Navigating the Hoffman Notch Backcountry Ski Traverse
Navigating the Hoffman Notch Backcountry Ski Traverse
February 23, 2022
By Cat Hadlow
The following trip is featured in ADK’s newest sampler guidebook, Peaks and Ponds
In late January 2021 my ADK colleague, High Peaks Information Center Manager Bobby Clark, and I set out to traverse Hoffman Notch on a redemption mission after having been turned back a month prior thanks to high water less than a half mile into the trip. That first attempt in early December followed a three-day rain event that left waterways swollen and difficult or impossible to cross safely. The West Branch of Trout Brook was no exception, and with the bridge having been washed away during the Halloween storm of 2019, we opted to return another day. We agreed that with at least a foot of snow, it could be a fantastic backcountry ski trip.
The Hoffman Notch Trail is a 7.5-mile path within the Hoffman Notch Wilderness Area, bounded on either side by the Texas and Washburn ridges. It runs from Blue Ridge Road near North Hudson south to Loch Muller, a few miles west of Schroon Lake. The trail crosses and follows brooks and streams and passes by a large marsh area, meandering through formerly logged wilderness with magnificent regrowth. The dual ridges that parallel the route provide views of impressive cliffs, high ledges, rock formations, and multiple peaks along the way. Situated between I-87 (the Adirondack Northway) and the Vanderwacker Mountain Wild Forest, the area’s scant trails contribute to the secluded feeling a visit invokes.
January 26 dawned cold with clear blue skies and snow in the forecast for later in the afternoon. Bobby and I met at the Blue Ridge Road parking area near the stream named The Branch to drop my vehicle since we planned to ski the trail from south to north. From here we took I-87 just one exit south, driving his vehicle to the tiny hamlet of Loch Muller at the end of Loch Muller Road. Upon arrival we discovered that the narrow road was unplowed beyond a small snowplow turnaround. After a brief consideration of options, we swiftly made the decision to leave Bobby’s Subaru on the roadside, at the top of a hill just beyond the turnaround, and ski down to the trailhead proper.
Donning our skis and hefting our winter-weight packs, we set off down a short slope to the trail register, following a days-old snowmobile track. I had noticed that the popular north end of the trail had been broken out by skiers, so we hoped the same would be true here. That hope was quickly dashed once we passed the parking area and saw that the well-packed ski track we skied into veered off on a trail toward Bailey Pond.
Immediately the job of breaking trail fell upon “Bobby Bulldozer” as he led us through fresh powder and into the wild. We were relieved to find the West Branch of Trout Brook easier to cross after removing our skis and carefully stepping on the snow-covered rocks. At the top of the hill past the brook we clicked back into our bindings and pressed ahead.
Onward, farther into the wilderness we slogged—actually, Bobby slogged while I glided in his smoothly laid track. Truth be told, this was only my second backcountry ski outing, the first having been the Botheration Pond Loop near Thirteenth Lake. The snow cover on the Hoffman Notch Trail was more than a foot deep, which made navigating the numerous drainages effortless. Slowly we made our way past the junction with the Big Pond Trail, deeper into the hinterland, eventually to the point of full commitment for the traverse. We skied by large glacial erratics, then happened upon fresh deer tracks crisscrossing the path as it meandered through the notch.
The yellow trail markers were numerous, making it easy to find our way along a path we were unable to see beneath the snow. I suspect the skiing was much better for me than it was for Bobby, who laboriously laid track through the fresh, powdery snow. The few instances when I attempted to break trail were met with near disaster as I sought to navigate downhills and drainages that required dexterity well beyond my ability. We soon realized it was much more efficient for Bobby to lead the way. As I struggled once again to regain an upright position on my skis, he glided past, efficiently plowing through the nearly knee-deep snow.
The Big Marsh is at about the halfway point on the route; here the woods open up, allowing a magnificent view of Hoffman Mountain to the east. At this point we had reached the height of land on a very gradual, barely discernable ascent. Near the marsh we maneuvered over a fallen tree that had had its bark chewed off in a curious pattern the entire length on both sides. Neither of us had ever observed anything like it as we stopped to ponder the likely suspects. I considered the chew marks to indicate beavers since there were other more typical signs of them along the marsh’s edge. Since there were no fresh tracks in the snow to provide a hint, we continued on, each with our own suspicions as to the potential culprit.
