DEC sets forth dozens of proposals for trails, parking areas, and other facilities on new and old state lands and the High Peaks Wilderness.
By Phil Brown
Almost two decades have passed since the Adirondack Park Agency approved a lengthy and complex management plan for the High Peaks Wilderness. A lot has happened in the ensuing years, most notably the acquisition of thousands of acres of state land, but the plan has remained virtually unaltered.
Now that too is about to change.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation has proposed dozens of new trails, parking areas, canoe launches, campsites, and other facilities in the High Peaks Wilderness—some of them controversial. The APA is expected to vote on the proposals this summer, perhaps as early as July.
The original High Peaks unit management plan (UMP) was approved in 1999. The next year it was amended to allow for a new trail up Little Porter Mountain. Since then, nothing has changed.
DEC’s impetus for amending the plan now is the acquisition in recent years of tens of thousands of acres of former Finch, Pruyn land. As a result of the Finch deal, prior land acquisitions, reclassification of adjoining Forest Preserve, and annexation of the Dix Mountain Wilderness Area, the High Peaks Wilderness Area has grown by eighty-four thousand acres since 1999. At 272,000 acres, it is by far the largest designated Wilderness Area in the Park and one of the largest east of the Mississippi.
In this issue of the Adirondack Explorer, readers will find a number of stories on the most significant of DEC’s proposals. This article, however, focuses on the many changes proposed for the Boreas Ponds Tract.
Of the former Finch lands, the Boreas Ponds Tract garnered the most attention and the most controversy. The 20,543-acre parcel lies just south of the High Peaks, with gorgeous views of Mount Marcy and the Great Range from the water.
In February, the APA voted to split the tract in two. The northern part, including Boreas Ponds, was added to the motor-free High Peaks Wilderness. The southern part was added to the Vanderwhacker Mountain Wild Forest, where some motorized use is allowed. The agency also created a small Primitive Area so maintenance workers can drive to the dam at the foot of Boreas Ponds.
The APA received DEC’s management proposals before its May meeting and held public hearings in June, with the expectation that the agency’s board would vote on them in July. Environmentalists accused the agency of moving too hastily, given the number and significance of the proposals. “The process is rushed,” David Gibson of Adirondack Wild asserted at one of the public hearings, in Albany.
APA officials said they wanted to expedite things so DEC can begin work on projects this summer. For example, DEC hopes to open parking areas near Boreas Ponds in the fall.
Following is a rundown of the department’s plans for the erstwhile Boreas Ponds Tract, both the Wilderness and the Wild Forest portions.
Boreas Ponds lies about seven miles from Blue Ridge Road (County 84) by way of two former logging roads—Gulf Brook Road and Boreas Road. Gulf Brook Road leads nearly six miles from the county highway to a dirt-road junction known as the Four Corners. From there, visitors reach the ponds by turning right onto Boreas Road and continuing another mile or so.
The most contentious question in the public wrangling over Boreas Ponds concerns motorized access. Should people who want to visit the ponds be allowed to drive on the logging roads? If so, how far?
Most environmental groups pushed for establishing a parking area at LaBier Flow, an impoundment of the Boreas River reached just before the Four Corners. This would leave a hike of about a mile to the ponds. Local officials argued that the public should be allowed to drive all the way to the dam. In contrast, Adirondack Wild and Adirondack Wilderness Advocates wanted the entire road system closed.
On this issue, DEC seems to have listened more to local officials than the green groups. It is proposing to build a small parking area, for six cars, just a tenth of a mile from the ponds. Two of the spots would be reserved for the disabled. The other four would be open to anyone who obtains a special permit in advance. Overnight parking would be prohibited there.
The department also wants to build a lot for ten to fifteen cars at the Four Corners, where overnight parking would be allowed.
If the two areas fill up, visitors could park at a large lot on Gulf Brook Road that DEC created in 2016, the year the state bought Boreas Ponds. Known as the Fly Pond Parking Area, it lies 3.6 miles from the ponds by road. It holds about twenty cars.
Environmentalists object to establishing a parking area only a tenth of a mile from the ponds, but if such a lot is created, they say it should be open just to the disabled.
Local officials argue that many people who are not disabled per se may have trouble hiking a long distance to the ponds—such as the elderly or families with young children.
Neil Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club, now believes Fly Pond should be the main parking area. “The current longer portage hasn’t stopped people from getting to the lake,” he said. However, he also supports a smaller lot near Four Corners for the disabled, paddlers, and permit-holders.
DEC seeks to construct a number of hiking trails in the Boreas Ponds region, providing access to the ponds and establishing connections to other parts of the High Peaks Wilderness. Following are descriptions of all the trails, but readers should consult the accompanying map as well.
Boreas Ponds Trail. At 7.5 miles, this would be the longest of the new trails. It would lead from Blue Ridge Road to the ponds, giving hikers an alternative to walking on logging roads. People also could park at the Fly Pond lot, reducing the hike to about four miles. The trail would be designed for skiing as well, allowing skiers to avoid the Gulf Brook Road (which is expected to be a snowmobile route in winter).
