Lake George

Lake George on Foot

Great hikes in 4 nature preserves

By Ruth Lamb

The view of Lake George from Cat Mountain’s summit. Photo by Carl Heilman II

Over the past 15 years, the Lake George Land Conservancy has preserved more than 10,000 acres. The purchases have protected wetlands, forests, ridgelines and lakeshore and saved habitats of great blue herons, peregrine falcons and bats, among other wildlife species.

They’ve also created wonderful hiking opportunities for the public. We describe below four of our favorite hikes in the conservancy’s preserves: Cook Mountain, Gull Bay, Pilot Knob Ridge, and Cat and Thomas Mountains.

Cook Mountain

2.6 miles round trip

Directions: From the traffic circle in Ticonderoga, drive south on Lord Howe Street for 0.75 mile to a T-intersection with Alexandria Street (County 5). Turn left and immediately right onto Baldwin Road. Drive south for 1.5 miles to the preserve gate on the right.

Cook Mountain. Map by Nancy Bernstein

On a quiet back road near Ticonderoga, the conservancy has saved 192 wild lowland and mountainous acres, near a site where British soldiers battled Montcalm’s French troops during the French and Indian War. Today we follow a grassy path to the preserve trails on land donated by the Delano and Boyle families.

The Beaver Trail leads to lush wetlands and ponds where we spy a fishing green heron and watch wood ducks fly up, spattering the air with bright colors. Although we don’t meet fox, deer or wild turkey, preserve volunteer Dean Dolbeck reports seeing them here, along with an occasional bear or moose.

After strolling through fields grown to trees, we access the summit trail, which gains 895 feet as it climbs through mixed hardwoods to 1,230-foot Cook Mountain. We follow the rough trail insistently upward, with black-capped chickadees calling nearby, before we rest next to a glacial boulder as big as a house. We are surrounded by tiny maple, oak and beech babies that are growing up in place of older trees torn from the ground by a fierce storm (their log remains lie off trail).

As the route eases, the forest opens into a land of rock ledges, where junipers and scrub oaks dominate. Life is hard here, where climate extremes bring baking sun and howling winds. We try to stay on the trail and search for markers, paint blazes and rock cairns. Entranced by all the butterflies and birds, I almost miss the views toward Vermont’s Green Mountains and the long look up the lake toward Anthony’s Nose and Black Mountain.

Retracing the steep trail takes careful walking to avoid slipping. When we reach the bed of the abandoned railway that took people and freight between Lake Champlain and Lake George, we turn right and follow its straight-arrow route until a left turn brings us back to the trailhead. While we meet no one this day, Dean reports that people from all over the world have enjoyed exploring these contrasting habitats.

Gull Bay Preserve

2.5 miles round trip

Directions: From Ticonderoga, follow State 22 south for 9.5 miles to Gull Bay Road. Turn right (west) and drive 1.75 miles. Turn right onto Sagamore Road for 0.6 mile to the preserve parking lot on right.

Gull Bay Preserve. Map by Nancy Bernstein

In June, indigo buntings claim the field at the trailhead of this 472-acre preserve that combines uplands and heron rookery in one pleasant walk. At the start, the blue trail follows an eroding road uphill. Accompanied by the “teacher, teacher” calls of an ovenbird, we are drawn past daisy displays until the trail bears right to a rocky outcrop. A hawk soars off, leaving Gull Bay glinting below, along with views toward Lake George’s western highlands and south toward Black Mountain.

We reluctantly leave this lookout and start toward the heron rookery on the orange trail, but we lose our way briefly before refinding the newly cut path that snakes downhill through forest. Soon the trail turns onto one of the old woods roads that crisscross the property, a reminder of the logging that took place here before the property was bought by the conservancy at a sheriff’s auction in 2003. We enjoy the tree-lined road and lush patches of ferns before the track becomes waterlogged and sends us on squishy detours.

As the route gets wetter, the “kerplunks” of frogs compete with the “okalees” of red-winged blackbirds. Finally, we sight the first rookery tree, a skeleton rising out of a beaver pond with a branchy nest atop. We can see baby herons and hear their hungry cries: chi, chi, chi, chi. From nearby apartment trees bedecked with several nests, other young add their persistent calls, which increase in urgency when a parent returns with food. There have been as many as 35 nests at the rookery, where the great blue herons are in residence from April to July.

As we traverse the marsh’s edge we find that crossing the pond’s drainage takes all our attention, for we must keep track of trail signs while balancing on rocks and teetering across the beaver dam. We count two dozen heron nests. The end of the trail loops around a beaver pond and returns to the main route, which we follow back to the car.

