Three reasons to visit Ausable Chasm in winter

The "Grand Canyon of the Adirondacks" is our oldest and largest natural attraction. It opened to the public in 1870, and now summer activities include rafting, hiking, and various canyon adventures. But that's not all.

In the winter, Ausable Chasm becomes another kind of adventure. The sandstone gorge grows multiple stories of frozen waterfalls. The Ausable River at the bottom forms skeins of frozen water and dark not-yet-frozen water. Bare trees become glass sculpture as they gather a layer of diamond-clear ice.

Magical winter stage dressing: conditions were just right to create an ice sculpture of this tree.

A friend and I came by to enjoy a winter walk in the chasm. This is a stellar photo opportunity.

There's stairs

One big, helpful, difference when it comes to winter hiking in the chasm is that the tricky climbs are all staircases, with railings. This gives us safe access to some outstanding views while not asking for any mountain climbing experience. Especially ice climbing.

As seen by the pristine snow on the walkways and stairs, we were making first tracks.

Carefully placed stairs connect the trails and catwalks, offering incredible views of the Chasm in action.

As seen below, we were issued microspikes to put over our boots. These traction aids are designed to dig into packable snow or hard ice and keep our feet from slipping. My friend is a great enthusiast of them; for me, it is my first attempt.

Fortunately, there's not much of a learning curve — these do not change our gait the way snowshoes do. They let our existing footwear dig in.

Microspikes are perfect for the kind of packable snow and narrow stair steps we are traversing today.

We will be doing the Rim Walk, the easiest trail, which is about two miles long.

We must always be cautious about mileage in winter. The length that is a quick stroll on a city sidewalk can be a longer trek when it is a summer forest trail. It will take even more time when we are walking on snow. Elevation, trail conditions, and weather all add challenges.

Ausable Chasm is an entire complex devoted to safely exploring the Chasm, with a number of routes of varying difficulty.

The unique geography of the chasm makes it a beautiful combination of river, forest, and waterfalls, and unlike many of the wonders deeper inland, these are much more accessible.

There's guides

We traveled with our Ausable Chasm guide, Shayne McCarty. He's a North Country native, long-time Chasm guide, and Adirondack recreational enthusiast. It was wonderful to have someone with so many stories about the chasm, knowledge of the trail, and the care to warn us when we are approaching steep or tricky areas.

Our guide (left) was knowledgeable and full of interesting stories, while my friend (right) is my go-to person for winter warmth tips.

It was a perfect day for a winter woods walk. The temperature hovered in the twenties, with little wind, and we had a nice overnight storm of deep, packable, snow. This is more likely down at sea level, here on the Adirondack Coast of Lake Champlain. The river below us ends up there. We are not high enough to get the very fluffy snow from the Alpine, low humidity, mountains, further west.

Our trek took three hours, but this included orientation at the Welcome Center, getting to the trail, and a side route along the bridge. Any visitor will want to walk the bridge for the famous view of the south end, and Rainbow Falls.

It also included the fact that I am a slow hiker compared to my companions.

This famous view includes the pumphouse and Rainbow Falls.

One of the services that Ausable Chasm offers is the ability to craft group outings like this one, tailored to different skill levels and time constraints.

Of course, the native people of the Adirondacks, the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, would have been the first to know about the chasm. The walls are 500 million years old, and got here first. The rock itself is Cambrian-Period Potsdam Sandstone, worn down by the Ausable River when the glaciers from Pleistocene Epoch ice age were melting, 10,000 years ago.

Supposedly, in 1760, a Major John Howe explored the chasm on ropes. He must have been quite the daredevil.

Perhaps the most famous formation, Elephant Head. There are several viewing platforms to see it from, but this one lets us understand the name, the best.

The trail alternates between wide paths through the forest and the catwalk system which gives us extraordinary views. In between there are stairs, which would not work with snowshoes.

It doesn't take long for me to feel the same affection for my microspikes as my friend does. Following her instructions to "set" them into the snow, with a firm downward step, I am making a bit like Spiderman as we use railings and stairs to move up and down the canyon walls.

Icicle action! This catwalk offers great views of the towering sandstone cliffs and the roaring river below. The line of white at middle right, where it looks like I can touch it with my hand, is an adventure bridge in the summer.

Every so often, we knock the snow out of the microspikes so they will retain their ability to "get a grip." They are just as useful on the flat, where they keep our feet from slipping backwards on the packed snow.

In summer these trails are marked by a deep woodchip layer, but in winter we are kept on the trail by our guide. Snow "layers up," creating what looks like a uniform surface, but may not be. Wandering off-trail could mean our foot suddenly sinking into a hole masked by the snowfall. Shayne is careful to keep us moving along the actual path.

There's gorgeousness

If I chose to include only my favorite pictures this blog would be four times as long - I must limit myself. Spectacular sights appear at every turn.

The sky is just overcast enough to evenly light the scenery for pictures with a lot more texture than we would get in bright sun. And since my friend forgot her sunglasses, it is also easy on the eyes. Snow can reflect a surprising amount of sunlight back at us, and precautions we are used to taking at the beach are not out of place on a sunny Adirondack day.

Rainbow Falls is a spectacular sight in any season.

Ausable Chasm is not the only attraction in the area. The town of Keeseville itself is a gem of period architecture, with its three Ausable River bridges, each one a different engineering approach. There's the classic stone masonry in compression, wrought iron in tension and compression, and steel in tension, like the Brooklyn Bridge.

The celebrated 'Keystone Arch Bridge' has been in continuous use since its construction in 1843, with a span of 110 feet. This is one of the oldest such bridges in the entire United States. It was built by master mason Soloman Townsend.

This aerial view of Keeseville shows how it was shaped by rivers and mountains.

Summer brings even more historical possibilities, with The Underground Railroad Museum being open summer through fall, sharing the same grounds. Find out all the interesting places in the township of Chesterfield.

Find a cozy place to stay. Fill up with our great dining. Find more ways to enjoy winter.


This week in related ADK winter stay 'n' play news:

5k snowshoe training - mimosa optional

Flocking to a rare bird

Show me some skin

Dog days of winter

Have sled, will travel

Blades of glory

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