Northwestern Adirondacks

Northwest passages

The author’s dog contemplates the beauty of Upper South Pond. Photo by Bill Ingersoll

The northwestern Adirondacks has long been one of my favorite places to explore. It’s a region of secluded ponds, winding eskers, tannin-stained streams and ancient forests. The blowdown from a 1995 windstorm is an impressive demonstration of how natural forces prevail in truly wild areas.

When I first teamed up with Barbara McMartin to update her Discover the Adirondacks series of guidebooks, she assigned me to work on the book for the northwestern region. Over two years, I had the pleasure of exploring not just trails that had become old favorites, but also lands newly acquired by the state.

Last summer, I set out to explore this area again, in preparation for the third edition of Discover the Northwestern Adirondacks. My intent was to produce as thorough a guide as I could—not an easy task, given the vastness and diversity of the region’s wild lands. I made it a point to visit places buffering the wilderness core—new parcels of public Forest Preserve as well as some of the older stuff that just somehow got overlooked in the previous editions.

Here are four trips from the new version—some new, some old, but all lots of fun.

Round Lake Stream

Map by Nancy Bernstein

Directions: The path begins on NY 30, south of Tupper Lake. There is a small gravel pullout on the west side of the highway just 0.2 miles south of County 421. Alternatively, you can launch a canoe on Round Lake and access the other end of the route from the water. To reach the lake, turn west onto Sabattis Circle Road from NY 30. When you reach a three-way intersection, turn right onto Sabattis Road. You immediately come to a bridge over the channel between Little Tupper Lake and Round. Launch here or continue a short distance to the DEC headquarters on Little Tupper.

The 2006 addition of Round Lake to the Forest Preserve filled the last gap in what had been a checkerboard of public and private ownership in the vicinity of the lower Bog River and Little Tupper Lake. Paddlers enjoy canoeing and camping on Round Lake, but the tract offers something for hikers as well: a pleasant walk along the lake’s outlet, which is as pretty a stream as they come.

Two unmarked footpaths linked by a stretch of old gravel road provide excellent access to Round Lake Stream and its attractive cascades. The trail begins on state Route 30 and leads to the north end of Round Lake. Even if there were no canoe access to the lake, the scenic value of this route would justify the state’s purchase. Of course, canoeists and kayakers can access the trail by paddling across the lake.

Hikers start at a gravel pullout beside Route 30. The beginning of the path, at the northern corner of the pullout, may be hard to spot, but once you’re in the woods the way couldn’t be clearer as you follow a wide logging road through a second-growth hardwood forest. The route ascends slightly and pulls near the Bog River, while narrowing into a pleasant footpath. The surrounding forest of mature yellow birches and other hardwoods is as fine as they come.

Flumes and cascades on Round Lake Stream. Photo by Bill Ingersoll

At 1.1 miles, you reach the point where Round Lake Stream flows into the Bog River. From the trail you can see the rapids on both streams, the terminus for paddling trips up the Bog. The trail enters a younger forest again, this one mixed with pine, fir and spruce. It sticks close to the side of Round Lake Stream, with views of some massive boulders in the riverbed.

After 1.5 miles, the path intersects an abandoned gravel road. Across the road is a clearing that was once the site of a hunting camp. The way right leads about 50 feet to a bridge and continues to Winding Falls on the Bog River. But you want to bear left and follow the road for a half-mile, to a point where it curves left. Now look for the second leg of the path, which turns right on the outside edge of the curve to continue parallel to Round Lake Stream. It keeps its distance from the water at first, detouring around one large wet area to a view of the stream where it is shallow, rocky and lined with alders.

The trail cuts inland for a short distance before approaching the stream again at the foot of the first of the cascades, 2.6 miles from the highway. You have less than a mile to go to reach the lake, but you’ll want to take your time. As you proceed upstream, you pass a series of small gorges where this stream is shaped into cascades and flumes. Meanwhile, the forest transitions from tall white pines to shady hemlocks. International Paper, which had owned this land, left these woods relatively untouched. You would think that it had always been forever-wild Forest Preserve.

The only drawback is the hobblebush, which grows incredibly thick here and has a knack for obscuring the route. If you are in doubt about which way to go, just remember that the path is rarely far from the stream.

