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Backpacking the Cranberry Lake 50 Trail in the Adirondacks

Dan Human has backpacked the Cranberry Lake 50 trail two times and has ventured on shorter hikes throughout the Five Ponds Wilderness.

The CL50, a 50-Mile Loop Trail in the Adirondacks

Blue "CL50" disks are posted along the length of the trail.

Blue "CL50" disks are posted along the length of the trail.

The Cranberry Lake 50 Trail (or "CL50") in the northwestern Adirondacks makes a circuit around the intricately shaped and beautifully captivating Cranberry Lake. On the southern end of the loop, the trail ventures into the rugged Five Ponds Wilderness area, then parallels the winding Oswegatchie River.

The trail's terrain is gentle compared to the sheer vertical nature of the High Peaks; it is pieced together from old jeep trails, portage routes, established trails (like the High Falls Loop), and some new trail work. This trail proves that you don't need to climb mountains to get a wilderness experience, as there is plenty to be found here.

On a couple of scorching hot days in July 2010, I completed the 54 miles of hiking in 36 hours with a light pack and a quick night's sleep at Cow Horn Pond.

On my hike, I didn't see any other hikers! I heard people talking across one of the ponds, and saw a tent set up at High Falls, but that was it. Sure, I saw people as I wandered through Wanakena and cruised through the town of Cranberry Lake, but none of them were on the trail. On this hike, I saw three times more animals than I usually see during a High Peaks hike: bear, deer, grouse, turkeys, woodcock, squirrels, chipmunks, and a porcupine.

Of course when you look to see who CL50's Number One is, it's wilderness advocate Bob Marshall (also one of the first 46ers). It is no wonder that this area has been proposed to become the "Bob Marshall Great Wilderness Area."

As a loop trail, the CL50 is perfect for solo and carpooling backpackers. The CL50 offers freedom: you decide where you want to park, which direction you want to go, and even whether you are going to do the three-mile road walk down Route 3. As a purist (aka stubborn person), I did the road walk, but I guess you don't have to do it to get your patch.

Even though I did the trail in one night, many hikers take five days or so to complete the journey and take all the side trips they want. Camping spots are plentiful, and water never seems to be a problem. I've suggested this route to many Boy Scout troops and Venturing crews looking for a moderately paced 50+ mile backpacking trip.

The CL50 Circumnavigates Cranberry Lake

Maps of the CL50

As any Adirondack hiker will tell you, sometimes it can be difficult to find the correct trail. As a High Peaks backpacker, having experienced several instances of bewildered meandering myself, I often give directions to lost hikers. The CL50 breaks with that rustic tradition, and is both well maintained and thoroughly signed, with well-placed sky-blue markers.

Though because it is a new trail, maps and guides depicting the route are rare, there are some outstanding resources including a trail map and brochure on Five Ponds Partners' CL50 website. On this trip, I used the ADK's Northern Region topo map and Garmin Mapsource on my MAP60CSX GPS. For those of you looking for something multipurpose, I picked up a bandana with a map of the CL50 at the Wanakena general store (this place stocks Gatorade and snacks too). Whatever you use, please make sure you always carry some sort of map and compass and know how to use them.

Black Bear (Stage Left)

The glade moments after I spotted a bear, I wasn't quick enough with my camera.

The glade moments after I spotted a bear, I wasn't quick enough with my camera.

Only an hour from the Cranberry Lake Wild Forest Trailhead, I turned the corner to see the sun's rays shining through this glade. Among the ferns, an adult black bear sat on its haunches feeding on berries. When you see a bear, your life pauses as your emotions fluctuate between euphoria and anxiety. I paused too long in wonderment, grasping for the camera in my chest harness while keeping a curious eye on the startled bruin. As I pulled the camera from its protective freezer bag, I raised it to position while simultaneously switching on the power. But by the time the LCD screen flashed ready, the bear had retreated to the comfortable darkness of the forest. The bear ran quickly, bounding over logs in pure eerie silence.

I marveled in amazement at how such a large creature can move without making a tremendous racket. Likewise, as any camper or hunter will tell you, I am amazed at how large a chipmunk sounds when playing among the leaves. Indeed, many a novice hunter has switched position in their stand to examine the racket of squirrels only to spook the noiseless deer behind them.

