December 2018 - CROSS COUNTRY SKIING & SNOWSHOEING
Rensselaer County and the Border Country
By Rich Macha
The western border of Rensselaer County, alongside the Hudson River, where we find the cities of Troy and Rensselaer, is at sea level. You only have to go 12 miles to the east to find elevations above 1,500 feet on the Rensselaer Plateau. And go less than 25 miles to the Taconic Range at the Massachusetts border where Berlin Mountain tops out at an elevation of 2,818 feet; not only is it the highest point in the county but also the highest summit in New York State outside of the Adirondacks and Catskills. Generally, the higher elevations receive more snow than the lower elevations throughout the winter. Rensselaer County offers a variety of opportunities for the cross country skier and snowshoer.
Schodack Island State Park – Tucked into the county’s southwest corner, on the eastern shore of the Hudson River, is Schodack Island State Park. The park offers 8 miles of flat, easy trails. Traveling on the shores of the Hudson in winter is a novel experience – shipping does not stop over the colder months so there is a chance that you may see larger boats or witness an ice-breaking cutter making a channel through the ice allowing for ships to sail between the Port of Albany and the sea.
Grafton Lakes State Park – The popular Grafton Lakes State Park is located on the Rensselaer Plateau at an elevation of over 1,500 feet. Winter access is from Long Pond Road which goes north from NY Route 2 in the town of Grafton. The park’s Welcome Center is open throughout the winter every day except Tuesdays – stop in here to get a trail map or to warm up. Snowshoe rentals are available.
Many of the trails are open to snowmobiles but several are motor-free. The 2.5-mile-long Spruce Bog Trail leaves the Mill Pond parking area, and soon passes an old graveyard, then climbs away into the woods. You can loop back on the 0.6-mile Spruce Ridge Trail.
The trails around the shores of Long Pond and Shaver Pond are also good options – just make sure there is over a foot of snow to cover up all the rocks. Most trails at Grafton are suitable for the novice to intermediate skier.
Dyken Pond Environmental Education Center – Not far south of Grafton is the Dyken Pond Environmental Education Center (dykenpond.org), owned and operated by the county. The area is away from main roads and all trails are motor-less so the feeling of solitude is enhanced. I often ski a long loop on their Long Trail and Spring Trail – highlights include The Sentinels, a grouping of glacial erratics, as well as open beech/maple woods, a spruce/fir swamp, beaver meadows and ponds, plus a lean-to. South of the lean-to, a boardwalk crosses Dustin Swamp – part of the boardwalk is often under water in warmer months so make sure the water has frozen up solidly before venturing across. Most of the trails are best for intermediate skiers. The trail to Newcomb Pond, a recent acquisition, is relatively flat. Dyken Pond itself has a fair number of houses on it and is of little interest in winter.
Petersburg Pass – Route 2 climbs steadily to Petersburg Pass and tops out at close to 2,100 feet at the Massachusetts border. There is a large parking area on the south side of the road. The 37-mile-long Taconic Crest Trail crosses the road at the pass.
Some folks come here to ski the trails of an old ski area that closed in 1980 – most of the trails are still fairly visible. The TCT goes along the west side of Mount Raimer and continues in a southerly direction to Berlin Mountain – a skiable route but best for advanced skiers.
To the north of Route 2, adventurers make their way to the Snow Hole, where there is often snow or ice – even in summer. The route is mostly in New York but enters Vermont for a short distance. The TCT makes a quick, steep climb to a kiosk and register at the edge of Williams College’s Hopkins Memorial Forest (hmf.williams.edu) – sometimes there are maps available here.
At 0.4 miles, after a fairly steep climb, the TCT levels out somewhat and meets the Shepherd’s Well Trail. A right turn on the SWT soon leads past a weather station, and joins the RRR Brooks Trail, which plummets down into Massachusetts and to the Taconic Trail State Park’s Sara Tenney Trail. The STT can be more easily reached by driving 1.8 miles east of Petersburg Pass to a parking turnout – cross the highway and enter the undeveloped “park” through a gate. After crossing an open field with a view, you can pick up Bob’s Ski Loop and the Hunter Family Loop Trail, which are good for the intermediate skier.
Continuing north on the TCT, you can go a little off-trail to the east, and reach the brushy summit of Smith Hill – the view to Mount Greylock from here is special. The TCT then reaches the junction with the Birch Brook Trail, one-mile from Route 2. The BBT drops down into Massachusetts, losing 1,100 feet in 1.5 miles, then drops another 500 feet on the Upper and Lower Loop Trails above Williams College’s Rosenberg Center – this is one of my favorite routes in deep snow conditions. By spotting a car at the Rosenberg Center better skiers can fully enjoy the mostly downhill run from Petersburg Pass without much uphill effort – the car shuttle between start and end points takes just a few minutes. The 4.2-mile hilly figure-8-route of the Upper and Lower Loop Trails is good for intermediate skiers – on the Lower Loop look for an interesting 75-foot-high catwalk in the treetops that is used for research.
Back on the TCT, at the two-mile mark is a cleared area that has been created to maintain flora and fauna that appeared in the area many years ago. At 2.5 miles, there is a wonderful viewpoint – Petersburg Pass can be seen, and on a clear day you can gaze across the plateau and pick out the mountains of the Catskills. After a nice downhill, the TCT reaches the marked spur trail to the Snow Hole, a grotto-like opening into the side of a hill.
Other Places – The Rensselaer Plateau Alliance has several natural areas that are worthy of a visit; check out their website for locations and directions (rensselaerplateau.org).
For those who like to ski on groomed trails, Pineridge Cross Country Ski Area has 35K of trails high up on the plateau in East Poestenkill (pineridgexc.com).
Etiquette – Whenever a trail is wide enough, it would make skiers happy if snowshoers would make their own tracks and not walk in ski tracks. That being said, skiers should break trail to one side of wide trails so as to not tempt walkers from ruining the tracks. Of course, on narrow singletrack trails, snowshoers and skiers would have no option and would have to share.
Whichever your mode of snow travel, get out and enjoy the snow!
A lover of wild places, Rich Macha has led many trips for the Adirondack Mountain Club and has spent 20 years in the paddlesport/snowsport business. More of Rich’s adventures can be found at northeastwild.blogspot.com.