Things got a bit tricky as we skirted along the western edge of the aptly named Big Marsh. The trail at times became a narrow chute through dense trees and brush that entangled our ski poles, culminating in a tug-of-war that often ended with my pole trapped in a gnarl of branches. We battled our way to the end of the gauntlet and soon came upon snowshoe tracks from a previous day. The lone tracks along this wider section, perhaps a former wagon road, gave us an odd sense of relief knowing that there had been another adventurer on this remote trail.
As we made our way between the ranges it seemed we were chasing the sunshine as a darkening sky loomed behind us. Neither of us said it aloud, but it was evident the snow would soon be upon us. I silently hoped that we’d be out of the woods before the clouds let loose and began to dump the impending precipitation.
After yet another tumble and subsequent brushing of snow off of myself, I heard Bobby’s shouts of joy roaring through the trees ahead. When I reached him he was grinning ear-to-ear, standing in fresh-laid ski tracks, remnants of a group that had recently skied in from the north end. From here, genuine pleasurable skiing began for Bobby Bulldozer. After a quick break he sped off, clearly enjoying the first smooth track of the day. Meanwhile I poled like mad in an effort to keep up with him as he tore through the forest at a breakneck pace.
We soon reached the brink of a 570-foot descent that began in a series of moderate to full-on terrifying plunges downward. Images of my being hauled out of the woods on a makeshift litter, dragged through the wilderness by Bobby Bulldozer, danced in my head, keeping me at a guarded and more realistic pace. Bobby cruised ahead, plainly delighting in every twisting downhill, as evidenced by the hoots and yips resounding through the thicket. I skied what I could, side-stepped down, and more than once removed my skis in an effort at self-preservation.
Now the sun was gone, the blue sky exchanged for gloomy cloud cover. A dense quiet hung in the air. The snow was coming; soon it would envelop us deep in the wilderness.
At what I thought was the 6.8-mile mark on the trail, I skied up to Bobby, who had stopped to marvel at the rusted old chassis of an Army half-track resting trailside. Another trail mystery for one to ponder, I suppose.
Having just glanced at my map, sans eyeglasses, I told Bobby we had only about half a mile until we reached the northern terminus of the trail. My partially frozen peanut butter sandwich at the bottom of my pack had been beckoning me for the last hour, and I was looking forward to devouring it with a few swallows of hot tea.
We continued on the smooth track as it wound through the woods to a thick grove of majestic white cedars. I skied at a leisurely measure, lingering to absorb the calm and peaceful aura cast by the contrast of the trees’ bark against the white ground. Beyond the cedars the trail continued to ramble through the trees and across small drainages. I expected that at each bend we’d arrive at the trio of ancient vehicles strewn aside near the northern trailhead that I’d seen on our previous trip.
We skied on, through the woods and across small wooden bridges until at last I spied the grill of some former relic of a car directly ahead. Bobby was standing near the trail register. “That was a pretty long half mile,” he exclaimed. “It was an Adirondack half mile,” I replied.
As we reached the edge of Blue Ridge Road, snowflakes began slowly drifting down upon us. Within minutes the road was covered with a thin blanket of white. The forecasted snowfall had arrived exactly as predicted. When I checked my map, this time with my glasses on, I realized that the rusted Army truck frame had actually been at mile 5.8, making that last “half-mile” more than a mile and a half! While the car warmed up I tore into my PBJ, watching the snow accumulate on the windshield and glad that we had completed the traverse without incident or injury.
We headed back to the southern trailhead at Loch Muller, driving through a steady flurry. The farther we traveled down Loch Muller Road, the deeper the snow on the unplowed surface became. When we reached Bobby’s vehicle it too was covered with a blanket of fresh snow. All in all, we had had a fantastic day of backcountry skiing through a true wilderness area that remains as wild today as it may ever have been.
Cat Hadlow has been part of the North Country operations team at Adirondak Loj since 2016; she currently staffs the front desk. She enjoys most human-powered outdoor activities.