Lake George’s Black Mountain is a hike through layers of clouds
By Gillian Scott
Fire towers were built to provide visibility, to give lookouts a bird’s-eye view of the surrounding forest so they could pinpoint smoke and prevent bigger fires. Before towers, open summits on some mountains provided opportunities for scouts keeping an eye on enemy movements. Black Mountain’s summit, which offers a long view of the length of Lake George, has been used for both military monitoring during the French and Indian War and for fire-spotting, with the first wooden tower built in 1911 and later steel versions staffed until 1988.
But when we pulled into the lot of Black Mountain early last winter, I wasn’t sure if we’d see much at all. Clouds hung low over the surrounding hills, leaving the sky gray and uninspiring.
Black Mountain, in the Lake George Wild Forest, sits on the eastern side of the big lake and is the highest summit on its shores. Whether my husband, Herb, our 11-year-old child, Nikk, and I would get to enjoy a view over the water that day was debatable.
The trail up Black Mountain is not hard to follow, but hikers do have two options: one mile from the trailhead on Pike Brook Road, they can take a more direct route up Black via the old jeep trail, with the fire tower on the summit 1.4 miles away; or they can ascend a longer route, passing by Lapland and Black ponds, a 3.1-mile hike.
We opted for the Black route and to descend on the old road. We did not reveal to Nikk that doing the loop is not the shortest option, a fact to which they would have strenuously objected.
There was very little snow on the ground when we started out on a crisp January morning, but an icy crust made for slippery walking in some spots and we were glad for our spikes. During later winter months, when the snow gets deeper, snowmobiles use the jeep trail, which goes all the way to the summit. Depending on your view of snowmobiles, this can be a good thing or a bad thing.
With little snow cover, though, there were no snowmobiles around during our trip. We left the jeep trail at the junction, and hiked toward Black Pond, walking through a pretty hemlock grove, where wetlands were often visible through the trees to our left. Moisture from the low-hanging clouds had left bare tree branches coated in ice, while evergreen branches held clumps of snow. Nikk plucked some ice-coated twigs off the ground and pretended they were antlers. When a footpath offered closer access to the pond’s edge, we stepped out to check the view and found the upper hills liberally dusted in white.
We stopped for lunch at a lean-to on Black Pond’s shore. Set high above the water, the long, open slope before it nevertheless offers good views of the pond below. After our break, we climbed, gradually entering the white winter wonderland we’d seen below.
We got a peek of blue sky at an overlook below the summit, but a hiker resting there advised us that the summit itself was completely socked in. We savored the limited view, thinking it might be the best of the day, and then hiked onward.
The clouds we’d seen all day from below were now our companions, creeping among the trees, with weak rays of sunshine occasionally piercing through. When the light hit the snow and ice, everything gleamed.
Rocking the fire towers
The Glens Falls-Saratoga chapter of the Adirondack Mountain Club offers a patch to hikers who climb 23 fire tower summits: 18 of 25 in the Adirondack Park and all five in the Catskill Park.
Complete the challenge in the winter — hiking the summits between December 21 and March 21 — and you can earn a “rocker” to go with the original patch. The club says hikers should stay off the towers themselves during the winter months due to high winds and icy conditions.
Despite the report from the hiker below, on the summit, we found—finally—the bright sun we had hoped for all day. As we had climbed up the mountain’s slope, we had climbed right through the clouds and into the clear. Now the clouds sat below us, drifting over the lake and the lower mountain slopes, while we stood under blue skies: a cloud inversion.
Cloud inversions occur when there’s enough moisture in the air and the normal layers of air—warmer close to the ground, cooler above—are flipped. The warm air traps the layer of cold, cloudy air at the bottom, which can lead to hikers finding themselves above the clouds on a mountaintop.
The clouds kept shifting as we admired the phenomenon on Black Mountain, and we soon got a long view up the lake and of the snow-dusted mountains around it. From the summit of Black, visitors can see the Tongue Mountain Range in the foreground, with Blue Mountain, Vanderwhacker, Santanoni, Pharaoh, Macomb and Dix in the distance.
Hikers hoping to climb the fire tower for an even better view are in for a disappointment, though. Off limits to the public since 1990, it hosts a variety of state emergency communications equipment, powered by solar panels, and all the gear is secured by high fencing topped by razor wire.
It’s rumored that Captain Robert Rogers, of Rogers Rangers fame, carved his name on the summit’s rock surface in 1763, but that’s out of reach, too. The state Department of Environmental Conservation says the carving is located under the fire tower.
The man-made additions can add some interest, though. During our visit, the winter winds and frigid temps had whipped cloud moisture on the summit into fluffy ice “feathers” that clung to the chain-link fence.
On the ground, there was a thin, hard crust over fluffy snow below. Nikk, who gained inches over the previous few months, but not so much maturity, pulled pieces of snow crust off the ground and flung it at the large summit rock, delighting in the shattering sound.
We lingered until the cold temperatures starting seeping through our winter layers, then headed back down on the shorter route. Black Mountain had more than delivered on its bird’s-eye view.