Finding changes and familiar sights on a seldom-traveled path
By Lisa Ballard
I remember my conversation in 2007 with Phil Brown, the former editor of Adirondack Explorer, as if it were yesterday. I sought an off-the-beaten-path hike that I could include in the first edition of my book, “Hiking the Adirondacks,” and it was Phil’s forte to find places in the park that were undiscovered yet interesting to explore.
“Nun-da-ga-o, for sure,” he said.
“Who-sa, what-sa?” I asked. I had never heard of Nun-da-ga-o, though I had spent 30 years hiking in the Adirondack Mountains, mostly in the High Peaks. I assumed it was in a lesser-visited, lower-elevation part of the park.
“It’s in Keene,” replied Phil. “You get there from Crow Clearing.”
I knew the trailhead. Crow Clearing is the start of the northern approach to Hurricane Mountain and the eastern approach to two minor peaks called the Crows. But Nun-da-ga-o?
Phil clarified that Nun-da-ga-o was not a mountain, but a ridge with lots of open ledge. He suggested a loop across Nun-da-ga-o, over Weston Mountain (3,186 feet), then down to Lost Pond. It sounded like a perfect hike, except for the fact that it was trailless after the first half-mile until one reached the pond, or for about 4 miles of the 6.7-mile route.
I dismissed the hike. I couldn’t ask readers, most of whom had little backcountry experience, to bushwhack period, let alone for multiple miles. And there was the not-so-little detail that I hated bushwhacking myself.
“There’s a good herd path,” Phil assured me, offering to go with me. Several days later, we met at Crow Clearing and did the loop, which was, indeed, a terrific, multifaceted hike that made the cut for my guidebook.
I hiked Nun-da-ga-o one other time, a few years later, with my husband. Then another decade snuck by. Finally, last summer, I longed to go for a hike somewhere in the High Peaks region, but away from the crowds, and thought of Nun-da-ga-o.
“Nun-da-ga-o” is another word for the Onondaga tribe of the Iroquois. Native to New York State, they called themselves “O-nun-da-ga-o-no” or “people on the hills.” Ironically, it’s rare to see another soul on the Nun-da-ga-o/West Mountain/Long Pond loop, at least across the ridge and down to the pond. This wonderful ridge, also called the Soda Range on U.S. Geological Survey maps, rewards with numerous panoramas of the 4,000-footers, including Dix, Nippletop, Dial, Colvin, Blake, the Great Range, Big Slide and Whiteface.
I remembered those marvelous views, but not the parking lot at Crow Clearing. The small clearing in the woods at the end of a back road had become a constructed, circular lot for 15 or so cars. Maybe my secret ridge walk was not so secret anymore.
It was a steamy, August afternoon when I headed up the trail, solo this time, toward the Crows. I wondered if I would recognize the obscure, unofficial path that departed the main trail a half-mile from the trailhead. I recalled pushing through some shrubs by a small white disc on which someone had drawn an arrow pointing to the right.
The initial approach to the Crows, and thus Nun-da-ga-o, is a steep, rugged son-of-a-gun. Sweat quickly poured down my face and back as I labored up the trail, but it was no problem spotting the turn-off. It was narrower than the Crow trail, and though the disc was gone, the way was obvious and much smoother, on forest duff at first, rather than the well-worn medley of rocks and roots on the “real” path I had just left behind. It was also a mellower ascent, rather than straight up.
Once on the Nun-da-ga-o path, I noticed a number of fallen trees had been cleared with a chainsaw. Nun-da-ga-o might be technically trail-less, but some trail maintenance work had happened. I was grateful.
A quarter mile from the junction, I crossed some slab with a tiny view of a nearby hillside. In truth, the fuzzy, pale lichens and blueberry bushes interested me more than the view. However, a few minutes later, I came to the first rock perch, which afforded a nice look at Hurricane, Giant and Marcy mountains. “This is gonna be grand!” I thought.
By a mile into the hike, I broke onto the first stretch of open ledge. Weston Mountain and the rest of the ridge were to my left, and the High Peaks filled the landscape to my right, a preview of what was to come.
From there, the route churned up and down like a lake in ever-changing wind. It was hard to get a rhythm traversing the sections of mossy, lush forest. Or maybe it was of the numerous rocky lookouts, each with a magnificent 180-degree view, if only for a moment. When I’m hiking alone, I don’t stop much, though on this hike, the scenery was so splendid I had to pause quite a few times.
At 1.6 miles, I clambered up a rock chimney to the top of a bare outcropping and another jaw-dropper. Hurricane Mountain, with its fire tower was on my left, with at least half of the High Peaks stabbing the sky in front of me. A few steps later, I climbed another chimney and a washout to find another open, rocky area, and had to take another moment to stare at the immense wildness of it all. There would be no speed records on this route.
As I cautiously worked my way down the other side of the wet, steep rock, I spied a red squirrel nibbling nervously on a pinecone and had to chuckle. It gnawed the pinecone like a cartoon character working its teeth across corn on the cob. He looked at me, too, watchful and curious, but not fearful. I wondered how many people the little fellow had encountered before. Not many, I concluded, and left him to his lunch.
At each ledgy traverse, I peered toward Weston Mountain which inched closer. It took a while to get there, over 3 miles. When I finally headed up its forested cone, I knew for sure that few people had been there. Wild raspberries and tree saplings intruded onto the herd path. No one had chain-sawed the fallen trees.
At 3.8 miles, I came to yet another rock perch. Whiteface Mountain, with its ski trails, lay to my far right and an endless sea of blue mountains filled the rest of the horizon, near and far. Lost Pond lay below. Soon after, I crested the wooded summit of Weston Mountain and then descended a steep, direct, downhill path to the pond.
At 4.3 miles, I came to Biesemeyer lean-to and an official trail again. The trail passed in front of the lean-to. The cabin is close to the pond, but the shoreline looked marshy, so I stuck to the trail.
About half-way down the side of the pond, I spotted some bees on a patch of bottle gentian by the water’s edge and decided to dodge the boot-sucking mud as best I could to take a photo of them. The opposite end of the pond was drier. As I paused there again, three other hikers, coming from the opposite direction, appeared.
“Are you heading up Weston?” I asked.
“No. Just to the lean-to,” they replied.
Another mile down the trail, I came to a second shelter, called Gulf Brook lean-to. It looked like a nice place to spend the night, but no one was there. I didn’t stop either, but continued down the trail, eventually passing the junction with the trail to Hurricane Mountain. Hurricane was obviously the more popular destination. From that point on, along the last mile to the trailhead, there were intermittent groups of hikers. Then I saw “the egg”.
The egg (my nickname for it) is a 10-foot high, white boulder beside the trail. I recognized it immediately. It looked like a giant hard-boiled egg split in half. It was grayer now, with more moss on it, but I was still glad to see it again. Funny how landmarks like the egg stick with a person. Seeing it again was like a reassuring reunion with an old friend.
Three-quarters of a mile later, I closed the loop back at the parking lot. As I took off my hiking boots at my car, I promised myself to hike Nun-da-ga-o more regularly. The route has lots of variety—a rocky ridge, a pleasant peak, and a pretty pond—with many views along the way. That’s enough reason to come back, but it was also fun to see how much things had changed yet stayed the same.