Alpha Guide: Skiing the Whiteface Auto Road

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A staple winter outing for cross-country and backcountry skiers in the Adirondacks, Whiteface’s Toll Road offers ease of access, a long route, and a large ascent, making it a great objective for those being introduced to backcountry skiing and for those looking to maintain their fitness for bigger objectives.

The Whiteface Veterans’ Memorial Highway is a five-mile stretch of paved road that ascends the opposite side of the mountain from the well-known ski resort. Every year, the Toll Road gates close for the winter season and re-open after all the snow melts in the spring, so winter access to the Toll Road is for non-motorized traffic only. This turns the five miles of eight-percent incline pavement into a long and flowing skiable trail.

As one advantage, the Toll Road doesn’t need much snow to be skiable. Because the base is smooth pavement instead of a rocky and lumpy trail, just a few inches of fluffy stuff transform the surface and make it one of the most reliable early-season ski tours. However, skiing to the top of Whiteface is only half the fun. From the end of the road, you have multiple options for descents, depending on conditions and ability.

NOTICE: There is work scheduled on the Whiteface summit elevator for the 2018/19 winter season. Because of this, the Toll Road will be plowed on weekdays. 

Quick Facts

Distance: 10.5 miles, out and back to the summit.
Time to Complete: Half-day for most
Difficulty: ★★
Scenery:★★★★


Season: November through April
Fees/Permits: None.
Contact: https://www.whiteface.com/activities/whiteface-veterans-memorial-highway

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Turn-By-Turn

From I-87 North, Take Exit 30 for 73W. Drive through Keene Valley and into Keene, bearing right onto 9N North. Take 9N into Jay and make a left onto 86, which will take you into Wilmington. At the main intersection of 86 and 431, follow 431 straight and up the hill to the toll house, following signs for the Whiteface Veterans’ Memorial Highway.

The parking area to ski the Toll Road is right at the Whiteface Memorial Highway toll booth (44.402276, -73.877192). In winter, the road is plowed up to this point. The toll booth will have its gate down and locked. Park to the side of the road, but be careful not to pull too far off the shoulder into the soft snow.

Credit: Aaron Courain
Credit: Aaron Courain

The Ascent

The Toll Road keeps a constant eight-percent grade for the entire 2,300 vertical feet, so the climbing begins immediately from the car and never lets off. Although the climb is consistent, however, it never feels steep. This lets you find a rhythm for efficient and consistent uphill skinning. It also helps those new to skinning get the basic motions down.

The road stretches and winds for a few miles. Along the way, the roadside picnic tables offer a few opportunities to take a break and enjoy the view. The higher you climb, the more the snow depth increases, and the trees become more and more buried. At 3.3 miles in, the road opens up to a northwest-facing view, with a picnic table. This spot also makes the base for the upper slides that run between the switchbacks (44.371359, -73.905634).

Credit: Aaron Courain
Credit: Aaron Courain

The Switchbacks

Here, you’ll spot the top of the mountain, so it might seem like you are just about finished, but you still have 1.7 miles of road and 700 feet of elevation to climb through the switchbacks. So, don’t get too excited yet. As you continue onto the switchbacks’ first turn—aptly names the Lake Placid Turn—you will find that the road opens up to a fantastic view of Lake Placid and the High Peaks. On a clear day, it’s easy to spend a lot of time here soaking in the sun and the views.

Past here, the road continues up, with a 0.8-mile stretch until the next switchback, which offers views of Lake Champlain, the Green Mountains, and beyond. Finishing the second switchback sends the road back west and into the final stretch to the Castle. This last section is just about at treeline, so expect high winds for the final stretch. The Castle (44.367348, -73.906213) is normally an operating cafe with warm drinks and food, but in the winter season, don’t expect to find any unlocked doors or hot meals waiting for you. As one benefit, it offers some shelter from the biting winds.

From the Castle, unclip your skis, and make the final ascent up the shoulder trail to Whiteface’s summit (44.365852, -73.903005). This section of the mountain is often windswept, so expect to find both bare ice or rock and deep snow drifts. Traction aids are highly recommended.

As is the case with any Adirondack summit, the top of Whiteface can offer spectacular 360-degree views on a clear day, or you could find yourself completely socked in with dense clouds. The summit may also be windswept and bitter cold; if you are trying to stay for more than just a few moments, the weather station, although locked, provides the only break from the biting winds. If you are fortunate enough to be up top on a clear day, the views of the surrounding High Peaks are crystal clear, and peering even farther to the east reveals the Green Mountains of Vermont and even New Hampshire’s Presidential Range beyond.

