Swimming Hikes

With Whiteface Mountain as a backdrop, a solo swimmer makes her way across Lake Placid. Photos by Nancie Battaglia.

Jump into summer with a big splash

By Bill Ingersoll

Late spring and summer are times of marvelous activity in the woods. Life has burst open after slumbering through the long winter. Flowers bloom. Red efts crawl across the forest floor. Loons dive for food while herons stalk the shorelines.

Rocky Falls in the High Peaks Wilderness.

Yet hikers who take to the trails quickly discover that no matter how far they wander from the road, they are never alone. They share the woods with the ever-present biting insect: the black fly, the mosquito and the deer fly, to name the most notorious. The warmer the day, and the higher the humidity, the more these little fiends are in their element.

You might combat them with bug spray or by wearing long clothing, but there is a better strategy. Imagine walking down a rugged footpath, under the verdant canopy of a mature forest, a small stream flowing in a gully nearby. You cross the stream, round a hill and glimpse light through the trees ahead. In a moment you’re at the edge of a quiet pond, on a rocky promontory jutting into the water. The view is extraordinary, but the bugs are swarming now. You undress and slip into the cool water. Ah, sweet relief.

The Adirondacks are distinguished by an abundance of water. It’s estimated that the region contains more than 3,000 lakes and ponds and 30,000 miles of rivers and streams. Hikers can find attractive swimming spots in the backcountry at natural beaches, rock ledges and pools beneath rushing waterfalls. Immersed in water, surrounded by wilderness, you escape whatever ails you—the bugs, the heat, the travails of modern life.

There is a long list of backwoods destinations suited for hikers who are bent on jumping in the water. Here are just a few of my favorites.

Chub Lake

The Pigeon Lake Wilderness in the western Adirondacks is home to many small lakes and ponds. None is more attractive than Chub Lake, located a few miles east of Big Moose Lake. It lies nestled in its own secluded basin, surrounded by a forest that has never known the logger’s ax. A well-situated campsite overlooks the lake, with a rock ledge that sweeps down into the water.

Map by Nancy Bernstein.

When Dr. William Seward Webb was planning the route of his railroad through the Adirondacks, the state would not grant him a right of way through the region. He therefore purchased vast tracts of lands on his own, attempting to piece together his own route. The railroad opened as the Mohawk and Malone in 1892, and it passed along what is now the northwestern boundary of the Pigeon Lake Wilderness. However, Webb’s massive landholdings were accumulating massive property tax bills. He defaulted on several tens of thousands of acres, which then reverted to state ownership. Most of this forest—especially in the Big Moose and Raquette Lake area—had never been logged. This includes Chub Lake, and the trail to the lake, in fact, passes several towering white pines in the vicinity of Constable Pond.

The Pigeon Lake Wilderness boasts a network of 32 miles of marked hiking trails, of which the trail to Chub Lake constitutes just 3 miles. This is a favorite destination for many hikers, though not an overused one. The inviting campsite will tempt the backpacker to spend a night, and the rock ledge will certainly encourage the swimmer. Don’t be surprised to be sharing the water with the local loon.

An island on Lower Saranac Lake.

It is possible (and very enjoyable) to visit Chub Lake as part of a loop trip that also takes you to Queer Lake. The yellow-marked trail continues south from Chub and hooks west, passing near Queer and its lean-to. You could close the loop by returning via the Mays Pond trail, but this route has not been maintained well in several years. It is better to continue west from Queer Lake and follow the red-marked Hermitage Trail back to the trailhead, for a total distance of about 8.5 miles.

Directions: From NY 28 in Eagle Bay, turn west onto Big Moose Road.  After 3.9 miles, bear right onto Higby Road. The trailhead is actually a gated road on the right side at 1.4 miles. Park on the side of the road so as not to block any of the nearby driveways, and follow the private Judson Road for 0.2 mile to the blue-marked hiking trail.

Tirrell Pond

Map by Nancy Bernstein.

Tirrell Pond surprised me on my visit there, for its mature forests are surrounded by lands with a long and ongoing role in the forestry industry. The pond is even named for an early logging foreman. Although located in the central Adirondacks, the pattern of private and public ownership is very complicated here, and Tirrell Pond can best be described as an inholding of state land surrounded on three sides by private land. Finch, Pruyn & Co., which is the adjacent landowner, permits two public hiking trails to cross its property, and so the pond remains very accessible.

The pond’s natural beauty is apparent to all who visit. It is a mile-long body of water, with natural sand beaches, two lean-tos and a rock-faced mountain rising back from the eastern shore. The quality of its fishing draws sportsmen in floatplanes in the spring, and the beaches draw hikers in the summer. Since it is located along the route of the Northville-Placid Trail, Tirrell Pond also draws its fair share of backpackers laden with a week’s worth of provisions.

