Cranberry Lake 50
Nestled quietly in the most remote portion of the Adirondack mountains, the Cranberry Lake 50 is a quiet, unassuming trail with plenty of hidden joys. Circling it’s namesake lake, the trail showcases some of the most undisturbed portions of Northeastern forests remaining in the region, along with flora, fauna, and small trail towns along the way.
I hiked the trail with my old hiking partner Jake in June of 2022.
The Cranberry Lake 50 is a wonderful trail for beginners – with a few caveats. With relatively little elevation gain, easy navigation, and well-placed camping areas, I’d recommend this for new backpackers.
Logistics are fairly straightforward. The trail has ample public parking, highlighted on the official site. The map is also available online or at local shops and is worth picking up for its detailed locations of available camping and lean-to sites.
The trail is wet in spring and summer months, with humid, rainy weather combining with heavy beaver activity to flood many portions and complicating travel. I’d hike this in the fall if possible. Additionally, black flies and deer flies are a severe nuisance until July, so hikers should consider both heavy repellent and deer fly patches for their hats – these really work. Finally, heavy beaver activity in the area makes a good water filter mandatory.
Day 1 - Gilbert Tract Trailhead to Curtis Pond - 11 Miles
We began our hike around noon on a warm, clear Sunday at the Gilbert Tract trailhead. Located just outside of the small town of Cranberry Lake, we reviewed our map, signed the trail register, and began our walk.
The first few miles of the trail consisted of gentle rolling hills, puncheon walkways, and brief glimpses of the main lake. After a short walk upwards, the trail turns south on the Burntbridge Pond trail towards Hedgehog Mountain.
After a quick lunch near Brandy Brook Flow, we passed west of Hedgehog Mountain on the densely wooded shelf above the shore. We quickly came upon the signs for Curtis Pond, making much better time on our first day than we anticipated.
The area above Curtis Pond – our first campsite – was absolutely stunning and frankly didn’t feel like an East Coast site. Lined with imposing pines, the water was glassy and clean, and we set up camp early in order to take advantage of the beautiful weather and lounge around for a few hours. Jake tried out his collapsible fishing pole and I sat quietly and watched the clouds roll by against the cerulean sky.
Day 2 - Curtis Pond to Olmstead Pond - 13 Miles
We awoke on day two to the roaring splash of loons taking off from the lake as the sun rose. The loons were our first taste of the diverse wildlife that the CL50 has to offer, including grouse, owls, herons, beavers, whitetail, voles & moles, and more. Surely, the remote nature of the trail makes it a much busier spot for animal activity.
After a cold breakfast we got moving again. Day two began along the Dog Pond Trail, passing by about a dozen ponds and lakes dammed up by beavers. This morning also gave us our last real elevation change on the trail, gradually climbing up an old logging road as the trail sharply turned to the West.
The forest along the Otter Brook trail began to reveal its human history; old lanterns and appliances suggest that the site was used half a century ago as a remote dumping site.
A few more miles of logging road gave way to Chair Rock Flow and West Flow, both picturesque breaches of the woodland by the main lake. Jake and I stopped at the first flow for fresh water and to have a quick bite.
Finally reaching the edges of Olmstead Pond, we got our first taste of this trail’s water problem. Beaver damming, mixed with the regular rains, pushed the edges of the pond far over the trail. I stowed my camera for most of the wet walk, but grabbed a pic of one of the flooded trail crossings.
The half mile past this flood was just as bad – six inches of thick mud made movement slow and messy. Finally, around the bend of the lake we made our way to the Olmstead shelter. Although already occupied, Jake and I set up tents in flat spots nearer to the lake, prepped dinner, and hung out by the fire with a hiker couple & their trail dog at the shelter.
That night, the still water on the lake echoed with the thunderous crashing of fallen trees, felled by restless beavers.
Day 3 - Olmstead Pond to High Falls shelter - 10 Miles
Day three began with grey clouds and a light drizzle, the start of the rainy portion of our trip. With only ten miles on the trail, we took a late start and began moving southwards.
This stretch of the trail, along Six Mile Creek, was the mossiest and greeniest stretch by a long shot. The forest here is old and deep, some of it never having been forested. The entire area along Cranberry Lake was settled only around 1900 as a logging area, and later as a locus for the NY Forest Ranger school’s headquarters.
