Sunday, February 26, 2012

XC Skiing in Bear Swamp State Forest

I had to wait until almost the end of February, but I finally got a good day of skiing in during the "winter" of 2011-2012. It snowed about 4 inches in Cortland yesterday, which usually wouldn't be enough to get me excited, but given my desperate, snow-starved state, I figured it was worth heading up to Bear Swamp to check things out. I was pleasantly surprised and very happy I made the trip.

Bear Swamp State Forest is located on a heavily wooded plateau just to the west of the southern end of Skaneateles Lake. Topographically, the area consists of two broad north-south ridges, separated by the valley of Bear Swamp Creek. Covering this terrain is a 13-mile system of cross-country ski trails, plus some forest roads that serve as snowmobile trails in the winter. It is far enough north to catch a decent amount of lake effect snow and high enough (around 1800 feet) to hang on to it, so the snow conditions tend to be very good (in real winters, at least).

Bear Swamp ski trails (follow this link for larger PDF)

There are three trailheads serving three subsections of trails, all of which are interconnected: the Yellow trails in the southeastern section, Blue trails in the north, and Red trails in the west. I parked at the trailhead on Bear Swamp Road, the access point for the Yellow trails. Once on the snow, I was immediately surprised by the quality of the conditions. There must have been somewhat of a base underneath to cover up the wet spots, and the new snow was just enough to provide a packed powder surface. With the sun out and temperatures in the upper 20's, it was an ideal day for skiing- about freaking time!

I headed north on Y1 (Y = yellow; the DEC doesn't get too creative with trail names), took a left on Y7, and then a right on Y6. This trail goes north along the eastern edge of the plateau, offering views through the trees across one of the more impressive glacial valleys in the region and eventually of the southern tip of Skaneateles Lake. After about a mile, Y6 reaches Ridge Road, an unplowed forest road/snowmobile route. I am usually ambivalent at best about skiing on snowmobile trails, but today the glide was fantastic so I decided to give it a go.

Ridge Road runs along the edge of the plateau for several more miles before swinging west and intersecting Bear Swamp Road, forming a 9-mile loop. The skiing was flat and fast, though not particularly exciting, and the snow remained excellent, except for a few sections passing through open fields, where most of it was blown off. After cruising around most of the loop, I came to where Bear Swamp Road meets some more ski trails and decided to follow these rather than the road back to the trailhead.

Ridge Road - Bear Swamp Road loop

Near the junction of Bear Swamp and Hartnett Roads, I turned left on trail B3, which makes a gradual climb back up the ridge. Someone had made some nice powder turns on the way down, making the alpine skier in me jealous- I wouldn't be making any turns on my skinny sticks. At the top of the hill, I turned right on Y3, which winds through open woods with little ups and downs (mostly downs in the direction I was heading) before ending a short way from the trailhead.

All in all, it was an excellent day of skiing in an otherwise pathetic excuse for a winter. I wish I could say that this is when it really turned around, but temperatures are supposed to be back up in the 40's tomorrow. Good thing I never put away my trail running shoes.

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