Editor’s note: As of August 2023, access to this route via the Chimney Mountain Lodge is closed to the public.
Chimney stokes kids’ curiosity
By Michael Sean Gromley with Ethan Gormley
After too much overtime and too many missed bedtimes, it was time again to plug into America off line. Our goal was Chimney Mountain, one of the Adirondacks’ more fascinating freaks of geology. Chimney has a maze of caves, a jumble of boulders fit for a Road Runner cartoon and an immense rock tower narrowing to the sky that gives the mountain its name.
A perfect adventure for young boys such as my son Ethan, who is 10, and Mick, his 12-year-old cousin. And for their fathers—my brother Matt and I.
The 1.5-mile trail starts at Chimney Mountain Wilderness Lodge, reached by traveling over back roads near Indian Lake. The lodge asks you to leave $2 for the privilege of parking on its land. Soon after signing the trail register, we found ourselves in thick woods. We crossed a small creek over slippery stones and a semi-submerged gangplank of tree limbs. On the steep sections, bared roots and well-placed tree trunks make the ascent fun even for rookie hikers.
Especially for kids. Ethan and Mick attacked the trail from the get-go, their boots barely skimming the dirt as they sought to discover whatever lay around the corner or over the crest. But if the trail fueled their high-rpm engines, the promise of caves shifted them to overdrive.
One caveat: The caves lie off the official trail, and some experienced hikers warned us that they had failed to find any. The fear of not finding something not easily found nagged at me: I twice missed the 10-foot-tall state Department of Environmental Conservation sign along Route 30 that indicates the way to the trailhead. The only thing odder than climbing 900 feet to go underground would be failing to find something that hasn’t moved much since the last ice age 10,000 years ago.
It takes less than an hour to reach the Chimney. Before exploring it, we descended along a path to the left into a small valley where the caves were supposed to be. There were lots of holes in the ground, several lean-tos of stone and some long, deep crevasses. Finally, the first cave was spotted. It was about five feet deep and required serious scrunching. It was almost impossible to get down because it was so steep. If you jumped you’d break both legs; if you crawled you’d be scraped by the jagged rocks.
Matt then found a deeper hole, maybe eight feet down, a curving tunnel ribbed by mossy cracks. The cave ended in blackness despite the late-morning sunshine. Matt and I refused to venture in, citing what is clinically known as the heebie-jeebies. It’s an affliction to which kids are immune. Ethan descended into the hole, even as he wondered how or if he’d get back up. The cave branched, with an 18-inch portal to the left and dark holes to the right.
“Dad, something’s moving down there,” Ethan said. He turned to stand up and scramble to the entrance, but sharp rocks scrapped his leg, then he slipped on the fallen, colorless leaves.
A panicked thought entered his father’s head: “We’re in the middle of the Adirondacks, where bears are so de rigueur that they are featured on tourism brochures, and I have just dangled my son into a den as if he were bait.”
Second thought, just as frantic: “How do I explain this bit of parenting genius to his mom?”
Ethan grips my hand, a foot slips, he slides back, the grip tightens, the rustling below gets closer, Ethan scrambles to the top. Twenty feet of gray rock away and five feet deeper in the earth, the rustling turns out to be Mick exploring the same cave from the opposite end.
Outside the cave, we stepped carefully over and between crevasses that ranged from a foot to 10 feet wide and came to another maw, this one under a small, root-covered knoll. Its opening dropped 10 feet, but at a more gradual slope than the others. The boys squirm inside and find a small, dark opening to the left. Mick crawls forward and takes a flashlight from Ethan. Mick then crooks his head to behold a sight that defies logic: A cavern, 10-feet high and deeper than the flashlight can penetrate, opens under the mountain.
“It’s like a living room!” Mick exclaimed, his breath forming icy clouds despite the 80-degree temperature outside the cave. Inside, there were two more channels leading into darkness. Faded leaves carpeted the floor and a crack above gave a bit of light. Both boys lay there a moment, wedged into place more by wonder than by the rock.
Safely above ground again, most?people would call this hike a success and notch it as “achieved.” None of those people would be under 12 years old. So we press on, bushwhacking, rock climbing and jumping across gaps between boulders. When we do get back to the main trail, we turn left for the chimney. After climbing over and squeezing between more boulders, there it is: a rock column rising 35 feet above us.
The tower is out of reach because of a lack of technical climbing equipment (as well as a serious lack of desire to use it).? Instead, we climb 10 feet to a wide ledge, lending hands to each other. Once settled on our perch, we take a look around. And what a look!?To the southwest, we can see Kings Flow, where we began our adventure. To the northeast we discern the cone of Vanderwhacker Mountain in the foreground of the High Peaks. In all, three layers of High Peaks line up against the horizon like theater backdrops.
We never did find the 100-foot cave we heard about or the ice that sticks around all summer. But this trip by two brothers and their sons, working as a team, exploring ancient rock and sharing just a wee bit of danger meant more to me than your typical walk in the woods. Late that night, after recounting the adventure to Ethan’s mom, I hit the sack, overcome by a pleasant fatigue. It was a bedtime I wouldn’t miss for the world.
From the junction of NY 30 and NY 28 in Indian Lake, drive south on NY 30 for 0.6 mile to Big Brook Road. Turn left and go 5.7 miles to a junction with Hutchins Road. Turn right and go 2.7 miles to Chimney Mountain Wilderness Lodge. Walk east from the parking lot to reach the trail.