Scouting the Cedarlands
By Phil Brown
We had been hiking for more than an hour on the Skyline Trail—thrashing is more like it—when a bug flew into my eye and got under my eyelid. I didn’t stop lest I be swarmed by more bugs: deerflies, black flies, gnats, they were everywhere.
I wondered vaguely if a bug beneath an eyelid can lead to blindness but figured I’d take the risk. If I stopped, that would mean Martha would have to stop, and she was testy enough.
“Are you going to write about this?” my sweet daughter asked.
“Yeah,” I replied.
“Why?” she demanded.
Short answer: it’s my job, and I can’t be deterred by a few zillion bugs.
Better answer: we had discovered one of the best short paddle/hike excursions in the Adirondacks. It’s an outing that has been available to the public for several years but has yet to appear in hiking guidebooks.
We’re talking about paddling across Mud Pond and McRorie Lake and then hiking up Mud Pond Mountain to take in a stupendous vista of the High Peaks Wilderness and central Adirondacks. Both lakes and the mountain are on the 5,500-acre Cedarlands Boy Scout Reservation west of Long Lake. Thanks to an agreement between the Scouts and the state in 2002, most of Cedarlands is open to the public for ten months a year. In July and August, public access is restricted to Mud Pond (the dates may vary slightly).
Perhaps the best time to visit Cedarlands is late summer or early fall, when the skies are blue and crisp, the bugs few, and the colors many. The one-way trip to Mud Pond Mountain entails nearly two miles of paddling, a half-mile hike with 640 feet of ascent, and two carries totaling 0.9 miles. Likely, you’ll want to extend the trip by exploring the shoreline and islands of mile-and-a-half-long McRorie Lake.
You also could extend the trip by hiking the 4.5-mile Skyline Trail, which follows the ridgeline above McRorie Lake, but until the route is better marked and maintained, we cannot recommend it, at least not to everyone.
Sue Bibeau, Martha, and I had planned to go to Cedarlands in June, but when the trip got postponed, we received permission from Bill Laymon, the reservation’s director, to visit in early July even though Scouts had already begun arriving for summer camp.
The parking area lies off a dirt road that leads to the camp. The state Department of Environmental Conservation intends to build a carry trail from the parking area to Mud Pond, but for now paddlers follow a gated dirt road that leads in 0.4 miles to the north shore of the pond. The gate is 0.3 miles past the parking area, so we drove to the gate, dropped off our boats, drove back to the parking area, and then walked back to our boats. Afterward, I was told by a DEC spokesman that the public has no right to drive past the parking area. Starting from the parking area, then, the portage to Mud Pond will be 0.7 miles (until a new carry trail is built).
Even our abbreviated carry of 0.4 miles was no picnic, so we were glad to be shouldering lightweight canoes. Paddlers with heavy boats may want to use a wheeled carrier.
Paddling west across Mud Pond, we enjoyed views of the Big Brook Hills directly ahead of us (the pond’s outlet flows into Big Brook). In a few minutes, we turned a corner and started winding northward up the inlet, paddling past an extensive tamarack bog and through a maze of pickerelweed and water lilies. The mountains rising above McRorie Lake added a dramatic backdrop to the peaceful scene.
The takeout for the second carry is 0.65 miles from the put-in. When the water is high you may be able to paddle to dry land, but we had to exit our boats in the muck of a grassy wetland and drag them several yards to the trail. The takeout is marked by orange ribbons.
A short carry through the woods leads to a dirt road (a continuation of the road used for the first portage). You need to turn left here, follow the road across the outlet, and look for another short path that ends at the water’s edge. The start of the path is unmarked and difficult to discern. It begins on the right maybe twenty yards beyond the bridge over the outlet.
At the put-in, the McRorie Lake outlet is really a narrow bay with little current. It took just a minute to paddle to the lake proper, where we were treated to views of Kempshall Mountain to the east and the Seward Range to the northeast. On the shore to the right we could see a dock and canoes. This area is part of the Boy Scouts’ base camp, which is off limits to the public. Ahead of us was Loon Island, the largest of McRorie’s five islands (yes, loons can be seen on the lake).
Seeking the shortest route to the Mud Pond Mountain trail, we paddled straight ahead and passed through a boulder-filled channel that separates the island’s west shore from the mainland. Hugging the lakeshore, we rounded a point and entered a bay. We soon passed a large swimming rock on the left, from which you can jump into the deep water and climb out with the help of a fixed rope. The landing for hikers is near the end of the bay, on the right, marked by an orange traffic cone, of all things.
The paddle from the outlet to the landing is just under a mile. The views from the lake—both distant and near—are so outstanding that you’ll probably want to spend more time on the water before or after the hike. A long ridge on the west and north side of the lake rises as much as a thousand feet above the water, culminating in the 2,900-foot summit of Rock Pond Mountain. From the water, you get the sense you’re sitting in a giant amphitheater. By making a circuit of the lake, you can get in an extra four or five miles of paddling. You also might want to stop at one of the smaller islands for a picnic and swim. There are two in the center of the lake, including one that’s mostly bedrock.