Finally, at 3.5 miles, you reach the old concrete dam at the north end of Round Lake. The trail becomes a grassy old roadway, which leads to some choice shoreline campsites—one of which is located on an exposed bank not far from a natural sand beach. The view of the lake as you approach it can be quite stunning.

As mentioned, you can access this path from the lake, too. Paddle north to the dam and take out on the right shore, near campsite 6. The logging road that becomes the footpath is just a short distance from the water.

Lows Ridge

Map by Nancy Bernstein

Directions: Follow County 421 west toward Horseshoe Lake. The pavement ends at 5.7 miles, where the road becomes Otterbrook Road. The access road to Lows Lower Dam—the place to launch a canoe on Hitchins Pond—bears left at 5.8 miles. If hiking or biking, follow Otterbrook Road around Horseshoe Lake and across the railroad tracks to a gated road at 7.4 miles. This is the dirt road to Lows Upper Dam.

Lows Ridge overlooking Hitchins Pond offers one of the best views of the Bog River basin. Hikers have been bushwhacking up the ridge for years, but a new state trail makes getting to the top easier than ever.

Marked by blue disks, the mile-long trail begins at Lows Upper Dam and ascends 400 feet. There are two ways to reach the trailhead. Canoeists can put in at Lows Lower Dam and paddle 2.5 miles up the Bog River and across Hitchins Pond to the Upper Dam. Others can reach the Upper Dam by walking or mountain biking 2.4 miles down a dirt road that’s closed to motor vehicles. Both approaches offer glimpses into the heart of the massive wetland complex visible from the summit.

Near the Upper Dam, signs point to the start of the trail behind the foundations of an old building. The trail begins by entering a small gully in the forest and soon begins a long traverse of the lower slopes, well below the ridge’s cliffs. You then ascend by a series of well-designed switchbacks. This brings you to a col on the ridge west of the main summit. Lots of aspen and paper birch appear, pioneer species that took root after fires early in the last century. More switchbacks lead to the summit knob, with its 180-degree view that ranges from Frederica Mountain, near Lake Lila, to the High Peaks.

Blue blazes on the rocks guide you along the ridge—narrow and precipitous in places —to a plaque commemorating the younger A. Augustus Low, whose father established the family estate at Hitchins Pond. The trail ends here, although exposed ledges continue along the length of the ridge.

Although intervening hills obscure the main body of Lows Lake, the long channel leading up to it is visible to the west, and beyond it the hills of the southern Five Ponds Wilderness stretch for miles. The best view, however, is to the east. The Bog River winds away from Hitchins Pond through an extensive grassy swampland interrupted by stands of conifers and old railroad tracks, which cut across in a straight line. The southern edge of Horseshoe Lake is visible, with Mount Morris farther on. The Seward Range and a distant Algonquin define the far horizon to the right, while Whiteface and McKenzie mountains are visible to the left.

The Gulf

Map by Nancy Bernstein

Directions: Follow NY 3 to Pitcairn, near Harrisville, and turn southeast onto Jayville Road. This gravel road leads 4.3 miles to Powell Road, which in turn leads to Dobbs Road in just 0.1 miles. Turn left onto Dobbs, which is passable for 0.3 miles. High-clearance vehicles can continue to a driveway at 0.9 miles leading to state land, just before the gate to a hunting club.

The Gulf is an unusual trench-like fault bordered by rock bluffs and filled with a wide channel of navigable water. A good footpath leads to Gulf Stream below this small canyon, but to see the Gulf you will need to do some bushwhacking. If you have one, bring a pack canoe—by water is the best way to explore.

The path begins at a driveway at the end of Dobbs Road, in a forest of young white pines that gives way to a truly open hardwood forest—an area that was probably cleared in the era of mining and logging. The path skirts land owned by a private hunting club, angling southeast and merging after 0.2 miles with a trail coming from the club. Pay attention, because grasses and ferns threaten to conceal the path in places.

The level landscape gives way to a gentle hillside. A long descent leads through an open area, with the path ending at Gulf Stream, a mile from the start. You have to bushwhack along the north bank upstream for 0.2 miles to reach the flow and the navigable water. Sharp-eyed hikers may notice the faintest of paths on the forest floor.

