A cascade of riches
By Mark Bowie
As the South Branch of the Grass River tumbles off the northwest shoulder of the Adirondack dome, a 16-mile stretch seethes with tumultuous waterfalls and rambling rapids, separated by navigable flatwater. It’s surrounded by lush boreal forest. For decades, this riparian Eden had been off limits to the general public—until five years ago.
Acquired as part of the state’s agreement to purchase 139,000 acres of Adirondack land in three non-contiguous tracts from Champion International, the Tooley Pond Tract opened to the public in 1999.
The Tooley Pond Tract straddles the South Branch as it winds through the towns of Clare and Clifton in St. Lawrence County. Tooley Pond Road, which connects the hamlets of Cranberry Lake and Degrasse, bisects the tract, running along the river for 16.7 miles. It’s never more than a half-mile from the many waterfalls.
The mountainous and waterlogged Adirondacks are renowned for peak-bagging and pond-hopping. In the Tooley Pond Tract, ex-plorers can try a new activity—waterfall hopping. The state Department of Environmental Conservation’s Tooley Pond Tract brochure, available at DEC offices, may be the best reference guide. It lists seven major waterfalls. Their proximity to the road makes for accessible ad-venture for all ages.
Each waterfall has its own character. Some are massive ledges, others are stair-stepping cascades. Some glide down slanted stone, others plunge into steep-walled gorges.
Tooley Pond Road is a two-lane route, alternating between dirt and macadam, passable for all vehicles. Visitors are greeted with entrance signs at either end of the tract, and parking lots are marked along the roadway, but trails to the waterfalls are unmarked. Most falls can’t be seen from the road. Watch carefully for thin paths, some marked by a pole or boulder barricade, leading toward the river.
I approached the area from the east with Adirondack guide Griz Caudle and his dog, Tupper, on an overcast May morning. We passed the tract’s namesake, Tooley Pond, 5.3 miles from the junction with Route 3 outside Cranberry Lake. The entire pond is visible from road. It’s a beautiful picnic spot, and there’s a tamarack bog at the far shore to explore by canoe.
Within another half-mile are two trailheads for Tooley Pond Mountain. It’s a 0.7-mile ascent from either the east or west trail. Guidebook author Barbara McMartin suggests a 1.8-mile loop, ascending the west trail and descending on the more rugged and scenic east trail. The summit once hosted a fire tower, removed many years ago. McMartin notes, “The small meadow at the summit offers a view to the east of an unending forest rolling away over low ridges and valleys all the way to the horizon.”
In places the roadway winds through dense woods reminiscent of Maine moose country. With some difficulty we found the approach to the easternmost waterfall, Copper Rock Falls. These lie at the end of a narrow footpath only 750 feet in. We passed several pink lady-slippers. Starflowers sprung from the forest floor. Iris were preparing to bloom. Though this land had been logged, it’s growing back wild.
Copper Rock Falls is aptly named: Its host rock is burnished copper with lichen. The tannin-stained water slid through verdant forest, free and frothy. There’s a stair-stepped waterfall on the south side of a midstream island, and a 10- to 12-foot ledge fall on the north, partially obscured by the trees. There’s an unobstructed view from the water. You can put your canoe in at a parking area where the lumber community of Newbridge once stood, where the road crosses the river 0.8 miles west.
For a fabulous downstream paddle you can put in at a parking area on an access road off Tooley Pond Road 4.5 miles from the junction of Route 3. McMartin writes, “The river has several flat stretches punctuated by long rapids that you must carry around. The take-out point is just above Rainbow Falls, 6.1 miles further along Tooley Pond Road.”
Rainbow Falls plunges 25 feet into a straight-sided chasm. You’ll likely be sprayed with mist. If you go in the morning you may see a rainbow as the rising sun strikes it. The falls is reached via a 0.25-mile trail, which crosses a sturdy footbridge over a side channel to a large island. Soon after, you’ll gaze over a precipice into the gorge.
Much of the roadway west of Rainbow Falls winds through recently logged forest. Beautiful glades of lush grasses and ferns lap up against hardwoods and a few conifers. Mysteriously, there are very few saplings or shrubs. It’s distinctly un-Adirondack-like: an idyllic park setting, a deer’s playground, perfect for a stroll or a picnic. Whatever the reason for this geomorphic anomaly, it’s gorgeous.
Flat Rock Falls is next, but it’s on private land with no public access. At 13.3 miles past the Route 3 junction, Bulkhead Falls appears alongside a wide bend in the road. The river zigzags through granite, dropping about 10 feet.
About a half-mile farther on the river again splits into two channels around an island, at Twin Falls. The northern waterfall is by the road. A canoe access to Twin Falls Island will open this year on the downstream side of the falls. Canoeists will be able to put in here and paddle into the large pool at the base of both falls.
Near the junction with Lake George Road, 14.7 miles in, Sinclair Falls slides gracefully over slanted bedrock, dropping some 20 feet, then curving 90 degrees at it base.
About a half-mile down the road, the river takes a final plunge before exiting the Adirondack Park. Basford Falls splays over 20-foot ledges. Its 0.4-mile access trail, the longest of all, is an old logging road.
For its lengthy cascades and understated elegance, Copper Rock Falls is my personal favorite in the Tract. Others may be more dramatic, but its gilded rocks, rolling cascades and steep ledges lend it a wild spirit. If I could visit only one other, I wouldn’t want to miss Rainbow Falls … or Sinclair … or Twin …