LIKE many cross-country skiers, I am a former downhiller who
became disenchanted with crowded slopes, long lift lines and the increasing
expense of lift tickets. Cross-country provided an attractive alternative --
solitude, aerobic exercise and low cost -- but the excitement of skiing varied
terrain in scenic settings was not to be found on the typical prairielike golf
Last year, however, some of my neighbors in the upstate Adirondack Mountain
village of Lake Placid, N.Y., told me about the Jackrabbit Trail system, a
25-mile network of groomed trails that takes skiers deep into the forests and
brings them back to comfortable lodges with pub menus and roaring fires.
The Jackrabbit Trail is named in memory of Herman (Jackrabbit) Johannsen, a
Norwegian-born pioneer of cross-country skiing in the United States. The system
was begun in 1986 by the Adirondack Ski Touring Council, a small corps of
volunteers who wanted to develop a wilderness experience using the same trails
that Johannsen had loved over a half-century ago.
The network, most of which is supported by volunteers and is free to users,
has three major sections. The first and third are recommended for advanced
skiers, while the second may be skied comfortably by novices. I completed the
entire course in two consecutive weekends last January.
The first segment begins at the village of Saranac Lake, and provides a
series of steep scenic climbs skirting the south side of McKenzie Mountain,
ending seven and a half miles later at the Whiteface Inn Resort in the village
of Lake Placid.
After I had parked my car at the Whiteface Inn, a friend drove me to Saranac
Lake, where I began this segment late in the morning with the intention of
beating both a winter storm and an early sunset. This segment of the trail is
recommended for intermediate to advanced skiers, and, as I labored happily to
maintain my uphill pace, I became enchanted by the Adirondack forest with its
nearly impenetrable balsam fir stands and brooding glacial boulders.
By midafternoon I had yet to meet another skier on the trail. This nearly
guaranteed solitude is one of the Jackrabbit's great attributes. At the
five-mile point, I took brief refuge in a lean-to, which marks the end of the
long climb from the village of Saranac Lake, as the lightly falling snow imposed
an early twilight. Carved on the inside walls of the shelter I found names and
dates left by skiers and hikers going back decades, and in one corner a
thoughtful soul had left twigs and paper for future travelers in case the need
arose for a warming fire in the lean-to's stone fireplace.
The thickening snow, however, began to cover the trail, and I was determined
to beat the darkness and reach the Whiteface Inn Resort, some two miles distant.
The stretch was nearly all downhill, and I skied through the dense whiteness of
the evening storm. Within 30 minutes I arrived at the inn, where skiers from the
resort's own trails had gathered to wait out the storm.
The inn first opened for guests in 1888, and none of its original buildings
still stand. Today, a combination of modern condominiums and older cabins on the
west shore of Lake Placid share a main dining room and a lounge. There, as birch
logs sizzled and popped in the wood-burning stove, I studied an Adirondack Ski
Touring Council map (available free at the many ski centers here) that detailed
the second leg of the Jackrabbit Trail.
My home is in Lake Placid, so I returned there for the night, rejoining the
trail at the Whiteface Inn the next morning. I found this segment of the trail,
which covers 10.5 miles in and around Lake Placid proper, less interesting than
the first, more secluded portion. But it is ideal for beginning skiers;
restaurants, easily accessible from many locations along this route, provide
good resting spots.
Starting at the inn, I followed the red Jackrabbit Trail markers to the
Peninsula Trails, a small adjunct network leading to the shores of Lake Placid,
then looping back to the Jackrabbit. From the frozen lake, well marked with the
prints of a large snowshoe hare, I could see on Buck Island the century-old
white log summer home of the singer Kate Smith. Back on the Jackrabbit, heading
south into the village of Lake Placid, I had to take off my skis on some
sections of the trail to cross roads before I reached the trails of the former
Lake Placid Club, now in disrepair. The club, founded by Melvil Dewey, the
designer of the Dewey decimal system, has been damaged by fire, but
turn-of-the-century guest cottages remain in the woods.
