Lake Placid’s wild side

Hikers find solitude just outside town

By Phil Brown

Brian Mann contemplates the world from McKenzie Mountain. Photo by Phil Brown

Talk about a great day. We visited two mountain ponds, climbed two peaks with gorgeous views, hiked for miles through a virgin forest and saw not a soul in our 81/2-hour journey. Thank you, Richard Hayes Phillips … I think.

A geologist and acoustic musician from Canton, Phillips got it into his head more than a decade ago to clear the long-neglected trails on Moose and McKenzie mountains and along the west side of Lake Placid. Working alone in his spare time, using only an ax, a crosscut saw and other hand tools, he spent nine years reopening 17½ miles of trails. He finished the job two years ago but returns annually to remove blowdown.

“I like being in the woods,” the 53-year-old says. “I like cutting wood; it keeps me strong. And you see the fruits of your labor right away.”

Although most of the trails lie within the public Forest Preserve, Phillips didn’t ask for the state’s permission and insists he didn’t need it. The trails were built by the Shore Owners Association, a group of landowners on Lake Placid, as far back as the 1890s. The SOA stopped maintaining most of them in the 1970s, but Phillips painstakingly retraced the routes, tramping through the woods in search of old trail markers, sawn logs, signs of a path. He describes his work as “historical reconstruction.”

The regulations of the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), he says, allow anyone to clear and maintain existing trails. Although the trails had been abandoned, he argues that doesn’t mean they had ceased to exist. “My contention was if I can find them, they exist,” he told the Explorer.

DEC has a somewhat different take: It’s investigating the possibility that the trails were cleared illegally. David Winchell, an agency spokesman, said Forest Preserve regulations forbid removing or destroying any trees, shrubs or other plants without a DEC permit. He said DEC will decide in its McKenzie Mountain Wilderness management plan whether to close the trails or make them official routes.

Whatever the legalities, the trails exist now. Brian Mann, a reporter for North Country Public Radio, and I played hooky on a sunny day in early May and hiked about nine miles on routes cleared by Phillips. From the lake, we climbed to Loch Bonnie and then to the summit of Moose Mountain, followed the 3-mile ridge to McKenzie Mountain and finally returned to the lake via Bartlett Pond.

Although our trek took more than eight hours, it can be done in much less time. Brian and I spent nearly 2½ hours lazing on the summits and at a few other scenic spots.

If you’re looking for a shorter hike, you can climb McKenzie by itself or go up Moose only as far as Loch Bonnie. Another option is 2,878-foot Haystack Mountain, located just south of McKenzie. (See map for possible routes.)

Hand-carved signs on Moose Mountain. Photo by Phil Brown

Because Moose and McKenzie, at 3,899 feet and 3,861 feet respectively, fall just short of 4,000 feet, they lack the cachet of High Peak status. As a result, they see far fewer peak-baggers. The SOA trails on Moose and McKenzie, unlike those in the High Peaks, have not been worn down to roots and bedrock. Much of the time, especially on the ridge, you’ll be walking on soft duff or moss. This is easy on the feet, but since the trail is not always clearly defined, you must pay more attention to where you’re going.

Be forewarned that lower does not always mean easier. In our outing, Brian and I ascended 2,800 feet—which is usually more than hikers ascend while climbing the High Peaks.

The hike starts along the Lake Trail. Brian and I parked at the end of Chipmunk Lane, a short road near the end Whiteface Inn Road, and followed some steps down to the trail. At the outset, the trail passes in front of private camps and sticks close to the shore, offering wonderful views of the High Peaks. (Be sure to stay on the trail. Do not venture onto lawns or docks.) After a few minutes, it veers away from the lake, following a water pipe and passing a large boulder, and soon reaches a dirt road. Cross the road and stay on the path. Soon you’ll come to another dirt road. Turn left and follow the road to a stream crossed on loose planks. Just beyond the stream you’ll come to a trail junction with a signpost. Bear left for the Bartlett Pond Trail.

The trail follows Two Brooks to the pond and eventually reaches the ridge just below the summit of McKenzie. During our ascent, however, Brian and I stayed on this trail for only 15 minutes. Soon after entering the public Forest Preserve, the trail reaches a junction with a sign, for the Two Brooks Trail leading to Moose. We turned right here and crossed the stream.

On the opposite bank, you may notice some blue blazes along a trail going to the right. Do not follow this route. Rather, look for a trail that veers to the left, following the bed of a small intermittent stream. It climbs through a hardwood forest. In less than a mile, you’ll pass small cliffs on the left and soon afterward enter a beautiful forest of balsam fir, with deep duff and emerald moss.

About 1.75 miles from the Two Brooks Trail junction, the trail reaches another junction a half-mile from the summit of Moose. A number of large trees were toppled in a windstorm in 1999, creating a sunny opening in the forest. Brian and I decided to eat lunch here. As we nibbled on sandwiches and trail mix, we got to talking about theology. The names Kierkegaard and Einstein came up. I think we cracked the riddle of the universe, but alas for humanity, the solution now escapes me.

After lunch, instead of heading directly for Moose’s summit, we took the trail to the right that leads down to Loch Bonnie. It’s only a 10-minute descent, well worth the trip. Although it was May 5, a small cove in the shadows still held ice, and snow adorned the far shoreline. “This is like being in Colorado,” Brian remarked.

