Guidebook author shares some of his secrets of the Siamese Ponds Wilderness.
By Bill Ingersoll
WHEN THE STATE began creating a network of marked trails in the Adirondacks in the 1920s, it usually adopted preexisting routes, reflecting a constitutional interpretation that cutting trees would be a violation of the Forest Preserve’s forever-wild protections. A newspaper report from 1929 indicated that rangers marked almost four hundred miles of old trails that year, but cut only sixteen miles of new trails.
The Siamese Ponds Wilderness is a good example of this policy in action as nearly all of today’s state trails were created by others long ago. The main trail to the Siamese Ponds was originally a wagon road, later maintained as a trail by the Bakers Mills guide Frank Warren. The Halfway Brook trail was used by garnet miners traveling between the Hooper and Barton mines. The trail to John Pond was once a town road, and the trail up Peaked Mountain was once a herd path. Chimney Mountain’s popular trail was cut by Charles S. Carroll, who owned a summer resort at the trailhead; it was marked with Adirondack Mountain Club trail markers in 1928 by the Glens Falls chapter.
Yet a large number of traditional trails–old logging roads, farm roads, or simple herd paths—were never marked by the state. Some have remained popular despite this lack of official signage, but a few are so rarely used that it’s a joy to discover them. Others are relatively new as people continue to pioneer routes into the interior. Of course, it is never correct to cut a new trail, but tramping along some existing path is a traditional way to explore the backcountry.
Below are three unmarked trails in the Siamese Ponds Wilderness: a familiar route, a new route, and a relatively obscure route. I’ve added a trailless bushwhack that—who knows?—may one day become a herd path or even a marked trail. All are included in the latest edition of Discover the South Central Adirondacks. There is no guarantee that these footpaths will be well maintained, but finding solitude is a high probability.
Square Falls & Upper Square Falls
I have heard some speculation that the ledge known as Square Falls on the East Branch of the Sacandaga River was named incorrectly, because a second waterfall located about 0.6 miles upstream appears to be more squarish. Perhaps. But rivers are agents of erosion, and the namesake square may have been an ephemeral feature that long ago vanished.
Historically, two paths have led to Square Falls; the route along the west bank was prettier, but it is no longer kept up. The east-bank trail is almost as good as an official state trail. Despite the absence of signs and markers, it is reasonably easy to locate. This route has become the favorite because no fords of the river are required.
SQUARE FALLS: This footpath begins near a large turnoff on NY 8 that is 5.6 miles from Bakers Mills and 11.6 miles from NY 30. The parking area can accommodate many times more vehicles than will ever likely be needed. It narrows near the north end, where you will find a rough driveway leading northwest into the woods. This is the start of the trail.
SHANTY CLIFFS: The path begins near Stewart Creek and the Cod Pond trailhead, which are located 8.8 miles from Bakers Mills and 8.4 miles from NY 30. Guardrails line the highway on all four corners of the bridge over the creek. At the point where the northwestern guardrail ends 0.1 miles north of the parking area, a narrow driveway leads into the woods to a campsite beside the East Branch of the Sacandaga 450 feet from the highway. The driveway is rutted and muddy, and only high-clearance four-wheel-drive vehicles can negotiate these obstacles. Most hikers and climbers park at the Cod Pond trailhead and walk the 0.2 miles to the campsite.
From the parking area along NY 8—an area that shows on an 1858 map as the T. Cook farm—find the driveway leading northwest into the woods. It crosses Martha Brook at 0.2 miles, and then sets off upstream on a course that is parallel to the river. It passes an exposed ledge at 0.5 miles, where the river is pinched between rock walls below, and then embarks on an uphill detour around a steep and rugged part of the gorge.
The last 0.2 miles is a gentle walk through mixed woods. At 1.1 miles, the trail curves toward the river and ends atop the Square Falls ledge. While poison ivy does occur in clusters elsewhere in the gorge, it seems to be absent here; instead, look for Canadian burnet on the nearby ledges.
