Gorge’s vistas worth the work
By Phil Brown
Is this it? I can hear the river. I can see the mountains on the opposite side of the Hudson Gorge. But I don’t see OK Slip Falls. Maybe this is the wrong spot or maybe the falls dried up in the recent drought.
It’s not uncommon for such doubts to come to mind during a bushwhack. But I can’t help thinking that this confusion would not arise, not in this place, if Barbara McMartin had her druthers.
A prolific author of Adirondack guidebooks, McMartin is proposing that the state build a marked trail along the rim of the gorge, creating a loop of more than 10 miles that would take hikers over Kettle Mountain (where I think I am), Pine Mountain and Forks Mountain. Properly promoted, she says, the “Grand Canyon of the Adirondacks” would attract lots of hikers to this neck of the woods.
That may or may not be a good idea, depending on whom you talk to.
The Hudson River carved the eight-mile gorge by tracking and slowly eroding a belt of marble that is softer than the surrounding bedrock. Today, the river flows past towering cliffs and wooded peaks. Each year, thousands of rafters marvel at the spectacular scenery as they shoot through the white-water canyon, but few hikers visit the region. The only official trail in the gorge leads 2.5 miles from the remote Northwoods Club Road to the bank of the Hudson opposite Blue Ledge, a 300-foot precipice.
Under McMartin’s proposal, Blue Ledge would be the beginning of a much larger adventure. After leaving the river, hikers could climb to the rim above the gorge to take in the views from Kettle, Pine and Forks mountain before returning to Northwoods Club Road by a different route.
McMartin said such a trail would compare to the popular trails overlooking a 30-mile gorge in northern Pennsylvania – dubbed the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania. “Gosh, we have a place that’s as beautiful,” she remarked. “We could create something just as spectacular.”
The state Department of Environmental Conservation plans to take a look at McMartin’s suggestion as it prepares a unit management plan (UMP) for the Hudson Gorge Primitive Area, a 17,170-acre tract of state land in the heart of the Adirondack Park. DEC must wrestle with a philosophical question: What is the best way to “manage” wilderness? A trail cut through the forest would make the Hudson Gorge rim more accessible, but would the additional traffic as well as the trail itself, with wooden signs and plastic disks nailed to trees, detract from the wild feeling of this place?
Landscape photographer Carl Heilman thinks so. He argues that some scenic places in the Park should remain completely natural, where the lichen and moss isn’t scuffed off the rocks, where you won’t find litter or boot prints, where a bushwhacker can contemplate the surroundings in solitude. The very presence of a trail, he said, diminishes the sense of wildness.
“When you go to places where there aren’t any trails, you can imagine that you’re the first person ever to have been there,” said Heilman, who has taken photos from Pine Mountain. “When you’re on a trail, you know you’re following someone else’s path.”
McMartin counters that bushwhackers will still have plenty of places to explore away from the crowds. “If we build a thousand new trails,” she said, “we are not going to exhaust the scenic places in the Adirondacks.”
I have been to Blue Ledge a few times, but I had never visited the mountains along the rim. On a sunny day in September, I decided to see what I was missing. In Discover the Central Adirondacks, McMartin describes one bushwhack to Kettle and another to both Pine and Forks, but I combined the two.
I set out for Kettle first. Most of the time I was hiking through open hardwoods, but here and there I ran into thick patches of hobblebush or spruce. The book recommends starting out on a line a little west of south and then heading due south. But when should I change direction? If I turned too early, I might walk past the summit. To play it safe, I kept going straight a little longer than necessary. Just five minutes after I turned, I found myself approaching some rock ledges and heard the river far below.
After a bit of exploring, I concluded that these probably were the Kettle Mountain ledges described by McMartin, though I wasn’t sure. She says you can look across the gorge from Kettle to the 250-foot OK Slip Falls, one of the longest cascades in the Park. Because the falls are on private land, they usually are out of sight from the public, so I was looking forward to seeing them from the other side of the river. Alas, it wasn’t to be.
Nor could I see the Hudson. A few days later, I was given a photograph of the river taken from Kettle: a ribbon of blue, clearly visible, winding between green mountains. Evidently, then, I had stumbled upon some other ledges that offered nice views but nothing spectacular. It’s a good thing: If someone drove from Jersey to visit the Grand Canyon of the Adirondacks and this was all they saw, they might be disappointed.
In my defense, Kettle’s 1,944-foot summit is easy to miss if you aren’t sure what to expect. Although the summit looms far above the river, it’s only 60 feet higher than your starting point on Northwoods Club Road. Thus, going to Kettle is more like climbing a knoll than a mountain – a fact that could add to the appeal of the hike if a trail is built.
As I ate a sandwich on Kettle, I spied a large hawk riding the currents overhead, silhouetted against the blue sky. Ravens also dwell in the gorge. In the past, peregrine falcons and eagles nested at Blue Ledge. It seems that wildlife thrives in the Hudson Gorge Primitive Area. I came across bear and deer scat several times during my rambles, flushed a ruffed grouse or two and found a lovely black feather with white polka-dots that a birder told me came from a hairy woodpecker.
After lunch, I bushwhacked a mile or so to 2,103-foot Pine Mountain, which took less than an hour. Here I arrived at more ledges, encrusted with gray and green lichen, amid white pines. I enjoyed more expansive vistas than earlier. Fifteen miles to the southwest lay Snowy Mountain near Indian Lake, the highest mountain outside the High Peaks region. But what blew me away was the perspective on the Hudson: I was looking straight down at the water 900 feet below. In all my travels in the Park, I cannot recall a view quite like this.
I walked for several minutes along the ledges of Pine before descending to the saddle between it and Forks Mountain – so named, presumably, because of its location near the confluence of the Hudson and Boreas rivers. Upon reaching the 1,990-foot summit, I hunted around for views through openings in the trees. The best I found looked south past nearby Dutton Mountain. Far off, I spotted Crane Mountain.
From Forks, I headed north and descended to the old railroad tracks once used by NL Industries in Tahawus. I followed the tracks 10 minutes to return to Northwoods Club Road. I was still 1-1/2 miles from my car – all of it uphill. Trudging back to my starting point, I realized that it’s possible to cut out this road walk: Next time I’ll park in the same place but ride my bicycle to the tracks, coasting the whole way, and hike the route in reverse.
And there will be a next time. I’m determined now to see the view from Kettle Mountain – trail or no trail.
DIRECTIONS: From the general store in Minerva, drive north on NY 28N to Northwoods Club Road. The Blue Ledge Trail starts 7 miles down the road on the left. If going to Kettle Mountain, park in a small turnout at 5.6 miles and enter woods about 300 yards farther down the road.