Adirondack Nature Trails

Walk to Grandmother’s Tree a real learning experience

(Followed by more on nature trails in the Park)

By Joanne McFadden

Two boys are off to see the Grandmother’s Tree in the Pack Forest. Photos by Paul Buckowski.

We had lots to do that weekend. My daughters, Sara and Morgan, had just started school and came home with a list of things we needed to buy. The house was suffering from the lazy days of summer and begged for a good cleaning. But on such a glorious September day, we thought it would be shameful to stay inside.

Instead, my girls and I headed to Warrensburg to the Charles Lathrop Pack Demonstration Forest for a walk on the Grandmother’s Tree Nature Trail, one of several interpretative trails in the Adirondack Park.

Charles Pack, a wealthy lumberman, purchased most of the 2,500-acre tract in 1927 to carry out experiments in conservation-friendly forestry. Today, the land is owned by the state College of Environ-mental Science and Forestry (ESF). In 1998, the college finished building—with the help of volunteers and prison inmates—a one-mile trail that is accessible to wheelchairs.

Sara McFadden stands in awe of the 175-foot Grandmother’s Tree.

When I was a child growing up out West, my parents often took me on nature walks. I fondly remember going on naturalist-led hikes and learning about things we would surely have missed on our own. Although you won’t find a naturalist to guide you on the Grandmother’s Tree Nature Trail, you will find the next best thing: a brochure that tells you what to look for at 14 stops along the way.

We picked up the brochure at the trailhead kiosk and were impressed right away by the beautiful drawings of plants and wildlife. We started out walking beside a stream and soon entered a forest of old-growth white pine and hemlock. Our brochure pointed out that many old trees begin to rot from the inside, forming holes that owls and squirrels use as homes.

The fourth stop turned out to be 8-year-old Sara’s favorite. The brochure, which the three of us took turns reading, explained that some of the hemlocks had taken seed on the tops of stumps and  extended their roots through the stumps to reach the soil. After the stumps decomposed, the trees appeared to be standing on stilts.

“I liked the trees with the holes in it,” 6-year-old Morgan proclaimed when we had finished the hike. These were neat rows of tiny cavities created by yellow-bellied sapsuckers in search of liquid meals. If not for the brochure, we might have walked right past this interesting phenomenon.

Joanne McFadden reads to her daughters from the trail’s brochure.

My own favorite spot was where a giant tree had fallen across a stream to form a natural bridge. Although the tree had died long ago, new life sprung from it. Young hemlocks were growing on the trunk and near the huge, gnarled root structure. Moss of different green hues decorated much of the fallen giant. We paused here to observe the water striders that had caught Morgan’s attention. “It looks like it’s raining,” she said, pointing to the ripples the insects made as they darted over the stream’s surface.

We were amazed by the variety of plant life along the trail. We spotted pink, brown and white mushrooms and several kinds of moss and ferns. And we ran into a woman who had visited the trail once before with her garden club to observe the flora. Now Shirley Rice had returned with her husband and grandchildren. “We had quite a nice little botany lesson,” she remarked afterward.

For most people, the trail’s highlight is the Grandmother’s Tree, a 175-foot white pine that stands near the end of the route. At 325 years old, the tree is thought to be the tallest white pine in the state.

The story behind the tree’s moniker is charming. It seems that John Woodward, who purchased the land in 1796, wanted to buy his wife, Margaret, a set of dishes. He didn’t have the money, so he planned to chop down the pine and sell the lumber. When Margaret heard about this, she became angry and told him that she didn’t want the dishes if it meant killing the tree. The story was passed down through the generations, and the venerable old pine was nicknamed “Grandmother’s Tree.”

The author and her daughters enjoy some quality time on the boardwalk at Pack Forest.

Last summer, lightning struck the tree and left a scar that winds up the trunk like a stripe on a candy cane. After the hit, foresters were uncertain whether the tree would survive. On our hike, we ran into Garrett Phelps, a Newcomb science teacher who read about the tree in the Explorer and wanted to make sure he saw it before it died. The good news is that Phelps will have plenty of other opportunities: As of a month ago, the Grandmother’s Tree looked to be as healthy as ever. “The top is still nice and green,” said Mike Gooden, an ESF forester. “It doesn’t seem to be suffering any ill effects.”

