By Tom Woodman
Northern peak joins the Forest Preserve
The tap, tap, tapping that sounded every few minutes as we made a wintry ascent of Lyon Mountain wasn’t coming from woodpeckers. It was the sound of Wes Lampman’s hammer nailing in trail markers as we climbed. New markers on a new trail in a new portion of the Forest Preserve.
New York state, which agreed to buy 20,000 acres of land from Domtar Industries in 2004, closed on the deal in October, transferring to public ownership not only 3,800-foot Lyon Mountain, but also a tract of shorefront along Chazy Lake, another 1,700 acres on the north flank of Ellenburg Mountain, and a 920-acre tract that includes Whistle Pond.
The completion of the deal gave Explorer photographer Sue Bibeau and me a reason to check out this excursion in the Northeast corner of the Park. And our interest gave Wes an opportunity to return to the trail he had built with Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) crews over the summer.
The trail markers seemed like a finishing touch on a mountain of a project. But in the eyes of ADK’s director of field programs, more refinements are in order: here, some water bars in a soggy section; there, a little more brush in a hollow to keep hikers on the path.
But for us, the trail was already a job well done. Where the old Lyon Mountain trail shoots straight up the peak and has become a wide, eroded path, the new trail climbs more gradually, following natural contours and adding switchbacks. The new trail is 3.5 miles, a mile longer than the old, but the 2,000-foot ascent is easier on the knees.
Our route is still too steep and too narrow to appeal to cross-country skiers, but it makes a great snowshoe trip, ending on a high summit with gorgeous views and a refurbished fire tower.
The skies were clear and the temperature was about 18 degrees when we began our hike on a November morning. Winter had settled onto the mountain. These were conditions that showcased the new trail. Our footing was solid as we tramped over an inch or two of snow. In contrast, where the trail uses the old route near the base and summit, ice covered the cobbled surface, requiring considerable care. Microspikes, a kind of crampons-lite, helped me keep my footing.
It takes less than 10 minutes to walk from the parking area to the junction where the new trail branches off to the left. The trail crews piled brush across the old route but left enough of a gap to accommodate anyone determined to follow the old track.
As we walked through a young poplar and birch wood, one design element became clear. The path used side-hill terrain to shed water instead of allowing it to turn the trail into a streambed. Where that didn’t happen naturally, the crews canted the trail by hand.
About 45 minutes into the hike, the trail crossed a tumbling, half-frozen stream on a wooden bridge. “Carrying up those 12-foot stringers was a real treat,” Wes said.
Trail crews don’t always use bridges to span creeks. Sometimes placing steppingstones is enough. But here, where scrambling hikers would tear up the steep bank, wooden steps and the narrow bridge protect the creek.
ADK crews under contract with the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) spent 10 weeks last summer on their labors. But the layout effort began in 2006, with Wes tramping the woods and roughing out plans for the trail.
Between the 2004 agreement and the October closing, the Adirondack Nature Conservancy owned the land. The Conservancy enabled the deal by buying the land initially, with a commitment by the George Pataki administration to purchase it later. An additional 84,000 acres went to Lyme Timber Co., which agreed to sell conservation easements to the state.
An agreement between the state and the Conservancy allowed the trail work to get under way before the final closing.
The closing isn’t the end of the process, however. DEC is still negotiating terms of conservation easements on the Lyme property. And the state must now decide how to classify the new Forest Preserve land – a decision that will affect how the public may use it. A Wilderness classification, for instance, would carry one set of rules, a Wild Forest designation a less restrictive set. And any more new hiking trails will have to await creation of a unit management plan, a process that can take years.
As we climbed, we became more aware of the wind. What started as a background sound from the treetops turned into a more chilling force at ground level. And the wind carried clouds that covered the early sun. We began to anticipate the summit conditions.
Less than a mile from the summit, we navigated a series of switchbacks and moved through a well-defined transition from hardwoods to spruce-fir forest. A short traverse brought us to the old path. Because of the topography and soil conditions, Wes had been unable to route the new trail around the last, steep section of the old trail – at least for now. His idea for a detour loop near the summit had to wait.
As we picked our way up the iced path, the wind became more insistent and we expected a blast as we emerged from the trees onto the partially open summit. To our surprise, we were met with a lull and conditions on top were benign – for about a minute, until the wind returned in force.
Even with the overcast, the summit provided views of the cloud-capped High Peaks, Chazy Lake and the Champlain Valley. In the far north, the Montreal skyline rose in tiny, gray silhouette.
It’s a view you can’t find elsewhere in the Park and one that now is promised forever to anyone who wants to seek it out.
DIRECTIONS: There are no signs marking the seasonal road leading to the trailhead or at the trailhead itself. A DEC spokesman said the state may be able to add the much-needed signs before completion of a unit management plan. From the village of Dannemora, drive about 9 miles west on NY 374 to Chazy Lake Road. Turn left and go 1.8 miles south to the gravel road on the right. If coming from Saranac, turn north on Chazy Lake Road from NY 3 and follow it 8.2 miles to the gravel road on the left. (At a four-way stop 2.4 miles from NY 3, Chazy Lake Road takes a 90-degree right turn.)