Getting there is half the fun!
The first half of the 2.7-mile hike is mostly level, ending with a moderate uphill grade as you approach the site of the cabin where the “Hermit of Ampersand” and other fire-tower observers once had their seasonal residence. This first section could also be an outstanding ski trip in the snow season, though when we tried it last winter we soon gave up due to the obstacle course created by the towering hemlocks that had fallen across the trail, courtesy of a fierce windstorm a little earlier.
But those impediments have since been cleared away, and it’s like a walk in the park for a mile or more. A half-hour into the hike we cross a spruce-fir swamp on a long boardwalk and soon begin the short ascent to the clearing where the observer’s cabin once stood. On the stone foundation, which measures about 12 by12 feet and is all that remains of an earlier era, we sit down for a Gatorade break. A good-size garter snake lounges nearby on the stones, unimpressed by our presence. He doesn’t move an inch, even when I touch his tail, all the time we are there.
From this point on the real work begins, as the trail climbs nearly 1,500 feet in just over a mile. For years this was one of the most unpleasant sections of trail in the Adirondacks, a steep, rutted, slippery, eroded mess. Rain and snowmelt regularly coursed down it, and the route became worse with each passing year. During the late 1990s summer crews of the Adirondack Mountain Club came to the rescue, reconstructing most of this section and making it the very model of an erosion-proof trail.
Huge stones are artfully placed to form steps but still look natural. Water bars made of smaller stones are embedded to provide drainage. No more slipping and stumbling, no more grabbing at roots and the trunks of little spruce and fir trees struggling (and ultimately failing) to hang on at the sides of the ever-widening wash. Now we have, instead, what Rachel has dubbed our “stairway to heaven.” There’s still plenty of huffing and puffing, of course. There’s also a portion of the trail higher up that couldn’t be improved due to lack of soil and the prevalence of bedrock. But hey, that’s OK, since it reminds us of the bad old days and how much better it is now.
The route levels off for the next phase of the hike, and we’re glad to catch our breath. As the trail begins to circle the summit, it winds between cliffs and a huge, fractured boulder, swings left and dips down and then climbs abruptly, requiring some scrambling that’s aided by a few handy roots. And then we’re at the top!
As many times as we’ve emerged here, the outlook never fails to astonish. What is it, we wonder, that makes the view from Ampersand so exceptional? Why, on a mountain only 3,352 feet high, which is about 2,000 feet lower than Mount Marcy, should this view be so special? Our conclusions: The summit is bald, massive and unusually long, extending east to west and affording a variety of vistas in every direction. The mountain itself stands separate and alone, overlooking a vast expanse of lower landscapes and lakescapes on all sides. Ampersand also happens to be scenically situated between the northern lake country of the Adirondacks and many of the High Peaks and other mountains of the region.
This was first mountain that the legendary Bob and George Marshall and their family guide Herb Clark climbed in the early 20th century, and it’s easy to see why it inspired them to keep going during the next several years to surmount all of the Park’s peaks over 4,000 feet, many of them without trails, to become the first Adirondack Forty-Sixers. Ampersand was a great place to start.
From the top it seems as if you’re looking out over a gigantic, living relief map. In fact, one day this scene really did come to life as we were having lunch here. Middle Saranac Lake, below us to the north, appeared wild and natural and devoid of any human activity when suddenly we saw a string of small boats moving out onto the lake from the canoe carry from Upper Saranac.
This was the third and final day of the annual 90-mile canoe race from Old Forge to Saranac Lake, and we were enjoying a bird’s-eye view. We watched the progress through our binoculars, following the leaders as they paddled swiftly down the lake, with a lengthening stream of canoes behind them. The tiny craft seemed powered by silent, unseen motors. When the leaders reached the Saranac River outlet they ducked out of sight, then re-appeared about 10 minutes later on the waterway leading out of Lower Saranac and finally through Oseetah and Lake Flower to the finish line in the village.
On a clear day, the view from Ampersand extends 50 miles in every direction. There are few signs of human development as far as the eye can see, except for a piece of Tupper Lake village discernible 10 miles to the west and part of Saranac Lake village in the other direction. We marvel at this largely undisturbed landscape, a rarity in today’s world, and then we settle into our favorite summit game of identifying lakes and mountains. Familiar waters include the three Saranac lakes and some larger ponds of the St. Regis Canoe Area, Lake Simond and some of Tupper Lake, and the gem called Ampersand Pond – pristine and solitary at the foot of Ampersand Mountain – just below us to the south. Farther on is a sizable slice of Long Lake and beyond that rises Blue Mountain, near the geographic center of the Adirondack Park, at whose base (unseen from here) lies its beautiful namesake lake.
Notable peaks punctuate every horizon. Northernmost is Lyon Mountain, from which you can look beyond the St. Lawrence River to Montreal. Easternmost is Hurricane Mountain, with its wide-open summit overlooking Lake Champlain and the Green Mountains of Vermont. South across Ampersand Pond looms the Seward Range, then the Santanoni Range and the McIntyre massif, whose closely connected Algonquin, Boundary and Iroquois peaks are arranged in a perfect but seldom-seen profile. Northeast is the McKenzie Range, separating the villages of Saranac Lake and Lake Placid, and beyond that the solitary, alpine-like Whiteface Mountain. To the west is Ampersand’s smaller neighbor, Stoney Creek Mountain, followed by Mount Morris and Mount Arab.
And that’s just for starters!
We walk the length of the summit, which involves some interesting ups and downs and takes about 10 minutes. Embedded in the rock at one point are fixtures that once secured the cables that helped stabilize the fire tower before it was removed a quarter-century ago. On a big boulder nearby is a bronze plaque that reads:
In loving memory of Walter Channing Rice/1852-1924/”Hermit of Ampersand”/ who kept vigil from this peak/1915-1923/ Erected by his sons 1930
Eventually we head back down, reluctant to leave but mindful that a further treat awaits us if we decide to hike an extra half-mile from the parking lot by the highway to the beach on Middle Saranac Lake. It’s a great place to take a refreshing swim as a finale to one of the best half-day hikes (and an even better full-day excursion if you’re so inclined) in the Adirondacks.
As Barbara McMartin poetically puts it in her guidebook, 50 Hikes in the Adirondacks: “Ampersand is a mountain to enjoy as you would a great painting, to savor leisurely as you would sip a rare vintage wine.”
DIRECTIONS: The trail begins on the south side of NY 30 about 8 miles west of Saranac Lake village and 7.3 miles east of the junction of NY 3 and NY 30 (or about 14 miles east of Tupper Lake). There is a parking lot on the highway directly across from the Ampersand sign. (The trail to Middle Saranac beach starts from the lot.)
THE BEST TIME TO GO
Pick a day that’s clear and cool. September, October and early November is a particularly good time to climb Ampersand. When winter starts to close in and the upper reaches of the trail are icy, you can strap instep crampons onto your hiking boots. And when the snow deepens you can hike on snowshoes, though you’ll want the ones with big, aggressive crampons, the kind you can get with the best aluminum-tube models.