Short climb to a big view
By Phil Brown
At 3,597 feet, Pillsbury Mountain is the Adirondacks’ 82nd-highest peak, which puts it on the to-do list of hikers on a mission to climb the Hundred Highest. But you don’t have to be a peak-bagger to enjoy a 360-degree view from a fire tower.
Pillsbury is a great destination for people looking for a three- or four-hour adventure. The hike to the top is just 1.6 miles. Nevertheless, the mountain offers a sense of remoteness, because by the time you hit the trail, you’re already a long way from civilization. To get to the trailhead, you must drive for more than six miles on dirt roads through forestland owned by Lyme Timber.
When I arrive at the trailhead, on a Saturday in late August, there are 10 other cars, but most of the people have taken a different trail that leads into the West Canada Lakes Wilderness. (Fire towers are not allowed in Wilderness Areas, but the Pillsbury summit is in the Jessup River Wild Forest.)
After signing the register, I descend briefly to a wooden bridge over the Miami River, which is just a small stream here. On the other side, the trail climbs steeply through a hardwood forest, with viburnum and ferns growing along the edges. It also passes several erratics, large boulders left behind by the glaciers.
Like many Adirondack trails, this one lacks switchbacks. In recent years, the Adirondack Mountain Club has built water trenches to prevent erosion. Don’t expect many views during the ascent, except what can be glimpsed through trees—though you might be able to see more scenery in late fall after the leaves have fallen.
After a mile or so, the grade eases and the trail enters a spruce-balsam forest, a familiar sight to anyone who climbs in the High Peaks. This is an attractive stretch, with moss, bunchberry and blue-bead lily lining the trail. And it doesn’t hurt that the path is mostly level the rest of the way to the top.
About an hour after starting out, I emerge onto the summit, arriving just behind two college students, Brian Thiele and Nabil Abdulhay. They had spent the night at a state campground on Piseco Lake. What drew them to Pillsbury? “We went to Speculator, looked at a map and came here,” Brian said. “We don’t plan ahead much.”
There is a clearing on the summit but no views, so we climb the stairs of the old fire tower. Although the cab is closed, the upper landings offer views in all directions. Snowy Mountain, with its cliffs and fire tower, stands out in the northeast, along with Indian Lake. To the east are the forested peaks of the Siamese Ponds Wilderness and Wilcox Lake Wild Forest. Sacandaga Lake and Lake Pleasant are visible to the southeast. To the west we can see the wild lakes in the heart of the West Canada Lakes Wilderness: South Lake, Mud Lake, West Lake and others. Almost due north is the Cedar River Flow.
All in all, the panorama provides a beautiful example of our Forest Preserve at work, being wild.
After Brian and Nabil depart, I sit beneath the tower to eat lunch. A raptor with curved wings glides through the clearing. A falcon? A hawk? I can’t be sure. I do know that Bicknell’s thrush, a species prized by birders, can be found at the higher elevations on Pillsbury. Gary Lee, a retired forest ranger, once spent the night up here and heard them singing in the moonlight. Boreal chickadees also nest on the mountain.
Before leaving, I explore the summit in a half-hearted (and unsuccessful) attempt to find a natural lookout. When I come back out of the woods, I encounter Bryan and Bev Peck, a couple from Burnt Hills, a suburb north of Schenectady where my children went to high school. It turns out that their son graduated with my older daughter. And—here’s a bigger coincidence—Brian is a hunting partner of Bob Martin, a friend of mine who lives in Saranac Lake. The Pecks picked Pillsbury out of a guidebook. “We didn’t have a lot of time, so we wanted something short that was fairly close,” Bev says.
Pillsbury’s appeal will only grow once the state Department of Environmental Conservation (with the aid of volunteers) refurbishes the tower and the cabin. DEC plans to install a table with a topographical map similar to one used in the days of fire observers. The emergency-radio repeater now in the cab will be replaced and secured in a locked box beneath the table. Whenever the work is finished (possibly this year), the cab will be open to the public.
It will be just one more reason to visit Pillsbury.
From the intersection of NY 30 and NY 8 in downtown Speculator, drive north on NY 30 to Perkins Clearing Road and make a sharp left (the turn is 0.4 miles past the Mason Lake pull-off). Follow the dirt road 3.3 miles to a junction marked by a signpost. Turn right and go 1.8 miles to another junction (just past the Sled Harbor clearing on the left). Turn right and go 1.2 miles to the end. This last road is narrow and rough, so some people prefer parking at Sled Harbor. If coming from the north, you will reach Perkins Clearing Road about 2 miles after passing Lewey Lake State Campground.