Lots to see on woodsy hike to falls
By Linda Murphy
When photographer Nancy Ford and I read that Gleasmans Falls dropped a frothy 70 feet, we imagined a miniature Niagara tucked in the woods. Instead, we found a series of small, pounding flumes on a quarter-mile stretch of the Independence River.
During our late-summer hike, we also found plenty of unexpected beauty: Rampant ferns and wildflowers, rustic bridges crossing bubbly streams, cicadas calling, woodpeckers tapping on maple trees, a hauntingly lovely swamp.
Before enjoying this wild beauty, you must find the trailhead—which may be the hardest part of the journey. You need to follow a series of twists and turns off Route 12, southeast of Lowville in Lewis County. At least one of the street signs is nearly unreadable due to intense weathering, but if you carefully follow the directions provided with this story, reaching the trailhead is an attainable feat.
The Gleasmans Falls Trail is one of many hiking trails in the Independence River Wild Forest, a 76,000-acre tract of the state Forest Preserve in the western Adirondacks. The region is bounded to the west by the Adirondack Park’s Blue Line, to the south by the Ha-De-Ron-Dah Wilderness, to the north by the Beaver River and to the east by the Pigeon Lakes Wilderness. It’s also used by horseback riders, mountain bikers, snowshoers and cross-country skiers.
But no horses or mountain bikes are allowed on the Gleasmans Falls Trail. Nancy and I entered the forest one sunny Sunday morning. En route to the trailhead, located on a dirt track called Beach Mill Road, we passed a “Moose Crossing” sign. We noticed horse and deer prints along the road, but alas no sign of moose (there are only a few hundred in the Park).
The sign at the Gleasmans Falls trailhead says the distance to the Independence River is 2.6 miles, but the guidebooks say it’s closer to 3.0. Marked by yellow disks, the trail starts with a gentle decline and then flattens out. Within a couple of minutes we were wowed by a sudden opening in the forest, revealing a lovely view of swaying wildflowers before a backdrop of pine trees.
We paused to pick raspberries and watch copper-colored beetles nibble on the leaves. Bees pollinated the profuse goldenrod, and ladybugs warmed themselves in the sun. Around a small bend, we came to the first of three streams we would cross before coming to the falls: Burnt Creek. Nancy and I stopped on the bridge to listen to the gurgling creek and watch the frothy brown water rushing beneath our feet. Just upstream were two huge boulders. “This is a sit-and-have-lunch place,” Nancy said. “I could stay here and take pictures all day.”
We wondered about the water’s color. Ed Campany, a backpacker we soon met, gave us an explanation. “This used to be a hemlock forest,” he said. “They logged it for tannin.”
In the late 1800s, the forest was so heavily harvested that today only a few hemlock remain. The forest is now filled with sugar maple, black cherry, beech and pine. Nevertheless, the tannin continues to stain the water.
“It’s present in almost all of the Adirondacks,” Stephen Litwhiler, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, told me later. “It’s what gives the brown color to the Moose and the Black rivers. Tannin also causes frothiness on the water. It’s not pollution.”
When we met Campany, he was returning from a hike four or five miles down the creek. A resident of nearby Watson, he has hiked in the region for decades. He has never seen moose, but he has seen their tracks.
After crossing Burnt Creek, the trail bears sharply left. The path is soft with a cover of pine needles and bordered by lacy ferns. We crossed Little Johnny Creek on a plank bridge and came to a massive swamp, filled with skeletal trees. No doubt the creation of beavers. Stripped of bark and leaves, the trees possessed a stark beauty, their trunks bleached like old bones. A tree graveyard.
We met another hiker, Ron Cerri of Frankfort, who told us that the look of the wetland changes with the seasons. “When you come through in spring, the swamp is all in bloom and it’s so pretty,” he remarked.
A bit later, we were overtaken by two retired teachers from Syracuse, Linda Godfey-Leonardi and Mary Ann Arnone. Their chatter made our pleasant hike even more cheerful. They pointed out the red berries of mayflowers and a pileated woodpecker working on a maple tree. They taught us to recognize a hemlock by its needles: flat with white on the back.
When we reached Gleasmans Falls, we sunned ourselves like lizards on the warm rocks and listened to the roar of water shooting down the rapids. Gazing upstream, we saw the rough, uneven jumble of rocks and boulders that formed a chaotic border for the rush of water. Some boulders rose an imposing 10 or 12 feet above the foam. Countless smaller rocks jumbled at their feet. Heavy evergreen boughs draped down on the rocks near the side of the gorge.
Most of the boulders in this narrow and rugged segment of the Independence River are colored the typical Adirondack gray; several pink-tinged rocks are mixed in, however, giving the falls a rosy hue.
Find a nook near one of the splashing cascades and sit and be sprayed by the refreshing water. In a more mellow mood? Stretch out on a flat rock near a quiet segment of the stream and listen to the gentle gurgle as the water flows past.
We had Gleasmans Falls all to ourselves while we feasted on peanut-butter sandwiches, plums, cheese, carrots and Reese’s Pieces. Nancy took pictures. We soaked up the rough, solitary feel of the untamed Adirondacks, hardly believing it’s just a short hike from convenience stores and traffic.
Later, as we headed back to the car, Nancy wondered out loud: “Was the prize worth the journey?”
“The journey is the prize,” I answered.
Nancy smiled and nodded in agreement.
From Route 12, some six miles south of Lowville, turn onto East Martinsburg Road and drive about 2.5 miles to the end. Turn right on Number Four Road and drive a few miles until you come upon Chase Lake Road. Turn left. When you come to a sign for Brooklyn Square, turn left onto Erie Canal Road. Go .7 miles then turn right on McPhilmy Road, which is a dirt road. Turn left on Beach Mill Road (also dirt). When you come to a fork in the road, bear left toward Beach Mill Pond and drive to the end. Ample parking is available at the trailhead.