FROM the club grounds I skied through patches of spruce and several miles of
open area, which serve as golf courses in the summer, before reaching the
Cascade Ski Touring Center. Since the center is the end of the second segment of
the trail, I had left my car there that morning, again relying on a friend to
bring me to the start of that day's route. The touring center is a friendly,
family-run operation with its own cross-country trails, a well-stocked ski
rental shop and a large lounge with a huge stone fireplace where yule logs seem
to be constantly ablaze. Resting on a gentle slope, it provides a haunting view
of the Adirondack High Peaks.
Skiers who choose to leave the Jackrabbit Trail and explore these privately
maintained trails or those of the nearby Mount Van Hoevenberg Cross Country Ski
Center must buy a ticket (about $9 for an all-trail day pass). Mount Van
Hoevenberg was the site of many 1980 Olympic Winter Games events and is the
setting for international competition in cross-country skiing, biathlon, luge,
skeleton (headfirst luge) and bobsledding. Bobsled rides, costing $25 a person,
are available at the Mount Van Hoevenberg Olympic Sports Complex, but not for
the fainthearted. Professional drivers and brakemen pilot tourists through such
infamous curves as Zig Zag and Little S.
I returned to the Cascade Ski Touring Center the following weekend with my
brother and his 16-year-old son who, like myself, were recent Jackrabbit
converts. The temperature was rising from a crisp 12 degrees to a moderate 28.
With virtually no wind, the previous night's light powder remained and
contrasted intensely with an alpine-blue sky. Just the sort of day to spend in
the woods -- and that's where the third section of the trail, the Old Mountain
Road, took us. Especially appealing is the route from Lake Placid to the village
of Keene, which is generally downhill, an overall 360-foot vertical drop through
After parking at the touring center, we picked up the Jackrabbit Trail
nearby. This section of the trail covers about six miles of what my map referred
to as intermediate-level terrain. The literature cautions that this section is
"a considerable distance from civilization, making it advisable to carry extra
food and clothing, and some basic emergency gear." I was glad I was not skiing
As the weather can be capricious in the Adirondacks, we carried a map (the
A.S.T.C. map of the trail and the Adirondack Mountain Club's High Peaks Region
map complement each other well), matches, some breakfast bars and an extra layer
of polypropylene to insure warmth and comfort in case conditions did, in fact,
AFTER a final study of our map, we set out on the course, which first travels
briefly from the Cascade ski center, crosses Route 73, and proceeds for a
half-mile uphill. To our left we could see a large collecting vat and other
pieces of snow-covered sugaring equipment, used in the spring to boil down the
watery sap from the thousands of sugar maples in the surrounding grove.
After two miles of gentle, downhill progress through stands of Scotch pine,
balsam fir, paper birch and tamarack, we skied onto the first of several beaver
meadows, clearly marked as such by scores of denuded birches, the tender bark of
which is a favorite beaver staple. Immediately to the right are the 300-foot
cliffs of Pitchoff Mountain. Many ice climbers find these gleaming floes a
special challenge, with their desolate location and impressive drop. In the
meadow we met climbers from Montreal who had made camp deep in the snow the
night before to insure a full day's climbing.
Later, our trail became a few degrees steeper and skirted a pond bordered by
clumps of yellow birch, highly prized by the makers of Adirondack twig
furniture. Since leaving the ice climbers to their treacherous ascent, we had
not seen another person. And when the next mile-long descent leveled out, as I
stopped to check our progress on the map, I became keenly aware of the intense
silence of the deep forest.
By early afternoon, we had reached the end of the trail, at the Adirondack
Rock and River Lodge, a quiet mecca for outdoor enthusiasts that offers courses
in kayaking, ice and rock climbing and draws guests for adventure vacations
throughout the year. Teaching people how to enjoy the wilderness is the focus
here and, to make use of all available instruction time, a multistory chimney in
the center of the main lodge has been fitted with hand holds and ropes.
