Owls Head a wise choice

A mile from the road, hikers choose between going to Owls Head’s summit or Lake Eaton. Photos by Nancie Battaglia.

Long Lake peak offers panorama

By Phil Brown

Did the Adirondacks used to have a lot more owls? I wonder because this summer I climbed an Owl Head Lookout near Elizabethtown, an Owls Head near Keene, and an Owls Head Mountain near Long Lake.

And several years ago I climbed another Owls Head on the northern edge of the Adirondack Park, near the hamlet of Owls Head.

So which is the best Owl (or Owls) Head in the Adirondacks? I can’t say, because I haven’t climbed Owls Head in the McKenzie Mountain Wilderness.

Of the five, only the last requires bushwhacking. The others can be reached by easy trails that end at great lookouts. I recommend them all, but this story is about the Owls Head near Long Lake. I had climbed it only once, about ten years ago when I was researching a guidebook. Since then, a group of volunteers has refurbished the fire tower on the summit, making this peak a doubly desirable destination.

Hikers lounge beneath the refurbished tower.

And if a panoramic view from a fire tower isn’t enough to get you to go, we’ll throw in, free of charge, a short side trip to the limpid waters of Lake Eaton.

The trail to the 2,780-foot peak is 3.1 miles, but there isn’t much climbing until the last mile. Knowing this, I wore trail-running shoes and packed light so I could jog on the flat sections. Some people might object to running on a hiking trail. How can a person smell the flowers if he or she is galloping past them? I understand the point. However, I think you’d withdraw your objection if you saw me run. Let’s just say I don’t gallop.

Anyway, as I progressed along the flats and gentle ups and downs, it occurred to me that Owls Head Mountain would make a great winter trip: you could ski in for a few miles, put on snowshoes for the final ascent, and on the ski out visit Lake Eaton.

As a matter of fact, if you’re an expert telemark skier, you might be able to ski the whole trail if conditions are right. One guy did this last January and left this message in the trail register: “Ski fire tower—sick powder.” (In case you don’t know, sick = awesome.)

If you do visit Owls Head Mountain in winter, be aware that part of the trail is used by snowmobilers.

I did my hike on the Friday before Labor Day weekend. I thought I’d meet a fair number of people, but only one hiker signed in before me. At the start, the trail climbs briefly and then levels. Most of the forest is composed of typical Adirondack hardwoods, but you also see a lot of hemlocks on this trail.

At 0.8 miles, the trail reaches a signed junction. Turn left here for the summit. If you continue straight, you’ll go to Lake Eaton. A short distance beyond the turn, the summit trail comes to an unmarked path on the right. Take this on the way back to visit the lake (it merges with the aforementioned lake trail).

Map by Nancy Bernstein.

At 1.0 mile, a snowmobile trail enters from the left. Keep going straight. At 1.4 miles, the trail ascends gradually above a ravine. It was about here that I saw the first telephone pole, one of many once used to string a communications line to the tower. I would see at least a dozen more weathered poles en route to the top. They blend into the woods, so I’m sure I didn’t spot them all. If you’re hiking with young kids, you can make a game of finding and counting the poles.

The real climb begins just beyond the two-mile point, where the trail becomes rocky and eroded. As I ascended, I met the other hiker on his way down: George Baranauskas of Scotia, N.Y., who has climbed all forty-six of the Adirondack High Peaks and is finishing a quest to climb all the fire-tower summits in the Catskills and Adirondacks that are open to the public. When we met, he had just three to go, all in the Adirondacks: Spruce, Woodhull, and Gore mountains.

George, who is fifty-five, told me one reward of his quest is that it introduced him to parts of the Adirondacks that he might not have visited otherwise. I asked what he thought of Owls Head. “It’s just as good as some of the High Peaks,” he replied.

A visitor enjoys the panorama from the fire tower.

Soon I would see for myself. Continuing the ascent, I passed the former site of the fire observer’s cabin at 2.8 miles. Over the final quarter-mile, the trail steepens; in a few places, I used my hands to grab roots and scramble up exposed bedrock.

At 3.1 miles, the trail emerges from a spruce-fir forest onto the summit. You can enjoy good views without climbing the tower—from the western High Peaks in the northeast to Forked Lake in the southwest, with anvil-shaped Blue Mountain in between in the south. Owls Head Pond lies in the valley below the summit cliffs.

But who can resist going up a freshly painted tower, with sturdy steps and new fencing? As I climbed the stairs, a turkey vulture soared past at eye level, maybe twenty yards away. The view from the cab was, of course, spectacular. I could see Whiteface Mountain, some forty miles distant, as well as many of the closer High Peaks. Smaller mountains were visible in every direction. As for water, I could see Long Lake, Forked Lake, Lake Eaton, Moose Pond, and, if I read my map right, a piece of Rock Pond in the Whitney Wilderness.

I was equally impressed by what I didn’t see: apart from development on Long Lake, signs of man were few and far between.

After eating lunch in the cab, I tried to take photos, but the good news is that my camera malfunctioned—which gave us an excuse to illustrate this story with the photos of a professional, Nancie Battaglia.

The tower’s southeast view.

If you climb Owls Head, don’t pass up Lake Eaton on the way back. It’s only a quarter-mile from the summit trail, and it’s a beautiful body of water, with a sandy bottom. Most of the lake lies in the Forest Preserve (there is a state campground on the north shore). The side trail leads to open woods on the southern tip of the lake. From here, the lake appears pristine, with an unbroken palisade of evergreens guarding the shore. I went for a quick swim, and as I was getting back into my clothes, I heard a loon cry out. Maybe it was alarmed at the sight of me.

On my hike out, I met only one party: a couple who spoke with a foreign accent. We chatted briefly, and afterward I kicked myself for not asking where they were from. When I got to the trail register, I tried to look them up, but they hadn’t signed in. Flipping through the pages, however, I noticed that Owls Head Mountain had seen visitors this year from Germany, the Netherlands, France, Scotland, and Canada—not to mention a number of far-flung U.S. states.

We’re lucky. Most of us don’t have to fly across the ocean or drive across the country to enjoy Owls Head Mountain. Or Owl Head Lookout. Or the Owls Head near Keene. Or the Owls Head near Owls Head. There’s time enough to do them all. But you might have to run.

DIRECTIONS: From the junction of NY 28N and NY 30 in the hamlet of Long Lake, drive north on NY 30. About 0.6 miles after crossing the bridge over Long Lake, turn left onto Endion Road and go 1.6 miles to the trailhead on the right.

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

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