Winter on Poke-O-Moonshine

It’s winter. The snow is here. The hot cocoa is warm. The outside world is a beautiful, frosty snowscape. You have on, like, 5 layers of sweaters. Yeah, sometimes it’s cold, snowy, and staying inside with Netflix seems like a much better option. Honestly, I’m right there with you. I’m not writing this from a mountain summit; I’m actually sitting at my computer under a blanket. I can assure you, though, that venturing outdoors is a proven way to improve your mood, your physical health, and can help reduce that pesky winter stress.

Having hiked a lot in my life, I can definitively say that climbing mountains in winter can be intimidating, but entirely worthwhile, if you’re prepared. One of my favorite climbs in the Lake Champlain Region is Poke-O-Moonshine Mountain. So, when you’re ready to shed the blankets and don the snowshoes, I invite you to join me for a hike that may just leave you feeling all warm and fuzzy inside.

A self-portrait photo of a woman with long blonde hair in the cab of a fire tower on a mountain summit.

From slippers to snowshoes

Before I even begin a winter hike, before I even get in my car to drive to the trailhead, I make sure that I am fully prepared with everything I could possibly need. Here are some things I always bring with me on winter hikes:

  • Snowshoes and/or microspikes, depending on snow depth
  • Waterproof pants
  • Extra wool socks
  • Insulated boots
  • Non-cotton base layers, and other layers to either put on or take off
  • A puffy jacket to wear on the summit
  • Lots of water! Yes, it is possible to get dehydrated in winter. Your body uses more energy to walk through snow. Be sure you have lots of liquids.
  • Energy boosting snacks
  • Map and compass
  • Headlamp with extra batteries
  • Emergency first aid kit

Up, up, and away!

A wide angle looking down into a valley from a rocky mountain cliff.

Poke-O-Moonshine, or “Poke-O” as many affectionately call it, rises an impressive 2,170-feet and looms over the Northway. There are two official trails leading to the summit. Today, I chose the “Ranger Trail.” The other trail up, the “Observer’s Trail” is only 0.1-miles longer, but it’s route is less steep, which might be more attractive to some hikers. I am a glutton for punishment, and after a few days of binging on ice cream and pizza, I thought I’d try the Ranger Trail. It’s steeper, but stone steps (although now buried in snow) and a trail reroute make it enjoyable. Plus, there are a lot of interesting rock features and formations that I knew could distract me while I catch my breath.

The Ranger Trail begins at the closed campground on Route 9. (Don’t worry - parking is available.) It wasn’t long after I left the parking lot that I began climbing up. Soon, the rocks got cooler and the views opened up. I was at the first lookout within half a mile. There are a few lookouts along the way, each one opening up the view a little more. The going is steep, but it’s pretty! Soon the grade got a little less steep. From past hikes, I knew I was approaching the saddle just south of the summit.

A wooden leanto in a snowy forest clearing.

But before my final push to the top, I wanted to take a minute to explore the remains of the old Observer’s cabin. Just below the summit, the trails converge and hikers are deposited where the old fire tower observer’s cabin was located. A tall chimney still stands today, and a lean-to has taken the place of the cabin. Anyone up for some winter camping?

The stone chimney that remains of an old mountainside cabin.

From here, the trail climbs more, passes another lookout, and traverses open woods before arriving at the fire tower and summit.

The views from the rocks at the summit are phenomenal, but for 360-degree views, you have to climb the tower. (Keep in mind, it’s not necessary to climb the tower if you are completing the Adirondack Fire Tower Challenge.) In winter, the cab of the tower is not open; in summer, a steward is stationed here to educate hikers and open the cab. One note before you climb the tower: please remove microspikes or snowshoes. The Friends of Poke-O-Moonshine, a volunteer group, have worked very hard to restore this tower and the traction you use for grip on the trail damages the wooden stairs.

Looking up at a summit fire tower with bare trees all around.

Looking down at Lake Champlain, across to Vermont, and over to other Adirondack peaks is an incredible experience, especially in winter. 

There are other cool fire towers?

Of course there are! Poke-O was just one fire tower in a vast network across New York State. You can still visit many of them today. If a winter hike up Poke-O seems a bit too much for you right now, fear not! The always enjoyable, much more mellow Belfry Mountain provides excellent views of the Champlain Valley and the High Peaks. (The trail is so gentle it’s almost like walking on a road, and it’s only 0.3-miles long.)

A winter view from Belfry, with snowy High Peaks in the distance.
The winter view from Belfry Mountain Fire Tower.

Wherever your winter adventures take you in the Lake Champlain Region, from lakeside searches for Champ to mountain summits, be sure to leave time for a great meal! If you’re into more relaxed, curated experiences, head the opposite direction! Instead of climbing up, climb DOWN into the gorge at Ausable Chasm for an otherworldly adventure. There really is no limit to the winter fun you can have here in the Lake Champlain Region. Happy hiking!

A Quiet Chasm with Big Views
Beating the Winter Blues in the Ticonderoga Area