My brother had left his car at the lodge that morning, so we were able drive
back to the Cascade Ski Touring Center and avoid the uphill return trip. While
enjoying dark Dutch beer at the center we viewed an alpenglow sunset reflecting
off the ice of the MacIntyre Mountains. As we discussed future day trips on the
Jackrabbit Trail, a skier at a nearby table told us of the plans to expand the
route to some 60 miles connecting more villages, which I later confirmed with
Tony Goodwin, executive director of the Adirondack Ski Touring Council.
Jackrabbit Johannsen, who lived to the age of 111, would have approved. To those
seeking a long life, he advised: "Ski, ski, ski." MAKING TRACKS AROUND LAKE
PLACID Cross-Country Skiing
For more information on the Jackrabbit Trail System, write to the Adirondack
Ski Touring Council, Post Office Box 843, Lake Placid, N.Y. 12946; (518)
523-1365. Where to Stay
At the southern end of the Jackrabbit Trail is the Adirondack Rock and River
Lodge, Post Office Box 219, Keene, N.Y. 12942, (518) 576-2041. It offers guide
services and instruction in ice climbing, rock climbing and kayaking.
Accommodations in two modern lodges include three rooms with private baths, four
with shared baths and a bunk room that sleeps six. Rates: $25 for a bunk to $60
for a double room.
Cascade Cross Country Ski Center, on Route 73, Lake Placid, N.Y. 12946; (518)
523-9605, provides rustic lodging, with 26 bunks divided among four rooms. There
are three common bathrooms. The center offers 12 miles of cross-country trails
and access to the Jackrabbit Trail. It is adjacent to the Mount Van Hoevenberg
Olympic Sports Complex, which has 31 miles of trails. Rates: $18.50 to $20 a
person. Trail fee: $7 on weekends, $6 midweek.
South Meadow Farm Lodge, HCR 1, Box 44, Lake Placid, N.Y. 12946; (518)
523-9369, is a family-style bed-and-breakfast with five rooms, with shared bath.
The lodge is adjacent to cross-country trails of Mount Van Hoevenberg and has
spectacular views mountain views. Rates: $70 to $90 a room (includes breakfast
and Mount Van Hoevenberg trail fee).
Bark Eater Inn, Alstead Hill Road, Keene, N.Y. 12942; (518) 576-2221, is a
comfortable bed-and-breakfast inn developed from an early 1800's stagecoach
stop. The inn is three miles from the Jackrabbit Trail. Horseback riding is
available. Rates for two people, including breakfast: $90 (rooms with shared
bath) to $110 (private bath).
Hotel rates can vary widely, and are frequently less in midweek.
Mirror Lake Inn, 5 Mirror Lake Drive, Lake Placid, N.Y. 12946; (518)
523-2544, fax (518) 523-2871. This inn on the shore of Mirror Lake offers a
gracious setting with antiques and chandeliers. Weekend rates for double
occupancy: $94 to $155 for the Colonial House.
Hilton Inn of Lake Placid, 1 Mirror Lake Drive, Lake Placid, N.Y. 12946;
(518) 523-4411, offers views of Mirror Lake, Whiteface Mountain and the Sentinel
Range. It is about three-quarters of a mile from the Jackrabbit Trail. Rates
from $88 to $141.
Best Western Golden Arrow Hotel, 150 Main Street, Lake Placid, N.Y. 12946;
(518) 523-3353, is adjacent to the trail. It is on Mirror Lake with views of
Whiteface Mountain and the Sentinel Range. Weekends and holidays: $105 to $154 a
room. Where to Get Skis
These stores in Lake Placid sell cross-country equipment, rent it for about
$15 a day, make repairs and provide maps of the area and the Jackrabbit
High Peaks Cyclery and Mountain Adventure Center, 331 Main Street; (518)
Cunningham's Ski Barn, Main Street and Olympic Drive; (518)
JIM GRANT, a resident
of Lake Placid, has been cross-country skiing for three years.