Well-traveled northern Adirondacks hike works for families, groups
By Tom French
I’ve climbed Azure Mountain more times than I can count, and so has everyone else. With its iconic fire tower, Azure is a go-to destination of the northern Adirondacks.
I visited again on the first bluebird day of the New Year as part of my Adirondack Epicurean Adventure. Hiking companions Doug Miller, his wife, Susan, and my daughter, Emma, accompanied me.
Most of the snow from the holiday storm was gone due to a recent warm spell, though a fresh dusting of snow covered the landscape. A sparkling frostline, visible through bare trees, capped the summit. We strapped on our microspikes and began the hike – our feet sinking in underlying mud.
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The first third of the one-mile trail is flat. The foundation of the observer’s cabin marks the real beginning of the 940-foot climb. As we gained elevation, the mud transitioned into a crunchy slurry.
We rested occasionally, especially at the site of the “caves” – better described as a number of large cracks and hollows from a long ago rockfall. Emma told Doug and Susan about the first time she climbed the mountain when she was 3. Her brother, Daniel, 6 at the time, was curious about the caves, but too timid to squeeze through. He announced, “If you crawl inside, you will die” – a moment forever captured on video and part of an annual French Family Film Festival around the holidays.
First trek up Azure
I first experienced the mountain in the 1990s as an English teacher when we took the incoming seventh graders on a get-to-know-you field trip. Massena has one junior high, but four elementary schools feed into it (six when I first started working). The climb gave the students an opportunity to meet new friends, and teachers the chance to test the limits of teenage gullibility.
Many students brought cash for the souvenir stand at the top. Others looked for the escalator down. FYI: The Azure Mountain Friends’ Website clearly states, “The DEC now strictly prohibits the sale of any items on state land” and no financial transactions transpired on the mountain.
As the greenhorn on the teaching team, I was tasked with racing to the top before the kids so someone would be there to supervise. There’s no point in trying to restrain a herd of adolescents along a trail – some will break through and then there’s no holding them back. I was given a head start while the other chaperones provided one last safety session in the parking lot – and the kids lined up for their last bathroom opportunity.
Despite multiple warnings about the lack of facilities, a couple students would always need to dig a hole. It’s almost as if the teenage brain refuses to accept a world where bathrooms don’t exist. The physical education teacher who organized the trips showed the students the plastic bag with the garden shovel and toilet paper before they even loaded the bus. She reminded them in the parking lot (hence the line to the outhouse, which was also a new experience for many). Inevitably, when a student needed the shovel, a teacher would direct them off the trail for a distance, out of sight of the others.
They believed us about the escalator, but not the bathroom.
Some students flew up the mountain; many lost steam where the trail steepens. Most did fine; a few struggled. Then it was all about crowd control at the fire tower and keeping kids away from the edge of the cliff.
The view from the tower
As we approached the summit most recently, the slush beneath our feet hardened at the frost line and the trees were suddenly laden with snow creating a tunnel beneath sagging limbs. The 35-foot fire tower was crusted with rime ice, but the 360-degree view did not disappoint when we climbed to the cab, though the breeze was brisk.
The tower was built in 1918, replacing a wooden one from 1914. John Sasso explains some of that history, including the origin of the mountain’s name, in a 2020 Adirondack Almanack article.
The tower was abandoned in 1979 and fell into disrepair until the Azure Mountain Friends, a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, was established. The tower was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2001 and reopened in 2003. The Friends also sponsor a Summit Steward Program in the summer including a scholarship opportunity – by volunteering for at least five days, students can be awarded with a $500 scholarship.
Visitors to the peak should also explore the loop around the summit. Look to the right from the top of the cliff. A large erratic commands the southwest face. I’m sure I wasn’t the first to encourage my kids to push it off the mountain – a fruitless task, at least in this epoch.
If you decide to climb Azure, regardless of the weather or season, you won’t be alone. At least one car is always in the lot when I drive past on some other adventure. We greeted two parties coming down while we were going up. The mountain was ours on top, but two more parties were ascending as we went down. Avoid school days in the fall and spring.