By Phil Brown
The Clintonville Pine Barrens is a quiet spot. Most of the people who hike here live a short drive away in communities such as Ausable Forks, Keeseville, and Plattsburgh. Occasionally, the barrens attract hikers from farther afield. Commenting in the trail register, a visitor from Toronto described them last year as “a dream place.”
One reason the pine barrens don’t see more traffic is that they’re not well known. You won’t find them in the Adirondack Mountain Club guidebooks, and the inconspicuous trailhead lies off a back road in the town of Black Brook.
Another reason may be that the trail is so short: a 1.1-mile loop over flat terrain that can be hiked in well under an hour. That’s fine if you’re in the neighborhood, but I suspect few people will drive a long distance just to see the pine barrens. To increase the ratio of hiking to driving miles, you need to throw in one or two other short excursions in the vicinity.
In early April, I did three hikes in Black Brook that added up to only five miles. Despite the relatively little effort expended, I got to see a variety of interesting habitat: the pine barrens, a boreal bog, pine bluffs overlooking a lake, and a mountain summit with a grand view. After visiting the barrens, a preserve owned by the Adirondack Nature Conservancy, I drove to Silver Lake Bog, another conservancy property, and then capped off the day with a climb of Silver Lake Mountain.
Clintonville Pine Barrens
Pitch pines are more common on Long Island than in the Adirondacks, but the scrappy trees abound in this nine-hundred-acre preserve located a few miles northeast of Ausable Forks. Here, as on Long Island, they grow in sandy soil that most trees find inhospitable. Periodic fires also discourage other trees from encroaching. Pitch pines depend on fire: the heat opens their cones, releasing seeds, and afterward the fire-scarred trees can sprout needles from buds beneath thick bark.
In Forests and Trees of the Adirondack High Peaks Region, Ed Ketchledge describes the pitch pine as “a relatively small tree generally too scraggly to be economically important.” Does this mean the barrens support an old-growth forest? Connie Prickett, spokeswoman for the Nature Conservancy, calls that a stretch, but she said the tract is one of the best examples of an intact pitch pine-heath community in the state—which is why the organization began buying it up in 1992. Two rare moths, the pinion and Acadian swordgrass, dwell in the barrens.
Even a layman can readily see that pitch pines differ from our majestic white pines, a more common (and much larger) species in the Adirondacks. They are skinnier and shorter, not the stuff for ships’ masts, and their cones are spherical, not elongated. But if you want to be sure you’re observing a pitch pine, examine the needles: they grow in clusters of three, whereas the needles of white pine come in clusters of five and those of red pine come in clusters of two.
The hike begins on an old woods road above a small valley. In 0.1 miles, the road forks. Be sure to bear left here. Ambling along the sandy road, I was struck by the openness of the understory. It consists largely of moss and low-growing shrubs, including blueberry bushes. According to a Nature Conservancy leaflet, locals used to set fires in the barrens to foster the growth of blueberries. They were sold at a general store in Keene for ten cents a quart. People still come here in summer to pick blueberries.
I also spotted oak leaves on the ground—a reminder that the barrens lie on the edge of the Champlain Valley. Although oaks rarely grow in the interior of the Adirondack Park, they can be found on the periphery.
At 0.6 miles, I arrived at a junction with another woods road near a stand of young hardwoods, probably aspen (since their leaves hadn’t sprouted, I couldn’t be sure), that had colonized a clearing. Obeying the conservancy signs, I turned left and almost immediately afterward took another left. Walking along a narrow path, I noticed blackened bark on trees that had survived a fire. A bit later I flushed a pair of ruffed grouse. Soon I came to another junction and realized I had made a loop. Bearing right, I had less than a quarter-mile to go to return to the trailhead.
Although I did my hike in the first week of April, the barrens were already surprisingly green. Those who visit later in the year may be lucky enough to see wildflowers in bloom, such as sheep laurel and pipsissewa.
Silver Lake Bog
Although Silver Lake Bog lies just on the other side of the town, it’s a different world: instead of dry, sandy habitat, you find yourself walking through a wetland populated by black spruce, tamarack, northern white cedar, balsam fir, and fifteen species of sphagnum moss. The bog also is home to a number of boreal bird species, including black-backed woodpecker, boreal chickadee, and olive-sided flycatcher.
You don’t have to worry about getting your feet wet: the conservancy built a half-mile boardwalk to enable visitors to enjoy the bog without trampling the fragile vegetation. Benches along the way invite you to rest and absorb the sounds of nature.
Typical wetland plants growing in the bog include Labrador tea, pitcher plants, bog cranberry, and creeping snowberry, a vine that spreads over the moss. In July, the vines produce white berries with a strong mint flavor, according to Gary Lee, a retired forest ranger who has birded here.
