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March 22, 2008

Winter on the Red Sandstone Trail

Red Sandstone Trail Reconnaissance, January, 2008

John Omohundro on the Red Sandstone Trail, the Sugar Island dam below. Photo: John Barron

An attractive outdoor asset in the Potsdam area is the Red Sandstone Trail, which follows the west bank of the Raquette River from Hannawa Falls to Sugar Island. Use of the land is by courtesy of the Brookfield Power Corporation, and maintenance of the trail is carried out on a volunteer basis by community groups, led by the Laurentian Chapter of the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK). The trail is open to the public and accessible in all seasons, and each change in season brings a considerable change in the look and feel of the trail. In spring, easy nature walks are popular. In the heat of summer, canoeists and kayakers make their way along the river between the dams and can enjoy riverside picnic areas on the trail. The cool days of fall bring hikers and trail runners. Winter brings other pleasures, and on a cold but sunny morning in early January, ADK maintenance organizer John Omohundro of Hannawa Falls brought along a couple of Chapter snowshoers for one of his periodic reconnaissance trips, to see the southern half of the trail for ourselves.

Our route started at the north access near the Sugar Island power station, where a steel bridge crosses the penstock. The parking lot is reached from the Back Hannawa Road across from Sweeney Road. We left the less rugged Sugar Island part of the trail, which lies northward, downstream, of this trailhead for another day, and walked upstream along a narrow road leading toward the Sugar Island dam, with occasional glimpses of the powerful flow through the river bed below the dam. At the crest of the first hill we donned our snowshoes and made a steep ascent of 150 feet or so through deep, soft powder snow to join the main trail. This part of the trail is very open, and as we skirted a precipitous drop to the river on our left we could admire a very impressive view of the dam below, along with the ice and snow covered stretch of tamed river known as the Sugar Island Flow.

The trail entered the woods and began to descend, gently at first, then steeply to the banks of the Flow. The trees that had now closed in on us were heavily laden with glistening powder snow, and it behooved us to knock it off with a ski pole to avoid a cold deluge over our heads and down our necks. We continued over rough terrain, eventually arriving at a gully where last fall’s maintenance crews had installed a bridge. Crossing the bridge now was an adventure: we carefully crossed in the center, taking care to beat down the four-foot-deep powder snow onto the bridge deck, while torrents of snow kept pouring over the sides into the gully. On the far side, a short but very steep climb awaited, made more challenging by extremely deep snow. We took it slowly, and used our snowshoes to gain good traction until we reached the top.

From then on the trail grew easier. It dropped back to near the river and leveled out. Soon we reached one of the trail’s notable historic sites, the Parmeter sandstone quarry. One of several quarries in the area that produced the famous Potsdam sandstone used in distinctive architectural masterpieces from New York City to Ottawa, Ontario, this is the only one that still remains in production. We had been expecting to find the quarry completely buried under deep snow, and while that was indeed the case, enough warm-looking red stone peeped through beneath the evergreen forest ringing the cliff tops to remind one of us of a winter scene at Cedar Breaks National Monument in Utah.

From the quarry to the trail’s southern end at Hannawa Falls the path was easy to follow. On our left was a steep drop-off to the Raquette far below. The Hannawa Falls power station is another historic landmark along this stretch. It took less than half an hour to cover the distance from the quarry to Hannawa Falls, even though we were taking time to appreciate the scenic highpoints. From Hannawa Falls we used a second car to go back to the northern trailhead and retrieve our other vehicle; doing this took very little time.

All in all, it was a most enjoyable couple of hours. Anyone who appreciates historically significant semi-wilderness will find it a rewarding experience. The northern trailhead is at the end of a short gravel road leading east toward the river near where Sweeney Road meets the Back Hannawa Road. The southern trailhead is across the street from the Hannawa Falls fire station. Both trailheads are clearly signposted. If you’ve questions about the trail, don’t hesitate to contact John Omohundro, at 265-8365.

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