A trail to take your breath away
By Paul Grondahl
Tony Goodwin’s short, powerful legs are churning up a steep, 1,000-foot trail to Brown Mountain in the Tongue Mountain Range above Lake George. Perspiration dapples his wind-burned brow. Yellow and orange maple leaves rustle in the wake of his battered, split-at-the-seams leather hiking boots.
Atop an overlook summit on a brisk and stunningly clear late-autumn morning, Goodwin pauses to shed a layer of clothing, catch his breath, sip cold water and drink in this sumptuous view of “the Queen of American Lakes.”
“There’s nothing better than being on a trail on a day like this,” says Goodwin, 52, of Keene, a former schoolteacher who has made his living in the Adirondacks for the past 25 years by maintaining trails, promoting cross-country skiing and writing guidebooks.
Goodwin is an avid hiker (he climbed the 46 High Peaks by age 11) who expects a reward equal to his effort. “If I’m going to spend a lot of hours and exert a lot of energy hiking a trail,” he says. “I want the payoff of a great view at the end of the climb. I think it’s human nature to want to reach the summit. Why? Because it’s there.”
Nowadays, Goodwin—who maintains the 35-mile Jackrabbit Ski Trail as executive director of the Adirondack Ski Touring Council—is floating the idea of creating a new long-distance Eastern Summits Trail that would traverse nearly two dozen mountaintops across 80 miles of the eastern Adirondacks.
Goodwin’s proposed route would begin in the Tongue Mountain Range at Lake George and continue north through the Pharaoh Lake Wilderness, Hammond Pond Wild Forest, Dix Mountain Wil-derness, Giant Mountain Wilderness and Jay Mountain Wilderness before making a sharp dogleg right at the end to its terminus at Poke-O-Moonshine overlooking Lake Champlain. Summits covered would include Pharaoh, Owl Pate, Niagara, Camels Hump, Bear, Rocky Peak Ridge, Giant, Owl Head Lookout, Knob Lock, Hurricane, Jay, Death and Bluff.
Roughly 90 percent of the proposed trail—from Tongue Mountain to the Jay Mountain Wilderness—is on public land. Only the last section to Poke-O would require new acquisitions or easements. Also, its route, while not as remote and wild as parts of the Northville-Placid Trail, would include just eight road crossings. One minor challenge is how to cross a narrow section of Paradox Lake. Impractical to create a lengthy detour around the lake, a solution could be as simple as leaving a few aluminum rowboats on either side and relying on the honor system. But above all, the Eastern Summits Trail would reward a moderate hiker with incomparable views along the whole way, including from the highest points, the summits of Rocky Peak Ridge (4,420 feet) and Giant (4,627 feet).
“Now, look at this; here’s what I’m talking about,” Goodwin says, pausing atop a bare rock ridge of the Tongue Mountain Range Trail be-tween Brown Mountain and Five Mile Mountain. It’s a two-sided spectacle. Gaze to the southeast and the scenic Lake George Narrows and a necklace of emerald islands glisten in the late-morning sun. To the northwest, the hills roll out like waves that wash past Catamount, First Brother, Second Brother, Third Brother, Little Stevens, Stevens.
“There’s something so wonderful and expansive about being able to see for miles and miles, from mountain to mountain,” Goodwin says, comparing it to an ocean’s sense of vastness.
Goodwin, author of Guide to the High Peaks and Classic Adirondack Ski Tours, both for the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK), considers his proposed summits trail an alternative that will help reduce heavy use in the High Peaks and attract those who seek the high ground and relish the sweeping vistas not found on the 120-mile lowland route of the Northville-Placid Trail (the only true, long-distance trail in the Adirondacks). Goodwin believes a summits trail would draw a healthy mix of hikers, from families with young children looking for a moderate weekend journey to seasoned backpackers hankering for the adventure of a weeklong end-to-end marathon. The creation of trails to the summits of several currently trailless peaks would open these areas to intermediate hikers for the first time and would foster a variety of additional day-hike experiences.
“A trail that draws hikers away from the High Peaks and guarantees good views is definitely worth considering,” says John Sheehan, a spokesman with the Adirondack Council. “Our only concern would be the amount of tree cutting necessary to make trails and to make sure any new trails are properly constructed.”
The summits trail is not a new concept. It was included in a 1996 report by ADK called “The Adirondack Park Non-Motorized Recreation Plan.” Goodwin worked on the committee that drew up the report, but the genesis of a summits trail is at least four decades old and probably older. In the 1930s, Bob Marshall, a pioneering champion of wilderness, discussed a long trail in the Adirondacks that shared a similar focus on high ground and great views. Goodwin says he picked up on the concept from his former neighbor, Carolyn Schaefer, wife of the late Adirondack preservationist Paul Schaefer. In the 1960s and 1970s, she ran an outfitter company in Keene and sought an easier route for backpackers as an alternative to the rugged trails in the Mount Marcy region.