The Silver Lake Bog Preserve actually offers two hikes in one. After reaching the end of the boardwalk, you can take a trail through hardwood forest to pine bluffs overlooking Silver Lake. The habitat transition is instantaneous. After gaining a few feet in elevation, you are surrounded by hardwoods instead of evergreens.
The trail rises slightly, descends to a bridge over a stream, and then climbs gradually to the bluffs. In all, it gains 185 feet in elevation in 0.6 miles. Once you reach the bluffs, you can scramble down and to the left to ledges with open views of the lake as well as mountains near and far. The more conspicuous peaks include Silver Lake Mountain, Catamount, and Whiteface. The round-trip hike from the parking area to the bluffs is 2.2 miles.
Silver Lake Mountain
If my experience is any guide, people must be more interested in obtaining views than in observing nature. Although I saw no one on my walks in the Nature Conservancy preserves, I ran into several hikers during my ascent of Silver Lake Mountain. At 2,374 feet, it is one of those small peaks with a big reward.
Marked by red disks, the trail gains 895 feet over 0.9 miles, with varying degrees of steepness. At the start, the trail ascends moderately through a hardwood forest. At 0.3 miles, it crosses exposed bedrock with a view through trees of Taylor Pond and Catamount—the first of several views along the route. The trail stays on bedrock for a while, then enters a pine forest. At times, the going is steep and rocky.
At 0.8 miles, you reach a gorgeous vista that includes three large water bodies—Taylor Pond, Silver Lake, and Union Falls Reservoir—and many mountains, including Whiteface, Catamount, Moose, Jay, and, on the eastern horizon, the Green Mountains of Vermont. The summit is just a few minutes away, where you can enjoy equally inspiring views.
From the summit, a herd path continues along the ridge of Silver Lake Mountain. Since I didn’t follow it, I can’t say how far it goes, but the ridge of Silver Lake Mountain and adjacent Potter Mountain extends a few miles beyond the end of the hiking trail. Although the Silver Lake summit is on state land, Lyme Timber owns most of these mountains. The state purchased conservation easements on the Lyme land in 2004. Consequently, the land is open to the public for recreation. In recent years, rock climbers have been putting up first ascents on the mountains’ many cliffs. The easements prohibit subdivision and development. That’s nice to know as you gaze upon the landscape below.
DIRECTIONS: From the blinking light on Route 9 in Ausable Forks, drive northeast on North Main Street for 0.2 miles to a four-way stop. Continue straight, now on Golf Course Road. After 1.7 miles, at the intersection with Dry Bridge Road, the road bends sharply to the right. Bear right and go 0.5 miles to Buck Hill Road on the left. Go down Buck Hill Road for 0.5 miles. The trailhead and a small parking area for Clintonville Pine Barrens will be on the left.
To get to Silver Lake Bog, return to the four-way stop in Ausable Forks and turn right onto Silver Lake Road. Take Silver Lake Road 12 miles to Union Falls Road (passing the trailhead for Silver Lake Mountain at 11.1 miles). Bear left and go 1.1 miles to Hawkeye Road on the left. Follow this dirt road 0.3 miles to the trailhead on the right.
To get to Silver Lake Mountain, return to Silver Lake Road and go 0.9 miles to the trailhead on the left.
Here are five other preserves owned by the Adirondack Nature Conservancy.
Visitors are not allowed to camp or hunt. Pets, motorized vehicles, and removal of plants are also prohibited.
Everton Falls. Provides access to a ten-mile flatwater stretch of the East Branch of the St. Regis River. The put-in is just above Everton Falls. The preserve also has a one-mile nature trail. Parking for the put-in and trail is along Red Tavern Road, about seven miles east of St. Regis Falls.
Coon Mountain. Small peak with wonderful views of the Champlain Valley. A one-mile trail leads to the rocky summit. The trailhead is on Halds Road, three quarters of mile from Lakeshore Road, which runs between Westport and Essex.
Spring Pond Bog. Contains the state’s second-largest peatland. The bog and adjacent forest provide habitat for more than 130 species of boreal birds. An interpretive trail follows a glacial esker on the edge of the bog, and a boardwalk extends into the wetland. Located off a gated road north of Tupper Lake. Contact the Adirondack Nature Conservancy for a pass.
Big Simons Pond Preserve. A five-acre island on the east end of Big Simons Pond (which USGS maps call Simon Pond) south of the village of Tupper Lake. Also known as Pilot Point, the island offers views of Mount Morris and Buck Mountain. It is open for day use.
Gadway Sandstone Pavement Barrens. A rare community of jack pine, shrubs, moss, and lichen. A half-mile trail loops through the barrens. The preserve is located north of the Adirondack Park. The trailhead is on Gadway Road west of the village of Mooers.
For more information on the preserves, call the conservancy at 518-576-2082 or visit nature.org/adirondacks.