Snowy Mountain

Guidebook author discovers Snowy Mountain is much more enjoyable without black flies, fog, and rain.

By Lisa Densmore Ballard

Jack Ballard takes in the view of Indian Lake from a ledge below the summit of Snowy Mountain.

I first climbed Snowy Mountain in 2008 while doing the field work for my guidebook Hiking the Adirondacks. Originally named “Squaw Bonnet,” Snowy Mountain (3,898 feet), near Indian Lake, is the tallest peak south of the High Peaks region. It’s actually higher than two of the forty-six High Peaks: Nye Mountain (3,895 feet) and Couchsachraga Peak (3,820 feet). What’s more, Snowy Mountain has a fire tower on its summit, guaranteeing a 360-degree view on a clear day.

It sounded perfect for my book, so I asked around. A number of my hiking buddies backed up my intuition about Snowy Mountain and urged me to hike it. The internet banter about the peak confirmed their enthusiasm, so I invited Jack, my sweetheart at the time, to climb it with me. However, my first taste of this prominent summit in the central Adirondacks soured me to the point that I swore I would never climb it again.

Our mistake was climbing Snowy Mountain in June when the bloodthirsty black flies were at the height of their annual swarm. Even though we coated ourselves in DEET, the bugs drove us mad, incessantly biting our ears, face, even through our clothes. Adding to the insult, unexpected rain showers and swirling fog canceled any chance of seeing the panorama everyone raved about. But at least the fire tower gave us a brief respite from the bugs, thanks to a stiff breeze above the treetops.

As we munched our sandwiches in silence, sitting on the dank wooden planks of the tower cabin’s floor, I scanned the graffiti on the metal walls around me. One etching caught my eye: “Best mistake ever.” I wondered if the hiker who had carved the saying referred to the mountain or a lover. I was certainly not in love with Snowy Mountain but tried to adjust my attitude for the sake of future hikers who would read my book. Then we literally ran down the mountain back to the trailhead.

“What a miserable hike,” Jack sighed, relieved to be back in the car.

Then, last winter, my editor called: “We want you to update your book.”

Lisa Densmore Ballard at the hollow tree

Knowing the Adirondack backcountry had changed due to Tropical Storm Irene in 2012, I welcomed the excuse to do a lot of hiking again and was curious to see just how much the storm and other acts of nature and man had altered the hikes in my book over the intervening years. Despite my vow, Snowy Mountain once again made my “to-do” list.

Since Irene, some things had changed in my life, too. Jack was now my husband, and we had an English setter named Percy. For my return to Snowy Mountain, Percy would be my hiking partner, as Jack was out of town. And I was a more strategic hiker. I planned my second ascent for mid-August to avoid the black flies, and I waited for one of those rare days with zero percent chance of precipitation. I wanted to give the mountain its best chance at a better impression.

Snowy Mountain is not a short hike. The trail ascends over two thousand vertical feet in 3.4 miles with much of the climb in the last 1.5 miles. It might not be a four-thousand-footer, but it feels like one. That said, the long, rolling approach was a nice warmup and gave me the chance to look around again.

A few minutes into the hike, I spied a hollow tree on the right side of the trail. Curiously, the upper part of the tree was still alive. I paused to take a few photos of myself inside the tree, not remembering it from my first hike up Snowy Mountain. I chuckled several days later when comparing my new pictures to my old ones. I had taken the same photo of Jack in that hollow tree eight years earlier. Also by coincidence, I wore the same ball cap and carried the same backpack. Funny how things change, yet stay the same.

At 0.7 miles, I crossed several bog bridges over dried-up mud, then, a half-mile farther, came to Beaver Brook. The details of the hike drizzled back to me more and more as I hiked along the brook, now a late-summer trickle. Instead of spring foamflowers, clintonia, and painted trillium, a host of mushrooms and the occasional fallen maple leaf now lay beside the trail. At one point, I recognized some log steps that aided a short climb away from the brook. The logs held the soil like an aging Atlas, their graying color and trodden appearance belying their stubborn strength. Farther along, I passed by hobblebush shrubs, the purple stripes on their leaves heralding the coming fall.

Percy has second thoughts about climbing the fire tower

At 1.4 miles, I came to a small backwater, opaque with tannin. The original footbridge, a combination of boards and logs that curved from one shore to the other, had mostly washed away. Only a few unconnected ribbons of wood remained. I then spotted a makeshift jumble of logs to my left over a narrower portion of the petite pond.

Percy had no use for the logs. He waded unhesitantly into the dark water. He emerged from the other side covered with mud, looking more like a black Lab than a white, spotted setter. I knew what would happen next but couldn’t get up the trail fast enough. With his violent shake, I was instantly as speckled as my dog. I giggled, recalling dogs and their masters who resembled each other, and wondered if I should set up my self-timer. Percy never gave me the chance. He bounded ahead, so I continued after him.

A half-mile later, the path turned vertical. It was not only extremely steep, but also rough and eroded, like a dry streambed. On and on, up and up, I climbed the rugged washout. There were no bugs, rain or fog that day, but I was not loving this part of Snowy Mountain. Few trails are as much of a heart-pounder as this one.

At 3.2 miles, I finally crested the top of a rock wall and stepped onto a grassy clifftop. As I caught my breath, my opinion of the mountain began to change. Indian Lake lay below me with layers of mountains spreading toward the eastern horizon beyond the lake. It was a lovely view from a sun-drenched plateau. This brute of a peak had a soft spot after all.

Above the cliff, the walking was smoother on a more reasonable grade, through boreal forest. Then, quite suddenly, I was at the tower.

There’s something about fire towers that always excites me. This one rose fifty feet above a knob of bedrock, like a silver crown above the trees. I paused at its base, holding Percy’s collar as a couple of other hikers finished their descent of the scaffolding. I intended to tie Percy to a tree while I went up the tower—dogs often become disoriented and panicky on fire-tower steps—but he pulled away before I could get his leash around a tree. To my dismay, he started up the tower!

Of course I followed, watching Percy, but also the view, especially of Indian Lake and the Siamese Ponds Wilderness to the southeast. The West Canada Wilderness lay to the southwest, with the Blue Ridge Wilderness to the northwest. Miles of woodlands surrounded me. Until then, I had not realized how expansive the forests in the central Adirondacks are. It was indeed a glorious view in every direction. Like a demanding parent, Snowy Mountain had challenged me. As a result, I appreciated its gifts much more.

map by nancybernsteinillustration.com

Percy lost confidence just below the tower cabin, where the steps became more ladder-like, so we turned around. I never got to see whether “Best mistake ever” remained etched on the cabin wall, though it’s message still rang true. Snowy Mountain was indeed my best hiking mistake ever.

DIRECTIONS: From the junction of NY 28 and NY 30 in Indian Lake, drive 1.7 miles south on NY 30 and park on the left side of the highway. The trailhead is on the other side of the road.

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

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