By Tom Woodman
Gazing on OK Slip Falls as the waters plunge 250 feet into the gorge at our feet, it’s easy to give in to a rush of impressions. This cataract, the tallest in the Adirondack Park, has true grandeur and raw power. But it also displays surprising subtlety. The falling torrent divides into bands of white foam and darker water, moving in undulating patterns before crashing onto the boulders below.
For the visitors in our group, there is a sense of excitement. We’re a vanguard for a public that has long been unable to view this wonder. Until this year it has been hidden on private property. Located amid woodlands near the Hudson River Gorge, OK Slip Falls is now part of the publicly owned Forest Preserve and will soon be accessible by a new hiking trail. It’s one of the premier destinations in the former Finch, Pruyn & Company lands recently purchased by New York State from the Adirondack Chapter of the Nature Conservancy.
Conservancy Director Mike Carr remembers people’s awe as he took them on flights over this land.
“People were in tears it was so beautiful,” he said in a later interview. “They saw the vastness of the landscape and then the jewels that are embedded in it, OK Slip Falls and Blue Ledge. They are hidden gems that are about to be discovered, and that’s so exciting.”
The new state lands designated as the OK Slip Falls Tract legally became open to the public when the governor signed the purchase in April. But the Department of Environmental Conservation is discouraging public use until it can establish trails and parking areas to accommodate visitors.
“It’s pretty open forest. It shouldn’t take long to cut a trail,” said Martin.
Martin didn’t provide many hints about where trails in this tract will run. He did say that a new trail to the falls would probably be designed for skiing and snowshoeing as well as hiking.
One or more trails to other attractions in the 2,800-acre tract will probably take longer, according to Martin. One likely destination is the top of Blue Ledge, a distinctive marble cliff rising three hundred feet above the Hudson at the entrance to the Hudson Gorge.
Blue Ledge provides a view north toward the High Peaks and looks down on the river as it flows through steepening banks. Hikers have been able to view the ledge from across the river by hiking a trail from the North Woods Club Road. But this will be the first time the view from above will be accessible to the public. The route to the ledge and whether a trail will follow the rim of the ledge overlooking the river are still unknown.
“This area is full of rare vegetation,” said Martin. “We need to take care with public use.”
Ecologist Jerry Jenkins surveyed the property for the Nature Conservancy. Among other rarities, he found that more than one-third of the ninety-six mosses growing at Blue Ledge are uncommon or rare and one-third of the sixty-nine mosses and liverworts at the falls are also uncommon or rare.
“It’s the most biologically diverse site in the entire Finch, Pruyn purchase,” said Carr.
Protecting such biological riches was one of the top priorities for the conservancy as it decided whether to purchase the Finch, Pruyn lands. The other was the potential for public recreation. The trick is to accomplish both goals at the same time.
“Well-designed trails, not those just converted from bushwhacks, can mitigate impact,” Carr said.
In addition to the falls and Blue Ledge, the tract includes several ponds that could be locations for wilderness campsites.
The largest pond within the tract, though, will remain the private property of the Northern Frontier Camp, a church-affiliated summer camp for boys. The camp owns 168 acres surrounding OK Slip Pond, including all the shoreline and the pond itself. The camp will also retain right of way on the dirt road leading to the pond from Route 28. This gated roadway can become busy with vehicle traffic, especially on weekend days when departing campers are leaving and new ones are arriving. To keep hikers separated from the vehicles, DEC plans to route hiking trails away from the road, Martin says.
The OK Slip Falls Tract is part of a larger purchase of former Finch, Pruyn lands from the Adirondack chapter of the Nature Conservancy. Covering 21,200 acres, the purchase includes lands on either side of the Hudson River as it flows from south of Newcomb to the Hudson Gorge; a region encompassing the Essex Chain Lakes; and an area at the confluence of the Indian and Hudson rivers.
This land is itself part of a sixty-nine-thousand-acre-purchase from the conservancy that the state plans to complete over the next four years. All told, it’s the largest addition to the Adirondack Forest Preserve in more than a century.
To get a feel for the experience that awaits the public, a small group of reporters joined folks from the conservancy and DEC for a hike to OK Slip Falls in late May. Because DEC had yet to map the new trail, our walk was not the same as what hikers will soon experience. We drove a mile up the camp’s access road, then hiked a mile through airy woods to the falls. We started off on a well-defined but unmarked path and ended up bushwhacking the final stretch to the steep headlands overlooking the falls and gorge. These woods were last logged in 1969, and the mixed forest includes stands of mature trees and open understory.
At the first of two established overlooks, we needed to be careful. Rocks were glazed with moisture and the gorge opened up at our feet, dropping steeply to its wooded floor. The Northern Frontier Camp had strung clothesline between trees at a safe pace or two from the brink, but our DEC companions removed it—a symbolic transition from private ownership to the untrammeled-by-man principles of wilderness.
While the APA is considering how to classify the newly acquired lands, there is little doubt that the OK Slip Falls Tract will be classified Wilderness along with the surrounding Hudson Gorge Primitive Area. The State Land Master Plan long anticipated that these lands would become Wilderness if the state were to acquire the private holdings.
The view of the falls from the outlook is at a sideways angle, looking west. OK Slip Brook appears from beneath the woods and first drops what looks like ten feet or so to a ledge, then launches in freefall to a heap of broken rock at the base. As water streams in from side channels near the top, and as the cascade splashes off ledges in its descent, faint rainbows form and disappear in the vapor.
From the first overlook we followed a path along the brink of the gorge to a second that offers much the same prospect as the first. We had the great fortune, though, to have photographer Carl Heilman II along, for he had been here before. Following his lead, we headed off on a bushwhack to find a spot he remembered with a head-on view of the falls. Carl is part mountain goat, and the four of us trying to follow soon lost touch with him as we scrambled down a wooded drainage and steeply up the other side. But with a roaring waterfall to our left, it would be difficult to get truly lost.
We found him eventually, and sure enough he was ensconced on some open rock perched on a steep, wooded slope. Turning, we saw a full frontal view of the falls. Mesmerizing. Following the flow of the stream beneath the falls and to our right, we lost sight of it in rolling highlands as it threaded about a half-mile to its confluence with the Hudson in the heart of the gorge.
Rejoined with others of our party at the first overlook, we discussed whether the new state trail should lead to what we might call Heilman Overlook. The slopes around that ledge are covered in delicate mosses, and a trail might bring too many destructive boots to a special spot. On the other hand, a trail might steer hikers along the least damaging path and confine their wanderings. In the absence of a marked trail, hikers could spontaneously create a spider web of paths as they explore the area.
It’s the sort of question that trail designers have to weigh. ■