When I suggested to my girlfriend Carol that we jog around Cascade Lake in the Pigeon Lake Wilderness, she endorsed the idea without hesitation. Not only is Carol a trail runner, but she also is an avid swimmer. You might say she is a little obsessed. When I mentioned that Cascade Lake has a sandy bottom, I could barely hold her back.
I had my own reasons for wanting to visit Cascade Lake. I was just finishing a guidebook (published in June by the Adirondack Explorer) called 12 Short Hikes Near Old Forge and wanted to take a few photos for the Cascade Lake chapter.
Cascade Lake is not the shortest hike in the book. The trails leading to and circling the lake add up to six miles. Except for a few slight inclines, however, the route is flat. The trails also are wide, since they once served as bridle paths and woods roads for a girls camp that used to be on the lake.
Although Carol and I both enjoy trail running, neither of us is likely to sprint up Mount Marcy or enter the Leadville 100. If you’re a casual trail runner — or just want to give trail running a shot — Cascade Lake is just the ticket.
Of course, you don’t have to run the trail to enjoy it. As a matter of fact, Carol and I ran only about two thirds of the six miles. We walked whenever we felt like taking it easy.
We began at a large trailhead parking lot off Big Moose Road a little north of Eagle Bay. We walked over a small hill and in a third of a mile reached a junction with an old woods road. Now warmed up, we turned left and started to jog. A mile from the lot, we came to another junction, the start of the loop around the lake.
A trail sign with an arrow suggests that people bear right and travel counterclockwise. However, we went in the opposite direction. I was worried about rain. This way, we’d get to the best views sooner (along the north shore of the lake) and I’d be assured of getting the pictures I needed.
Bearing left, we passed a large clearing (the site of a former lumber camp) before coming to the lake’s outlet, a small, dark stream that snakes through a bog. Just after crossing the stream, we arrived at a third junction. The trail on the left leads to a series of ponds in the Pigeon Lake Wilderness. We went straight and, at 1.4 miles, soon reached the west end of Cascade Lake.
This part of the trail was marvelous for running—smooth and soft underfoot. In a few minutes, we came to one of the most photogenic spots along the trail: a large clearing beneath white pines towering over the lake. There was a thin strip of beach, and the bottom of the lake was sandy. We didn’t intend to go in the water, but I pointed out the swimming possibilities to Carol. She was not as impressed as I thought she’d be.
“It’s pretty shallow,” the connoisseur said. “You might have to go out for a while to swim.”
Incidentally, we were not alone that day. Six equestrians had tied up their horses at the clearing. I was a bit surprised.
“I didn’t know this was a horse trail,” I remarked to the group.
“It’s a lot of things,” one of the riders replied.
Later, I was told by a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Conservation that the Cascade Lake loop is the only trail in the Pigeon Lake Wilderness open to horses.
The clearing had been the site of the girls camp. As we continued along the trail, we saw foundations and other evidence of the camp. At 2.0 miles, we passed another clearing on the right, now the site of a scenic campsite. Soon afterward, we had our first wildlife encounter.
“Oh, a little frog!” Carol announced. She stopped running and bent over for a closer look. “Hey, guy! He blends in well.”
We had been enjoying a view of the lake filtered through the trees. The trail now pulled away from the water, but shortly it descended to within a few feet of the shore. At first glance, Carol thought this would be a great swimming spot, because the water looked deep. After a more thorough appraisal, though, she concluded that the bottom was too rocky for bare feet.
A bit farther on we came to a junction. The old road continued straight ahead, but it was terribly mucky. The state had built a detour that angled up and across a dry slope to the left. When I stopped to take a note, Carol peered over my shoulder at my pad, in flagrant disregard of my First Amendment rights.
“My frog quote?” she said. “I gotta come up with something better than that.”
The detour eventually led us back to the woods road, but we still had to cross some muck. We tried to jump over the worst of it, but Carol didn’t quite make it. I heard a sucking sound as she extracted her foot from the mire.
“At least I have both sneakers on,” she observed cheerfully.
A few seconds later, she attempted another daring leap. I heard another sucking sound, followed by some bad language. I turned around to see Carol with one shoe on and one shoe off, stuck in the mud.
Once we were both fully shod, we continued on the woods road and crossed the lake’s inlet just before it entered a boggy meadow. From here we could hear the sound of falling water — the cascade that gives the lake its name. A short path on the left led us to its base.
A curtain of white water dropped twenty-five feet down a sheer rock wall, a hemlock perched precariously on the lip. It wasn’t a waterfall that inspired awe, but as Carol said, “it’s not to be shrugged off.” She did have one criticism.
“I wish the pool were a little deeper. One person could take a good soak in there, but it’s not like a whole group could jump in.”
The waterfall was at the eastern end of the lake, at the midpoint of the hike. We cooled off in its spray and stayed for a snack before embarking on the second half of the loop.
The southern leg of the circuit is not as scenic as the northern. The trail keeps its distance from the lake, affording only occasional glimpses of water through the woods. On the plus side, we found that it was excellent for running.
Suddenly I heard a rustle in the leaves and spied a garter snake next to a painted trillium. I pointed it out to Carol. Sensing our presence, the snake lifted its head and then became as motionless as a statue.
“It’s amazing how still they get,” I said.
“Except look at his tongue,” Carol replied. It was flicking in and out. Snakes use their tongues to smell.
“I know a frog you might be interested in,” Carol confided before we moved on.
When we got back to the start of the loop, I asked Carol what she thought of the circuit. She liked it a lot but had one suggestion: “I would do it the other way because I would want to end at the beach.”
The idea being, of course, that you could swim toward the end of your hike (or run) and feel refreshed.
After we got back to the car, we drove to Moss Lake, which lies just a mile farther down Big Moose Road. I had to check the GPS coordinates for 12 Short Hikes Near Old Forge. While there, we took the short walk from the parking lot to the beach on the west shore. Naturally, Carol went for a swim. What better way to end the day?
DIRECTIONS: From NY 28 in Eagle Bay, turn north onto Big Moose Road and drive 1.3 miles to a large parking area on the right.
This is the second guidebook published by the Adirondack Explorer. Like the first, 12 Short Hikes Near Lake Placid, it is designed for people looking for easy hikes that take only a few hours. The book is small enough to fit in your pocket.
Besides the Cascade Lake loop, the new book describes hikes to Bear Lake, Remsen Falls, Middle Settlement Lake, Moose River Mountain, Moose River Lock and Dam, Bald Mountain, Cork Mountain/Mountain Pond, Becker’s Ledge/Bubb Lake, Moss Lake, Rocky Mountain, and Black Bear Mountain. It also includes a bonus hike to Cathedral Pines.
Each chapter contains GPS coordinates for the trailhead, driving directions, trail statistics (mileage and elevation gain), and a map drawn by Nancy Bernstein.
The color cover photos were shot by Carl Heilman II. The inside photos were taken by a variety of photographers, including Heilman, Nancie Battaglia, and Nancy Ford.
12 Short Hikes Near Old Forge can be purchased on the Adirondack Explorer website and in regional stores.
Photos by Phil Brown: After an hour of hiking and running, Carol Fox cools off in the mist of falling water, and below, relaxes beside the flowers and pines on the shore of Cascade Lake in the Pigeon Lake Wilderness. Map by Nancy Bernstein.
This story originally appeared in the Adirondack Explorer, a nonprofit newsmagazine devoted to the protection and enjoyment of the Adirondack Park. Get a full print or digital subscription here.