By Phil Brown
Hikers looking for adventure outside the crowded High Peaks should consider exploring the Five Ponds Wilderness in the northwestern Adirondacks. The best way to acquaint yourself with the beauty of this remote tract is to walk the 16-mile High Falls Loop on a sunny summer’s day when the wildflowers are in bloom.
Although the loop makes for a long day, it’s possible to shorten the hike considerably by doing a round-trip to High Falls or Janacks Landing, on the east side of the loop.
Those who do the whole loop will pass a variety of scenes: snag-filled lowlands with hills on the horizon, giant pines leaning over a sluggish bend in the Oswegatchie River, the shrub flats of the Oswegatchie Plains and, of course, the falls.
The western half of the loop is wilder than the eastern and less used. At times, hikers will find themselves crossing beaver dams, wading through flooded stretches of trail, or cleaving waist-high grass. Many kinds of wildflowers adorn the way, such as blind gentian, spotted touch-me-not and heal-all.
Until 1995, the western leg took a path more directly south, but a blowdown that July forced the state to reroute the trail. It now swings more to the west, lengthening the loop by two miles. The hundreds of toppled trees along the trail attest to the power of the storm.
At High Falls, the Oswegatchie spills 15 feet over dark bedrock slabs, spewing forth a refreshing mist. The falls, a popular destination of canoe-ists, may be the only place on the loop where hikers encounter other people. Often, anglers can be seen casting for brook trout there.
Just north of High Falls, the main loop passes the Oswegatchie Plains, an open, brushy area where early settlers used to mow hay and graze sheep. The plains may be the result of a frost pocket and droughty soils.
Many people regard High Falls as the highlight of the loop. If that’s your only objective, take the eastern leg: you can arrive at the falls in about 6.5 miles, including a 0.4-mile spur off the loop. Shortly before the falls, you pass a rusting logging machine—a reminder of the Great Blowdown of 1950, after which the state allowed contractors to salvage downed timber.
For an even shorter hike, take the eastern leg to Janacks Landing, where there is a lean-to on Dead Creek Flow, an arm of Cranberry Lake. Janacks Landing is reached by a 0.1-mile spur and is well worth the brief side trip no matter what your destination.
Between the two trailheads, Wana-kena maintains a small campground where hikers can pitch a tent for free. There is a privy on the site.
From NY 3 about 7 miles west of Cranberry Lake, turn south toward Wanakena on County 61. Bear right at two intersections. About 1.5 miles from NY 3, soon after crossing the Oswegatchie River, look for a gravel road on the right. This is the western trailhead. The eastern trailhead is another half-mile up the road.