Lake Placid from the road. | Credit: Aaron Courain
Lake Placid from the road. | Credit: Aaron Courain

The Descent

Here is where skiers get more opportunities for backcountry fun. For skiers who are on Nordic setups or who are looking for a mellow descent, simply turn around and make your way back down the Toll Road. The mild pitch doesn’t make for fast skiing, but if you stay in your uphill skin track to build up momentum, you can shoot into the deeper snow to link a few turns before you slow down.

For backcountry skiers or snowboarders who are prepared and have the right abilities, and for when the conditions are good (having advanced avalanche knowledge is necessary), the top of the Whiteface Toll Road provides access to multiple slides. The previously mentioned slide that cuts through the Toll Road switchbacks is the obvious choice if you want to easily end up back at your car.

The slide begins at the top of the Toll Road near the Castle. However, entrance to the slide requires a careful hop over the stone wall into the snow. Be sure not to hop over at the wrong spot; otherwise, you will have a long fall. Once at the base of the Toll Road wall, clip or strap in, and make your way down the slide to the Toll Road’s first crossing. The slide’s upper portion is steeper than the lower portion, and may have an icy base obscured by a thin layer of snow.

When the slide reaches the Toll Road, cross and find a weakness in the trees on the other side of the road. The entrance to the slide’s lower half is steep, but it soon mellows out. Keep in mind that this section seems to collect snow more easily, due to having more vegetation and less wind exposure. When you get to the Toll Road again at the switchbacks’ bottom, you have reached the end of the slide. Now you can opt to head back up for another lap, or continue back to your car.


Credit: Aaron Courain
Credit: Aaron Courain

The Kit

  • Every backcountry adventure requires a place to stash your layers, food, and extra gear. The Osprey Kamber 32 Ski Pack has all the durability, volume, and accessories you need to hold your skis and equipment for whatever tour or winter adventure you find yourself in.
  • Proper layering is key to a happy day of ski touring. The EMS Feather Pack Hooded Jacket is a lightweight, packable, and very warm down jacket, which itself is a crucial component of any layering system. You will be happy to have the low weight on the uphill and the extreme warmth on the downhill.
  • While a simple pair of sunglasses suffices on Whiteface’s summit in the summertime, in the winter, you will want the added protection of a pair of ski goggles, like the Native Eyewear Spindrift. These goggles have a wide field of vision and offer an easily interchangeable lens system, which lets you choose the right lens color for the conditions ahead.
  • While countless skis are appropriate for skiing the Toll Road and more routes, the Fischer S-Bound 112 finds a happy place between a Nordic touring ski and a true backcountry ski. The waxless base with a scaled mid section allows for plenty of grip on the uphill, and for steeper tours, the ski is also compatible with climbing skins for when more traction is needed. The shaped cut with a 78mm waist provides plenty of float and turning ability for the downhill in all but the deep powder days.
  • Collapsible trekking poles often have an advantage in the backcountry over a solid ski pole. But, any pole needs to have a set of powder baskets at the bottom, or else, it will basically be useless in deep, fluffy snow.

Credit: Aaron Courain
Credit: Aaron Courain

Keys to the Trip

  • It’s always a good idea to check the ski conditions and recent snowfall before a day of backcountry skiing. Too little snow means scraping your skis up and down pavement for miles. After a big dumping of snow, however, the Toll Road’s mellow grade may require just as much effort to go downhill as it does for uphill. The NERFC provides plenty of snow forecasting and data, so that you can make informed decisions on the best time to ski.
  • If you are venturing into Adirondack slide skiing, avalanche safety and preparedness are a must. Unlike Tuckerman Ravine, the Adirondacks have no avalanche forecasting. Nonetheless, having the proper knowledge is crucial for a safe day of backcountry skiing. Thankfully, the EMS Schools offer avalanche training for those who want to venture into the snowy backcountry.
  • When you come back down from the summit, head right back down the hill into Wilmington to stop at Pourman’s Taphouse. They have delicious, warm food with plenty of beers on tap to get the creative juices flowing for planning your next trip.
  • There is work scheduled on the summit elevator for the 2018/19 winter season. Because of this, the Toll Road will be plowed on weekdays. However, if a Friday or weekend snow fills in the Toll Road for the weekend, then, it’s game on!

Credit: Aaron Courain
Credit: Aaron Courain

Current Conditions

Have you recently skied Whiteface’s Toll Road? What did you think? Post your experience in the comments for others!