January 2018 - HIKING & BACKPACKING
Snowshoeing Snowy Mountain
By Bill Ingersoll
Snowy Mountain is one of the Adirondacks’ most distinctive peaks. Its profile is easily identified from other summits across the Adirondack Park many miles away, and at 3,899 feet it is itself the highest mountain south of Newcomb. Natural rock openings provide vistas in nearly every direction, and the fire tower completes the view with a 360-degree panorama. It is a “high peak” in stature, if not in statistical fact. Therefore, as a snowshoe route it rates as a difficult climb.
The Snowy Mountain Range extends from Pillsbury Mountain at its southern end to Porter Mountain at its northern end. It also includes Page, Blue Ridge, Cellar, Lewey and Squaw mountains, for a total linear distance of over 14 miles. The NYS Forest Preserve lands in this area were acquired in 1897 from the lumbermen who later formed International Paper; the sale of lands to the state may have been a means to raise money to build the dam on Indian Lake.
Verplanck Colvin, the 25-year-old surveyor commissioned to produce the first detailed geographic study of the Adirondack region, made the Snowy Range one of his first stops in 1872. He and his crew arrived at Lewey Lake on August 1st, and in his report he wrote that Snowy had a splendid view of “a lofty mountain, which I had long regarded with interest. The best maps hitherto published show either level ground or slight hills where it really arises to the clouds.”
Verplanck continued: “It is known to the guides and hunters as Bald Face, or Snowy Mountain (the snow remaining on it late in the spring), and has also several other titles.” He threw his endorsement behind the name Snowy Mountain.
The party spent the night of August 3rd camping just below the summit, and on the following day they cleared the summit to open up the view, and facilitate their triangulation work. Using a barometer, they determined the altitude to be 3,859 feet—only 40 feet shy of the modern measurement, but clearly the highest mountain in the southern Adirondacks.
One of the first people to appreciate these mountains as a continuous range – and as a rival to the High Peaks in stature – was Kim Hart, who wrote about his explorations of the area in several articles for the Adirondack Mountain Club magazine in the 1940s. To draw a comparison between the two mountain groups, he suggested naming these southern mountains the Little Great Range, after the more popular Great Range west of the Ausable Lakes. In 1999, Barbara McMartin revived the Little Great Range idea in her proposal for a continuous hiking trail spanning all of the peaks in the range, which she published in Adirondack Life magazine (September/October issue).
Today, Snowy Mountain is a very popular hiking destination, with a trailhead full of cars every weekend throughout the year. It is a steep and challenging hike, but also a rewarding experience.
The Snowy Mountain trailhead is located on NY Route 30, 17 miles north of Speculator, and seven miles south of the hamlet of Indian Lake. On a clear day, there are good views of the mountain from either direction along the highway.
The trail begins with a minor hilly section and through-the-trees views of Squaw Mountain across the Beaver Brook valley. The route is well maintained and pleasant, even if it does seem like you’re taking the long way to Snowy Mountain. At 1.2 miles you make the first rock-hop crossing of Beaver Brook, a significant stream where the presence of a natural “ice bridge” will be a distinct advantage in the winter.
The trail takes to the hills after this first crossing, one of which offers a brief through-the-trees glimpse of the summit ahead of you. You encounter another stream in a pleasant little meadow at 1.5 miles – this is the only stream on the trail with a bridge – and then return to the side of Beaver Brook, where several more crossings are in order. Take advantage of this section to “loosen up” before the big climb that begins just ahead!
The fourth crossing of Beaver Brook marks the abrupt transition from the easy walking to the difficult climb. The trail approaches this crossing as level as a city street, and starts uphill immediately on the other side. There will be few level places for the next 1.2 miles to the top of the mountain. Stands of spruce, fir, and birch trees quickly begin to fill in the forest, with some narrow places where the spruce grow tight to the trail.
There is a brief, level traverse, and then the trail climbs even more steeply than before. Good snow can make this second half of the climb an exciting but friendly ascent; icy conditions could make it treacherous. Since you won’t know the actual conditions until you get there, you may want to have crampons on hand – the trail is worn to bedrock beneath the snow. It widens considerably on the final approach to the summit, offering views of the High Peaks before you even get to the first open ledge on the summit, 3.7 miles from the trailhead.
The summit views peer into the Siamese Ponds Wilderness across Indian Lake, as well as the heart of the west central plateau to the west. The ledge at the top of the trail is perhaps the most photogenic view on the mountain, but it is not the only one. The marked trail continues into the woods for another tenth of a mile to the fire tower, which you can climb, though you may not want to since the fencing up the stairs is damaged.
From the middle landings of the tower, the view is all-inclusive. Again, the High Peaks will likely draw your attention on the northeastern horizon, but equally impressive are mountains closer in – Panther, Buell, Buck, Little Moose and Manbury, Blue Ridge (more affectionately known as “Cloud Cap”) and Lewey.
A herd path loops around the back side of the summit to another ledge with views across the Cedar River basin.
Allow three and a half hours for the ascent, but only two and a half for the descent. It is possible to glissade down much of the distance from the summit to Beaver Brook.
Bill Ingersoll of Barneveld is publisher of the Discover the Adirondack’s guidebook series (hiketheadirondacks.com). For more information on this region, consult Discover the West Central Adirondacks.