Pilot Knob Ridge

1.5 miles round trip to ridge

3 miles round trip to waterfall

Directions: From State 9L in Fort Ann, turn north onto Pilot Knob Road and drive 0.75 mile to parking lot on right. The trail leaves from the left side of the lot.

Pilot Knob Ridge. Map by Nancy Bernstein

Orange disks draw me into hemlocks, maples and beeches as the path ambles up Pilot Knob ridge with strident calls of a great crested flycatcher overhead. When the climb eases I find a trail junction: I can go straight or right to reach the viewpoint. I choose to walk straight ahead and enjoy the dim light that filters through the forest canopy. As I hike the lightly trodden path, I stay alert for trail signs, as each of the frequent changes of direction is marked with double disks.

As I walk I wonder: What will I find when I reach the site where a house once dominated this otherwise wild mountainous ridge? To conserve the land, the Zug family purchased this ridge-side estate and sold it to the conservancy for less than the market price. In 2001 the conservancy razed the house, allowing nature take over. Suddenly, I’m there. I step out of forest into a bright opening, knee-high in grass and meadow plants.

Bunches of yellow mustard blooms lead to a gazebo. Beyond, Lake George glints in the sun. To the west Crane and Huckleberry mountains stand tall in the distance, and French Mountain stretches southeast. Peopled areas, such as Cleverdale and Assembly Point and a few upland developments, stand out in sharp contrast to the mostly forested ridges around the lake and the greenery of undisturbed Dome Island to the north.

Knowing that another trail will lead me to a scenic waterfall, I search for blue trail markers going further upland, following a hermit thrush‘s flutelike song along old logging roads that twist and turn along the ridge. Then a rough path loops off-road, taking me on a clamber over rocks until I find myself atop a waterfall that drops precipitously to my right. After lingering to enjoy this unusual place, I continue through the undulating landscape until I can peer up at the waterfall from below, before returning to the gazebo.

From there I trudge down the former steep access road – an ugly scar that’s being invaded by honeysuckle bushes and sweet clover. Conservancy staff work with volunteers to control these alien species and encourage other native plants to hide this glaring human intrusion.

Thomas and Cat Mountains

Round trip to Thomas, 3 miles;
to Cat, 6.5 miles

Directions: From Northway Exit 24, drive east on County Route 11. Turn right onto Valley Woods Road. Look for the trailhead on the right shortly after the turn.

Thomas and Cat Mountains. Map by Nancy Bernstein

In Bolton’s hills I find the trailhead, its gate busted open by those who objected when the Lake George Land Conservancy closed the 1,850-acre preserve to motorized vehicles two years ago. I see no one else when I trek up both mountains in summer, although I spy poop that might be bear and tracks of raccoons and deer.

I focus on the stony road to avoid twisting an ankle and am glad I’m wearing hiking boots but wish I had a hiking stick. I pass several old logging roads, now growing in, before arriving at an immense sand bank. The Warren County Soil and Water District reseeded this barren slope with native plants. The squawk of ravens draws me on past dense blackberry growth uphill to a trail junction.

I remember the June day I turned right and followed the orange trail, gaining 600 feet in elevation to reach Thomas Mountain’s 1,953-foot summit. When I rested on steep slopes I caught many glimpses of Tongue Mountain to the northeast before reaching the height of land and strolling downhill into hemlocks, red pines and maples clustered around a rocky cliff and a tiny cabin built by a former owner. Lake George sparkled below, and in nearby forested hills I sighted Thomas Mountain’s twin, Cat Mountain.

A waterfall at Pilot Knob Ridge. Photo courtesy of the Lake George Land Conservancy

Today I walk left, following yellow disks, bound for Cat Mountain’s rocky peak. Streams trickle across the stony road, headed downhill toward Edgecomb Pond, the town of Bolton’s water supply. In an hour I reach a beaver pond after passing through a broad open field where sits a mysterious piece of discarded logging machinery.

Turning right onto a narrower dirt road, I enter a roller-coaster hike to another peaceful beaver pond before climbing steeply. I glimpse a large bird soaring overhead. An osprey! Its shriek accompanies me up – into shade, sun, past a mossy rock, ferns and tiny hemlocks and pines. Just as I wonder where the top can be, coyotes howl and bark down below, seeming to urge me on the winding trail. More shade, more sun, bedrock, sweet ferns, mountain ash … I finally arrive, two hours after setting off.

The view leaves me gaping: Edgecomb Pond and Lake George’s island-dotted narrows to the northeast, Trout Lake to the southeast, and glimpses of the Hudson River valley to the west. As I meander among the rocks, accompanied by gnats and crickets, I get an amazing picture of just what a watershed is and a sense of gratitude to the conservancy for protecting so much of it.

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