Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Clarkson Students Unveil Hut-to-Hut Proposal For Saranac Lake Region

HutsAlmanackImagine hiking for five days in the wild — past lakes, ponds, and streams; over peaks with marvelous views — all the while carrying just the clothes on your back and some essential items in a small pack.

Four Clarkson University students have proposed a hut-to-hut route in the Saranac Lake region that would allow you to do just that.

Sonja Gagen, Dustin Jochum, Kayla Jurchak, and Conor Drossel created the plan as part of Clarkson’s Adirondack Semester program. They worked with Adirondack Community-based Trails and Lodging System (ACTLS), a nonprofit organization that is working on developing hut-to-hut trails throughout the Adirondack Park. Two other Clarkson students designed environmentally friendly huts for the route.

The students unveiled their proposal at the Saranac Lake Free Library last week. They envision people hiking a 36-mile loop over four or five days, with opportunities for side trips. Hikers would spend each night in a lodge. Three lodges would be built on private or municipal land — at McKenzie Pond, Oseetah Lake, and west of Saranac Lake. In lieu of a fourth lodge, hikers could stay at existing facilities in Ray Brook.

The route would incorporate 11 miles of existing state-maintained trails, 4.5 miles of unofficial herd paths, 3.3 miles of railroad corridor, and 1.8 miles of roads. It would require the cutting of 15.1 miles of new trails. The herd paths would be marked and upgraded to official trails.

Saranac Lake Hut-to-Hut ProposalHere is a suggested itinerary:

Day 1: Starting in Saranac Lake, climb Baker Mountain (by an existing trail) and then descend to the north end of McKenzie Pond (via the route of an existing herd path), enjoying views of the High Peaks on the way. Skirt the east shore of the pond (on a new trail) to reach a lodge near the outlet.

Day 2: Follow the Jackrabbit Ski Trail to the saddle between McKenzie Mountain and Haystack Mountain. Just past the saddle, at a trail junction, turn right and follow a trail to Route 86 near Ray Brook. On way, you’ll pass a side trail to Haystack. This trail is a mile long and often steep, and it leads you in the opposite direction from Ray Brook. It would be easier to take an existing herd path from the McKenzie-Haystack saddle to the summit and then descend by the maintained trail.

Day 3: From Ray Brook, follow railroad 1.2 miles to a herd path that leads to the summit of Scarface Mountain. Descend Scarface by an existing trail. A new trail would lead to Pine Pond and a lodge at Oseetah Lake.

McKenzie viewDay 4: Continue on the new trail to the Upper Lock on the Saranac River. Crossing the river on a bridge, the trail would continue northeast to Forest Home Road. A lodge would be built somewhere nearby.

Day 5: On the final day, you’d follow Forest Home Road for 0.8 miles, then head northeast on a herd path that leads to the rail corridor. Follow the rail corridor 2.1 miles back to Saranac Lake.

Jack Drury, the director of ACTLS, applauded the students’ effort and expects that his organization will incorporate it – perhaps with modifications – into its own plans for hut-to-hut routes in the Park.

“Hopefully the state will say we’ve got three million dollars and we can start work tomorrow,” Drury said in jest.

Who will pay for and operate the lodges is a big question. Clarkson students designed structures for McKenzie Pond and Oseetah Lake that would cost an estimated $800,000 to $1.2 million each to construct. The first is on land owned by the village of Saranac Lake; the second is on private land. They’d accommodate about two dozen visitors a night and would include kitchens, dining areas, porches, and composting toilets.

Drury said he hopes a nonprofit group will be created to run lodges on all the hut-to-hut routes and help maintain the trails.

Another big question is whether the plan will pass muster with the state Department of Environmental Conservation and Adirondack Park Agency.

State officials, though, like the concept of hut-to-hut trails. ACTLS received state funding for its planning and recently submitted a draft proposal for several routes to DEC.

Top photo by Mike Lynch: Clarkson students discuss their proposal at the Saranac Lake Free Library.

Bottom photo by Phil Brown: View of McKenzie Pond from proposed route.