We frog-hopped through a wet meadow to reach an old lean-to with a dirt floor and a hole in its roof. Oddly, it faces away from the water. Despite its shortcomings, the lean-to has its devoted fans. A journal left there last year, begins:

Dear Fellow Wandering Hikers, welcome to Loch Bonnie, the pond of secluded beauty. Although some may claim our dear Loch Bonnie [lean-to] a little rundown, those who stay one night cannot deny her her rustic quiet beauty and charm.

You also can reach this spot directly from Lake Placid by the Loch Bonnie Trail, which continues to the top of Moose. Leaving Bonnie, Brian and I started up this trail for the half-mile climb to the summit. The ascent is steep, so we didn’t mind pausing occasionally to enjoy glimpses of Whiteface Mountain and other High Peaks through the trees.

Bartlett Pond is a scenic stop on the Two Brooks Trail. Photo by Phil Brown

From Loch Bonnie, we reached the summit in 35 minutes and went to the first lookout, off the right side of the trail. It offered a spectacular vista of the northern Adirondacks, including Whiteface, Catamount, Lyon, Debar and St. Regis. Other landmarks included Franklin Falls Reservoir, Taylor Pond and the farmlands of Vermontville and Gabriels

We then walked a short distance to a second lookout on the left side of the trail. Now we looked down on Lake Placid and out at a sea of mountains. I started picking out the High Peaks: Giant, Dix, Gothics, Marcy, Colden, Algonquin, Nye, Santanoni, among others. Brian didn’t want to leave. He lay back on a rock warmed by the sun. “Wake me when I have skin cancer,” he said, closing his eyes.

Eventually, we bestirred ourselves and started following the ridge trail, marked by yellow disks. The trail winds through a forest so primeval that it’s hard to believe you are only a few miles from the bustling metropolis of Lake Placid. You’ll go down and up three times in the 3.1 miles between summits. Along the way, you’ll pass several short paths to lookouts, indicated by Phillips’s hand-carved signs. Nearly midway to McKenzie you’ll see a sign for a longer trail that leads to a spring on the southern flank of Moose. We opted to forgo the 0.8-mile round trip.

The first col is reached about a mile from Moose’s summit. At 3,200 feet, this is the lowest point on the ridge trail. Turn right and follow the little valley about 75 yards to a sharp left turn. Keep your eye out, because it’s easy to miss.

Soon after climbing out of the col, you pass the side trail to Clearwater Spring. Just beyond you’ll come to another sharp left that’s easy to miss. After this turn, you climb to another high point, with a view of McKenzie and Lower Saranac Lake, and then descend to the second col. From here, you climb through a slot in the bedrock. Ordinarily, this is not difficult, but Brian and I found it plugged with snow and ice and quite slippery.

It takes just 15 minutes or so to reach the third col, the start of the final half-mile climb up McKenzie. Just before reaching the summit, you pass the Bartlett Pond Trail on the left. You’ll need to backtrack to this point on the return.

Brian and I arrived on McKenzie in the late afternoon. Like Moose, McKenzie has two lookouts. One ledge, to the right of the trail, looks south and west toward the western High Peaks, the Saranac Lakes, Ampersand Mountain and St. Regis Mountain, among other landmarks. On the opposite side of the trail, another ledge affords a view of Lake Placid and the eastern High Peaks.

We lingered about 40 minutes on McKenzie before beginning the steep descent to Bartlett Pond. When we arrived, the pond was bathed in a golden glow. Mount Tamarac and a thicket of gray snags were perfectly mirrored in the calm water. We stayed a few minutes and then hurried on our way to Lake Placid. In all, the 2.5-mile descent from McKenzie to the Lake Trail took an hour and a half.

Strolling back to the car, we enjoyed one last bit of scenery looking across Lake Placid: the Great Range and Marcy lit up by the setting sun.

Directions: The hike begins on the Lake Trail, which follows the west shore of Lake Placid and crosses private property. Traditionally, the trail has been open to the public, but getting to it is problematic:

Option 1: The Adirondack Mountain Club’s guidebook Adirondack Trails: High Peaks Region recommends starting from Chipmunk Lane. Driving west from downtown Lake Placid on NY 86, turn right onto Whiteface Inn Road and go 1.5 miles to Chipmunk Lane on the left. Turn and drive to the end of the pavement, where there is a turnaround. Look for steps that lead a short distance to the Lake Trail. Within the past year, someone has placed no-trespassing signs near the steps, but it’s unclear whether they are meant to keep people from using the steps or from walking on the adjacent grounds. To be safe, ask for the landowner’s permission to use the steps.

Option 2: If the landowner refuses permission, you can park along Whiteface Inn Road and walk down the driveway of the Whiteface Club to reach the trail. This option extends the one-way distance of your hike by about a half-mile. From NY 86, drive about 1.3 miles down Whiteface Inn Road and park near the club’s entrance. Walk down the driveway toward the lake to pick up the trail.

A spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Conservation said the agency will work with the Shore Owners Association to improve public access to the Lake Trail. Keep in mind that permission to hike the trail can be revoked. Do not venture onto lawns or docks.

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