PHARAOH LAKE WILDERNESS skiing
Many winters ago, I went on my first real backcountry ski tour into the wilderness and Pharaoh Lake was the destination. Dressed in cotton corduroy pants and other layers of cotton clothing, plus wool sweater, gloves, and hat, I was semi-prepared for the task. Without gaiters, wet snow loved to cling to those pants. At the Watch Rock lean-to, my buddy revealed a pint of whiskey which we shared, and, on the return, my skiing skills deteriorated somewhat, but I was able to avoid serious injury and had a great time. These days, now much wiser and less ignorant, I don't wear cotton clothing on the trail, I refrain from consuming alcoholic beverages on the tour and I still have a great time.
Lake-effect snows often hit the Tug Hill area east of Lake Ontario and the western Adirondacks but seldom reach the eastern Adirondacks, so the Pharaoh Lake Wilderness, located east of I-87 and Schroon Lake, generally depends on whatever snowstorms come through its way. Fortunately, there are some trails that one can ski when there is less than a foot of snow on the ground. The area features piney woods and many ponds as well as several small mountains. Only two of the mountains have marked trails to their summits - Pharaoh Mountain and Treadway Mountain - but many of the trail-less mountains have good views after easy bushwhacks which are probably best done on snowshoes rather than skis although advanced level skiers could manage with the help of climbing skins.
The trailhead is at the end of plowing on Crane Pond Road in the northwest section of the wilderness area. It is an easy 2-mile ski along an old dirt road to the scenic 1-mile-long pond and 6 inches of snow would be sufficient to make the trip on skis. Less than a mile into the trip, there is a photogenic, icy waterfall on Alder Creek that always tempts me to drop down for a closer look and, soon after, the 0.6-mile trail to Goose Pond is passed. After that you get some gentle hills and, at around 1.5 miles, you have a choice of continuing on the old road across a stretch that is flooded in other seasons or following trail markers through the woods around the north side of the flooded area, then picking up the road again on the other side. There are views of Pharaoh Mountain across Alder Pond before reaching the shore of Crane Pond near its outlet. Ski out onto the pond and you can make this into a 6- or 7-mile round-trip. Sunny campsites along the pond's north shore make for good lunch spots. There are good views of Pharaoh Mountain to the south, plus views of lesser peaks such as Bear Mountain which was ravaged by fire in September of 2015 to the northeast.
Intermediate skiers can continue across the outlet and ski 1.1 miles to Glidden Marsh then take a left on the trail to Oxshoe Pond which initially climbs steeply but soon reaches a lean-to at an attractive spot on the pond. Some winters ago, while relaxing at the lean-to, we were entertained by white-winged crossbills and pine grosbeaks that seemed unperturbed by our presence.
Pharaoh Lake is the third biggest lake in the Adirondacks that is totally surrounded by designated wilderness lands. The lake is most easily reached from the southwest and the trail to it can be skied when there is 10 inches of snow on the ground. From Beaver Pond Road, a good parking area with an outhouse is reached by driving a short distance on Pharaoh Road past some camps to the end of plowing.
Skiers continue on the relatively flat old dirt road for 1.1 miles to a crossing of Mill Brook. A little before Mill Brook, a newly-marked yellow ski trail heads east to Crab Pond (the southerly one of two Crab Ponds in the Pharaoh Lake Wilderness), a small but scenic wilderness pond that sits in a bowl-like setting surrounded by mountains that rise steeply up to 500 feet above the pond – this is a more challenging ski with undulating terrain. After skiing about 1.5 miles, the ski trail crosses the outlet of Crab Pond above a waterfall and soon reaches the north shore of the pond; the hiking trail forks right before the outlet and goes up and over a small hill then steeply down to a campsite near the end of a peninsula.
Back on the Pharaoh Lake Trail, after crossing Mill Brook, the route climbs gently for 1.3 miles to a bridge over Pharaoh Lake Brook – if you take a left before the bridge you will find a piney campsite with a great view across a vly to the cliffs on Pharaoh Mountain. After the bridge, it is another 1.2 miles to Pharaoh Lake. Trails continue around the lake but skiers will find it simpler to ski out onto the lake. From Watch Rock, near Lean-to #5, one of six lean-tos on the lake, the panoramic view takes in most of the 2-mile-long lake as well as Pharaoh and Treadway Mountains. The direct round-trip to and from Watch Rock is about 9 miles.
Berrymill Pond is in the eastern part of the wilderness area. At an elevation of around 1,700 feet, Berrymill is one of the higher elevation ponds in the area. The trailhead, at the end of Putts Pond Road, is near the boat launch on the east shore of Putnam Pond. The town plows the road to the Lost Pond trailhead regularly, the last mile to the pond, the state's responsibility, is sometimes not plowed - this could add 2 miles to a round-trip.
The trail, mostly on an old road, slowly gains close to 400 feet in 2 miles. At about the 1.5-mile mark, the trail detours to the right to avoid a beaver flow and crosses a stream on a narrow bridge, then the trail returns with some short but steep ups and downs back to the old road. After skiing 2 miles, at a junction, a right turn soon leads to a new lean-to with a lovely view of the pond's outlet bays and is near a waterfall on the outlet – to get a good look at the main part of the pond you may have to bushwhack a short distance. Evergreens, including white pine, balsam fir, and hemlock, dominate the area.
After the junction, the main trail is skiable south for at least another mile or two. The return to your car is mostly an enjoyable downhill run.