This is part one of a two-part series of in-depth updates on the status of BETA’s efforts to preserve and enhance access to the Jackrabbit Ski Trail - the Adirondack Park’s only town-to-town ski touring route connecting Keene, Lake Placid, Saranac Lake and Paul Smiths. Part one is focused on efforts to establish a new parking area and trailhead on the Keene end of the trail. For a general update on the entire trail, see our recent “State of the Jackrabbit” report.
The “Old Mountain Road” section of the Jackrabbit Ski Trail is an ultra-classic backcountry tour for Adirondack skiers, traversing a beautiful mountain pass in the Sentinel Range Wilderness which straddles the towns of Keene and North Elba. Old Mountain Road is one of the oldest historic routes in the Adirondacks that is still in use today, dating back to the first half of the 18th century. The famed abolitionist John Brown frequently traveled the road, and once nearly perished in a blizzard attempting to hike through deep snow to his home in North Elba (guess that makes him the original post-holer).
The route had been neglected for some time when the Adirondack Ski Touring Council was formed in 1986 to build the Jackrabbit Ski Trail. ASTC began its trail building efforts with the reopening of the Old Mountain Road in 1986-87, and the organization invested significant resources and volunteer time in subsequent years to improve and maintain the route for skiing and other uses. From 1989 to 1994 four new bridges and a dozen culverts were installed. Major floods in 1995 and 1996 required many trail repairs (including the blasting of two boulders that slid into Chimney Hill). A massive clean-up effort followed the great ice storm of January, 1998, which brought down about 400 trees on the Old Mountain Road section.
More recently, BETA worked with the Town of Keene and the Ausable River Association to complete a series of stream restoration projects along the Old Mountain Road. The project replaced aging culverts with bridges to restore the natural stream flow for small tributaries entering Nichols Brook, and was funded in part by a grant from the Patagonia Action Fund, secured with assistance from the Mountaineer Keene Valley.
This section of the Jackrabbit route has served as a crucial year-round access point to the Sentinel Range Wilderness area, but not just for skiers. Rock climbers frequent the Barkeater Cliff and ice climbers flock to the routes on the North Face of Pitchoff in winter. Hikers look to the Old Mountain Road for a gentle grade and beautiful views of Nichols Brook, beaver ponds and hardwood forests. The road is used by local hunters during big game season, when limited ATV access is allowed on the Keene side for residents with a permit.
A decade-long legal battle over the abandonment status of the road was settled in 2018, and jurisdiction over Old Mountain Road was returned to the towns of Keene and North Elba. The towns quickly affirmed that the historic recreational use of the road would not change despite the court’s decision. The NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, which previously managed the road as part of the Sentinel Range Wilderness, said at the time:
“After reviewing the March 2018 decision, DEC determined that we would not pursue an appeal, rather we will continue working with local partners to achieve an appropriate resolution of this issue without further litigation. The State and DEC are committed to working with the town to determine appropriate future uses of the Old Mountain Road.”
BETA too is committed to working with the DEC and Town of Keene to determine “future uses of the Old Mountain Road”. Local volunteer trail adopters and staff from ASTC and now BETA have consistently performed seasonal trail maintenance on the road for nearly 40 years, ensuring a quality, safe experience for all users and helping to preserve access to surrounding state Forest Preserve lands.
Since at least 2017, there have been growing issues with the current trailhead parking lot on Alstead Hill Road. While a portion of the parking lot is within the town’s right-of-way for Old Mountain Road, much of the lot is located on private property. The limited parking area routinely fills up with trail users on busy weekends, leaving no space for Rock & River customers. Ed and Teresa Palen - the owners of Rock & River - have routinely plowed another parking lot in the field below their house in the winter months, at their own expense, to accommodate the numbers of people seeking access to the trail and the wilderness area. On occasion the parking lot situation is exacerbated by people trying to enter private lodges and the residence to use bathrooms, ignoring clear signage.