About halfway to High Falls, a small spur trail leads to the Cowhorn Pond shelter, a clean, well-appointed shelter set above the isolated pond. The trail continues along the top of a wooded ridge, before dropping down and passing around Cat Mountain Pond and Glasby Pond, the latter of which we stopped at for lunch.
After a few more miles, we neared High Falls, passing entire forests swallowed by moss and derelict logging machinery.
We arrived at the shelter just as the rain began to pour down. Nestled above it’s namesake, the High Falls shelter is used not just for backpackers, but for paddlers along the Oswegatchie River. We had the site to ourselves, and tucked in away from the rain for a hot supper.
Day 4 - High Falls shelter to West Inlet Shelter - 13 Miles
Our fourth day on the trail brought us some excitement – trail towns! But before dipping into civilization, we had to pass through about 8 miles of deep forests and marshes, as well as the wettest portion of the trail.
A major part of our reason to hike the CL50 clockwise was to place the most flood-prone sections of the trail in the latter half, and we quickly realized that was the right decision on day four. Along the High Falls Loop Trail, beaver activity had flooded most of the marshy areas of the trail. Combined with the recent rains, much of the trail was under six inches of water or more. Doing our best to walk atop the beaver dams, we ultimately resigned ourselves to wet shoes and passed as quickly as we could through the murky marshes.
With the marshes came insects. Although we thankfully missed black fly season by a few weeks, the deerflies were out in force, and hungry. The hikers we met back at the Olmstead shelter gave us a few deerfly strips to attach to our hats & packs, which came in huge handy here. Jake collected several dozen deerflies on his hat by the end of the day.
After the marshes, the trail becomes and old logging road and begins a slow downward track towards the village of Wanakena.
The village of Wanakena is a perfect little trail town. Just after the small footbridge, a public space with gazebo and tables provided us with a great place to dry our gear out and relax. Across the street, Otto’s Abode is *the* place to stop for a quick bite, a cold beer, and some unique art. A blend of community center, old-fashioned general store, and public art space, it is a must-see for hikers of the CL50.
The trail passes right through the middle of town, making a right on Ranger School road and passing Blackwaters Cafe and Trading Post, the only spot in town for a hot meal. Jake and I stopped in for a sandwich and pint, and chatted with the friendly proprietor about the history and future of the awesome little trail village.
Outside of Blackwaters we dried our gear a bit more and hung out with the local mallard duck family that called this area their home.
The trail continues with a roadwalk northeast past the SUNY ESF Ranger School. Founded in 1912, the school train’s New York’s Forest Rangers as well as offers training in education in forestry and environmental science. Just past the school, the trail dips onto a mixed-used cross-country ski trail, which we followed until the loop which brought us to our shelter.
The West Inlet Shelter was my favorite of the entire trail. Dry, quiet, and picturesque, it was a great place to spend our final night. Jake and I gathered wood, built a fire in the ring, and relaxed as the sun dropped over the lake.
Day 5 - West Inlet Shelter to Gilbert Tract - 8 Miles
Day five – our last day! We were excited to wrap up the CL50, and had a pretty straightforward eight miles left.
The remainder of the Peavine Swamp Trail was messy to say the least. Downed trees and huge muddy sections slowed us down more than we’d have liked. The trail then gives way to the West Connector Trail, a new section that runs through scrubby fields, power line thru-ways, and forgotten mountaintop roads.
The trail lets out in the town of Cranberry Lake, perhaps a bit larger than Wakakena but not quite as charming. They do have a nice bridge that’s been converted into a pedestrian crossing with benches and planters. The remainder of the trail was a two mile roadwalk back to the Gilbert Tract parking area.
That was it!
The Cranberry Lake 50 was a fun, picturesque trail without too much rigor. It’s easy to do in four or five days, diverse, and quiet – although I expect its popularity will grow. The little village of Wanakena was a fabulous highlight of the trip, as well.
The season and weather do matter, though. If I were to hike this again, I’d go in fall when the weather is drier and the deerflies are quiet. That said, I have no regrets! Go hike it!