A view of the future
By Phil Brown
Friday afternoon. The sun was out, but I was not. That just didn’t seem right, so I made a hasty decision to climb Loon Lake Mountain.
I had been thinking off and on about taking this hike ever since Gov. George Pataki announced a deal to open up International Paper’s vast timberlands to public recreation. IP’s holdings include most of Loon Lake Mountain.
Actually, that should be plural: Loon Lake Mountains. There are three or four peaks in this small but alluring range north of Onchiota. You’ll want to keep that in mind if you attempt the trip I’m about to describe. Otherwise, you might end up on the wrong peak.
On the highest summit (3,355 feet) is a fire tower. Although the state owns the summit and the tower, the trail to the top crosses IP land and is closed to the public. As a result of Pataki’s agreement, it is expected that the trail someday will be open to hikers, but this might take a few years.
I couldn’t wait. I had heard that the mountain’s ledges offer fantastic views of the northern Adirondacks. The tower offers even better views, of course, but its lower steps have been removed. When the state reopens the summit trail, the tower would become a candidate for restoration.
Others who are eager to enjoy this marvelous vista will be happy to learn that you can get to the tower without trespassing by approaching it from the northwest. The whole 4.5-mile route is on state land. Little-used trails will get you to the base of the mountain, but then you’ll have to bushwhack the final 1.5 miles to the top. Most of the 1,850-foot gain in elevation will come during the bushwhack.
Obviously, this is a trip only for experienced hikers who know how to use a map and compass. If you go, bring extra food, water and other essentials and be prepared to spend a full day in the woods.
The trip begins at a remote trailhead in the Debar Game Management Area. In the 1930s, the state tried to establish a population of elk here. Apparently, the animals were wiped out by illegal hunting, and so the experiment was abandoned. On this hike you can visit a large artificial pond created for the elk.
You park in a small clearing from which three trails radiate. They are old tote roads, but no motor vehicles are allowed beyond this point. You’ll want to take the trail on the far left as you enter the clearing. It starts off directly south through a pine forest.
Five minutes after setting out, you cross Hatch Brook on a bridge. There’s a good view to the northwest of hills in the Debar Mountain Wild Forest. The trail now ascends gradually through a hardwood forest. After about 1.5 miles, you come to a junction with a side trail on the left. You’ll want to pick up this trail, but not yet. Continue straight for another quarter-mile to Skiff Pond.
Skiff Pond is worth a visit for a few reasons. First, you can confirm that you are where you think you are. This is reassuring, since the trails are unmarked. Second, there are good views across the water toward the Sable Mountains to the south and Loon Lake Mountains to the southeast. Third, the pond is something of a curiosity. It drains through a large upright pipe, like a giant bathtub.
Now return to the side trail. It leads generally southeast along the base of the mountain range. Except for a few muddy stretches (worsened by illegal ATV use), it’s easy walking. In 10 minutes, you cross a stream. After a mile or so, look for a ravine on your right and a boulder-strewn slope on your left. You are nearing the end of the state land, roughly 1.25 miles from the main trail.
There is no notice when you leave state land, but keep your eyes peeled for the metal back of a Forest Preserve sign facing the opposite direction. If you go too far, you’ll see a dramatic change in the forest: The trees become smaller and uniform in size. Turn around and walk back to the state land.
At the Forest Preserve border, set a compass bearing for 82 degrees. This will take you along the boundary line and eventually to the saddle between the fire-tower summit and a lower summit to the northwest. Be prepared for a steep scramble over large boulders at the start of the bushwhack. Look behind for views of the Sable Mountains as you climb. Debar Mountain may be visible to your left.
The terrain levels out after 10 to 15 minutes. You’ll continue to ascend, but more gradually, through mostly hardwoods to the saddle, which is a little under a mile from the trail. From the saddle, it’s less than a half-mile to the top. The summit lies to the southeast. You will have to push through spruce and balsam at times, I found find numerous rocky and grassy openings during the final ascent. Rather than make a beeline to the summit, I went from one opening to the next. Another option is to circle south from the col without ascending until you are due west of the tower or nearly so.
From the summit ledges, you’ll enjoy a sweeping vista of the timberlands owned by International Paper and Domtar Industries. Except for a few dirt roads, they are indistinguishable from wilderness—and the IP lands, at least, are sure to stay that way. Visible peaks include Lyon Mountain to the northeast, Whiteface, Moose and McKenzie mountains to the southeast, the High Peaks more directly south, Azure Mountain to the west and Debar Mountain to the northwest. The Adirondack lake country is splayed out to the southwest: Hikers who are used to mountainous landscapes in other parts of the Park may be surprised by the vast stretches of flat terrain seen from Loon Lake Mountain.
In a few years, hikers should should have a much easier time getting to the top of Loon Lake Mountain after the state opens a marked route. But for those who don’t mind a little off-trail adventure, there’s no reason to wait.