A recently completed section of the Northville-Placid Trail eliminates miles of road walking near the southern terminus.
By Bill Ingersoll
I knew we were going to have no problems fording West Stony Creek the moment I saw it from the summit. The waterway snaked its way through the valley below us, hemmed in on both sides by gentle hills that were still green with the lushness of summer. It was a wide stream, but not deep; even from this lofty distance I could tell that its surface was as much rock as it was water.
“You can see where we’re going to be camping tonight,” I said to my two companions, Justin and Mike.
Mike seemed to be particularly interested in learning how to read this landscape, because of the three of us he was the only one who had never been to this part of the Adirondacks before. “Oh yeah? Where is that?”
“See that leftmost bend in the stream? That’s where Trypoli Creek comes in. The campsite’s right there.”
Although the calendar read late September, the foliage hadn’t been keeping pace. It was probably a victim of too much good weather. The sunny, dry weather of August had extended into early fall, and the hardwood-forested landscape of Benson, Mayfield, and Bleecker was now just a touch rusty—at a time of year when they should be flaming with color.
We were standing on the top of a 1,980-foot mountain in the Shaker Mountain Wild Forest. One of the southernmost landmarks in Hamilton County, this little peak bears no official name, although I have taken to calling it “West Stony Mountain.” Most of the mountain is forested with hardwoods interspersed with small glades, but here and there you will find patches of open rock—two of which provide outstanding views of West Stony Creek.
So far we had reached only the first of the two bald spots. “This view is good, but the next one is even better,” I offered.
Justin needed no further convincing: “Let’s go see it.”
This was my second time up West Stony, but the first for Mike and Justin. I led the way through the woods, past a lesser opening with a standing boulder, and then down a short grade until I saw our destination through the trees ahead. Our dogs Lexie and Jenny followed me out onto the ledge, more interested in the smell of the rock and lichens than in the tremendous vista before them.
“Can you see Cathead Mountain from here?” Mike asked.
“It’s to the right, just around those trees,” I said.
Justin was on the job. “You can see it from over here, guys.” And he was right; from one sweet spot you could see the converted fire tower on Cathead, an obvious landmark on one of the largest mountains in the neighborhood. Beyond, to the northeast, stood the high country of the Silver Lake Wilderness. The hamlet of Benson was out there somewhere too, but from this vantage point you would never know.
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Climbing West Stony Mountain was incidental to our true goal for the weekend: to hike the newest segment of the Northville-Placid Trail (NPT) from Gifford Valley to Benson Road. In late August I had learned of its completion, and I was ready to take a break from other hikes to see the new route. I had already hiked—twice—the other new section to the northwest, from Woods Lake to the Godfrey Road Spur, which was cut in 2013 and opened to the public in 2014. But this section to the south was only partially completed when I was last here a year ago.
The Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) completed this segment in the summer of 2015, realizing their goal of bringing the NPT closer to Northville, the trail’s southern terminus. Previously the NPT had followed roads all the way from town to the first trailhead in Upper Benson, a section that most modern hikers naturally skipped.
I scheduled a trip with my meet-up group, the Adirondack Wilderness Explorers, and that got the attention of Mike and Justin. We met at the trailhead and followed the newly marked trail into the backcountry. This first part was familiar to me from my prior visit. It zigzagged up the mountainside before cutting northwest to tiny Mud Lake. This initial ascent—which begins almost immediately after departing the parking area—gains more than seven hundred feet in the 1.8-mile approach to the pond, much of that in the form of gentle switchbacks. For this trip we were carrying packs with only enough gear for one night of camping, but I imagine this climb will seem much tougher for people provisioned for a longer through-hike.
Mud Lake, the first landmark on the new trail, was an unusual spectacle of beaver lodges and bog islets, with a perfect picnic spot located on its north shore. Lexie and Jenny bravely plunged into the water upon our arrival, though the pond was aptly named and not anything I’d want to swim in myself. The trail briefly hugged the shoreline, cutting through a stand of ferns that marched right down to the edge of the murky water. After passing the massive beaver dam at the outlet, we followed the stream past boulders and tall hardwoods to the foot of West Stony. Here we dropped our backpacks and made the short bushwhack up the mountain, traversing the numerous glades in search of those two views of the creek.
Our ultimate destination for the day, though, was a campsite on West Stony Creek at the mouth of one its more prominent tributaries, Trypoli Creek. I had stayed there once before, and I remembered it rather fondly: creeks on two sides, tall hemlocks above, a view of the mountain downstream—a great place to spend a September evening with friends. We were now on a portion of the trail I had never seen before, and it seemed a little odd to be following such a clear trail through terrain I had bushwhacked several times prior, but ADK had hacked out a first-rate footpath. It traversed a hillside while descending slowly into West Stony Creek’s valley, crossing several lesser tributaries before finally arriving at Trypoli, 4.7 miles from the trailhead.