Boreas River Trail. This trail—entirely in the Vanderwhacker Mountain Wild Forest—also would start on Blue Ridge Road. It would parallel the Boreas River and end at LaBier Flow. From there, hikers would walk a mile on the logging roads to reach Boreas Ponds. Hikers could travel in a loop by combining this trail with the Boreas Ponds Trail. The two would be linked by the Wolf Pond Trail, which starts at the same parking area as the Boreas River Trail.
Boreas Mountain Trail. At 3,776 feet tall, Boreas Mountain falls a little short of High Peak status but nevertheless offers magnificent views. DEC proposes to build a 2.5-mile trail from the Boreas Ponds Trail to the summit. Hikers could return by the same trail or descend by another new trail, dubbed the RNT Loop Trail. The loop would be a much longer hike.
Casey Brook Connector. This five-mile trail would serve as the main route from Boreas Ponds to the Mount Marcy region. It would terminate at an existing trail that leads from Elk Lake to Panther Gorge. Near the junction, DEC plans to build a new trail up the Pinnacle in the Colvin Range.
White Lily Trail. Starting on the Casey Brook Connector, this trail would lead 2.2 miles to White Lily Pond—one of the most scenic spots on the Boreas Ponds Tract. Much of the route would follow an old logging road.
Dudley Brook Connector. This six-mile route would go from White Lily Pond to the Hanging Spear Falls trail. It could be used by hikers traveling to Lake Colden or the western High Peaks. A two-mile spur trail would lead to views on Cheney Cobble.
Ragged Mountain Trail. This short trail would start on Gulf Brook Road and end on the open summit of Ragged Mountain in the Vanderwhacker Mountain Wild Forest. Rock climbers also could use the trail to reach cliffs on Ragged. Another short trail would lead from Blue Ridge Road to the top of LeClaire Hill.
Mountain bikers will be allowed to ride on Gulf Brook Road and Boreas Road as far as the parking area a tenth of a mile from the ponds. Biking is prohibited on the old logging roads and trails in the Wilderness Area.
Many people prefer riding on single-track trails specifically designed for mountain bikes. To accommodate them, DEC proposes to build two compact networks of winding single-track trails in the Wild Forest Area.
The Gulf Brook network would lie west of Gulf Brook Road. It also would connect to the Boreas Ponds Trail. The Blue Ridge network would lie off Blue Ridge Road, with connections to Branch Road and Elk Lake Road. Various loop rides would be possible in both networks.
Bikers also would be allowed to ride on a snowmobile trail that DEC plans to cut from Blue Ridge Road to the Boreas Road.
Some High Peaks can be seen from the Boreas Ponds dam, but the vistas from the open water are ones to truly treasure, encompassing Mount Marcy, the Great Range, and many other peaks. DEC aims to make the ponds accessible to the disabled by creating a wheelchair-compatible trail from the near parking area to a canoe launch at the dam. (The department also plans to build an accessible trail to a lean-to on the site of a razed lodge, where visitors can enjoy a view of the ponds.)
Many paddlers no doubt will park at the Four Corners. They will have the option of putting in LaBier Flow, paddling across the flow, and then carrying their craft the rest of the way to the ponds.
DEC wants to create a canoe launch at the foot of the flow. The department’s draft proposals did not include a carry trail from LaBier Flow, but DEC spokesman David Winchell said that is now under consideration. It’s uncertain whether the trail would lead back to Boreas Road or along the Boreas River to the dam. When the Explorer canoed Boreas Ponds, we carried a short distance from the northwest corner of the flow back to the road. Without a trail, carrying along the river to the ponds is less than desirable.
The department also plans to build an unloading station at LaBier Flow. This could be used by paddlers parking in the Fly Pond lot when the Four Corners lot is full. They could drive to LaBier Flow to drop off canoes and other gear, but they’d have to return to the Fly Pond lot and walk back to LaBier Flow.
DEC intends to build a snowmobile route through the Boreas Ponds Tract linking North Hudson to Newcomb and Minerva. The department looked at several possible routes for the “community connector” before deciding to use Gulf Brook Road and Boreas Road. Eventually, it would leave Boreas Road and head south to cross Blue Ridge Road. DEC will have to cut a new trail for this section.
At its closest, the snowmobile route would come within a mile of Boreas Ponds, raising concerns that riders will leave the official route and take laps on the pond. Some environmentalists argue that DEC should put the snowmobile route close to Blue Ridge Road, far from the ponds, but DEC contends this is impractical given the terrain and wetlands.
DEC plans to create fifteen campsites on the Boreas Ponds Tract or nearby, including three on Boreas Ponds itself and two on White Lily Pond. Two lean-tos are proposed—the one on the south shore of Boreas Ponds and another on the trail from Elk Lake, a little west of its junction with the Casey Brook Connector.