The flow begins at a large beaver dam, within sight of the first rock bluff. Launch your canoe here. Both sides of the channel are lined with thick colonies of pickerelweed and, depending on water levels, extensive mudflats. The stream soon bends to the northeast and passes between twin outcrops as it enters the Gulf. The valley begins to narrow, and in the woods on either side you should notice more and more exposed bedrock, with continuous bands of talus near the water.

After just a mile of paddling, you reach the end of the Gulf and the flow. To the left, Gulf Stream spills through a crooked cleft in the rock. On the right is a rock wall rising 60 feet straight out of the water. You can land at a muddy beach at the end of the pool, and from here you can explore the various ledges.

If you want to see the Gulf without a canoe, you should bushwhack along the north bank. Note that the muddy shoreline, rock ledges and talus slopes leave little room for pedestrians. Take care scrambling around the rocks near the waterfall, some of which drop cleanly into the deep, dark water.

Upper South Pond

Map by Nancy Bernstein

Directions: The trailhead is located at the far end of remote Bear Pond Road. Take NY 812 to Croghan and turn east onto Belfort Road at the north end of town. In 3.6 miles, turn right onto Long Pond Road. Some 10.1 miles later, you reach a gate where Long Pond Road becomes Bear Pond Road. This is a long gravel road that reaches far into the forest, similar to the Moose River Plains. Follow it for 10.8 miles to a gate blocking further vehicle access. A driveway on the left is the start of the trail.

Located on the western edge of the Five Ponds Wilderness, Upper South Pond and its two sister ponds used to provide large bullheads for the table. That was before acid rain took its toll. Now all three are devoid of fish. What you can still find here, however, is solitude and scenery.

The state maintains a hiking trail as far as Upper South Pond, following old logging roads most of the way. At the start, a five-minute walk from Bear Pond Road brings you to a campsite next to the Middle Branch of the Oswegatchie River, here just a creek. The river is spanned by the steel I-beams of an old bridge, which now rest on their side, creating an unusual but sturdy footbridge. Across the river, the trail passes through a string of meadows before entering the young forest.

Just over a half-mile from Bear Pond Road, an old tote road forks to the left. This is one of two unmarked trails leading to Sand Lake from Bear Pond Road. The yellow-marked trail keeps right, and you encounter several eroded areas as you climb the hillside. At 0.8 miles you reach a beaver meadow subject to occasional flooding (you may have to cross on a beaver dam). You come to another fork just beyond; this time the trail bears left.

The trail circles to a spot on the north shore of Upper South where a pair of camp buildings once stood. Now there is just a small clearing filled with wildflowers. The trail officially ends here, 1.4 miles from Bear Pond Road.

Upper South used to have its own resident hermit, Fred Lagrosse, whose cabin stood on the opposite shore. He is credited with the discovery of Loon Hollow Pond (which he called Loon Holler Pond). According to lore, when loggers began felling timber next to his cabin in 1906, he moved to town and got married.

One of the author’s friends carries a canoe between Middle South and Lower South ponds. Photo by Bill Ingersoll

A footpath used to continue to Middle South Pond, passing around its northern bay to end at a large bog on its shore. It began where the marked trail left off, but light use is making it increasingly hard to find. At the bog, I once found three of the Adirondacks’ insectivorous plants—pitcher plants, sundews and horned bladderwort—growing side by side, as well as the delicate bog aster.

One great way to enjoy all three South Ponds is with a pack canoe. Getting from Upper South to Middle South is not difficult, but the carry to Lower South—the remotest of the chain—will involve some bushwhacking. Because there is no fish, there are no fishermen’s routes to follow. The middle and lower ponds lie within an older parcel of state land that exhibits a fine old-growth forest. Their shorelines are brushy and show few signs of human use.

Bill Ingersoll, a Barneveld resident, adapted these trip descriptions from Discover the Northwestern Adirondacks, which he co-authored and published.

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The Adirondack Explorer is a nonprofit magazine covering the Adirondack Park's environment, recreation and communities.

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