Following the Cooper Kiln Pond trail to a Stephenson Ridge lookout
By Tim Rowland
To a non-bushwhacker, I’m sure we sounded like a couple of idiots:
“If you’re driving down Bonnieview and look up into the Stephenson Range …”
“…You can see cliffs, I know!”
“Yes! You’ve seen them?!”
“Yes! And it’s state land?”
I happened to be at the grand opening of Adirondack photographer and bushwhacker Johnathan Esper’s new gallery in Wilmington, and we had been chatting about some of our favored backcountry haunts when the conversation excitedly turned to the possibility of there being some unique views from a high ridgeline that looked approachable from the state trailhead to Cooper Kiln Pond, a remote body of water perched at 3,000 feet between Morgan Mountain and Wilmington Peak.
So we made plans to try to find this overlook, something that isn’t always as easy as it sounds in the tens of thousands of acres that can make up a state wilderness or wild forest.
It was also snowing, which doesn’t always make for the best views, but after you’ve decided on an enticing adventure, your brain’s decision-making mechanism isn’t always as effective as it should be.
The cliffs are discoverable on satellite imagery to the southwest of the trailhead on Bonnieview Road. To avoid private land, it was necessary to stay on the trail for at least a half mile to a point where it crosses a small stream. After that, it was just a matter of deciding the best route through the open woods to the ridge.
Staying on the trail until it reached the elevation of the cliffs and then traversing to them on the contour was tempting, but would add some distance, so after a mile and a quarter we left the trail, turning west (left) and plunging down off the esker to a pretty stream, where icy rocks did a fine job of adding interest to a normal boring old stream crossing.
Of course in the Adirondacks, what comes down must go up, so at about a mile and a half into the hike we encountered some pretty serious climbing, which leveled off after another three-tenths of a mile. A bright streak of light illuminating the forest gave us hope that the open cliffs were getting close, which indeed they were, after two miles of hiking and a 1,300-foot elevation gain.
I should mention that by now we were standing in 6 to 8 inches of the good old fashioned white stuff, with scudding clouds and snow squalls adding to the overall drama of the morning, but subtracting from the views. We could see ghostly profiles of Whiteface and Esther, along with the Sentinel and Jay ranges — but my pictures weren’t the best, so to get an idea of the view you’ll just have to picture Whiteface in your mind.
We did have a clear and interesting look at the cut for the old ski lift that now serves as the trail up Marble Mountain, and we could intermittently catch glimpses of the hamlet of Wilmington and a unique look at the West Branch of the Ausable River valley. We climbed a bit more to another small overlook, and could see another tiny rock window even higher, but with the snow-covered spruce becoming thicker, the law of diminishing returns was clearly coming into play. So Jonathan and I concluded that the best, most accessible and open cliffs are on the ridgeline that roughly parallels Pettigrew Brook (south of the stream) at an elevation of about 2,600 feet.
Deviating from our ascent route, we followed the ridge down in an easterly direction through open woods — red pine higher up (many of which were dead) and red oak further down.
The views stayed with us on this great discovery, one that we two bold adventurers alone knew about, a secret that no one else … and that’s when we first saw the rope, strung between two trees allowing hikers a hand in descending a tall stone ledge. Not only were we not the first, this was, apparently, a common enough destination that someone had installed infrastructure. Isn’t that always the way? Just when you fancy yourself the Old Jim Bridger of the Adirondacks, conquering virgin wilderness, you trip over a corroded can of Bud Ice.
We also started noticing some orange flagging that seemed to have a purpose to it, marking a route that mimicked our own as we descended into the valley. Sure enough, it helpfully included a rudimentary stick bridge that crossed Pettigrew Brook and soon after crossing it we were back on the Cooper Kiln trail.
By then it was dawning on us that we must have stumbled upon a planned reroute of the Cooper Kiln trail, which has some badly eroded sections both to the east and west of the pond.
If that’s the case, this could add greatly to the trail’s appeal, given the excellent views that would be opened up, either directly on the trail or by way of a quick little side trip.
If you want to try to find it, take Cooper Kiln trail from Bonnieview Road to a stream crossing at about half a mile, and then proceed another three tenths of a mile and turn left off the trail just before it begins to climb an esker. You can probably find the little bridge, at which point it’s just a matter of ascending the ridge — it’s about a mile from the brook to the best views.
While the flagging may be helpful, it is intermittent, so don’t count on it; this is still very much a bushwhack. Another option, if you want to go for the whole enchilada would be to hike the trail almost to Cooper Kiln Pond and then, evergreen thickets be damned, descend the ridge from the very top.
The other-other option would simply be to wait for the new trail to be built, whenever that might be. It looks as if it will be worth the wait.