Short hike to a long view
By Nick Chowske
When my wife, Andrea, and I moved to Plattsburgh, I was overjoyed at the thought of having so many mountains to climb, but I didn’t realize that most of them were at least an hour’s drive away. Thankfully, someone told us about Rattlesnake.
With an elevation of about 1,200 feet, Rattlesnake Mountain may not have a commanding presence, but what it lacks in stature, it makes up for in other ways. It’s a beautiful place to hike or snowshoe. It’s also easy to get to: the trailhead is just five miles from Northway Exit 33.
Given the mild climate of the Champlain Valley (compared with that of the High Peaks), Rattlesnake is a good choice for a late-season outing. The hike is only about a mile and a half with an elevation gain of 635 feet.
Beginning on the flats, the trail meanders through a healthy forest of maple, beech, birch, and pine. There’s never a shortage of wildlife to observe and listen to. On our ambles here, we’ve heard the songs of countless birds, chipmunks rustling in the leaves, and, in summer, flesh-eating deerflies buzzing around our ears.
At the base of the mountain, the trail crosses old logging roads. Stalks of common mullein grow taller than me in the sunny patches. The trail rises, gradually at first, as it winds around the foot of the mountain and then turns sharply to the right and begins a fairly steep ascent.
This section remains deeply rutted from its days as a logging road and is now partly obstructed with large stones and fallen trees. It’s also very wide with little foliage overhead, allowing the hot sun to blast down in the summer and snow to pile high in the winter. The last time we hiked here, Andrea slathered us in sunscreen, taking extra care to dab some on my thinning hairline.
About twenty-five minutes into the hike, there is a junction with a narrower and much-steeper trail on the left. A large brown sign with yellow lettering explains that the mountain is privately owned and that hikers are welcome, but camping, fires, and ATVs are not.
This is the final ascent, my favorite part of the hike. The trail switchbacks through thick woods and branches out into a number of paths. Though they’re unmarked, they all lead to the top, and you can take a different route on each climb.
Andrea and I usually choose a trail on the right that leads past three lookouts with tremendous views from the southwest side of the mountain. You can see Long Pond below and a sea of Adirondack peaks stretching to the horizon.
Scrub bushes and scraggly trees sprout from the rocky bluffs near the summit. On a cool day, we’ve seen as many as six red-tailed hawks, lazily soaring overhead. The very top is marked by a large boulder the size of a minivan, which Andrea and I scale every time we hike. It must be the highest point on the mountain, and from its perch you enjoy an amazing view of Willsboro Bay, the Four Brothers Islands, the city of Burlington, and the green fields on the Vermont side of Lake Champlain.
But the boulder is not the end of the adventure. Rattlesnake’s summit is a long, partially wooded ridge with four bald outlooks (and a radio tower). The third outlook is dotted with more than a dozen cairns. They tend to fall over in the wind and rain, so we always take a few minutes to rebuild them.
Usually we forgo the walk to the end of the ridge and the radio tower. There isn’t much of a view, and the perpetual hum makes me think we’re being radiated like a microwave dinner. Behind the tower, a trail leads down the north side of the mountain to Highforge Pond and some camps on Highforge Road. Andrea and I went down this way the first time we hiked here and had to trudge a few miles back along the road to return to our car on Route 22.
All in all, Rattlesnake Mountain is a terrific hike for beginners getting their climbing legs or for experts looking for a quick jaunt. It’s a delightful hike any time of the year.