The Cranberry Lake 50: A Serene 50-Mile Loop in the Western Adirondacks
The Cranberry Lake 50, as its name implies, circumnavigates 50 miles around Cranberry Lake. The route mostly utilizes already existing trail, creating a continuous loop around the lake. Along the way, the route skirts the shores of frequent backcountry ponds as well as the namesake lake and the banks of the Oswegatchie River. When not traveling along the shores of body of water, the route passes through miles of tranquil forests. The route travels through the Cranberry Lake Wild Forest on the northern stretches of the route. The southern end travels through the remote Five Ponds Wilderness, which consists of over 100,000 acres of designated wilderness.
Cranberry Lake 50 Quick Facts
Length: 50 miles
Location: Western Adirondacks south of the town of Cranberry Lake, around the lake of the same name. The route passes through the Cranberry Lake Wild Forest and the vast Five Ponds Wilderness.
Trail Type: Loop
Scenery: Numerous backcountry ponds scattered across the landscape, as well as the much larger Cranberry Lake. Mixed forests dominate the scenery throughout the hike. Bogs frequently dot the terrain as well.
Approximate Time to Hike: While three days is common, many enjoy a casual four or five days on the loop.
The Cranberry Lake 50 travels through lowland forests. While the elevation does fluctuate, the changes tend to be gradual, with subtle climbs and descents never more than 200-300 vertical feet. Portions of the loop follow ancient logging roads that allow for fast travel on smooth terrain. Other stretches traverse rougher terrain with root-covered footing. Bogs are not unusual, making way for occasional wet sections, especially during rainy spells or times of beaver activity.
The towns of Cranberry Lake and Wanakena provide multiple trailheads to access the loop. From Cranberry Lake, the most common trailhead begins at the Gilbert Tract trailhead located about a mile east of Cranberry Lake on Route 3, here.
Wanakena sits about nine miles from the town of Cranberry Lake and offers several trailheads that can best be found on the map here.
Guide and Maps
Five Ponds Partners maintains a website providing necessary information for planning a trip on the Cranberry Lake 50 here, with a map and brochure here. They also offer a waterproof, color version of the map available at local stores as noted on their website or by mail here. Trails Illustrated Map 745: Old Forge/Oswegatchie also features most of the trail with mileage.
The route, which consists of numerous trails linked together, features numerous markings. Red, yellow, and blue discs are all used by New York Department of Environmental Conservation depending on the trail. A blue “50” disc also marks the loop. Junctions are well signed with sign boards frequently located at trailheads.
Why Hike This Trail
The Cranberry Lake 50 was created for the purpose of giving hikers a way to experience the forests and wilderness around Cranberry Lake. Hiking the Cranberry Lake 50 gives backpackers an opportunity for more casual trip in the Adirondacks. The 50-mile distance can be completed by most in a long weekend. The loop offers a relaxing backpacking experience with frequent backcountry ponds, vast forests, and countless campsites on relatively gentle terrain. While experienced backpackers can finish the loop in an overnight trip, the waterside campsites invite you to take your time and spend an extra night or two in the peaceful surrounding.
Cranberry Lake 50 Highlights
Backcountry Ponds: The loop passes more than a half dozen ponds, not including frequent jaunts along the much larger Cranberry Lake and Oswegatchie River. Most of the ponds offer official campsites along their shores. Loons reside on many of these ponds and serenade hikers with their wail.
Cat Mountain: Despite its modest 2,270-foot elevation, Cat Mountain features an open summit that takes in much of the southern portion of the Cranberry Lake 50 and beyond. Reaching the summit requires a 1.4-mile round trip spur off the main loop that is well worth it and the best view along the route.
High Falls: Accessed by a short spur from the main loop, High Falls features a turbulent plunge on the otherwise placid Oswegatchie River. The falls also offer multiple lean-tos and camping sites.
High Rock: High Rock is nothing more than an outcropping along the Oswegatchie River. The view from High Rock gives a good look at the river’s twisting course and vast marshes.