As for the upper waterfall that some people claim might be the true Square Falls, you will need to bushwhack about 0.6 miles upstream to see for yourself. There is a similarity in appearance, so I suggest that it be called Upper Square Falls. The woods between the lower and upper cascades generally provide for good off-trail hiking, with only a few pockets of thick hobblebush and undergrowth.
As rock climbers have extended their range beyond the High Peaks region—using, I have been told, earlier editions of the Discover guidebooks to find the cliffs that Barbara McMartin knew—they have also cut informal trails to places that were pure bushwhack routes just a few years ago. One such site is the small mountain near the mouth of Shanty Brook that Barbara called the Shanty Cliffs. The chief feature of this impressive peak is its enormous dike, a long cavity created by the erosion of a band of mineral within the surrounding anorthosite bedrock. While climbers are drawn to the foot of the cliffs, the rest of us will find their trail useful for reaching the outstanding vistas from the summit.
The key to finding this unmarked trail is the rutted driveway to the campsite beside the East Branch of the Sacandaga River, just north of Stewart Creek. If you ford the river here (it is relatively shallow, divided into two channels by a gravelly island), the path reveals itself on the opposite bank. It leads westward toward the foot of the mountain and then climbs through the dike. It favors the foot of the more vertical eastern wall, where most of the climbing routes are found. The path gains more than six hundred feet in elevation through the dike. At the dike’s end you can hook right to reach the top of the cliffs just below the 2,047-foot summit, 0.6 miles from the river (0.8 miles from the trailhead) and 670 feet above it. You may need to poke through the trees to find the best ledge, but there is plenty of open rock. Allow about forty-five minutes for the climb.
Only small fires had dotted the valley of the East Branch before the state acquired much of the land from the Morgan Lumber Company in 1896, but the Shanty Cliffs were certainly not spared in 1908 when isolated fires scorched large patches of forest throughout the Adirondacks. The combination of sheer rock and burned summit explains the extent of the views found here today, which include a vast territory to the south—particularly Georgia Mountain and the interior of the Wilcox Lake Wild Forest. It is still possible to find the remnants of charred stumps from the 1908 fire on these slopes.
Lambda Falls on Robbs Creek
Sometimes the most enigmatic paths lead into secluded areas that I might otherwise not think to visit. The trail along Robbs Creek is one such trail; it does not appear to be an old logging road, nor is it shown on old topographic maps. It passes through tax-sale lands acquired in the 1890s, coming to an end near an attractive little waterfall at the foot of the Big Range. While its provenance is not clear, this trail certainly means something to somebody—otherwise that anonymous caretaker would not be keeping it clear.
Robbs Creek Road ends 0.4 miles shy of the state land boundary, but an ATV trail continues where the road leaves off. It zigzags northeast through the last section of the Speculator Tree Farm Easement, ending where the Forest Preserve begins beside an unnamed tributary. A large, well-used campsite lies on the opposite bank of the stream.
Several trails radiate outward from this spot; the one that continues upstream along Robbs Creek forks to the right of the campsite, heading northeast. Like many paths, this one starts out strong but becomes increasingly faint with distance. One unique feature of this route is its frequent stream crossings, where it hops from one side of Robbs Creek to the other. The stream seems to get a little narrower with each crossing, but clearly this is a route that favors either low water levels or rubber boots. The forest is full of tall hardwoods, including numerous ash trees. I had the good fortune of finding an ovenbird nest hidden in the leaf litter while walking this trail.
At 2.2 miles, while the trail is on the west side of the creek, you enter a small clearing with a few odd bits of hardware lying around. Clearly a camp stood here in years gone by, though there are too few clues to judge what kind of camp. The final creek crossing at 2.5 miles comes at the foot of a little rocky gorge. Just beyond, the creek turns left away from the trail, spilling over a rock ledge into a little splash pool, but you will have to leave the path to get a clearer view. The water splits over the angled rock and forms an inverted V, with a total drop of about eight feet. The cascade has no official name, and convention would dictate that it be called Robbs Creek Falls. For the sake of toponymic originality, however, I suggest that Lambda Falls would be more appropriate in this case, based on the Greek letter that it resembles.