Goodwin resurrected Schaefer’s plan after a 25-year hiatus. The summits trail proposal is just one entry in the non-motorized recreation plan submitted by the ADK—which amounts to a kind of hiking wish list. “Five years ago, after the plan came out, a lot of people told me it was very interesting,” Goodwin says. “It had support, but as is so often the case, it was pretty much dropped after that.”
Now, though, as the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is drawing up unit management plans (UMPs) for the Adirondack Park, the timing is critical for renewing a discussion of the summits trail idea. “This is absolutely the time to be discussing and weighing that proposal,” says Neil Woodworth, the Adirondack Mountain Club’s counsel and deputy director, who worked on the ADK plan with Goodwin in 1996. “It’s complicated because it involves multiple UMPs, but it deserves to be on the table right now.”
While the ADK has not taken a formal position on the summits trail, Woodworth likes the underlying concept. “We should be providing more recreation opportunities in Wild Forest areas,” says Woodworth. Yet he adds that he and others have reservations about bringing more hikers to the trailless tract of the southern Dix Mountain Wilderness. “There are some beautiful peaks in there, and they are not that well-traveled,” he said. “I’d hate to see them overrun.” He also notes that it’s one of the few places left in the greater High Peaks region where hikers need route-finding skills to explore the wilderness. “If you mark a trail through there, that experience will be lost,” he said.
Goodwin concedes that the trail would attract more hikers to that region, but he argues that the state needs to provide more alternatives to the High Peaks. In any case, he doubts that the peaks in the southern Dix region will get the crowds seen on such popular peaks as Marcy, Algonquin and Cascade. “They’re not 4,000-foot peaks,” he said, “and although their views are nice, they are not quite the equal of the High Peaks.”
ADK prepared the report on non-motorized recreation as part of a larger DEC report on recreation in the Park. Because DEC never finished its report, Woodworth said, the club’s report has remained dormant. “At some point we may update it and release it on its own,” he added.
Without ADK’s support, the summits trail is not likely to become a reality. There are other hurdles as well. One is that the state is short on cash as a result of a lingering recession and the fiscal crisis that followed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. “We don’t have a dime from the state for stewardship money,” Woodworth says.
And then there is the question of who will organize and carry out the trail construction. Goodwin has the experience through the Ausable Club’s Adirondack Trail Improvement Society and the Jackrabbit Ski Trail, but says he’s already stretched too thin as fund-raiser, promoter and trail-maintenance supervisor. “It strikes a responsive chord in people, but it would need a major commitment of state money and volunteers’ time,” he says. He figures the summits trail could be built in five years with high energy, iron resolve and “a few hundred thousand dollars.”
Goodwin’s idea is one that excites the doyenne of Adirondack guidebook authors, Barbara McMartin. “This is a nice way to increase public access to these summits,” she said. “The eastern Adirondacks has more than its fair share of bare-topped mountains with magnificent views.”
As we stop for lunch on the Tongue Mountain Trail, Goodwin reclines on a sun-warmed rock overlook near Five Mile Mountain and eats a sandwich. Mostly, we chew silently and marvel at the view of Lake George unraveling at our feet far below. Goodwin pauses between bites at one point and shakes his head in disbelief. “Can you believe the view?” “I rest my case.”
Other ideas for long trails
The Adirondack Mountain Club created the 133-mile Northville-Placid Trail in 1922. It remains the only long-distance hiking trail in the Adirondack Park, but there are proposals to create four others. The first three are contained in the club’s 1996 “Adirondack Park Non- Motorized Recreation Plan.” The fourth is a project of the National Park Service. All are still in the talking stage.
Eastern Summits Trail: From Tongue Mountain overlooking Lake George, the trail would climb over more than 20 summits while wending its way north to Poke-O-Moonshine Mountain overlooking Lake Champlain. Total distance: 80 miles.
East-West Trunk Trail: Starting in the tiny community of Wanakena, near Cranberry Lake, this trail would traverse lowland terrain as well as summits and end on Prospect Mountain near Lake George. Several routes have been proposed. Total distance: 210 miles.
Champlain Valley Heritage Trail: Modeled on “rambling” trails in Europe, this would enable people to walk from one village to another in the valley. It would stick to moderate terrain, but hikers could make side trips to nearby summits for panoramic views of Lake Champlain and mountains on both sides. The route, which would require numerous easements to cross private land, has not been determined. Total distance: 50 miles.
North Country Scenic Trail: This 4,200-mile trail would start in North Dakota and end in the Adirondacks. The trail would enter the Park from the west near Forestport, traverse wild lowlands in the southern part of the Park and end at Crown Point in the Champlain Valley. Total distance: nearly 200 miles in Adirondacks.