Poke-O’s gentle side

Poke-O’s cliffs attract hundreds of rock climbers each year. Photos by Mark Meschinelli.

New trail offers easy route to spectacular view

By Diane Sirois

Poke-O-Moonshine Mountain offers a unique view of the Champlain Valley and the High Peaks, but traditional the trail to the top is rather steep. The good news for your aching knees is that there’s a new and gentler route to the open summit and its fire tower.

The new trail follows an old woods road that runs up along Poke-O’s southern shoulder to the ruins of the fire observer’s cabin, crossing a 200-acre tract of private land that the Adirondack Land Trust acquired in 2006 and plans to sell to the state. It then joins the pre-existing route.

Summit steward Kevin Chlad and David Thomas-Train on Poke-O’s summit.

While public access is no longer an issue, the trail’s big problem is its low profile. It’s too new to have appeared in the guidebooks, so public awareness remains limited. Word-of-mouth might change that.

“Hikers love it,” says David Thomas-Train, coordinator of Friends of Poke-O-Moonshine, a volunteer group that maintains the trails and does restoration work on the tower. “The reaction has been very positive. It’s a woods road; it’s not eroded. And there’s great variety along the trail—rocky ledges, wooded meadows, white pine forest, beaver ponds.”

And it’s gentler. The old trail climbs 1,280 feet in 1.2 miles. The new one gains the same elevation in about two miles. Also, the new trail ascends along a ridge rather than climbing sharply up the steep mountainside.

We’re sold. This sultry summer morning, the plan is to ascend Poke-O via the old trail and descend on the new one and try to figure out why this 2,180-foot mountain—call it a Low Peak, if you insist—is such a popular hike. A hunch: Easy access + breathtaking views = irresistible attraction.

Poke-O-Moonshine’s name is said to derive from two Algonquin words—“pohqui” and “moosie,” meaning “broken” and “smooth.” The Adirondack Mountain Club’s guidebook suggests that “smooth” alludes to either the rocks on the summit or a prominent slab on the southeast side, while “broken” alludes to the huge cliffs on the east side.

David Thomas-Train takes in the view from the refurbished fire tower.

Those cliffs tower over the state campground on Route 9, about 10 miles south of Keeseville. They’re a major attraction for rock climbers, who have scaled hundreds of routes on Poke-O. Hikers, though, haven’t had any real options besides the old trail, which ascends the east side from the campground.

Hiking up Poke-O this way is a lot like climbing a really big fire hydrant. There’s no gradual buildup to a steeper pitch; the going gets tough about 10 paces beyond the trail register. Thomas-Train grooms the trail as he climbs, stopping to nudge footstones back into place and reinforce crumbling water bars. In some spots, it’s best just to lean in to the mountain, grab the earth with both hands and hope that momentum keeps you moving in the right direction—up.

About three-quarters of the way to the top, a level stretch affords a bit of a breather, along with views through the trees east across the Champlain Valley and north to the upper cliffs. This is a good spot for watching peregrine falcons launch and land (the aerobatic raptors frequently nest on ledges here). After about 15 more minutes of steady climbing, the stone chimney of the old observer’s cabin—the point where the new trail links up from the south—appears ahead. The summit ridge isn’t far away. A little bit of fist-pumping exultation isn’t out of line here. On this day, two breathless teenage girls do their best Rocky Balboa impersonations and excitedly high-five each other after cresting the hill. Though it’s a short hike, it can be a stiff one, especially on a hot, humid day, and especially for first-time Poke-O hikers. The uninitiated may figure: It’s just over a mile, how hard can it be? Why should I bring water? Why bother with hiking boots?

Friends of Poke-O-Moonshine has restored fragile summit vegetation.

Thomas-Train laughs a little ruefully. “Oh yes, I’ve seen them all. The people who start up around four in the afternoon. Maybe with water, maybe nothing.” He estimates that as many as 18,000 hikers visit Poke-O each year. Its tantalizing cliffs are one draw. Its proximity to Routes 9 and the Northway is another.

And then there’s the view from the top. A large outcrop of rock just below the last ridge offers a preview. The slides and slopes of Whiteface and Giant’s hulking bulk, to the west and south respectively, dominate this vista. Shortly, we arrive on the summit, wide open to the east, with views across Lake Champlain to the Green Mountains beyond.

The jewel in this crown is Poke-O’s fire tower. Deactivated in 1988 and flagged by the state for dismantling in the early 1990s, the tower is now on the National Register of Historic Places and thriving as an educational outpost after historic preservationists (including Friends of Poke-O-Moonshine, which formed to save the tower) came to its rescue. It has been completely refurbished and was rededicated in June 2005. Last summer, two students from the State University College at Potsdam worked out of the tower’s cab as summit stewards. They maintained Poke-O’s front trail, restored summit vegetation, and answered hikers’ questions about the Adirondack Park, the mountain, the trail, the tower, you name it.

“It’s been great so far. I love it,” says Kevin Chlad, who was three weeks into his five-week stint as a summit guide. An affable outdoorsman with an open face and an easygoing manner, Chlad is struck by how much visitors like to talk. “I don’t know if it’s the adrenaline from hiking up here, plus this awesome view … but people just love to vent up here! And I love to listen. The other day, somebody said I was kinda like a bartender.” He laughs. “I guess it’s like mountaintop therapy.”

Map by Nancy Bernstein.

After a couple of squalls rumble south along Lake Champlain, it’s time to test the new trail on the descent. The broad, grassy path that seems to roll away from the summit ridge is a welcome alternative to the front trail’s steepness.

“Imagine yourself on skis,” Thomas-Train suggests. Snowshoes are an easy visualization, too.

About a half-mile below the summit ridge, a 100-foot bushwhack to the west brings hikers to the first of two beaver ponds. This one seems too grown in to have active residents, but the freshly gnawed saplings surrounding the other pond suggest that the engineers responsible for the large lodge and meticulous dam are still on site.

Continuing our descent, the footing is good and the going pleasant, the last mile or so on a red carpet of dried leaves and pine needles. Thomas-Train tells me that Friends of Poke-O-Moonshine and teenagers from nearby summer camps have worked on the new trail.

We come out on Route 9 about a mile south of the old trailhead. If you want to do both trails, you have to spot a car or bicycle here or else walk back along the highway, a dismal finale best avoided But Thomas-Train says the Friends of Poke-O already have plans to lay out a connector trail through the woods. “Of course, we’d need to go through the whole state approval process. And sure, it’s at least five years away.”

DIRECTIONS:

From Exit 33 of the Northway (I-87), drive east briefly, then turn right on US 9 and go about 3 miles to the start of the old trail on the right, a little past the entrance to the state campground. The new trail begins about a mile farther down the road.

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