Now let’s get back to the hike. After landing, look for a faint path that leads in twenty yards or so to an overgrown woods road. Turn right and follow the grassy lane less than a tenth of a mile to a prominent dirt road (once again, a continuation of the road used in the carries). Turn left and look for an “OA Trailhead” sign on the right in two hundred yards.
The Scouts call Mud Pond Mountain “OA Mountain,” for the Order of the Arrow, a Scout honor society. They also have their own names for other landmarks: Mud Pond is Scout Pond; Grampus Mountain is Walker Mountain, named after an nineteenth-century owner of the property; and Rock Pond Mountain is Masters Mountain, named for a Boy Scout benefactor. One Scout name has earned a place on maps: McRorie Lake is named after Fred McRorie, an Eagle Scout who died at eighteen in a car accident. McRorie Lake is also known as Rock Pond—hence, the name of the mountain.
The trail up Mud Pond Mountain is marked by blue-and-silver disks. Generally, the trail is easy to follow, but you need to be alert for a left turn not far from the beginning, just after crossing a logged strip. After the turn, the trail ascends through a shady hardwood forest and then through an open area of ferns, grass, and bedrock slabs.
At 0.4 miles from the OA sign, the trail reaches a junction with the Skyline Trail; turning left, we presently came to the open ledges on the east side of the mountain and were bowled over by the view. There was a 180-degree vista, stretching from the northeast to the southwest, with only a few signs of development visible. McRorie Lake lay directly below us, and nearby was Mud Pond, allowing us to trace our paddling route. Just beyond McRorie we could see pieces of Long Lake, and beyond that, armies of green mountains marching toward the horizon. I took out my map and identified some of the prominent peaks: Santanoni, easy to identify by its white scar (the Ermine Brook slide), the North River Mountains, Goodnow Mountain, Vanderwhacker Mountain, the Fishing Brook Range, and Blue Mountain. I’d be hard-pressed to think of a half-mile climb in the Park that offers a better view.
After lunch, we decided to hike the Skyline Trail, which goes over Grampus Mountain, Rock Pond Mountain, and all the nubbles in between and comes out near the northwest shore of McRorie Lake. We had visions of hiking along a ridge with views like those we had enjoyed on Mud Pond Mountain.
Things started out OK. The trail was not well worn, but we could follow it, and it led upward to a mossy forest of red spruce. After a while, though, we frequently found ourselves traversing sections that lacked any hint of previous use—apart from disks and pieces of orange tape. We were continually scratched by shrubs and branches and under attack by an air force of insects.
Eventually, Sue stopped and remarked in exasperation, “It isn’t so much of a trail as a marked bushwhack.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Can you do me a favor? I think a bug flew in my eye.”
I opened my eye wide, and with her index finger she extracted the offending creature. I could see clearly again, but alas there were no vistas to gaze upon. We hadn’t had a decent view since leaving Mud Pond Mountain.
We were puzzled. Why was the route sometimes marked by disks, sometimes by tape, sometimes by both, and sometimes by neither? Why was it an obvious path in some places and an outright bushwhack in others? At times, too, we wondered if we had got off track. We were much relieved when we finally reached a lookout on Rock Pond Mountain, more than three miles from the start of the Skyline Trail.
Although the view was comparable to that on Mud Pond Mountain, Sue and Martha were in no mood to linger. We snapped one photo of McRorie Lake and moved on. The trail was now marked by yellow disks. It descended steeply from the ridge and eventually reached a labyrinth of overgrown logging roads. As the trail was not always marked, we often had to guess which way to go. Luckily, we guessed right and came out on the dirt road that we had seen so much of earlier in the day. From there, it was an easy 1.25-mile walk back to our canoes.
On the return paddle, Sue stopped at the swimming rock and jumped off. I did the same. The cool water was balm for our scratches and bug bites and washed away the frustrations of a trying day. We would remember Cedarlands for the paddling and the beautiful gift of Mud Pond Mountain.
From Long Lake hamlet, drive north on NY 30. Turn right onto Kickerville Road, reached 0.6 miles past the bridge over Long Lake. If coming from the north, you reach Kickerville Road 3 miles after crossing Big Brook. Go down Kickerville Road for 2 miles, where the road turns to dirt. Continue on the dirt road for 0.8 miles, where you will see a left turn for a parking area. The portage begins at the lot: walk 0.3 miles down the dirt road to a junction of three gated roads. The one in the center is for Cedarlands. The one on the left is the continuation of the portage to Mud Pond. Continue another 0.4 miles to a put-in on the left.