“With the increased numbers of outdoor users heading to our area, the current situation in which we plow, post and oversee the parking at the trailhead is simply not sustainable for much longer here on the Jackrabbit Trail,” said Ed Palen.
BETA has been assisting the Town and the Palens with a plan for a new public parking lot and an adjoining new “bypass trail” - both designed to move the Old Mountain Road trailhead away from the private residence and lodging buildings. The new parking lot will be located on Rock & River’s property about 200 yards down the road from the current location. Local engineering firm AES Northeast donated design services for the parking lot, and the project was permitted by the Adirondack Park Agency in January, 2023.
In 2020 the NYSDEC adopted the final unit management plan (UMP) for the Sentinel Range Wilderness Area (SRWA), which included approval for a new bypass trail to alleviate the situation. The UMP states:
Rock & River Bypass - Allow a possible reroute of the Jackrabbit Trail off Alstead Hill Lane, near the western end of that road. This option for a trail may be needed to address concerns of public use impacting private property. The new trail may enter the SRWA from private property at Nichols Brook, parallel Nichols Brook in the SRWA for about 0.3 miles, then cross Nichols Brook again on to the private property, and back to the Jackrabbit Trail.
In 2021 (and again in 2022), BETA submitted information to NYSDEC detailing the route for the trail on the Wilderness side of Nichols Brook and connections back to the private land, as identified in the UMP, including three sites for the necessary bridges (see map). Since two of the bridges would span Nichols Brook, with one end of each bridge on private land and the other on state land, we requested assistance with permitting and implementing the project. We’ve received no update from the Department since the fall of 2021.
The reason for this delay? We wish we had an answer. Recent court decisions have surely complicated the process of cutting trees to establish approved non-motorized foot, mountain bike and cross country ski trails in the Forest Preserve. But the amount of tree cutting for this project is “immaterial and insubstantial” and well below the legal standards established by the courts, and should not be a factor here. The bridge construction presents some challenges for sure, but bridges are constructed all the time on state lands and this should not be a barrier for implementing the trail project either.
BETA designed the trail with the character of a foot trail to minimize tree cutting. The route takes advantage of a naturally open hardwood forest. The new section of bypass trail would require the removal of just 17 trees - only 2 of which are between 3” and 4” diameter at breast height (DBH). The remaining trees are all less than 3”, comprising 7 striped maple, 2 sugar maple, 2 balsam and 4 beech saplings.
The trail location is not a pristine, remote area deep in the wilderness and the project will not have an undue impact on the wild forest character of the surrounding Forest Preserve. In fact the trail passes through an old homestead, probably built around a century ago, with signs of human habitation still visible, including the remains of a stone cellar and an old logging dam along Nichols Brook.
It is frustrating that this project is approved in the state’s plan for the wilderness area and provides a reasonable and pragmatic solution to address issues on the ground, but the DEC is not taking action, even as considerable effort has already been devoted to planning. When there exists a willing landowner that has offered to donate a piece of their land, affording the creation of a permanent parking lot and access point to the state Forest Preserve and a popular trail heavily utilized by locals and visitors, action needs to be taken.
“With the many parking areas that are currently held in private hands, combined with the increase in visitors to the area, I feel that a "new model" for dealing with trail access needs to be developed," said Joe Pete Wilson, Keene Supervisor. "This approach would rely on the entities involved - administrative (APA and DEC), trail stewards (BETA), local government (Keene) and of course the landowner, to work together to reach a tenable solution - a win, win for all parties. And what better place to start than with the very popular Jackrabbit Ski Trail!"
This opportunity may not exist in the future, especially if the ownership situation were to someday change. The closing of several access points to local, popular hiking trails in recent years due to increased visitor usage illustrates the potential consequences of not responding to this opportunity. We urge the NYSDEC to engage with the landowners, the Town of Keene, and Barkeater Trails Alliance on this matter without further delay.
-Josh Wilson, Executive Director