Imagine 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.
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.
Day 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.