a small bay south of Fawn Island.
Despite the trail’s non-wilderness origins and the peculiarities of its ending, this is a surprisingly enjoyable route. The varied wetlands seen along the way are intriguing, and the forest here is not as scrubby as it is elsewhere in the tract. This would be an excellent ski trail, replete with long and gentle grades, were it not for the occasional fallen tree and pocket of brush. I plan to return myself to explore that last left turn, which may connect with other routes to enable a circuit hike all the way around the far end of the lake.
In other words, don’t be put off by the trail’s origins. This is a place with real wilderness potential.
Bill Ingersoll of Barneveld is publisher of the Discover the Adirondack’s guidebook series (hiketheadirondacks.com). For more on this region, consult Discover the Northwestern Adirondacks.