A short bushwhack led us to the mouth of the stream, where we found the campsite almost exactly as I had left it a year ago: a fireplace built of heavy stones donated by the creek, a stash of firewood, a layer of soft duff on which to pitch our tents. Lift a stone off the ground and you might find a salamander or a millipede hiding underneath. I pitched my tent in the part of the site closest to Trypoli, and soon we had our own little Nylon hamlet here in the wilds of West Stony Creek. A small fire, the crack of a can of beer being opened, a near-full moon rising through the trees, talk of past trips on similar nights: the finest pleasures in life.
“Hello the camp!”
The call came from the bed of West Stony Creek the following morning, and I recognized the voice. Ken, another member of the meet-up group, had arrived from the northern trailhead in Benson, just as we had arranged in advance. While Mike, Justin, and I had camped overnight, Ken was just out for the day. His truck, parked up on Benson Road, was to be our shuttle back to Gifford Valley.
“Wow, this is a really nice campsite.” Justin had the fire going in anticipation of cooking his breakfast.
“Did you have any problems finding the place?” I asked.
“All I had to do was follow the plume of smoke wafting across the creek,” Ken replied.
He took a seat on the log bench that Justin had assembled, and I asked about the section of new trail he had just walked to get here—the section the rest of us had yet to see. It was a wonderful new trail, he said, weaving through grand forests and around rock outcrops. By his description alone, I was eager to see this new route. It had taken him only two hours to reach the creek from Benson Road, and in all that distance there was only one small blowdown across the trail. With these low-water conditions, the crossing of West Stony Creek had been a simple rock-hop affair.
Our “Camp Trypoli” was located just a short distance downstream from where the new NPT crosses West Stony. There are dreams of building a footbridge here someday, but for the moment hikers must ford the creek. As fords go, West Stony is relatively easy because the creek really lives up to the “stony” part of its name.
But any bridge over West Stony Creek will have to be a monster span, because although the waterway is not big, it is wide. In the spring the banks are scoured by blocks of fragmented ice, keeping wide margins along each shore free of trees. Many of the trees standing along the edge of the riparian corridor bear scars from past scrapes with these passing bergs. Therefore a bridge would have to span more than just the flowing water, but a portion of the floodplain as well.
Justin cooked his rounds of breakfast meat on a grill propped over the open flames, and as we sat telling stories around the fire our attention was drawn by a graceful shadow darting up through the valley. It was a bald eagle on patrol, looking for a Sunday brunch of its own. A moment later it made a return flight back downstream at the same low elevation. We were all duly impressed.
Even the best camping trips must come to an end, and a few hours later our camp was packed up and we were on our way to Benson. The marked trail was a short distance away, and we found the fording site within sight of Camp Trypoli. It was strategically placed near some large boulders—potential foundations for a future footbridge—but as I suspected, West Stony Creek was not an obstacle today: a hundred feet of stepping from one cobble to the next, and we were on the north bank without getting our feet wet. Only in winter and early spring would this be an impassable crossing.
After a parting look downstream toward the site of Camp Trypoli, we entered the woods with Jenny and Lexie leading the way. The quiet hamlet of Benson beckoned, just a few miles ahead along a pristine new trail.
About the trail
By my measurement, the new section of the Northville-Placid Trail, from Collins Gifford Valley Road to Benson Road, is 8.8 miles. It rises 760 feet in the first 1.8 miles to Mud Lake, and then slowly drops seven hundred feet to the banks of West Stony Creek, 4.9 miles from the Gifford Valley trailhead. From here, it is 3.9 miles to the Benson Road crossing, with a three-hundred-foot climb in the first half-mile out of the valley. Certainly, this new trail segment is among the hillier portions of the NPT.
DIRECTIONS: The Benson Road trailhead is easily found on Benson Road at a newly signed and enlarged parking area, 4.6 miles from the intersection with NY 30. Collins Gifford Valley Road also begins on NY 30, at an intersection one mile north of Northville. Follow this byway for two miles to the signed trailhead parking area on the right.
This area is part of the Shaker Mountain Wild Forest. However, the advocacy group Protect the Adirondacks has proposed reclassifying the land surrounding the new NPT as the twelve-thousand-acre West Stony Creek Wilderness. This new unit would incorporate long-established Forest Preserve as well as land near Tomanton acquired recently from the Nature Conservancy as part of the Finch, Pruyn deal.