Five Ponds Wilderness: At over 100,000 acres, the Ponds Wilderness covers an extensive area of true wilderness. While the southern portion of the Cranberry Lake 50 travels through this wilderness, an extensive trail system travels beyond the loop for further exploration. Despite a few relics from logging long ago, the Five Ponds Wilderness offers a real wilderness feeling.
Which Direction Should You Hike?
Clockwise seems to be the preferred direction. Recent beaver activity in the past couple of years leaves flooded dams that are difficult to avoid. Starting in Wanakena and hiking clockwise leaves the beaver damage until the end of the loop and less time hiking with potentially saturated shoes. Otherwise, mellow terrain allows for either direction with no other advantages.
The weather in the Adirondacks is temperamental at best. Long, harsh winters shorten the hiking season dramatically. Despite snow-free trails by May, rain and mud often make travel unforgiving in most years. Mud season ends just in time for insect season.
Summer brings warm temperatures, typically in the 70s during the day with comfortable nights in the 50s. The period beyond Labor Day offers some of the best conditions. Cool days in the 60s are common through September. Fall foliage peaks by late September. Most years, the weather should accommodate travel through October when temperatures are routinely in the 50s during the day and the 30s at night.
Winter tends to be unforgiving, with large snowfalls and brutal cold in the Adirondacks, and a thru-hike of the loop should be avoided.
Rain is commonplace in the Adirondacks. Average temperatures can drop significantly on rainy days. Extended days of rain aren’t unusual. Checking the forecast is strongly recommend before heading into the woods for multiple days in this region.
Water Treatment: Although this may seem to be common sense, the water sources around the loop experience extensive beaver activity. Nearly every water source seems to pass through a bog or feature a beaver dam. Even those less inclined to use treatment should carry something to treat water on this loop.
Rain Gear: As noted above in the weather section, the Adirondacks see frequent rain and a dry forecast isn’t always dependable. Be prepared for the possibility of wet weather.
Bug Protection: Biting insects thrive in the Adirondacks. The watery environs of the Cranberry Lake 50 are no exception. Expect black flies by late May, followed by mosquitoes. In wetter-than-average summers, mosquitoes will persist through the season. In the heat of summer, deer flies tend to be relentless. Spray is mandatory during early summer and a headnet is strongly advised for sanity. Long sleeves and pant aren’t a bad idea either.
Footwear: Beaver activity occasionally floods trails. Traversing the flooded sections is unavoidable, especially early in the season. Expect wet feet and take precautions to address wet feet. An extra pair of socks or camp shoes for crossing flooded trail sections is advisable. Find a wet weather foot system that works for you to avoid problems associated with wet feet.
Official tentsites frequent the loop as well as a handful of lean-tos as indicated on the map here. An official campsite never seems to be more than a few miles away. Nearly every body of water along the loop features an official site with prime views over the water. Most official sites offer a privy as well. Camping is also permitted anywhere along the trail not on private land as long as following the rules here.
The trail seldom travels more than a couple miles without passing by water. Sources vary, from the large Cranberry Lake, ponds, streams, bogs, and the Oswegatchie River. Water treatment is highly recommended due to high beaver activity along much of the loop. Potable water can be obtained in the towns of Cranberry Lake and Wanakena, which the loop passes through.
Although not necessary on a hike of only 50 miles, the route passes small stores and eating establishments in the towns of Wanakena and Cranberry Lake. Both towns offer a post office as well.
Despite the lack of impressive mountains, the Cranberry Lake 50 gives hikers pleasant forest scenery in a remote part of the Adirondacks. Cranberry Lake, frequent small ponds, and the Oswegatchie River all beckon backpackers to stop and enjoy nature. Every waterside campsite invites backpackers to spend the night listening to water lap on the shore and maybe listen to the resident loons. Even though mileage drifts by quickly, it’s easy to stop and take in the forest serenity in this quiet corner of the Adirondacks.
Here is a list of resources for trip planning.
Cranberry Lake 50 Facebook Group: Offers current trail conditions and place to ask finishers of the loop questions.
Five Ponds Partners: The official Cranberry Lake 50 website with maps and detailed information.
Backpacking the Cranberry Lake 50: The author’s firsthand account hiking the trail.
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