Winter Backpacking: Elk Pen to Tiorati Circle

CampingMeg next to a rare to a trail sign showing mileages. This sign is a rare luxury for Harriman.
CampingMeg next to a rare to a trail sign showing mileages.

In the summer of 2013, three of my sisters and I spent a week hiking the New Jersey section of the Appalachian Trail.  We took it slow, averaging just under 10 miles per day.  Though the weather was hot and the bugs were biting, we had a great time.  We decided that one of our goals over the next few years would be to hike the New York section, even if we had to do it weekend-by-weekend.  My sister CampingMeg and I finally put ourselves to the task of some winter backpacking over Thanksgiving weekend in 2014. We planned for several weeks, and then it snowed. A lot.

The Plan

Our plan was to hike from the Elk Pen in Southfields, NY to the Bear Mountain Bridge, covering 18 miles and traversing Harriman and Bear Mountain State Parks.  We would begin our hike mid-morning on the Friday after Thanksgiving, then hike 4 miles to Fingerboard Shelter and spend the night.  Saturday we would hike 8 miles to West Mountain Shelter, and then finish the last 6 miles to Bear Mountain Bridge on Sunday.  Our parents agreed to drop us off on Friday and pick us up on Sunday.  We gave them a copy of the map, highlighting our route and indicating several “bail out” locations.

thanksgiving hike
Our Route from Elks Pen to Bear Mountain State Park

 Day 1: Snow.

On Wednesday and Thursday of Thanksgiving week the New York/New Jersey area was treated to an early snow storm.  We accumulated 3-4 inches at home, but the snow at Harriman State Park was at least 6-8 inches deep.  We evaluated the situation and decided we were ready to go.  Despite having planned ahead, we had a bit of a late start after scrambling to pack up a few last-minute items.  We left home at about 10:30 AM and arrived at the trail-head around 11:30.  We enjoyed some pumpkin pie and drank hot chocolate while we strapped on our gaiters and micro-spikes.  We hit the trail at about noon.


CampingMeg and I at the Elks Pen.
CampingMeg and I at the Elks Pen.

We started off walking across the Elk Pen, a clearing cut for a heard of Elk imported from Yellowstone in 1919.  After the quick walk across this snowy meadow, we entered the woods and began a thousand foot ascent.  The terrain was fairly steep, but we moved very slowly across the snow.  Walking wasn’t very difficult, but navigating was.  The trail itself was impossible to see, and the white blazes of the AT were very difficult to make out, as all the trees had patches of snow on them.  There was a set of footprints from a pair of hikers that had gone ahead of us, but they moved this way and that in a confusing way that made us question trusting them.  After a while the prints and blazes began to match and we picked up speed.

Whomever decided to blaze the AT in white wasn't thinking about winter.
Whomever decided to blaze the AT in white wasn’t thinking about winter.

There was a terrific view from the top of the first hill, with Island Pond in the foreground beneath several sets of ridges rising to the east.  We were moving along at a good pace and I neglected to take a picture here.  One of the things we noticed about hiking on the snowy hills with our micro-spikes is that it was somewhat easier than in summer.  Rocky trails that would normally require careful footwork were smooth over by packed snow that our toe-spikes made quick work of.

As we descended, the sound of the New York Thruway finally began to fade away and we were truly immersed in a winter wonderland.  I had never been to Island Pond before, but was told by many that it was beautiful in the summer.  I would highly recommend to anyone to take some time and visit this fairly remote lake in the winter.  We reached the bottom of the hill and the trail joined a woods road which rounded the northern end of the lake, then crossed an old paved road leading to a small beach.  We stopped here to take pictures and munch on trail mix.

CampingMeg by Island Pond.
CampingMeg by Island Pond.

