Hurricane Mountain’s refurbished fire tower affords a panoramic vista from Lake Champlain to the High Peaks.
By Lisa Densmore Ballard
One week last June, an endless series of rainstorms drenched the Adirondack Park, leaving me housebound. When the skies finally cleared, I was anxious to get on the trail, but where to go? I settled on Hurricane Mountain, one of my favorite peaks for its bald summit and its 360-degree view.
Although not a four-thousand-footer, Hurricane is a prominent mountain, visible from many of the eastern High Peaks. It is a recognizable landmark because of its fire tower, which continues to pierce the sky even though its useful life ended several decades ago … or so I thought.
Hurricane Mountain (elevation 3,694 feet) is the centerpiece of the 13,784-acre Hurricane Mountain Wilderness. When I last climbed the peak in 2008, the tower was closed, its lowest flight of steps removed. At the time, I assumed the tower would eventually be removed, which has been the fate of other towers in Wilderness Areas.
As I pulled into the small parking area by the trailhead on State Route 9N, between Keene and Elizabethtown, I knew the tower was still standing. I had recently seen it from atop other peaks, but I had no expectation of climbing the condemned structure. The exercise, the chance to photograph flora and fauna, and the viewpoints along the 3.4-mile path to the summit were the main draws.
There’s something about hiking alone with my camera that makes me more observant of my surroundings. Without conversation with friends and family, my eyes wander more, taking in the minute details of my surroundings. My hearing and sense of smell become more acute, too, picking up the rustling of unseen squirrels busily caching food and faint whiffs of tart-sweet balsam.
On that crisp fifty-five-degree morning, a week shy of the summer solstice, my senses were particularly honed after the cleansing rain. I could smell the pine sap, so pungent in one spot it reminded me of turpentine that could be distilled from it. But I paid the strong scent little heed. I was more curious about the unseen birds that chirped incessantly as I passed below their leafy perches.
Hurricane Mountain is part of the Lake Champlain Birding Trail. It’s a known location for rare birds that inhabit the boreal forest, such as Bicknell’s thrush and boreal chickadee. Though the boreal zone was still 1,900-feet above me, I was hopeful some of the other birds from the 153 documented species in the Hurricane Mountain area would alight near me.
After only a tenth of a mile of climbing, the trail opened onto a ledge laden with blueberries still a month from ripening. Though the view directly ahead (south) across Route 9N was blocked by the ridge formed by Tripod and Knob Lock mountains, the profile of Big Slide jutted from behind other minor peaks to the southwest, a foretaste of views to come.
About a half-mile into the hike, the trail flattened. I crossed a stream on a log bridge, then found myself in a broad marsh. Ever hopeful for a rare-bird sighting and knowing that marshes are often frequented by avian wildlife, I paused mid-puncheon to scan the barren, crooked tree limbs that poked from the tall, watery grass. I wondered if the marsh was the work of a local beaver but could see no lodge or evidence of gnawed lumber. There was no sign of bird life, either.
Directions: From the junction of NY9 and 9N in Elizabethtown, go 6.6 miles west on 9N toward Keene. The trailhead is on the right side of the road. Alternatively, from the junction of NY 9N and NY73 southeast of Keene, drive 3.6 miles east on 9N. The trailhead will be on the left.
I walked down another stretch of puncheon, pausing again, this time above a shallow, sandy-bottomed stream that wound its way through the bog. I noticed something moving in the clear water, but it wasn’t a fish. I crouched down for a closer look. A salamander swam below me, then froze, suspended in the shallow water column as soon as it saw me. A couple of other salamanders floated nearby under the water, their pinkish spots catching the sunlight, and undoubtedly hoped the lurking large predator above them (me) would fail to catch them.
After watching the unanimated amphibians for a few minutes, I continued on. The trail soon gained noticeable elevation. At about 1.6 miles, it turned much rougher and steeper, ascending a washed-out, slabby section. Then, after more persistent climbing, it passed through a scattered stand of striped maple on a small shoulder of the mountain.
As I scanned the airy woods for birds, I took in the characteristics of the trail. Much of it had been rerouted since the last time I trekked here eight years ago. The new sections avoided many of the old washouts except the one I had just ascended. The improvements lengthened the route by 0.8 mile, from 2.6 miles to 3.4 miles, thanks to more switchbacks and detours, but the footing was noticeably better.
A few minutes later, the trail traversed a fern carpet, then climbed steadily again to a small rock outcropping. From this higher lookout, I could see the distinctive nipple atop Nippletop Mountain as well as numerous other four-thousand-footers in the eastern High Peaks, but I didn’t dally long despite the fantastic view. The summit felt close, and I was anxious to get there.
