The wild, wild east: Guidebook author reveals four of his favorite adventures
By Bill Ingersoll
It had never felt so good to set my backpack down at the end of a day. For the last few miles, it had been weighing me down more than usual. I leaned the pack against a tree and, blissfully unburdened, stepped across the grassy clearing to join my companions admiring the view—about 20 miles’ worth of Lake George.
Talk about a big view! We could see all the way from Huletts Landing to Lake George village at the south end of the lake. After eight miles of hiking over continuous up-and-down terrain, we felt we had earned the right to make the summit of French Point Mountain our home for the night.
It was late afternoon on a November day, with darkness little more than an hour away. The view was outstanding, as always, but there was work to be done. We found some level spaces for our tents in the grass, set up our shelters, and then hauled out our food and MSR stoves and prepared dinner.
The last time Doug, Paul, and I had hiked together was six months earlier. Since then, Paul had become a father, so we gave him the honor of picking the setting for our adventure. The Tongue Mountain Range was an excellent choice. These are not the biggest mountains in the Adirondack Park, or the wildest, or the remotest, yet they are ecologically worlds apart from most of the Park. Oak and hickory trees flourish here. So do timber rattlesnakes.
The range forms a peninsula that extends several miles into Lake George. We had set off that morning from the northernmost trailhead, passing over Brown Mountain to an early stop at the lean-to on Fivemile Mountain. Although this is the high point on the Tongue, at 2,256 feet, the toughest climbing was yet to come. The remaining four miles to French Point Mountain presented a series of relentless ups and downs. On the plus side, the views greatly improved with each major summit.
As we ate dinner on French Point Mountain—a heaping helping of tortellini for me, thank you—Doug and I began a prearranged shtick. I mentioned that the only thing missing to make this experience perfect was beer, which of course is usually in short supply on long hiking trips. This led Doug to reminisce about the three cans that he and I had found cached at Whitney Lake recently—a trip that Paul couldn’t join.
Wouldn’t it be great if the same thing happened here? When I stood up and said I was going to look for such a stash here, Paul looked at me as though I were nuts. I then pulled out the two bottles of Saranac Pale Ale that I had hidden in my pack, stashed like stowaways in my clothes to keep from breaking. This was the extra weight that had made my pack heavier than usual. Doug retrieved a third bottle in his pack, and so we toasted Paul’s fatherhood. Beer never tasted better.
The new father retired early, looking forward to an entire night of uninterrupted sleep. Doug retired not long after. I stayed up, sitting near the ledge with the 20-mile view. As darkness set upon the lake, I watched as one by one the lights came on around the south basin, brighter than the stars in the sky and almost as numerous. Only the mountains were dark. Feeling the chill in the air, I too turned to the warmth of my sleeping bag, done for the day.
Thus concluded one of many memorable days in the eastern Adirondack Park. Following are four thumbnail sketches of some of my favorite hikes in the region, condensed from the new edition of my book Discover the Eastern Adirondacks, which was originally produced by Barbara McMartin and others.
Tongue Mountain Traverse: 16.5 miles
This hook-shaped route incorporates the entire length of the Tongue Mountain Range, from the northern trailhead on NY 9N to Montcalm Point, and then along Northwest Bay to Clay Meadow. This 16.5-mile trek, which we did in two days, could be done in one long day—the range is much easier if you are not burdened with a full pack. If you plan to camp on the range, save this one for spring or fall when the streams in the cols between the summits are more likely to be running, for otherwise the ridgeline is very dry. For the same reason, campfires are not recommended at any time.
From the northern trailhead on NY 9N, it’s 2.5 miles to the Fivemile Mountain lean-to and 5.8 miles to the Fifth Peak lean-to. French Point Mountain at just over 8 miles is roughly the halfway point, and one of the most scenic stopping points along the ridge.
However, the descent from First Peak toward Montcalm Point is for me the climax of the entire traverse, an exquisite open area filled with common juniper shrubs and its tree-form sibling, Eastern red cedar. Like all junipers, they are distinguished by their blueberry-like cones. Hiking through this section is like hiking in a different state. Look for other Appalachian trees such as hickories and oaks, as well.
The trip ends with a pleasant 5.4-mile lakeside hike from Montcalm Point to Clay Meadow.
From Northway Exit 24, head east on County 11. When you reach NY 9N, turn left and follow it for 4 miles to the parking area for the Clay Meadow Trailhead, located on the edge of an abandoned quarry. Leave a car here and then proceed north on 9N to the northern trailhead at 9 miles.
Sleeping Beauty Loop: 4.2 miles
No amount of Disneyland make-believe could outdo the natural beauty on this eastern Adirondack loop on the east side of Lake George. While there are other mountains with a more intimate view of the lake, this loop is a total package: good trails, a crowd-pleasing vista and a charming pond. Perhaps because of the mountain’s fairy-tale name, it is a popular hike with children. It is certainly an excellent family hike.
