Exploring the Adirondacks: Saranac Lake, Jackrabbit Trail, and the Visitor Interpretive Center

For many outdoor enthusiasts, New York’s Adirondack Park, the largest in the lower 48 states, conjures up images of black bears, bugs, mud, and the famous 46 High Peaks. However, during the harsh winter months the park changes its tone: the bears hibernate, the bugs die off, the ground is covered in feet of snow, and what were once casual day hikes can become more difficult and treacherous.

Visitors to the 6.1 million acre park tend to drop off dramatically, giving the woods a more peaceful, quiet feel for those who venture into them. Most visitors to the country’s largest trail system travel on just 1 percent of its trails, so snowshoers who venture off of the most popular trails can avoid many of the crowds.

Winter snow conditions make the long hike up Mount Marcy far more demanding. Photo Credit: Tim Moody

Winter snow conditions make the long hike up Mount Marcy far more demanding.
Photo Credit: Tim Moody

The Adirondacks are also unusual both their distinctive geology and groundbreaking regulatory structure. The rocks in the Adirondacks are some of the oldest exposed rocks in the world. The mountains are formed from an eroded dome, rather than the usual chain configuration. Unlike most mountains in the United States, they are still growing. Legally, the park takes a non-traditional approach to conservation by encompassing the towns in the area and private property, but with certain restrictions on development. Local regulations require that snowshoes are worn when there is more than eight inches of snow cover on the terrain.

This article is the first in a series that explores the great hikes and snowshoes in the park, focusing on a quick overview of some trips in the north.

The Saranac Lake 6

While most hikers who have visited the Adirondack Park are familiar with the 46 High Peaks, the Saranac Lake 6 are a lesser-known set of summits. They tend to be easier to hike and more accessible, especially in the winter. Extreme snowshoers who want a real challenge can strive to become Ultra Winter 6ers by ascending all the summits in a single day. Beginner and intermediate snowshoers can find single peaks to meet their specific skill sets and provide a challenge.

Scarface is a gradual hike starting in Ray Brook. It is a great mountain for beginner snowshoers to climb because the trail only has a few steep sections. The trail also lends itself to running for more advanced athletes. There is a state prison nearby so the peace of the woods is sometimes interrupted by the sounds of loudspeakers, especially early in the hike. While the peak is forested, there are some views during the ascent and the trail is generally lightly travelled. Many hikers and snowshoers become confused about Scarface’s true summit, unsure of where to stop. Keep in mind that the trail ends at the peak.

Mt. McKenzie and Haystack (not to be confused with the Haystack of the High Peaks) are accessible off of NY 86 and share the same approach trail for several miles. Haystack shares its name with a High Peak, and this mountain is the shorter of the two. During the ascent, the trail crosses several shallow streams, so care should be taken to attempt the snowshoe in the deep winter when the water is covered in a layer of ice.

The peaks become difficult to access after the spring snowmelt due to high water volume. The trail is gradual until it splits, with the left fork going up Haystack and the right up McKenzie. Both trails become steep shortly after the junction. Aggressive snowshoes and poles are recommended for both mountains. While Haystack is a quick ascent, rewarded by views of the local area, the trail up McKenzie reaches several false summits before ending at a forested summit. Views can be found off either side of the main trail, which continues, descending into the SOA trail network.

The change in trail markers from the colored Department of Environmental Conservation discs to white SOA trail markers signal the descent off the other side of the summit onto private land. Snowshoers who are looking for quicker access to McKenzie faster can take the Jackrabbit trail from Lake Placid, near Whiteface Lodge’s tennis courts. The two trails will intersect and taking a right at that junction cuts off several miles.

A view of Mt. McKenzie from Mt. Baker. Photo Credit: Tim Moody

A view of Mt. McKenzie from Mt. Baker.
Photo Credit: Tim Moody

Mt. Baker is the steepest and shortest hike of the six peaks. Accessed from near Moody Pond in the town of Saranac Lake, the well-travelled path heads uphill from the trailhead, offering good views fairly quickly for those with the right gear.

View from the summit of St. Regis. Photo Credit: Tim Moody

View from the summit of St. Regis.
Photo Credit: Tim Moody

St. Regis, located in Paul Smiths, is another good hike for a beginner snowshoer. While steeper than Scarface, most of the trail up the mountain is moderately graded, although some sections can be icy. The top of the mountain features a fire tower that is closed to the public and spectacular views of the area, including the Saranac Lakes.

The glory of snow and clear skies on St. Regis. Photo Credit: Tim Moody

The glory of snow and clear skies on St. Regis in early November.
Photo Credit: Tim Moody

Ampersand is located off of Route 3 between Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake. The trail begins gradually but becomes moderately steep, leading up to a rocky summit. This mountain also offers fantastic views. Ampersand is also well-known for being the home of 300 to 400 year-old yellow birch, hemlock, and sugar maple trees. Keep an eye out for these old trees for the first couple miles of trail.

In short, snowshoeing the Saranac Lake 6 is a good place to start for beginner snowshoers who are interested in climbing mountains by offering numerous hikes with different trail conditions, summits, degrees of difficulty, and time commitments. For additional information on the trails, directions, maps, and how to become a 6er visit the Saranac Lake 6er website.

The Jackrabbit Trail

The Jackrabbit Trail is a 37-mile cross-country ski and snowshoe trail that is divided into several segmented sections stretching from Keene Valley to Paul Smiths. The trail travels at a fairly moderate grade through woods and meadows, crossing several roads, at times ending at parking lots, and passing through private and public land. The road crossings and parking lots make it possible to arrange a shuttle for groups with multiple cars. The trail starts/ends near the Visitor Interpretive Center in Paul Smiths, which is another great winter destination. Some sections of trail require that visitors pay a fee. Consult with the Jackrabbit Trail website for trail conditions when making your plans. Local trail etiquette dictates that snowshoers walk alongside the cross-country ski tracks, not over them.

The Visitor Interpretive Center (VIC)

Located in Paul Smiths, the VIC is a nature center, run by Paul Smiths College. During the winter, the VIC offers 25 miles of snowshoe trails, some of which double as groomed cross-country ski trails. The trail system covers a wide variety of natural features – everything from Heron Marsh and Barnum Pond to a long, gradual climb to the summit of Jenkins Mountain. Throughout the winter the VIC hosts snowshoe races and night-time cross-country ski and snowshoe events.

The center offers scheduled guided walks, workshops, and has indoor art exhibitions and natural history displays. During the winter months snowshoes or skis are required for visitors on the trails and standard adult trail passes cost $12. The VIC rents snowshoes for $15 per day. With groomed trails and snowshoe rentals, the VIC is a great destination for anyone who is interested in trying out the sport, while the races and other activities are a big draw for more experienced snowshoers.  Visit the VIC’s website for more information and a list of scheduled activities.

About the author

Chrissy Raudonis

Chrissy Raudonis is an avid outdoors enthusiast who lives in the Adirondacks. When she's not at work, she's hiking, trail running, canoeing, kayaking, snowshoeing or cross-country skiing--often with her canine partner in adventure, Boomer. She is a member of her local Fire Department and Search & Rescue of the Northern Adirondacks. Chrissy is an alumnus of the National Outdoor Leadership School and a former caretaker for the Green Mountain Club.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.