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.
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.
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