The 4.2-mile loop from Dacy Clearing, with a 900-foot vertical rise, is best done counterclockwise. Beginning at a gate, the trail clearly follows an old carriage trail to an intersection at 0.6 miles with the trail from Bumps Pond. For now, bear right. Soon you begin to climb the steep, well-traveled trail to the summit of Sleeping Beauty. You reach the top at 1.7 miles, where you should be alert for the side trail to the left. This leads in 200 feet to the vista, a spacious ledge with room for dozens of people at a time.
The trail continues north along the ridge, although there are no other views. A descent with several tight switchbacks leads to a bridge over the outlet of Bumps Pond, with an intersection just beyond at 2.7 miles. Turn left to follow the trail that hugs the shoreline of this 2,020-foot-high pond, the highest in the Lake George Wild Forest. A stone chimney near the west shore marks the site of an old hunting lodge from the Knapp Estate.
As you descend south back toward Dacy Clearing on an old carriage trail, you have a mouse-eye view of the cliffs on Sleeping Beauty.
From U.S. 9 south of Lake George, turn east onto NY 149 and follow it for 6 miles to Buttermilk Falls Road, a left turn. Over the course of the next 8.9 miles the road becomes Sly Pond Road and then Shelving Rock Road. You reach the Hogtown Trailhead at 9.6 miles, where, at the far end, Dacy Clearing Road begins. You could park at Hogtown, but driving Dacy Clearing Road to a second parking area saves you 1.6 miles of walking. This narrow road does have its rough spots, so some people prefer to walk.
Cat & Thomas Mountains: 7 miles
The eastern Adirondack summits of Thomas and Cat mountains are part of an 1,850-acre preserve owned by the Lake George Land Conservancy. Cat Mountain features a 270-degree view of Lake George and beyond, and so it has become a favorite climb in the eastern Adirondacks. You can take in both peaks in a seven-mile loop.
From the trailhead, follow the orange-marked road/trail to an intersection at 0.75 miles. Turn left onto the yellow-marked road/trail and follow it all the way to summit of Cat at 3.25 miles. Along the way you pass several small beaver ponds, including one with a view of the summit (although the distinctive rock face is turned away from you).
Watch for a sharp right turn, where the trail leaves the main road to follow a lesser gravel track. This road narrows into a proper trail as it approaches the summit, with its incredible vista that ranges from the Tongue Mountain Range to Crane Mountain.
The ridgeline trail to Thomas Mountain is a different experience entirely. At the summit of Cat, look for a blue marker or two at the north end of the meadow. As of 2006, there was little or no foot tread to follow, so hikers are more dependent on trail markers than usual on this route. To say that it is rugged is an understatement. Be sure to wear long pants, because more than once you will be wading through clearings filled with brambles.
It’s about 2.2 miles between the peaks. After climbing and bypassing several false summits—and crossing innumerable skid trails—you reach one small opening where you can see the summit of Thomas ahead of you, with a small cabin built by the peak’s previous owners. The trail cleverly climbs through a series of notches in an imposing rock wall, reaching the cabin at the top of the climb. From the porch, you have a fine view back toward Cat and the entire sweep of rugged terrain you just traversed.
The easiest way to descend from Thomas is to take the orange-marked road/trail. It shouldn’t take you much more than a half-hour to reach your car. For a wilder and slightly longer return, continue on the blue trail that you followed between the summits.
Get off Northway Exit 24 and head east on County 11 towards Bolton Landing for about 2 miles. Turn right onto Valley Woods Road. The parking area is on the right just 0.1 mile from the turn.
Moose Mountain Pond: 6 miles
This pond, located near North Hudson in the Hammond Pond Wild Forest, is a secluded place with mountains on two sides. It features a lean-to for camping and plenty of natural peace.
The trail follows an old tote road south from Ensign Pond Road, paralleling Berrymill Brook as it climbs on a gentle grade through mixed woods. Parts of it have been hardened with rock steps to avoid wet areas.
At 1.5 miles, you reach an intersection with a trail to Bass Lake, followed almost immediately by the substantial footbridge over Berrymill Brook. The long flow labeled as Berrymill Pond on maps stretches away to the south, but the trail is near it only briefly. Although there is no Berrymill Pond anymore, the marshy flow is one of the scenic highlights of the trip.
At this point the trail turns southeast between two small hills. The sparse blue markers are just enough to make this easy to follow. The trail reaches a beaver meadow on the outlet of Moose Mountain Pond and then gradually swings north through a pine forest to the pond itself.
The lean-to is located at the far north end, 3 miles from the trailhead, where there is a large boulder with a vertical face that plunges to the water. From the shore, you can see several small peaks, including Moose Mountain, Bald Pate and Owl Pate. Bushwhackers can find good views on both of the latter two summits.
From Northway Exit 29, go east for a short distance to U.S. 9 at North Hudson and then head north for 2.6 miles, where you bear right at an intersection marked for Port Henry. This is Old Route 9, which leads to another right turn in 0.3 miles—Ensign Pond Road, also known as County 4. The trailhead is 2.8 miles along this road, on the right.
BILL INGERSOLL is the publisher of the Discover the Adirondacks series of guidebooks.