A small wilderness offers big rewards
By Phil Brown
It’s small, but wild. After a few miles of walking along a little-used path, pushing aside brush, stepping over fallen trees, you get the sense that you are a long way from civilization.
Welcome to the Hoffman Notch Wilderness.
The best way to see this neglected jewel is to walk a 7.4-mile trail that traverses the tract from south to north, passing through the notch that gives the Wilderness its name. You’ll need two cars if you do the entire trip. If you have only one, you can go as far as Big Marsh, which is about midway, and turn around.
Although we hiked the trail in August, I imagine that the trip is even more spectacular in autumn after the leaves of the sugar maple and yellow birch have turned color. In winter, the trail makes an excellent ski route. It’s included in Tony Goodwin’s Classic Adirondack Ski Tours.
After leaving a car on Blue Ridge Road south of the High Peaks, we drove a half-hour to the southern terminus at Loch Muller, a tiny settlement west of the village of Schroon Lake. Less than a half-mile before the trailhead, we stopped to read a quaint hand-lettered sign on a large white pine on the side of the road:
On this spot in the year 1845 this pine tree a sapling
of twelve years was transplanted by me, at the age
of twelve years. Seventy-five years I have watched
and protected it. In my advancing years it has given
me rest and comfort. Woodman spare that tree, touch
not a single bough. In youth it sheltered me and I’ll
protect it now. Paschal P. Warren. June 14, 1920.
If you spare the tree, I’ll spare you the math: It’s now 167 years old. Let’s hope it has many good years ahead.
The Loch Muller Road ends in a grassy field that serves as a parking lot. Two trails begin here—one leading west to Bailey Pond, the other leading north through the notch. The notch trail, marked by yellow disks, descends at once through a mixed woods to cross the West Branch of Trout Brook on a mossy bridge. You’ll pass several large yellow birch on the way down. You can also look forward to seeing huge pines, hemlocks and maples on this hike: the land has been part of the state Forest Preserve for nearly a century.
About 1.2 miles from the start, you reach the North Branch of Trout Brook. An arrow on a sign points right, in the direction of a trail that crosses the brook and leads to Big Pond. Don’t turn, but continue straight along the west bank. The stream will be your musical companion for much of the way to Big Marsh.
Our party of four was led by a 9-year-old boy, so we did not walk at our usual pace. Consequently, when we glimpsed through trees a marshy meadow after nearly two hours of hiking, we wondered if that could be Big Marsh—even though the guidebooks describe Big Marsh as a large pond. As it turned out, we had another mile to go. Once you reach Big Marsh, there’s no mistaking it. The trail hugs the western shore and offers superb vistas of the surrounding peaks. The highest, Hoffman Mountain, is 3,693 feet. The town of Schroon wanted a ski center built on this mountain in the late 1960s, but voters shot down the idea in a statewide referendum.
On the way to Big Marsh, we had to navigate around blowdown in places and push aside branches of saplings and hobblebush that stretch across the narrow path. Once when I turned to look for my friend Steve, all I saw was his head bobbing above the undergrowth. Such touches add to the wild character of the place. To my mind, it beats plodding along a trail that’s wide enough for a bus or eroded down to roots and bedrock.
Just beyond Big Marsh lies Hoffman Notch at 1,780 feet. From the southern trailhead, we had gained only 60 feet in elevation. Hereafter, we would be going down more than up, for the northern terminus is at an elevation of 1,245 feet. We passed through the notch without realizing it, but we knew it was behind us when we reached Hoffman Notch Brook, which flows north.
The trail follows the brook and crosses it several times. There are no bridges, so the crossings could be tricky in winter. The stream spills over some pretty waterfalls, prompting my companions to pronounce the second half of the hike more scenic. However, I preferred the first half, with its huge trees and luxuriant forest. After the notch, the forest is more open, with smaller trees. A rusting skidder we passed farther along seemed to confirm my suspicions that this section had been logged more recently.
After hopping across the brook for the last time, we waded through a delightful fern meadow and crossed beneath power lines where raspberries, black-eyed susans and other wildflowers grow in profusion. We were on private land now and near the end of our journey. The trail crosses Sand Pond Brook on a sturdy bridge and then, as a final treat, passes through a stand of cedars before reaching Blue Ridge Road.
All told, we spent nearly six hours in the woods. It shouldn’t take you that long to cover this distance, but even if it does, it will be time well spent.
Southern trailhead: From the village of Schroon Lake, drive west on Hoffman Road for 6.6 miles to Loch Muller Road on the right. Take Loch Muller Road to its end, about 2.8 miles.
Northern trailhead: From Northway Exit 29, drive west on Blue Ridge Road for 5.9 miles. Park in a small clearing on the left, immediately past the Branch River (and across from the Ragged Mountain Fish and