Of the two trails that lead to Tirrell Pond, the Northville-Placid Trail is perhaps the more interesting. It is longer, but it passes O’Neill Flow, which is worth a look. After undulating and winding through the woods for about 3.5 miles, the trail reaches the southern end of the pond, where you will find the O’Neill Lean-to on the banks of the wide outlet stream. The most popular swimming spot appears to be at the northern end, near the Tirrell Pond Lean-to. There also are a number of other campsites and swimming areas scattered around the shoreline, waiting only to be found.

Jay Rocks on the East Branch of the Ausable River.

The alternate trail to Tirrell Pond begins at the Blue Mountain trailhead on NY 30, just north of the Adirondack Museum. It is just 3.25 miles to the northern lean-to, with a 500-foot descent. The section of trail between the lean-tos is about 1.1 miles long.

Directions: The Northville-Placid Trail crosses NY Route 28 west of Blue Mountain Lake, near the entrance to the Lake Durant Campground. There is ample parking at the trailhead. The trail to Tirrell Pond starts on the north side of the road.

Pharaoh Lake

Pharaoh Lake is one of the larger lakes in the Forest Preserve, and its long and varied shoreline harbors many fine swimming spots. Perhaps the best is Wintergreen Point, on the lake’s east shore.

The topography of the Pharaoh Lake Wilderness Area includes several sets of towering cliffs—especially those on Pharaoh and Treadway mountains—that are repeated as motifs on several of the smaller mountains. This theme of exposed bedrock can be found in the lowlands, as well, in the form of roche moutonne, or “sheep backs.” These long, finger like mounds of rock were created by glacial action, and they are found all around Pharaoh Lake. Wintergreen Point juts the farthest into the water—almost severing Wintergreen Bay from the main body of the lake.

Map by Nancy Bernstein.

The Pharaoh Lake Wilderness also boasts an extensive trail system—68 miles’ worth, winding across 46,000 acres. It is therefore not difficult to plan any number of day hikes, overnighters and loops in this area. One of the more enjoyable treks begins at the Putnam Pond Campground and passes Grizzle Ocean on its way to Pharaoh Lake, for a distance of about 5.1 miles. This trail brings you directly to Wintergreen Bay. There is a small waterfall near where the outlet of Wolf Pond spills into the lake, easily viewed from the trail. The path leading out to Wintergreen Point is just a short jog to the right. The point is at the end of a rocky peninsula, dotted with a train of white pine. It is fun to walk out to the very end.

There is a campsite at the base of the peninsula. One clear weekend in November a few years ago, I spent the night here and enjoyed an unimpaired view of the Leonid meteor shower. Wintergreen Point was the perfect observatory.

Directions:  The trail to Wintergreen Bay on Pharaoh Lake starts at the Putnam Pond campground. From Adirondack Northway Exit 28, follow NY 74 east for 12.9 miles to Chilson. Here, turn right onto Putts Pond Road. The campground entrance is 3.8 miles away, and you may have to pay an entrance fee to reach the trailhead, which is at the east end of the parking lot near the boat launch.

The narrows between Lower and Upper Chateaugay lakes.

Boquet River Headwaters

Many people know the Boquet River for its roadside beauty, such as at Split Rock Falls, but this is a stream that rises deep in the wilderness. West of state Route 73, looking upstream, the river fans out like the veins on a leaf over the eastern slopes of the Dix Range. Only the South Fork and the North Fork bear official names, but many of the other branches are equally beautiful.

I first came to this area to explore the footpath that hikers use to reach the slide on East Dix, but I quickly discovered that this was more than just another route to a High Peak. The river basin was a pleasure in itself. Since I spend most of my time exploring the western and southern Adirondacks, where the rivers and streams are stained with tannic acid, I am always de-lighted to see the crystal-clear brooks splashing down out of the mountains. The various forks of the Boquet conceal many waterfalls, as well as many places to go swimming.

Map by Nancy Bernstein.

The footpath is not marked, but it is well defined. It starts on the south side of the North Fork, crosses the river in less than 10 minutes, and soon passes the first waterfall. The path crosses the North Fork a second time and shoots cross-country to the South Fork, passing near Lillypad Pond along the way. The South Fork is then the guide to the foot of the East Dix slide.

Along the way, it crosses a fork that drains the great cirque on Dix. This area where the two streams converge is a terrific destination, or a place to establish a base camp. Look for a designated campsite on the narrow strip of land between the forks. On either side you will find waterfalls and deep, clear pools. For a quarter-mile up-stream on the “Dix Fork,” expect to find a series of open rock slabs, pools, small flumes and pothole “tubs.” All of this comes right at the foot of some of the state’s highest mountains—but don’t forget that most of the foothills have equally spectacular views, too!

Directions: Access to this region can be found from a small parking turnout on NY Route 73, 4.8 miles north of Northway exit 30. Parking is limited. A short gravel drive south of the highway bridge over the North Fork leads to the start of the path.

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