Yet, I've seen bears crashing through the woods with the fury of a tropical storm, when they want to. It is a performance set forth by this player of the north woods, and we are but gullible theatergoers entranced by the intricacies of a grand playwright.

Cranberry Lake

A good portion of the trail follows the shore of Cranberry Lake, with good water, plenty of views, and many camping spots.

A good portion of the trail follows the shore of Cranberry Lake, with good water, plenty of views, and many camping spots.

Beaver Flooding in the Five Ponds Wilderness

The ecology of the Five Ponds Wilderness and much of the CL50 is dominated by nature's engineer: the beaver. Growing up as a canoeist, I have experienced the beaver's ability to form dams in the most inopportune of places, usually in your intended direction of travel. However, after a quick shove and a few scrapes along the bottom hull, you were usually over the obstruction. Other times it took a little skill in wading and faith that the animal-built structure would hold your weight.

I never really encountered beaver flooding while backpacking until a trip around the High Falls Loop (the majority of which is now designated as CL50) many years ago. I remember being okay with ankle-deep water, then calf-deep water, but the chest-deep water made me think of my Army days.

Teeming with life, beaver ponds are a common and ever-changing sight on the CL50.

Teeming with life, beaver ponds are a common and ever-changing sight on the CL50.

On this trip, the deepest and most prevalent beaver flooding I found was in the section between High Falls and High Rock, both on the Oswegatchie. However, thanks to many marked detours, the deepest water was only calf-deep with most of it only providing moisture under my feet.

I wore lightweight Keen voyageurs on this trip; though they are not waterproof, they dry very quickly. If you are overly concerned with wet feet, you may want to bring a pair of wading sandals or—ughh—crocs. I admit that on spring trips, I usually have my bright red crocs hanging off of my pack for stream fording. Though I feel like a dork when I wear them, they are very light and grab slimy stream beds well.

The Oswegatchie River from High Rock.

The Oswegatchie River from High Rock.

Lightweight Hammock Camping

Though hammock systems are generally heavier than tarp/ground shelter systems, they offer extreme comfort for the weary backpacker. The hammock shelter I used on the CL50 consisted of a Grand Trunk Nano 7 (6 ounces), an ENO slap-strap pro suspension (8 ounces—heavy, I know), and an Equinox sil-nylon 6X8 tarp (9 ounces). I used Kelty trip-tease cord for guy lines and replaced the Grand Trunk carabiners with lighter models from Mammut. To save weight, I left my net at home, but I treated my hammock with permethrin and slept with my headnet. I weathered the night with only a few bug bites.

Though hammocks are usually a tad heavier than ground sleeping systems, they are quite comfy.

Though hammocks are usually a tad heavier than ground sleeping systems, they are quite comfy.

A Packing List of Lightweight Gear

So what should you bring on a thru-hike of the CL50? I would say that depends on the type of backpacker you are, the time you are taking to enjoy the trail, and the season.

In an attempt to get closer to the earth, I am a lightweight backpacker. I forsake the trappings of comfort and convenience because to me it adds to my experience. Also, a light pack helps me move quickly with less effort when covering big miles. For ultralight backpacking tips, check out Lightweight Backpacking Gear List and Tips for Lightening Your Load.

For this hike, my gear weight was just under seven pounds (without food and water); with food and water, my pack weighed about 12 pounds. This is a copy of my gear list for this hike.

  • Pack: Macpac Amp Race 40
  • Bag: The North Face Elephant's Foot 3/4 Sleeping Bag
  • Shelter: Equinox silnylon tarp
  • Hammock: Grand Trunk Nano, ENO Slap Strap Pro
  • Poles: Leki Super Makalu
  • Headlamp: Petzl E+Lite
  • Knife: Cold Steel Para Edge
  • Compass: Silva Explorer
  • Fire: Brunton Firestorm Lighter and firestarters
  • First Aid Kit: Homemade
  • Water purification: Potable Aqua
  • GPS: Garmin Map 60 CSX
All my gear fit nicely in my ultralight pack.

All my gear fit nicely in my ultralight pack.