The path probably once continued even farther upstream, perhaps passing through the valley into the watershed of the Kunjamuk River, but modern maintenance seems to end right here.
LAMBDA FALLS ON ROBBS CREEK: The drive to this path may seem as adventurous as the hike itself. Begin on the ancient stretch of former state highway known as Old Route 8, which turns northeast off modern NY 8/30 at a junction about 3.1 miles east of the four corners in Speculator. Follow this paved-but-bumpy road to a junction with Robbs Creek Road 1.8 miles from the main highway. Robbs Creek Road is a gravel access road through the Speculator Tree Farm conservation easement. It crosses the bridge over its namesake creek at 1.0 miles and reaches a fork at 2.5 miles. Bear right and go 0.9 miles to the road’s end in a muddy clearing, 3.4 miles from Old Route 8. Ordinary cars can make the trip with care, but vehicles with high clearance and a sturdy suspension are recommended.
John Pond Ridge
John Pond is a small body of water with a lean-to that you can reach by a trail starting near Indian Lake. The state bought this land from Finch Pruyn in 1897, setting off an ownership dispute that took twenty-two years to resolve. It’s a fascinating story, and it explains the presence of the farmhouse foundations and cemetery that you pass on the way to John Pond. This was once the community of Little Canada; the residents were required to leave in 1914 when no one could prove they had bought their land from the logging company prior to the state’s purchase. The pastures were later planted with a variety of pine and spruce trees.
The small mountain to the west of John Pond is a rocky spine with several open ledges. This is a fun mountain to scramble across because rather than just heading to a single lookout, John Pond Ridge offers a variety of perspectives on the surrounding landscape—but to see these views, you must bushwhack.
To begin this bushwhack, you first need to hike to John Pond along the state trail. Cross the outlet and immediately begin to climb southwest toward the ridge’s southernmost summit, nearest John Pond Brook, where an open ledge offers an outstanding view of the chimney on Chimney Mountain. This is the easiest viewpoint to reach from the lean-to; the distance is a mere 0.3 miles, and the vertical climb from the outlet is only about three hundred feet.
From here, head north to begin the traverse of the ridge. The middle summit is the rockiest, with multiple spines of knife-edge rocks crossing the ridgeline diagonally. You may feel like an ant crawling across the back of a sleeping stegosaurus. However, the views never seem to live up to their potential. There are frequent glimpses of John Pond about 370 feet below, as well as Peaked Mountain and some of the distant High Peaks, but no wide-open vistas.
The next good view occurs on the northernmost summit, near where it starts to hook east between John and Clear ponds. Look for a large patch of open rock with an outstanding view across John Pond, which lies nestled at the foot of Bullhead Mountain. The bald patch is quite extensive, and this may well be the most photogenic lookout on the mountain. The total distance between this vista and the southernmost knob is about 0.8 miles.
By this point you are closer to the trail to Clear Pond than you are to the trail through Little Canada, so unless you are camping at the John Pond lean-to it makes more sense to bushwhack north off the mountain toward the Clear Pond trail. The distance between the two trailheads on Starbuck Road is only 0.2 miles, making it easy to complete the loop with a single car.
JOHN POND RIDGE: Follow Big Brook Road southeast from Indian Lake to the junction with Starbuck Road at 3.4 miles. Turn left and follow Starbuck Road for one mile, where it comes to a T intersection. Turn right and follow the Starbuck Road to its end, 1.1 miles from Big Brook Road. In the summer, you can drive into state land an additional 0.1 miles to a small trailhead parking area. To follow the suggested bushwhack route up John Pond Ridge, you will first need to hike the 2.4-mile-long hiking trail, marked by blue disks, through Little Canada to John Pond.
Bill Ingersoll is the publisher of the Discover the Adirondacks series of guidebooks.