By Megan Plete Postol
Echo Cliff at Panther Mountain is a short trek with a steep climb that pays off with a rewarding view of the southern Adirondacks.
Panther Mountain—not to be confused with the Adirondacks’ other Panther Mountain near Tupper Lake—overlooks Piseco Lake in the town of Arietta in Hamilton County. The trail to and from Echo Cliff is 1.2 miles round trip with an elevation gain of 670 feet. It is a hike best labeled moderate. It is a local favorite, especially in the summer, and is accessible via a short walk from three state campgrounds: Little Sand Point, Poplar Point, and Point Comfort. The trailhead is located between Little Sand Point and Point Comfort.
To access the trailhead from state Route 8 at the southern end of Piseco Lake, take a left onto West Shore Road and continue for 2.6 miles. There is a Department of Environmental Conservation sign for Panther Mountain on the left, with a parking lot on the right side of the road.
The trail to Echo Cliff at Panther Mountain is extremely popular during the warm months, but on this cold day in mid-January, it was quiet. We had let the sunshine warm the woods before we set out. It was around noon and a balmy 7 degrees when we arrived, up from an overnight low of minus 20 with wind chills that made it feel even colder. There was evidence of a hiking party that had come before us. The fresh snow was disturbed and a trail was broken with snowshoe tracks. The only other human we encountered was a singular hiker coming up as we were headed down.
The sunshine was bright as it glared off the crisp white snow, compelling us to wear our sunglasses. But they soon fogged up from my efforts and I had to forego them to see clearly. A simple set of microspikes, a Columbia winter jacket and winter pants were enough for this outing. My hiking partner is a die-hard wool fan, both for its sustainability and breathability. Wool seems an unlikely choice for hiking but he swears by it and it has not failed him yet.
The entirety of the trail to Echo Cliff is in the Forest Preserve on the southern edge of the West Canada Lakes Wilderness. It is suitable for both hiking and snowshoeing and used extensively for both.
After signing in at the register, we found the trail immediately climbs along the slope of a ravine through hardwoods. The trail is rocky, sometimes loose, and wet at times. On this winter hike, most of it was snow-covered but ice peeked through in spots, making some steps slippery.
During the winter when the leaves are down, Echo Cliff can be seen through the forest to the right while passing through one of the flatter stretches. The trail curls around it to the left and ascends the cliffs from the more gradual back side. Many large rocks and boulders frame the trail, which alternates between climbing and ambling along flatter, leveled-out stretches. Two notables are Couch Boulder and Square Boulder, so named for the objects they resemble. Even in the snow, these two benchmarks were recognizable. Square Boulder is a personal favorite spot to climb up on and watch the chipmunks chatter.
After passing Square Boulder, the trail then shifts right and travels upward as a small brook bubbles on the left. Most of it was frozen, creating a whimsical, flowing ice sculpture along the forest floor.
The last push is the steepest. Be prepared for a sharp climb, even a scramble, up the last narrow slope. This last burst of effort is soon rewarded with a stunning, wide view of Piseco Lake and the surrounding wilderness. This summit is called Echo Cliff.
Although not the true summit of Hamilton County’s Panther Mountain, it is the intended destination for most of this location’s hikers. The true peak of Panther Mountain can only be reached via bushwack. Echo Cliff is a flat, open portion of rock with a sheer drop of several hundred feet. The trail back down the mountain is the same one used to ascend. Returning was much easier but slippery at times. The most difficult portion of the descent was in the steepest, rockiest narrow passage near the “summit.”