Additional Items

  • Map
  • Deep Woods Off
  • Whistle
  • 2 wide-mouth Nalgenes
  • Bear bag with food and haul rope
  • UST titanium Esbit stove
  • MSR Titan pot
  • Light my Fire titanium spoon
  • The North Face t-shirt (worn)
  • EMS Techwick boxers (one pair worn, one pair carried)
  • EMS convertible Supplex pants (worn)
  • Smartwool PHD hiking socks (one pair worn, one pair carried)
  • Keen Voyageurs (worn)
  • Columbia hat (worn)
  • Polartec Powerdry long-sleeve baselayer top (carried)
  • Gore-tex Paclite jacket (carried)
  • OR Verglas gaiters (worn)
  • Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil dry bag

CL50 Log of Doom

The Log of Doom

The "Log of Doom" is infamous in CL50 circles for its wobbly and narrow nature over a beaver pond. You'll encounter this bridge between Cat Mountain and High Falls, though it really isn't much of a bridge. It is in fact a fallen tree that luckily fell in the right place and has has the top cleaved off for a more level tread.

So, what is the big deal with this log? First, it is a very long span to cross and one one misstep will leave you wading in a beaver pond with wet gear. Several hikers have mistakenly taken the plunge into the turbid water. Generally, any way you hike, this is about half-way through your hike and having wet gear can be a literal damper on your experience.

That said, I've conquered the log several times and neither I or my companions have fell victim to its rage. Here are my tips for tackling the log:

  • Look for bushwhack routes around the pond. When a route around an obstacle is found, it is generally marked with flagging tape.
  • Use two trekking poles at their longest length to steady yourself.
  • Unbuckle your pack's hip belt to ditch your pack in a hurry.
  • Waterproof all you gear.
  • Consider bringing rope to make a temporary handrail.

Climbing Cat Mountain

The cliffs of Cat Mountain overlook the Five Ponds Wilderness

The cliffs of Cat Mountain overlook the Five Ponds Wilderness

Yes, I've climbed higher and grander mountains than 2261' Cat Mountain, but for the effort it is one of the best views in the Adirondacks. I've been up on this mountain three times, and each time the views were breathtaking, especially in the winter. From its rocky precipice, one can survey the tangle of boundless forest you've just ventured through and look forward to the days ahead.

You'll reach the clearly marked Cat Mountain trail off of the Cowhorn Junction Trail, and it is surely worth the side trip while doing the CL50. Though you can drop your pack at the base, I found the trail easy enough to summit even with a load. As always, if you do drop your pack, secure your food so a curious animal doesn't chew through your satchel.

After following the 0.6-mile trail, including a bit of a scramble near the top, you will reach the summit of Cat Mountain. Look for the cement bases on the summit; they are the remains of the fire tower that once stood here. Take time at this place, explore the cliffs, and marvel at the wonder of the world during a delicious pause on this mountain.

Questions & Answers

Question: During your backpacking trip to Cranberry Lake, you say water was plentiful. Does that mean that there were many different fill stations or there was always a stream?

Answer: Along the CL50 the only faucet-type fill stations you'll find will be at the town bathroom in Wanakena and inside the village of Cranberry Lake. For the rest of the trip, you'll have to fill and filter water out of streams, ponds or the lake. Luckily you'll pass by these natural water sources very often so you don't need to plan too carefully and I never had a dearth of water on any of my hikes there.

Question: I've heard there is a "log of doom" in the Adirondacks, but I'm not sure where. My best guess is south of Wanakena. I want to bring my dog for a complete hike this summer. He is a water wimp. Is there a way around that section?

Answer: You'll find it between Cat Mountain and High Falls. It really isn't too bad, though. I heard a rumor on the Facebook group not long ago that a route was bushwacked around that particular pond. The wettest areas you'll find are between High Falls and High Rock.

Question: Is there camping on Cat Mountain? Is there any space in the woods up top or is it just the exposed ledge?

Answer: If I remember right, there is a small clearing in the woods near the summit of the mountain where people have pitched a tent. I'd probably camp down at Cat Mountain Pond though as there was a nice site with plentiful water.

Question: Do you know the approximate distance from Lows Lake to Cat Mountain? Have you ever hiked from the lake to the mountain?

Answer: It is just under five miles between the west end of Lows Lake and Cat Mountain. I've hiked all but the middle portion of that route between Big Deer Pond and Cowhorn Pond.