Soaking up the scenery and serenity of the Soda Range
By Dick Beamish
Looking for a laid-back jaunt along streams, through the woods and over a mostly open ridge? A hike that offers some of the best views of the popular High Peaks, yet is well removed from the crowds that frequent them?
Try this six-mile loop in the Soda Range, starting way up on East Hill above Keene, where you begin and end the trip at Crow Clearing.
The name Soda Range supposedly comes from the early settlers who burned hardwoods on these mountainsides to produce soda ash, from which they made soap. The more romantic name for the ridge we’re heading for is Nun-da-ga-o, said to be Indian for “hill of the wind spirit.”
Rachel and I decide to do the route counter-clockwise, to put the two-mile approach to Weston Mountain behind us early in the day and enjoy a short, more dramatic finish later on. Signing in at the trail register, we see that two other hikers preceded us an hour-and-a-half earlier. We cross a brook and head toward Hurricane Mountain, the firetower peak that reigns over this pocket of the Park.
After a mostly level mile, we reach the Gulf Brook lean-to where the Hurricane trail forks right. We go left and follow along one and then another stream, arriving at the outlet of Lost Pond in about 20 minutes. Rachel, in the lead, keeps running into new spider webs strung across the narrow trail, quick reconstruction work considering that others had passed through here less than two hours before.
We investigate the outlet end of the pond, where beavers had long ago backed up the water with a dam that is now so grown over you can’t see the sticks that formed the original structure. With water flowing through rather than over the obstruction, it’s clear why Lost Pond is a lot smaller now than when our USGS topo map was made 23 years ago—and why it will be a truly lost pond one of these days unless the beavers get busy again.
At the other end is the lean-to with an Adirondack Mountain Club plaque dated May 30, 1955. It reads: “Dedicated to our beloved friend Walter Biesemeyer—The peace of heart and mind he found in the wilderness will be forever shared by those who lift up their eyes unto the hills.” Another plaque below it adds: “And in memory of his grandson, David C. Bailey, 1969-1995.”
On the way up East Hill toward the trailhead we had passed the Mountain House, where Marion and Walter Biesemeyer hosted Adirondack Mountain Club members over the years, including, back in the winter of 1947, my father and mother and me. My family had recently moved to Albany from New York City, and this visit was my introduction to this part of the Adirondacks (and also to cross-country skiing). I remember being quite envious of the Biesemeyer children and the idyllic life I imagined they lived in these mountains.
In a notebook in the Lost Pond lean-to, the first of the year’s nine entries so far began in mid-June with Peter Fish of Keene: “Brought register book in doing trail side cutting and insect slapping alternatively—not really winning on either. On to Weston.” Pete was the state’s High Peaks ranger until his recent retirement, but luckily for us and all others who pass this way, he keeps hiking and clearing trails. Though he has climbed Mount Marcy more than 500 times, it’s known that the much-lower Soda Range is one of his favorite haunts.
Another register entry catches our eye: “1st visit this season, Nundagoa Ridge trail is clear and beautiful.” Signed Anne Bailey. Is she the mother of David, daughter of Walter and sister of the boys whose lifestyle I admired 54 years earlier? (Yes, it turns out, she is.)
The trail up Weston Mountain passes through a forest in transition from sun-loving white birches (pioneers that follow a forest fire) to shade-tolerant balsams that brush gently against us on both sides of the path. Finally we begin to ascend in earnest—we are on a mountain at last—and soon reach what appears to be the 3,195-foot summit, the highest point on the Nun-da-ga-o Ridge. And what a view! From the open ledges we look out and up at most of the 46 High Peaks, from Rocky Peak Ridge in the south to Whiteface and Esther in the north. Nearby, Hurricane dominates the southern horizon and blocks out Giant, which will emerge as we progress along the ridge. Below us is Lost Pond, with the light green bogs encroaching around the edges.
While lunching on Weston we watch a hawk circle overhead and listen to the serenade of hermit thrushes below. Their music will accompany us most of the way. After lounging for an hour or so—today we have vowed to stop and smell the flowers—we follow the trail into a shady, luxuriant depression between Weston and the next vantage point. Though unmarked and lightly trodden, the trail is easy to follow. But when Rachel looks back she can hardly see me amid the ferns and other vegetation; she imagines we’re wandering through a lush rain forest.
Then up into the open sunlight again, where the dry reindeer moss covers the ground like snow. Suddenly we meet two hikers coming toward us, an elderly man and a somewhat younger woman who smells strongly of citronella, the pre-DEET bug repellent whose nostalgic aroma reminds me of canoe camping with my father.
“If we get lost,” says the man, “it will be easy to find us. Just follow the smell.”
When they ask if we like the hike, we wax effusive. “Beautiful trail,” says Rachel. “Incredible views,” I enthuse.
“Don’t use up your adjectives,” the woman tells us. “It just gets better as you go along.”
More vistas—there’s Giant now, to the right of Hurricane, and farther back Dix Mountain with its distinctive slides, Nippletop with its unmistakable summit, the old buddies Colvin and Blake, the Great Range from Lower Wolf Jaws all the way up to Marcy, Big Slide with its Half- Dome-like profile, the Cascade, Porter and Blueberry massif, the green ski trails and chalky slide-scars on Whiteface. Down below is the Ausable Valley, and on ahead is the rest of the curving ridge.
At another opening we can look the other way across Lake Champlain to Camel’s Hump in the Green Mountains. And there’s the Jay Range only a few miles to the northeast, another ridge hike that’s high on our list of things to do. Far to the north is Lyon Mountain, from whose summit the city of Montreal is visible on a clear day.
The trail dips into another saddle, where we startle a family of ruffed grouse in the dense foliage. We count 12 birds wildly dispersing, one, two and three at a time, in all directions. A winter wren, one of many we hear along the trail, breaks into its long, trilling, warbling song. I put the binoculars away and catch up with Rachel, who has reached the next promontory and stretched out on a ledge, her head resting on her backpack, contemplating the clouds. Eventually we move on, down toward our starting point, with a short side trip of 0.2 miles to the summit of Big Crow and another million-dollar view for 50 cents worth of effort.
Nearing the parking area we exchange greetings with the only other people we’ve seen all day—two hikers on their way up to Big Crow. No doubt about it, the Soda Range is one of the best-kept secrets in the Adirondacks. We vow to return on a cool, clear day in late September or October, when the views will be even better with the fall colors.
From the junction of Routes 73 and 9N, in the center of Keene, drive 0.2 miles south and turn up East Hill Road for 2.3 miles to the junction with Hurricane Road and O’Toole Road. Go left up O’Toole Road for another 1.2 miles to Crow Clearing and park.