At 4,857 feet, Whiteface Mountain is the fifth highest summit in New York. It might be the most famous one as well because it was host to the skiing events of the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics. It’s also Upstate New York’s largest ski area, and a road leads to its summit that is closed in winter. However, this snowshoe outing stays clear of the slopes and features a side trip to Esther Mountain (4,239 feet), another Adirondack 46er.
The Whiteface Memorial Highway is unplowed in winter, but the parking lot of the Atmospheric Science Research Center can be reached. This trailhead saves a few hundred feet of vertical ascent and 1 mile of distance. This shorter route does start with a strenuous ascent though, and it doesn’t stop until Marble Mountain, which offers nice views of the Wilmington valley and Whiteface.
The grade eases from Marble Mountain as the trail enters the forest once again. In winter the trees are buried in snow and the scenery is almost surreal. After Lookout Mountain the grade eases a bit more until the junction to Esther Mountain is reached. The trail to Esther is not maintained, but a sign indicates its starting point, the route it is so well traveled that it is hard to miss. In winter the trail is usually broken soon after snowfall.
The herdpath to Esther Mountain is easy and only slightly ascends toward the summit. There are few views in the warmer months, but the accumulation of snow allows for a decent view of Whiteface Mountain in winter. From Esther Mountain, backtrack to the junction.
From the junction, the grade is gentle until the trail meets the Whiteface Memorial Highway. Notice the great brick wall that holds the ground beneath the road. At that point the trail becomes steeper and exposed as it reaches the summit ridge. The views south and southeast are more frequent in this section of alpine vegetation.
The summit of Whiteface Mountain is reached soon after. The road is closed in winter, so the summit is quiet. In the other months, however, it gets crowded, which may alter the experience for some. There is also a castle, now a visitor center, on the summit. It was built with the stone extracted to build the Memorial Highway. An elevator connects the parking lot and the summit area. All of this is closed in winter.
Whether you like the architecture or feel that it affects the experience, it’s not going anywhere. In winter, the snow, ice and wind come together to give it a unique polar look and feel.
This is an out-and-back hike. Some will ski down the road when it is closed to motor traffic. The road can also be used to hike down and make this outing a loop, but it is not as nice as using the trail.
Winter backcountry adventures can be dangerous outdoor activities that pose significant risks as conditions affecting safety (i.e. weather, snowpack stability, avalanche hazard) are constantly changing. Prior to engaging in these activities each individual should get the proper training to make safe decisions and be equipped to use avalanche safety resources and tools. Please visit our Backcountry Skiing and Avalanche Safety post to learn more.