On the trail to the Pinnacle, a young lad teaches his elders to slow down and enjoy nature.
By Neal Burdick
Pinnacle may sound like a daunting destination for your two-year-old grandson’s first climb in the Adirondacks, but in fact it’s a short, gradual, forgiving ascent to a lookout with a fine view. Last summer, while he was visiting with his parents from Seattle, we decided this would be Charlie’s introduction to “summiting” in the Park. It served that purpose well, and in fact is an ideal hike for families with children of any age.
It’s off the beaten path, however. A half-mile east of the Route 458 bridge over the Middle Branch of the St. Regis in Santa Clara, you turn north on a logging road. At the start of the road, you will see an open gate with a DEC sign indicating “Pinacle [yes, spelled wrong] trailhead 1.7 miles.” At least the distance is right, but you don’t need to know it, because after a few minutes on the twisty, one-lane dirt road the driving terminates at a generous gravel turn-around. The trailhead register is to the right, a few feet into the woods.
As we load up, Charlie tosses rocks around the parking area. One thing you need to know about hiking with a two-year-old is that he’s fascinated by nearly everything he sees and wants to investigate it in minute detail. It took us eighty minutes to complete the half mile to the top. The most important thing you can bring along on a hike like this is patience.
The trail, which is on timberlands protected by a conservation easement, ascends gently through beech-maple woods with sporadic spruce and fir as it gently gains altitude. We pass through gardens of glacial erratics, immense boulders deposited by glaciers more than ten thousand years ago. We entertain Charlie with paper airplanes, stones that we give names to, and funny faces. Leaves dancing in the breeze remind him of kites. Cindy, his mom, shows him a damselfly resting in a berry patch that has been picked over by hikers or bears. We don’t mention the latter possibility aloud.
Trail markers are infrequent, but the path is easy to follow. False Solomon’s seal, trillium, and blood-root line the way, but Charlie is more intrigued by fern shapes and textures. At one of our countless pauses, he lays his hand on a patch of sphagnum moss and discovers its moist softness. “I like it!” he squeals. I explain the ecological role of moss in the Adirondacks, more for the adults’ benefit.
Hikes with two-year-olds are perfect opportunities for experiential education. When Charlie’s attention is drawn to something off the path, his mother tells him, “We stay on the trail to keep ourselves and nature safe.” When she gives him a snack, she reminds him not to toss the wrapper on the ground.
Charlie points at everything he sees and asks, “What’s that?” His hearing is acute. At one point, he asks, “What’s that noise?” It’s me telling my recorder, “Charlie’s hearing is acute.” He hears what he thinks is a woodpecker, but it’s two tree limbs rubbing in the wind. He hears birds we can’t hear. He hears the breeze.
He’s proud of himself when he handles a short, steep, and rocky pitch without aid, announcing, “I’m going higher in the sky!” This elicits a round of praise, another thing you need to have in your arsenal for success. I remind myself that since he’s one-third the adults’ height, he has to take three times as many steps to cover the same ground. Of course he starts with supplies of energy we can barely remember having. Still, snacks are vital not only as motivators but also as nourishment, for he’s burning through his energy stores like a hummingbird. So make sure the snacks are nutritional, not just distractions.
At one stop, we discover a snail. This requires close observation. I ask myself if the snail might be moving faster than we are, then remind myself why we are here. Charlie’s parents explain how the snail retreats into its shell when threatened, which it promptly demonstrates. He’s simultaneously captivated by a couple of tree frogs. I wonder if he likes tiny critters because they’re closer to his scale than gargantuan boulders and eighty-foot trees.
We study a bug eating a leaf. We are not entomologists enough to know what it is. But that’s not important; what matters is that Charlie is learning how nature works by being out in it and watching it in action.
Charlie bunny-hops up a short segment, then leaps some blowdown like a pommel vaulter. The energy snack has kicked in. One of his parents carries him on parts of the rare steep sections, which the trail negotiates via short switchbacks. After one of them, Charlie climbs up on an erratic that’s maybe two feet tall and grins triumphantly. Mom encourages him not to pull live leaves off foliage. She hands him a dead beech leaf, which he watches spiral to Earth from his throne.
When he tires, we give him lots of encouragement toward the next landmark, whether it be a tree, boulder, stump, raisins, “treat at the top” (Nana’s cookies), or whatever we can conjure at the moment. Shouts of “You made it!” ring out
when he achieves the mini-goal, as our eyes dart ahead for the next one. These moments alternate with more bursts of energy, when Charlie leads for a few yards, stumpy legs churning.
We skirt a rock outcrop that signals the crest of the ridge. The trail switchbacks around an imposing erratic, fifteen feet in diameter and nearly spherical. This impresses the adults more than Charlie. He’s picked up a walking stick, which he uses mostly as a whacking stick, slapping the ground with it. Mommy explains that lichen is very old and fragile, like his great-grandfather, and shouldn’t be walloped with a sharp object.
The trail follows the ridge-line for a couple of hundred yards, level or very slightly descending, to the overlook. Charlie’s dad reminds us that a two-year-old is not focused on an abstract destination like “the top” or “the view.” Young children live in the moment. Thus the numerous short-term goals. Nana says, “These are lessons we can learn from a child.”
The trail ends atop a 350-foot precipice with an unexpected eight-foot-long picnic table near at hand. The drop-off is not as scary as it looks at first, thanks to a wide ledge a few feet below the brink, but keep close track of the kids just the
same—even a short fall can do a lot of damage to a child. The view is 180 degrees (north, west, and south), taking in the St. Regis watershed from Azure Mountain to the St. Lawrence valley and displaying the transition from lowlands to
highlands, farmland to woodland. But Charlie’s focused on a pond at the foot of the cliff. He thinks frogs and snakes live in it, while I point out four beaver lodges.
We appropriate the picnic table for lunch. Charlie wonders what trees eat. Daddy tells him how they make their own food from sunlight, but he wants to give an apparently famished beech tree an orange, a pear, an apple, and ham, none
of which we have with us. Ah, the imagination of a child …
On the descent, Charlie wants to “fix” a hole in the ground, but we convince him it’s an animal’s door. Nana carries him on her shoulders, and it’s his turn to encourage her: “You made it!” he mimics us in his gleeful soprano when she steps over some blowdown.
It takes half as long to descend, partly because Charlie gets rides more of the time. This is calculated partly to ease him into naptime, which hits shortly after we are in the car and under way.
“Hiking with a two-year-old is like bringing along your own little Buddha—you have no choice but to stop and notice your surroundings,”Charlie’s mom says at one point.
It’s good advice, regardless of age.
DIRECTIONS: The trailhead is reached by a logging road off NY 458 near the hamlet of Santa Clara. If driving east from Santa Clara, the turn is on the left 0.5 miles after crossing the bridge over the Middle Branch of the St. Regis River. If coming from the east, the turn is 9.6 miles from NY 30. Look for a DEC sign set back from the road. Drive 1.7 miles up the logging road to a large parking area on the left. The trail begins on the opposite side of the road.