High Peaks: Avalanche Lake

Posted January 1st, 2008

For those of us fortunate enough to live near Lake Champlain, the Adirondacks are in plain view to the west. These nearby mountains, scarred by slides and quite spectacular when snow-covered, form the eastern edge of the High Peaks Region of the Adirondacks. This compact and rugged mountain range and its surrounding landscape are a paradise for hikers, rock climbers, cyclists, skiers, and paddlers. There are more than 40 summits over 4,000 feet, dozens of lakes, a couple of long-distance ski trails, and many miles of lightly traveled roads.For some Vermont Sports readers, these facts are well known. But for many readers, the Adirondacks, accessible as they are, seem to be “in sight and out of mind.” This column will describe some of the many great Adirondack activities. Future articles will discuss snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, peak bagging, family hiking, road biking, and paddling. The easy/intermediate level ski tour into Avalanche Lake described below is a great classic. Its combination of moderate skiing terrain, accessibility, and wild alpine setting is arguably unmatched in the eastern U.S., except perhaps by another Adirondack tour, but more about that in a future article. The starting point to Avalanche Lake is the trailhead at Adirondak Loj and the High Peaks Information Center, both run by the Adirondack Mountain Club. Adirondak Loj is located at the southern end of Adirondack Lodge Road, about eight miles from Lake Placid. Driving Directions (abbreviated)The detailed driving directions are a little complicated. So as not to lose your interest before we even get to the trailhead, brief directions are given here. Please consult Mapquest, Google Maps, or your favorite road map for detailed directions. After getting off the ferry in Essex (left off the ferry, then an immediate right), head for Lake Placid, driving through Wadhams, Elizabethtown, and Keene. In Wadhams, just after Merrick’s Bakery and the bridge, make a sharp right turn and continue straight on County Road 8 to Elizabethtown. There, merge with US 9 and drive through Elizabethtown. At the end of town watch for the right turn (signed) which takes you toward Keene and Lake Placid. After Keene (in Keene, stay left on NY 73 toward Lake Placid), about three miles past the entrance to the Olympic Sports Complex (sign), watch for Adirondack Lodge Road on your left. At this point the 70- and 90-meter ski jumps in Lake Placid can be seen, just ahead. Leave Route 73 and head south (left) 4.8 miles to parking and the trailhead ($9 fee per car, payable at the entrance gatehouse). The drive from the ferry should take a little under an hour. The trail to Mount Marcy (NY’s highest peak) and many other classic hikes starts from this important trailhead. The building on your right as you enter the parking area is the High Peaks Information Center. Last minute basics are available here: snacks, drinks, bathrooms, books and maps, and most valuable of all, up-to-date information. Nearby Adirondak Loj offers good backcountry style lodging and makes a comfortable base for multi-day explorations.The tour to Avalanche LakeTake the Van Hoevenberg Trail, which departs from the sign-out kiosk at the far end of the lower parking lot. The trail descends quickly through dense woods to a stream crossing before climbing up into open hardwoods. (Note: The first few minutes of the trail can be annoying on skis. It is a narrow, twisty footpath.) Once you are in the open hardwoods, you should enjoy pleasant traveling over easy terrain to Marcy Dam at 2.1 miles. A foot or so of packed base is needed to smooth out the rocks, water bars, and occasional steps. Stick with the blue blazes, staying left at the junction for Algonquin Peak. Good skiers can cover this distance in 35-40 minutes or less. Looking down the lake from Marcy Dam, Mt. Colden (4,714 feet) on the left, and Avalanche Mountain (little bump) and Wright Peak (satellite peak of Algonquin) frame Avalanche Pass. That’s where you are headed; Avalanche Lake is on the other side. A number of lean-tos are scattered around the Marcy Dam area, making it a very popular summer and winter base camp. From Marcy Dam, continue on the blue-blazed trail for a very short distance, until it branches left toward Mt. Marcy. Continue straight on the yellow-blazed trail. The terrain climbs very gently for a little over a mile before commencing an intermediate-level ascent to Avalanche Pass. Be sure to stick to the ski trail, which is distinct from the hiking trail. Once at the pass, you can’t help but be awed by the destructive forces of the landslide that ripped down the flanks of Mt. Colden in 1999, depositing tons of debris and obliterating the trail. From the pass, it is a fun descent to Avalanche Lake. Whereas the summer hikers toil laboriously along the water’s edge, skiers glide down the middle of the lake. And what a spot! On this narrow sliver of a lake, Colden’s almost vertical cliffs tower over you on one side, while on the other side, the 3,000-foot-high flank of Algonquin looms overhead. Avalanche Lake is an Adirondack gem and considered hallowed ground by many. Once you have reached the lake, you have covered about 5 miles. At this point, some will opt to return, following the same route back, and others will want to push on. Lake Colden lies just beyond Avalanche Lake, and beyond Lake Colden you reach the Flowed Lands, a large, open area (swampy in summer). This is easy, fun skiing, with terrific views of the McIntyre Range and Mt. Colden. The Flowed Lands or Lake Colden, is a good turn-around point for a day trip. Total distance out and back to Flowed Lands is about 15 miles. Return by the same route. Skiers should figure on 4-6 hours for the roundtrip to Avalanche Lake and the extensions to Flowed Lands. You can do an alternate start to this tour that adds about a half mile (each way) and is somewhat more Nordic in character. It uses the South Meadow Truck Trail. To get there, follow Meadow Road to a parking area (see map on previous page). This graded road provides a better skiing surface to Marcy Dam. Meadow Road is about a mile before the main trailhead. Note: A well-known extension of this tour is to ski “through” to a road/trailhead at the southern edge of the High Peaks region, making for a 12-mile one-way excursion. The driving access for this trailhead (Upper Works at Tahawus) is from exit 29 off I-87 at North Hudson. Usually this is done with two parties who meet somewhere in the middle, exchange car keys, and then rendezvous later. (See Ski and Snowshoe Trails in the Adirondacks by Tony Goodwin.) Perhaps the ultimate version is to ski to Tahawus and then return to your starting point via Indian Pass. This involves about 25 miles of sometimes difficult skiing, much of the time in a very remote setting. Clearly something for very experienced skiers, in excellent condition, with good weather and good snow conditions. Another note: snowshoes or skis are mandated in the High Peaks when the snow depth is 8 inches or more. No postholing please! Of special interest: For many Vermont visitors, Merrick’s Bakery—open Thursday, Friday, and Saturday in winter—is a key part of the ritual: coffee, rolls, bread, and a chance to finish waking up. More InfoHigh Peaks Information Center, for weather and snow conditions—www.adk.org and 518-523-3441.  Lake Champlain Transportation Company, for ferry times and status—www.ferries.com and 802-864-9804. ReferencesHigh Peaks Region, 13th edition. Adirondack Mountain Club.(A topo map is included with the book.) Backcounty Ski Adventures for VT & NY by David Goodman.Ski and Snowshoe Trails in the Adirondacks by Tony Goodwin.100 Classic Hikes of the Northeast,  2nd edition by Jared Gange.

Jared Gange

Jared Gange is a guidebook author and the owner of Huntington Graphics, publisher and distributor of outdoor and recreation titles for New England. He has written Guide to Vermont’s Day Hikes, Hiker’s Guide to New Hampshire and 100 Classic Hikes of the Northeast. His most recent publication is a coffee table book, The White Mountains, A Photographic Journey. A Biking and Kayaking map for Northern Lake Champlain will be released later in the summer.