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Phil Brown is the former Editor of Adirondack Explorer, the regional bimonthly with a focus on outdoor recreation and environmental issues, the same topics he writes about here at Adirondack Almanack. Phil is also an energetic outdoorsman whose job and personal interests often find him hiking, canoeing, rock climbing, trail running, and backcountry skiing. He is the author of Adirondack Paddling: 60 Great Flatwater Adventures, which he co-published with the Adirondack Mountain Club, and the editor of Bob Marshall in the Adirondacks, an anthology of Marshall’s writings.Visit Lost Pond Press for more information.

22 Responses

  1. Keith Gorgas says:

    Excellent concept. If it doesn’t fit with DEC or APA regs, they need to be changed.

  2. That is a lot better idea than a 4 storey hotel on the banks of Lake Flower.

  3. Boreasfisher says:

    Congratulations to the enterprising Clarkson students for coming up with this plan. Can’t wait to give it a spin.

  4. Paul says:

    Cool idea. Why would it cost a million bucks to build a hut? The bridge across the river sounds impossible given where it would need to be located. That flood plain is very wide between the upper locks and Middle Saranac and I don’t think there is any land along there that isn’t owned by the state. Also running along the Forest Home road takes a bit of the fun out of it, maybe build a trail that runs parallel and far enough off the road to keep it away from the road.

    • roamin with broman says:

      When I hear hut, I picture a $500 structure, not a million dollar structure……

      • Phil Brown says:

        I added a bit of detail: the lodges would include kitchens, dining areas, porches, composting toilets, etc. More like Johns Brook Lodge than a small cabin.

        • Paul says:

          Phil, they are called lodges on the plan. I guess even some of those “huts” I have seen in the Whites in NH should really be called lodges too.

          This system can be tapped by mountain bikers via the trail to Averyville in LP. Why not just hook into some of the trail that is already there, or is that what they are doing?

    • Bruce says:

      “all the while carrying just the clothes on your back and some essential items in a small pack.”

      I got the impression these million dollar huts will offer food and lodging on a business basis, which entails certain government regulations concerning serving the public, more like European hostels. This is vastly different from a system of huts providing shelter and a place to throw your sleeping bag, where you do everything else for yourself.

      I wonder what the individual cost will be for users, it certainly won’t be free, which makes me think the system is intended for the more “upscale” user.

  5. Kevin Sigourney says:

    Great idea! I know I would enjoy having that trail near me. There really aren’t many connecting trails in the Northern ADKs at all that can be hiked multiple days.

  6. scottvanlaer says:

    We are a trail crazy society.

  7. Heidi says:

    What is a herd path?

    • John Warren says:

      A herd path is an unmarked and unmaintained trail, sometimes trails, that is/are formed when many users attempt to reach the same backcountry destination.

      • Boreas says:


        It should also be added that in the High Peaks region, they may or may not lead to where one wants to go, but rather into a maze of herd paths leading nowhere. In the back-country, always have a map & compass and know how to use them.

  8. Boreas says:

    Hmmmm. While I think the overall concept is good and has been successful in other areas, I am not convinced the proposed trail would attract the volume of users to generate the necessary cash to pay for itself. Frankly, it looks to me like it would be a lot of lowland slogging through woods swatting blackflies and skeeters with occasional lake views or a mountain to climb. Probably nice skiing in winter. In places where hut-to-hut touring has been successful, the views are the main draw. A lot of ridgelines, canyon rims, ocean vistas, fjords, etc. Getting the project built wouldn’t be the main problem, but generating enough cash year to year to pay for food/staffing/maintenance could be.

    Perhaps to start, a simple reservation system enforced by DEC for some lean-tos on the loop instead of million dollar huts would be a better way to test the waters. If it gets a lot of use, build the huts. Otherwise, they may become white elephants.

  9. Mark says:

    This is an interesting concept but how will the planners deal with the APA, the State (getting permission to build a trail thorugh forest preserve) and the private property owners on this proposed trail (of which I am one of)? I doubt the easements needed would be granted by the landowners to do this.

    • John Warren says:

      There are already lots of trails being built on Forest Preserve land which DEC and APA are actively promoting, and most snowmobile trails (more than 3,000 miles) are built on private land with easements. The Town of Chester recently opened a half dozen new trails, most on private land with the permission of landowners.

      Regulations don’t keep new trails from opening – private property owners who post their land do.

  10. Mike says:

    It’s a fantastic idea, and a great starting point for the concept. Something similar to the hut system of the White Mtns of New Hampshire here in the ADKS, would really be wonderful.

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