At about 2.8 miles, the trail broke out upon a clifftop. It would have been easy to end my hike here. The view to the south into the High Peaks was breathtaking, and to the east, Lake Champlain glistened like a blue mirror below Vermont’s Green Mountains. However, I could see the fire tower ahead of me, up one more rocky hump.
I rested briefly to have a sip of water, my feet dangling from a natural step in the rock, when I heard a tweet from a nearby bush. A white-throated sparrow peered at me from a low branch. A bird! Finally! I clicked a few photos until it flew away, then quickly packed up my things. I reshouldered my backpack and resumed my climb with renewed spring in my step.
At. 3.1 miles, I reached the junction with the trail from Crow Clearing, one of two other routes up Hurricane Mountain. The third route (from the east) was the original one used by the fire watcher when the tower was built in 1919 until it ceased to be used for fire control in 1973. When the tower was decommissioned, the landowner closed the lower stretch of the access road to cars, though it remained a public right-of-way for foot traffic. The road closure added a 1.2-mile walk up the road, decreasing its appeal. The western approach, from Crow Clearing near Keene, used to be the longest route to the summit but is now 0.7-miles shorter than the updated one from Route 9N.
As I scrambled up the bedrock toward the summit, I could see another hiker standing at the base of the tower. A robust golden retriever with a remarkably fluffy coat sat by his feet, its tail sweeping the ground.
“Hello, there!” shouted the other hiker as I neared. “Where did you come up from?”
“Route 9N,” I replied. “How about you?”
“Crow Clearing. I always hike up that way.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Always have. I’ve been hiking this mountain for over twenty-five years, ever since I moved to Vermont.”
I peered across Lake Champlain. The Green Mountain State was indeed close, nearer to Hurricane Mountain than my home on Chateaugay Lake in the northern Adirondack Park.
“This is Rosie,” added Mr. Vermont, as his friendly dog came over to sniff my hand. “She likes to climb the fire tower.”
How unusual. Most dogs panic as they attempt the steps of fire towers, the scaffolding confusing them. That’s when the bottom of the fire tower caught my eye. The first flight of steps was back in place, and the tower was open!
Excited, I excused myself to climb the tower, Rosie following behind me. Sure enough, the dog made it to the top without flinching. I did flinch as I entered the cabin. The view from Hurricane’s open rocky top is captivating enough, even for the most experienced Adirondack hiker, but the panorama from thirty-five feet up, inside the tower cabin, is one of the most spectacular in the Park. I stared at Whiteface to the northwest, then Mount Mansfield and the spine of the Green Mountains to the east, and finally into the core of the High Peaks to the south and west, clicking off four-thousand-footers until I lost track.
I felt Rosie’s hot panting on my leg. The dog sat beside me, watching me expectantly. I pulled my lunch out of my pack and gave her a nibble of turkey from my sandwich, ate the rest of it, then started down the tower steps. Mr. Vermont waited at the bottom by a pile of boards, left last fall by the Student Conservation Association crew and the Friends of Hurricane Mountain volunteers who had replaced the wooden steps and landings, installed protective fences, and added support braces to the fire tower.
“The tower is on the National Register of Historic Places,” said Mr. Vermont. “A group out of Elizabethtown lobbied the [state Department of Environmental Conservation] to get the tower open again for the public.”
“How did they manage that in a Wilderness Area?” I asked.
“They changed the designation. The quarter-acre under the tower is now an Historic District. It’s not Wilderness anymore.”
I handed him my camera and asked him to take a picture of me next to the newly restored tower. Afterward, I followed him and Rosie off the summit, digesting the news about the tower. At the junction with the trail to Crow Junction, we said our good-byes as I gave Rosie one last scratch behind the ears.
That evening, I looked up the Friends of Hurricane Mountain. Replacing the windows in the tower and cleaning up the summit area were among the additional tasks to be completed by the time you read this. What’s more, the tower will be useful for more than simply the enjoyment of hikers. An emergency transceiver will be installed on the tower to help relay radio signals into an area of the Adirondack Park previously signal-less. And it wasn’t the only reopened fire tower I discovered. The one atop St. Regis Mountain is also in its final stages of restoration.
Hurricane Mountain got its name from the strong winds that blow over its summit. One of those gusts is the winds of change, which allowed the peak’s historic tower to be restored. How fortunate to have it open again as a hiking destination!