After a short break, we continued around the lake and across its drainage.  The drainage had been worked into a stone-walled canal at some point, and there was evidence of structures  on each side.  After a short ways, we departed the woods road and began moving away from the lake.  We passed the two hikers we were following: a father and son on their way to Bald Rocks Shelter.  We continued along now on fresh powder until we crossed the Arden-Surebridge Trail, then entered the Lemon Squeeze, a well-known rock formation with narrow walls and a bit of a scramble.

lemon squeeze

After squeezing through the rocks and scrambling up a steep wall, we had to take a break.  Up until this point I had been wearing fleece glove liners, which were now wet from contact with the snow.  We each dug out our mittens and some chemical hand warmers and were on our way.

The next section of trail was steeper than expected, and a bit trickier to follow.  We worked our way up a thinly wooded hill, then back down into a valley.  This valley was dark, silent, and filled snow that had blown off the surrounding hills.  We continued to pick our way slowly from blaze to blaze until we came to the crossing of the New York Long Path, marked with another sign with mileages.  While pondering the sign, we were approached by a trail runner who had been hopping along in barely more than sneakers and a t-shirt.  After a moment he moved off.  We now had footprints to follow again.

CampingMeg adjusts the waste strap on her Gossamer Gear Gorilla.
CampingMeg adjusts the waste strap on her Gossamer Gear Gorilla.


The last leg of the first day took us up the side of Fingerboard Mountain.  By this time, we were both starting to get tired from plugging away through the deep snow at the bottom of the valley, and CampingMeg had another problem: her boot had broken open and her sock was getting wet.  After navigating through thick rhododendron, we arrived at Fingerboard Shelter with the sun low in the sky.  We met a group on snow shoes who were just leaving the shelter as we moved in.

The first order of business was to get warmed up.  We changed our gloves and socks, put on some additional layers, and started a small fire while boiling water for hot chocolate on the stove.  After setting up camp in the shelter, we cooked dinner and then enjoyed a second round of hot chocolate.

CampingMeg with hot chocolate at Fingerboard Shelter.
CampingMeg with hot chocolate at Fingerboard Shelter.


While eating, we discussed what to do about CampingMeg’s broken boot, and decided it best to call for extraction the next day.  I had some McNetts Soul Grip and plenty of duct tape, but it was too cold for an effective repair job.  We consulted our maps and chose a pre-designated bail-out point at Tiorati Circle, just 1.5 miles further down the trail. Service was spotty, so we each sent text messages to our parents with instructions.  By 5:30 PM it was completely dark and there was nothing left to do, so we settled into our sleeping bags for a long night.

weather station
The Brunton ADC Summit weather station tracks the temperature for the last 24 hours.


Day 2: Extraction

The sun woke us on day 2 at about 7 AM .  It had been a long night, but we were both warm and comfortable in our sleeping bags.  I checked my weather station, which had recorded an overnight low of 15 degrees Fahrenheit.  We had each kept one water bottle in our sleeping bags to keep from freezing, but our other bottles were now rock solid.  This wasn’t a big deal, as we had been melting snow for water since arriving at the shelter anyway.  My sister’s wet boot, however, was completely frozen and I needed to crack it in order for her to slide her foot in.

Our water bottles had frozen, so we thawed them by double boiling.
Our water bottles had frozen, so we thawed them by double boiling.

We packed up while cooking our oatmeal, had another round of coffee, and then hit the trail.  The sun was up, and it felt much warmer than the previous day.  Hiking along Fingerboard Ridge was easy, especially in the trail of yesterdays friends in snowshoes.  By the time we arrived at Tiorati Circle we almost wanted to keep going, but we knew that broken boot wasn’t going to handle another 14 miles, and our parents were already waiting.

Strapping on my crampons.
Strapping on my micro-spikes.

Lessons Learned for Winter Backpacking:

  • Leave on time:  Although we arrived at the shelter before dark, it would have been nice to have a little more sunlight for finding firewood.
  • Inspect Equipment:  Had I known my sister’s boot was in such bad shape ahead of time, I would have insisted on another pair or another plan.
  • Don’t get wet: The one time I was truly uncomfortable is when my hands got wet in the Lemon Squeeze.
  • Have a back-up plan: I always let someone know where I’m going and where I might need to be picked up.  It paid off this time.

For a breakdown of the gear used on this trip, check out my Winter Backpacking Gear List.