LAKE PLACID - If you live locally, Cascade and Porter mountains can be easy to overlook as hiking or snowshoeing destinations.
The parking lots near the trailhead are often jam-packed and the trails busy with hikers. But if you pick the right day (usually a weekday), you can experience what makes them so popular without having to deal with feeling overcrowded on the trail and summits.
It was about noon when I set out on Monday to snowshoe Cascade and Porter mountains with three others: Patrick Giblin of Saranac Lake, Ed Burke of Saratoga Springs and Enterprise Sports/Features Editor Morgan Ryan.
Hikers Patrick Giblin, Morgan Ryan and Ed Burke descend from the summit of Cascade Mountain with sweeping views of the Great Range in the distance.
(Enterprise photo — Mike Lynch)
Normally, the Cascade trail is loaded with other hikers. Not this day. We only saw about a half-dozen people the entire time we were out.
We chose Cascade and Porter for the same reasons everyone else does: The trailhead on state Route 73 above the Cascade lakes is easy to get to, just outside of Lake Placid, and the distances to their summits are relatively short and offer great views of the surrounding High Peaks.
Cascade's summit is more open due to the 1903 fire that ravaged the Keene Valley area, but Porter has good views also and was more interesting on this particular day because of the snow-covered trees covering its summit.
The mountains are considered two of the easiest High Peaks in the Adirondacks to hike or snowshoe, and you can reach them both on the same day without too much trouble if you're in decent shape. It's only 2.1 miles to a junction that has trails leading to both summits. From there, it's another three-tenths of a mile to Cascade's peak and another seven-tenths to the top of Porter.
We lucked out on Monday. The conditions were nearly perfect: temperatures in the 40s and 50s and just a few clouds in the sky. Plus, daylight savings had started the weekend before, so the sun wouldn't set until 7:30 p.m.
If the weather's right, late winter and early spring can be great times for experiencing dramatic winter scenery in the higher elevations without the bitter cold of those frigid mid-winter days.
This hike was also the perfect opportunity for Giblin to bag a couple of winter peaks before the end of the season on March 21. He finished climbing the 46 High Peaks about a decade ago and now is working on the winter set - something he hopes to do at a slow, steady pace.
"I don't know that I'll ever get that far (to 46), but I just thought that I'd like to do a few of them and maybe plug along a few every year and see what happens," Giblin said.
His goal was to get four this season. He hiked the 4,627-foot Giant Mountain a few months ago and planned to do another this weekend.
Burke had also hiked both mountains previously. He first hiked Cascade in the mid-1970s. Like many other people, it was the first Adirondack mountain above 4,000 feet that he ascended. He's been up there about 15 times since, including twice in the past year.
"Cascade has one of the best views in the Adirondacks," Burke said. "The Great Range, you can see that, Marcy - everything is laid out really nice."
This day, the view from the gray and white summits spread out on the horizon, matching our expectations. But the trip up was just as interesting.
We ran into an American marten scampering along the crusty snow on the forest floor a little more than a mile into our trip. The small animal was off the trail about 40 feet and surprisingly stuck around for a minute to check us out. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get my camera out in time to get a photo.
Because the snowpack was pretty solid, there were plenty of animal tracks running on and alongside the trail. Mainly, they were from marten and snowshoe hares.
The scenery itself was also interesting. In the higher elevations, the branches of both the hard and softwoods were frosted. The white branches provided a picturesque foreground to the sometimes deep blue sky.
The amount of snow we've gotten this winter was clearly evident. The trail signs, usually at eye height, were down at our ankles. The sign for Porter at the trail junction 2.1 miles from the trailhead was actually resting on the snow.
History of the peaks
After the hike, I asked Burke if he thought the hike had changed much since the mid-1970s.
"It's pretty much the same," he replied.
After doing a little research, I found that a lot of the change to the trail and the immediate area occurred in the 1800s into the first decades of the 1900s.
According to "Peaks and People of the Adirondacks" by Russell M.L. Carson, there has been a trail up Cascade since 1891, but that trailhead started closer to the Cascade lakes and was moved sometime over the years.
Also, the mountain originally had a different name. It was called Long Pond Mountain, named for the long pond at its base between it and Pitchoff, Carson wrote. About 1860, a mudslide came down Cascade into what was Long Pond. The debris divided the water body, which was then renamed Edmund's Ponds for a man who lived north of them on the road to Keene.
"About 1878, Sidney and Warren Weston built a summer hotel between the two lakes, facing a cascade on the brook flowing down the mountain in the path of the (slide)," Carson wrote. "The Westons rechristened Edmund's Ponds, 'Cascade Lakes,' and Long Pond Mountain became 'Cascade Mountain.'"
The Westons called their hotel the Cascade House and offered stagecoach rides from the area.
Porter was named for Dr. Noah Porter, a Keene Valley resident who was president of Yale University from 1871 to 1886, according to Carson. Porter, with the help of guide Ed Phelps, climbed the mountain in 1875.
"(Porter) once told of hearing his friend Horace Bushnell say of a landscape that, though he had looked on it uncounted times from his boyhood to his old age, it had never been twice the same to him, but always new; that it had disclosed on his every return features of loveliness not before discerned," Carson wrote. "And that he could not doubt that there was more in it than he had ever yet seen, waiting to be unveiled."
Porter's recollections of the mountain being different each hike makes sense to me and applies to both Porter and Cascade. The times I've done Cascade trail, the conditions have been dissimilar. One of my first times up to Cascade's summit was a rainy, foggy day. The conditions were terrible until after I reached the top and sat down. Within minutes, the clouds, which seemed to be rolling up the mountainside, opened up and revealed a glimpse of the misty High Peaks.
Then, before long, the clouds returned and the view was gone as fast as it had appeared.
Monday, there was no rain or mist, but the winter conditions definitely put the surroundings in a new light and the trip worth revisiting.