Sara, Morgan and I couldn’t have asked for a more pleasant walk through the woods. The trail is level and not too long. It even has benches for resting. No one complained about having hiked too far. The frequent interpretive stops added to our understanding of the region’s natural history. We’ll take the Grandmother’s Tree over shopping and housecleaning any day.

There are several other nature trails in the Adirondack Park. Most are fairly easy hikes suitable for families with young children.

Map by Nancy Bernstein.


Poke-O-Moonshine is one of those uncommon summits that offers an equally splendid view of the High Peaks and Lake Champlain. The 2,180-foot peak has long been a popular destination, but now the hike is even more enjoyable: In recent years, volunteers have put in 11 interpretive stops along the 1.2-mile trail. A glossy pamphlet, which will be available at the trailhead this summer, explains the natural history of the mountain, including its impressive cliffs (which attract both peregrine falcons and rock climbers). The summit’s fire tower, built in 1917, is being restored.
From Northway Exit 31, drive 3.1 miles south on US 9 to the public campground on the right. The trail begins a little south of the campground entrance.

Silver Lake Bog

The Adirondack Nature Conservancy has built a half-mile boardwalk through a small wetland in the northeastern Adirondacks, offering visitors an inside look at a habitat that’s usually inaccessible. An illustrated pamphlet available at the trailhead identifies moss, ferns, shrubs and trees that grow along the walk. There are 15 stops in all. At the end of the boardwalk there is a footpath that continues another mile to a piney bluff overlooking Silver Lake.
At blinking light in Ausable Forks, drive northeast on Main Street a short distance to stop sign. Turn left onto County 1 and go 12.5 miles to Union Falls Road. Turn left and go 1.1 miles to dirt road on left. The trailhead is down this road on the right.

Goodnow Mountain

The state College of Environmental Science and Forestry maintains the 2-mile trail to this 2,685-foot summit in Newcomb. The students have produced an excellent pamphlet (with line drawings) that explains the natural and man-made forces that have shaped the forest. The fire tower on the summit affords a spectacular view of the High Peaks. At the base of the tower is an abandoned cabin where the fire observer once lived. Peek in the windows for a glimpse into the past.
From the Visitor Interpretative Center in Newcomb, drive about 1.5 miles west on NY 28N to a parking lot on the left.
Sacandaga River Pathway

Volunteers raised money to build this trail in the village of Speculator a few years ago. The trail goes through a variety of habitats, including marshlands and forests, and passes by lookouts onto the Sacandaga River. Visitors will see a number of different ferns and flowers. Although the trail is less than a mile long, it has more than 40 interpretive signs. Some of them are temporary. Naturalist Mike Storey has been hired to work on permanent signs.
Park in the lot at the Speculator municipal park just east of Route 30 and north of the Sacandaga River. The trail starts near the baseball diamond.

Bear Mountain Swamp

Starting at the state-owned Cranberry Lake Public Campground, a 1.5-mile trail leads over rolling terrain to two boardwalks that cross Bear Mountain Swamp. Pick up a brochure at the campground entrance; it explains what to look for at 34 interpretive stops. You’ll learn about trees, shrubs, ferns, mosses and wildflowers. At one stop, you’ll see claw marks left by a black bear on a beech tree. During the summer, naturalists lead group hikes to the swamp.
From NY 3, just east of the hamlet of Cranberry Lake, turn south on Long Pine Road and drive 1.3 miles to the campground entrance. The trail begins just past Campsite 27. To avoid the campground fee, park in the small lot near the entrance booth and walk 0.4 mile to the trailhead.

Visitor Interpretive Centers

The state operates two Visitor Interpretive Centers in the Adirondack Park, at Paul Smiths and Newcomb. The Paul Smiths VIC is built near a large marsh. The Newcomb VIC is built near a river that runs into Rich Lake. Both have several trails that wind through a variety of habitats. Although not all of the trails have interpretive signs, you can learn a lot about the region’s natural history from the exhibits and pamphlets inside the centers. Also, there usually is a naturalist on duty to answer questions. The VICs are a great introduction to the great outdoors.
The Paul Smiths VIC is located on NY 30 about 0.9 mile north of the junction with NY 86. The Newcomb VIC is located on NY 28N just west of the hamlet of Newcomb.

About Adirondack Explorer

The Adirondack Explorer is a nonprofit magazine covering the Adirondack Park's environment, recreation and communities.

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