Skiing along historic Old Mountain Road
KEENE — The Jackrabbit Ski Trail covers a lot of ground between Keene and Paul Smiths, and at least one section is laden with history.
The section of the Jackrabbit known as Old Mountain Road is about 3.6 miles, one way, that runs from Keene toward Lake Placid. Although it’s a relatively short ski, there’s plenty of variation that makes it fun.
From the Rock and River guiding service in Keene, the trail goes generally uphill for more than 2 miles, but it’s a gentle grade and there are a few wetlands and flatter spots that offer a break. It’s not steep enough to require climbing skins, but there are a couple spots where duck walking is necessary.
At just about the 1-mile mark, the woods open up on each side at a wetland, and the first views of the backside of Pitchoff Mountain are seen. The climbing really begins after this wetland, and after another mile or so the trail has gained enough elevation to get a glimpse back down the valley.
The trail continues its easy climb and crosses a series of open wetlands, each closer to the base of Pitchoff’s cliffs. My friend and colleague Aaron and I only saw one other skier on our way out, but got to watch an ice climber ascend a sheet of ice less than a mile from the end of the trail.
With less than a mile left, the trail begins to descend to the Lake Placid side and a concrete barrier at Old Mountain Lane. There is parking for a couple of cars at the barrier, but to continue on the Jackrabbit toward Cascade Ski Center, one would have to take off their skis and walk down to state Route 73.
Aaron and I turned around at the barrier and went uphill to the open area where we had seen the climbers. We decided to enjoy the early spring sun and eat lunch out there in the open, and while we could still hear the ice climbers talking to each other up on the wall, they were out of sight.
After a quick lunch in the sun, Aaron and I had a quick ski back to Rock and River. It was downhill most of the way, and the combination of sun, warm air and forest shade made the trail fast but easily navigable. When we came across a couple groups of other skiers coming the opposite way, they politely yielded the hill, and within three hours (including lunch), we were back at the car.
Old Mountain Road, until recently, was in legal limbo. The road was part of the state’s Sentinel Range Wilderness Area and as such, motorized traffic of any kind was banned. In 2003, a local man drove his snowmobile on the road in an effort to force the state’s hand. After a 15-year legal battle, the state Department of Environmental Conservation conceded that the road had never been legally abandoned, and therefore belongs to the towns of Keene and North Elba.
Although the ruling left the door open for motorized traffic, town supervisors said they have no intention of changing the road’s use primarily as a ski trail.
“We’re happy to have things clarified so we understand our ownership,” Keene supervisor Joe Pete Wilson said after the ruling last December. “At the same time, we don’t have any plans to change the way it’s managed. We’re not opening it up to additional uses.
“We see the value of it as a trail. We see the value in those uses, and that’s what we want to continue.”
Roby Politi, the North Elba Supervisor, added that the towns would like to add a commemorative plaque at some point in the future to the ski trail since famed abolitionist John Brown was transported along the highway after his death in 1859, back to his home in Lake Placid.